Muriel Weeden’s story written by Levi Todd
Muriel is 75 years old
I grew up in Muncie in the 1940s, which was very segregated when I was a girl. Discrimination in public was the norm. Black people weren’t allowed to eat at lunch counters downtown. We knew we were allowed at the skating rink only at certain times, the times when less white folks were there. In middle school I wasn’t allowed a role in the Christmas play because my teacher said there weren’t any black people in the Nativity. They did let me act in the Easter play in the role of a woman that I later realized was a prostitute. Everyone knew that Muncie was a hotbed for the KKK. The mayor, lawyers, public officials–you knew they were in positions of power around the town. You just dealt with them.
When I graduated high school, I enrolled in the Indiana Business College in downtown Muncie. The program guaranteed a job after graduation. I was one of only two black women in the program. The other woman was placed in a doctor’s office, but they told me that no other offices were hiring black people in Muncie. They said there was a position in Indianapolis, but I told them, “I don’t live there. I live in Muncie.” I wanted to stay where my home was.
Eventually a friend told me about a position working in housekeeping at the local hospital. She told me to go to the supervisor and tell her that I wanted to save up to go back to school—which I did, years later—and I was hired. I worked weekends cleaning bathrooms and patients’ rooms, usually by myself since my partner was always slacking off.
At that time the Muncie NAACP was negotiating with the local phone company to hire their first person of color to work in their office. The phone company argued that black people only wanted to work for their housekeeping staff, and none were applying for positions in the office anyway. They also said that no person of color had passed the test necessary for applications, leaving out the fact that they didn’t even offer to test them. Eventually, through negotiations with the NAACP, they said that if a black person could pass the test, they would open up office positions to them. I was referred by a friend to the President of the Muncie NAACP, and he encouraged me to take the test. I passed with high marks and was the first black woman hired in Muncie to be a long-distance operator.
When I came to my first day of training, I was told to sit at the end of the board where the lines were set up. Back then if you wanted to make a long-distance call, you had to have an operator connect it to wherever you were calling. It wasn’t easily automated like it is now. There were wires everywhere and phones ringing constantly. There was a row of stools down the aisle. No partitions or cubicles for privacy. My supervisor kept making comments during my training like “We just weren’t ready for you” or “We just don’t quite know what to do with you.” She never explained how they had to get ready for me, or what different circumstances had to be changed to accommodate me.
When I finally passed training and was able to take an open seat at the board, the white women seemed unsettled by my presence. It was clear that I was the first black person they had actually spoken to and interacted with. I learned quickly that if I so much as coughed or sneezed, they’d go complain to our supervisor that I was making too much noise or that they were worried they would catch something from me. Although it annoyed me, I was never too bothered by their comments.
My parents raised me with a strong sense of pride and knowledge about black history. I actually thought that as a person of color, I had an advantage. I was forced to adapt to white people’s culture and learned how to interact with them. My coworkers were never put in circumstances where they were the only white person in a room, and they never had to learn about my culture the way I had to learn about theirs. I was comfortable around white people and knew how to manage myself, and I saw that as an advantage.
The white women were always nervous about asking me, “What do we call you? Do you prefer ‘colored’ or ‘negro’?” They didn’t even know how to speak around me. I always answered, “I prefer to be called ‘Muriel’.” I think what people don’t realize is that underneath it all, we’re basically all the same, with the same hopes and desires and dreams. But in order to realize that, we have to get together and talk to one another. And call each other by our names.
This story originally appeared in Facing Racism in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by R.A.C.E. Muncie in Muncie, Indiana.