Climbing Up the Rough Side of the
Mountain: Excerpts from a book in progress by Norman and Velma Hill with
[David Evanier’s Note: “Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain” is the untold story of the transformation and democratization of America through the triumphs of the civil rights and labor movements as witnessed and narrated by the only black married couple that played both leadership roles in the struggle, Norman and Velma Hill. Like their mentors, A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first blac-led union, and Bayard Rustin strategist of the March on Washington, they are the unsung heroes of these movements, and among the last links to their heroic founders.
They met just after the Greensboro student sit-ins of February 1960 that launched the civil rights movement. They were married in 1960. Following their first meeting and the events at Chicago’s Rainbow Beach that are described in these excerpts, they became leaders of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in New York City. Norman Hill then went on to serve as staff coordinator for the March on Washington and to work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Velma Hill earned her M.E.D. from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in 1968. After leaving Harvard, she led the paraprofessionals, a trade union program organized by the United Federation of Teachers that opened the door for low income, predominantly black and Hispanic women to enter the teaching profession. Today there are over a million paraprofessionals across the country.
At the same time, Norman Hill was taking a leading role in the A. Philip Randolph Institute and soon became its president for thirty years. The institute was founded in 1965 by Randolph, Rustin and Hill as a vehicle to communicate the ideas, values and principles of Randolph to civil rights and trade union leaders and to carry on Randolph’s lifetime campaign for an integrated and democratic labor movement. Randolph had said to Rustin, “If you are my son, then Norman is my grandson.” The Institute was one of the first organizations to call for and implement voter registration, voter education and get-out-the-vote programs in the black community. It has played a unique role in identifying and developing young black trade union leadership.
Today Norman and Velma Hill remain activists and live in Manhattan at Penn South, the union co-op originally established by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. For many years, until their deaths, their neighbors were their beloved mentors, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
The following excerpts are narrated by Velma Hill]
Falling in Love
Velma Hill: Norman and I met in Chicago on a picket line at Woolworth’s supporting the sit-in movement in the South in the summer of 1960. What happened first was that John Hill came up to me and said, “You should meet my brother Norman. He’s a Socialist. He talks really crazy like you.” It was one of those hot Chicago days. I was wearing shorts, and I went up to Norman. I said ‘I understand you’re a Socialist.” And he said, “Yes, I am.” And I said, “Oh, that’s very good! You want to come to my house for dinner?” I was pretty aggressive for a person who was afraid of men. So he said yes. I introduced him to my mother. She asked him how much money he earned. “A few coins,” he replied. My mother thought he was a little bit of a smart-ass.
That day Norman kissed me. He told me he didn’t know where this relationship was going, but he had been seeing a girl for some time and he had to go tell her that he couldn’t see her anymore. He had to tell her the truth immediately. That was Norm.
Then I invited Norm to speak at the NAACP Youth Council. I was its newly elected President. He was coordinating marches on the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions to press for civil rights legislation. Norman talked about A. Philip Randolph and the sit-ins, and how there was a new spirit embracing America. I had been involved in civil rights since I was 12, a precocious kid talking in the park about changing society. I didn’t know exactly what my words meant. But here was someone who was young, male, attractive, saying things tha really resounded in me. And talking about a movement that went further than the traditional NAACP. The sit-ins were conducted by kids our age. He was talking about why the march on the conventions was important to blacks. Remember, this was over forty years ago. “New winds sweeping the country; people standing up for their rights.” I was absolutely enthralled. What he said was so important to me. all of these things converged in me. But I have to tell the truth: the fact that Norman was cute and that he had all these people swirling around him was also an incentive for me.
Norman was quiet and thoughtful He sort of reminded me of my mother. He had her coloring, and her nose, except hers was smaller. My mother was an imposing figure. My father died right after I was born. We had a big family. There were seven of us: four girls and two boys, and Ma. Ma was a quiet, slender, tall woman about 5’9” with soft- coffee colored skin. She had a long braid that fell past her shoulders and large, piercing almond-shaped eyes. She raised us all by herself. My mother did not know how to read well until my brother taught her years later. She worked as a punch-press operator in a factory, leaving my oldest sister, Dino, in charge at home. My mother was quiet, but when she said something, she meant it. Norman was strong; my mother was a strong figure that was not warm. And Norm wasn’t that warm either. He was passionate about his politics. But he didn’t push me into bed. And that was very important to me. He was gentle. Because I was that scared of men.
We were partners from the start. We shared a philosophical and ideological point of view, and we were committed to helping each other. I really felt that there was a kind of bond between me and Norman--that little string that went from his heart to mine. We’d struggle together. He was going to be supportive. My mother said to me, “You can’t marry him because you have to finish school.” Norman said to my mother, “Don’t worry; she will.” There’s always been a feeling between us that you will support me and I will support you.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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