Mrs. McClinton did not study black history — she lived it

In her life span of nearly a century, McClinton has seen changes in once unimaginable ways, from her appointment as the first African American faculty member at Carolina during the turbulent Sixties to the election of the country’s first African American president seven years ago.

Hortense McClinton
Hortense McClinton talks about her life and her teaching during an interview at her home in Durham. In background is a portrait of her and her husband John W. McClinton.

If you want to stay on her good side, it’s best to address her as Mrs. McClinton.

Not Dr. – “because it isn’t true” – and definitely not Hortense, because, in her 96 years, she remembers a time when white people called black people by their first names “to keep you in your place,” she explained.

And her place, she decided a long time ago, was anywhere she wanted it to be.

She didn’t set out to become the first black professor at Carolina; it just happened as a result of persistence and politeness.

The dean from the School of Social Work first approached McClinton with a job offer in 1964, and she declined when she learned the position would be funded with “soft money” from a federal grant. McClinton said she saw no reason to leave a perfectly good job as a research supervisor at the VA Hospital in Durham for what seemed to be an uncertain future at Carolina.

Except they kept asking, she said, and always in the nicest way. “They just kept after me until I gave in,” McClinton said.

That happened 48 years ago, in fall 1966 – exactly half the number of years she has been alive – and she accepts the fact that this episode in her life has turned into a part of history many people now find worth remembering, especially around this time of year.

It would be three years until Carolina hired another black faculty member, and in those intervening years, McClinton found herself serving on as many as 11 different committees at the same time. They wanted a black voice, she said, and she was it.

She found herself teaching classes on social work to the same students she had once supervised when they came to the VA in Durham for a semester of fieldwork.

Soon after she arrived on campus, she was asked to teach a course in institutional racism as well, and six years later, she gave in and created and taught the course.

She retired in 1984, at a time when seeing a black faculty member or black student on campus was no longer such a novelty or cause for celebration.

There was no such thing as Black History Month when McClinton was a child. “I was in an all-black school, so everything we did was black,” she explained. “We didn’t have to study it because we were living it.”

A place called Boley

As a little girl, McClinton heard people talk about Jim Crow laws, but they were never a problem in her hometown of Boley, Oklahoma, the turn-of-the-20th-century experiment in democracy born from the Civil War.

It was named for J.B. Boley, an official of the railroad who believed that black people could govern themselves if they were left alone. Incorporated in 1905, Boley swelled in population in its early years as black people from other states flocked there to escape racial persecution. Booker T. Washington twice visited the town and dubbed it the finest black town in the world.

“In Boley, we didn’t think a thing about the Fourth of July; we had Juneteenth Day,” McClinton said, referring to the commemoration of the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865.

It was the same year her father, Sebrone Jones King Sr., was born. He came to Boley in 1910 by train, with five cars full of everything in the world that he owned and that mattered to him.

In the first car was his second wife (his first wife died) along with two of their three children. The second car held the lumber that King had cut in his sawmill in Texas to build a new house. In the third car was all the furniture from the old house, and the fourth car held the farm equipment.

All the farm animals rode in the fifth car – along with King’s son, Felix, who “never forgave his father for putting him in the back with all those animals,” McClinton recalled.

It was a dispute over another boxcar that drove her father’s decision to leave Texas in the first place, McClinton said.

He owned a peach orchard and reserved a boxcar for a shipment of peaches. Only problem was, a white man had claimed the car for himself, even though King had a bill of lading confirming his right to the car.

An argument ensued and King won the standoff, but later that night a posse of men in white hoods paraded their horses in front of the family’s house throughout the night. If her father was going to stay alive, she said, he knew it was time to go.

Eastward ho

McClinton’s father had earned a degree from Wiley College, the historically black institute founded in Marshall, Texas, in 1875. In Boley, he served as a banker as well as a cotton farmer and a veterinarian.

King lived to be 93, outliving four of his five wives.

His third wife, McClinton’s mother, died in childbirth two years after McClinton was born in 1918.

When she got older, McClinton went to nearby Guthrie to live with her mother’s brother, a physician who also served as head of the NAACP there.

When she was in the 8th grade, McClinton realized her future career path after a woman who worked for the Children’s Bureau in Washington, D.C., came to a school assembly to talk about social work.

McClinton had never heard of such a thing before, but left school that day thinking, “That’s it. That’s what I want to be.”

She set off for Washington, D.C., in 1936 to attend Howard University, a year after her older brother did, and graduated with him in 1939. From there, it was on to Philadelphia where she earned her master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania.

“People ask me, ‘How did you end up in North Carolina?’ and I tell them, ‘I met a man.’”

His name was John McClinton, a native of Greensboro who at the time was a traveling auditor for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company headquartered in Durham. It was there the couple settled to raise their two daughters.

Progress denied

In her life span of nearly a century, McClinton has seen changes in once unimaginable ways, from her appointment as the first African American faculty member at Carolina during the turbulent Sixties to the election of the country’s first African American president seven years ago.

That march of progress, which McClinton once saw as steady and unstoppable, seems at times to have slowed to a crawl, she said.

She sees it in the shooting of a black unarmed teenager last year in Ferguson, Missouri. She sees it in the country’s public schools that all too often are still segregated, and she sees it in the streets of her Durham neighborhood where too many black youth still fall victim to violence and drugs.

“I do feel that some things have gotten better, but some things have not,” she said. “And there are people who would carry us back.”

Yet, she still remembers all the good will she received when she arrived at Carolina, even that delivered unwittingly with the sting of insult.

She recalls in particular a veteran professor from the sociology department who greeted her one day with this encouragement: “Oh, we are watching you and if you do well we are going to hire one.”

And when he smiled at her, she smiled back. She said she could tell, despite his ill-chosen words, that his heart was in the right place.

And whenever that happens, she believes, there is always hope.