By Dan Gordon
When Clara Collins retired from State Street Bank in 2002, she walked out of a skyscraper in the heart of Boston. For her, it seemed almost impossible, given that less than 50 years ago she couldn’t use the same water fountain as a white person.
One of the many Southerners who left home in search of a better life, Collins is part of what historians call the “Great Migration.”
“I left Alabama with two paper shopping bags because I had no luggage and nothing to put my clothes in,” Collins said, remembering the day where she left home for a better life.
Collins graduated high school in May of 1955, and left for Atlanta, Georgia that June. She considers herself lucky just to have graduated.
“Some of the kids never got to go to high school because there wasn’t a bus to take them there. I was fortunate enough to get a bus that took me to school in Montgomery, Alabama,” Collins said.
Everything in Alabama was segregated. There was one movie theater, and the black patrons had to sit in the balcony. Even the toilets were separated. You couldn’t go to the same water fountain as a white person, she said.
Remembering her childhood before she left, Collins doesn’t recall much wrong with the way things were.
“I played with white children when I was young, we played with one another but we couldn’t go in their house,” Collins said. “We were considered not good enough. At the time when I was younger I never questioned it, I just grew up knowing that’s the way it was and that’s the way it should be.”
When she arrived in Atlanta, Collins immediately felt it was a place where she had a better chance of earning a living.
“My aunt and uncle had a little variety store that I could work at part time and I also got a job doing some babysitting,” Collins said.
She wanted to be a registered nurse but that proved harder than she first imagined. Collins needed $350 to get into school. Her aunt and uncle could only help her with books.
“The cheaper thing for me to do was be a nurse’s aide and go to school at nighttime, which is what I did,” Collins said.
Collins met her future husband after going home to Alabama for Christmas. He later moved to Boston, and they were married soon after.
“Our honeymoon was traveling from Atlanta to Boston on a Greyhound bus,” Collins said, adding that the couple was married 56 years.
“On our way on the bus, we all had to sit in the back, but the thing that was really hectic was when we stopped at the bus stops we couldn’t find places to eat. We had to order our food from a window.”
Coming to Boston in January was a definite change, but some things still remained the same, she said.
“Living in Boston I thought segregation was over—but it wasn’t. People in Boston were still racist but they were just racist behind your back. Down South you knew your place, and you knew where to go.”
Collins recalled one time she was looking for an apartment and was turned down because of the color of her skin, after being told on the phone that there was a space available.
“I didn’t know if they didn’t catch my voice and see I was black or assumed I was white, but when I got to the apartment they said they didn’t have any vacancies,” Collins said.
Although not active in the Civil Rights movement, Collins does remember being hopeful and seeing change.
“It was 1968 when I began to see a change for myself because I was able to a job at State Street Bank,” Collins said.
The bank was a place where she also saw a different type of racism, the type whispered and written rather than yelled or thrown.
“That’s when I saw a different type of racism. I worked there for 34 years. I had a lot of bad experiences. You had to accept a lot of things and not speak up, or at least I felt like I had to, to keep my job. I did feel like I was being discriminated against.”
One specific experience haunts Collins still.
“I was out sick for a period of time, and was supposed to get paid leave,” Collins said, “But the manager at the time told payroll not to give me my check, which I severely needed.”