African American Studies
Mrs. Mildred McGee was born June 29, 1927 and married to Judge Hansel McGee. Also interviewed here are her daughter Dr. Elizabeth McGee and Mr. Leroi Archible. In the first session, Mrs. McGee provides details of her education, her parents’ backgrounds, living in Harlem, the Bronx, Washington DC and moving back to the Bronx. She also describes her husband’s childhood and his education. She attended an elementary school where there were no African-American teachers and she had only one African-American teacher in Junior High who taught Social Studies. The students also learned how to sew, cook and housekeeping at school. There were only ten African-American students in her graduating class at high school. She was accepted into Music and Art School because she passed a test, but says that her maiden name (Wareham) was from a German background and so if people decided you got in according to your name, they would not have realized she was African-American.
She then went to Parson’s School of Design for two years but was dropped from the school (“washed out”) before being allowed to go into her third and final year. The school said she did not stitch fast enough but there had never been an African-American in the graduating class before, and her designs had never been rejected by the school. She then learnt typing and shorthand at the “Y” and worked as a doctor’s receptionist, until she got married in 1949.
Her husband, Hansel McGee was born in Miami on June 13 1926. His parents separated and he and his mother and two sisters moved to New York to live with her aunt. His paternal grandfather, Moses McGee, had been born a slave in Georgia. His mother died of asthma when he was six or seven so he was raised by his aunt until she married and her husband (who didn’t work) wanted him out of the house, so he went to live with his father for a while and then he lived with cousins in the Bronx, until they moved him to Florida to be with their grandmother, which did not work out so he came back to New York. He may have graduated from Dewar Clinton but his schooling was interrupted because of the moving around. County Cullen taught him and Langston Hughes walked around Harlem. He was a radio operator for the Navy in World War Two, when most African-Americans worked in the Mess. He was probably drafted. In 1952, he graduated from City College and worked as a research chemist. They dated and attended jazz clubs in Harlem, like the Three Duces, Renaissance, Autobahn Ballroom and the clubs that the Islands had to collect money for insurance etc.
They moved to the Bronx in 1954 to join her parents who had bought a three family home. The area was mostly Italian and Jewish then, she had not gone further north than 138th street. Mr. McGee applied for a job in Brook Haven, Long Island but when he showed up for interview he did not get the job – again his name sounded German-Irish, but when they saw him “it was a no-go”. IBM gave him a job in research chemistry and moved him to Washington where he worked in the patent office by day and attended Law school at night. Mrs. McGee attended DC Teachers College there. They returned to Concourse Village in 1966 having tried to get an apartment in Westchester. If African-Americans showed up the apartment was always filled, so they sent a white couple first to see if it was really sold. She did not want her children taken to a place that they were not going to be able to live in, so they applied for and got Concourse Village. Wheeler Avenue had more African-Americans living there, “the whites ran”. There were white people in Concourse Village but black people were housed there because they were looking for three-bedroom apartments. Dr. McGee had one black teacher in PS 77, her kindergarten teacher. The elementary school had an orchestra that played at Carnegie Hall. Walton High School first assumed Dr. McGee had received an inferior education in DC and attempted to hold her back a year, not realizing she attended school in Georgetown with diplomats’ children. Her father explained and she was asked if she wanted to be a senior and graduate that year after the meeting! Music was a very important part of her education as it taught her skill and discipline.
Her father became involved in the community organizing dances and basketball to keep the youth “out of trouble”, eventually founding the Harriet Tubman Charter School. Neighbors complained about the young boys being out and people visiting from the projects, but Mr. McGee and the community organized a youth program. You were responsible for who you brought in because you had to live there after they left. Her father assumed the children would attend college. The area was mixed but there were not that many white children there. She remembers one bi-racial child who did not know where she belonged. Dr. McGee was the only black person in her class, there was two Chinese and everyone else was white. Mrs. King, the guidance counselor, was from the West Indies and encouraged her to apply to Vassar, which she did and they accepted her. Mrs. McGee attended Hunter College at night to finish her teaching degree. She got on well with the professors but the night students did not have the same access to counselors etc. She met the President because there was a question of her credits and whether she could graduate but she did one course in Lehman College over the summer and graduated. She began teaching elementary school in East Harlem in 1969. Mr. McGee took a leave of absence from IBM for three years to work in the community in the Bronx Legal Services which is how he met Leroi Archible.
Mildred McGee, October 23 2007, Interview with the Bronx African American History Project, BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
Click below to download supplemental content.McGee, Mildred Interview 1 Part 2.mp3 (8637 kB)
McGee, Mildred Interview 1 Part 3.mp3 (38928 kB)
McGee, Mildred Interview 1 Part 1.mp3 (65971 kB)