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When an Elder Speaks: 92-Years Young: SIS Scholar Camille Henderson Reflects Upon Her Experience

 Details of SpelHouse Homecoming are common  knowledge among all students at Spelman and  Morehouse. It’s a big deal. To my surprise, I did  not spend Homecoming weekend roaming up and  down Westview drive in my cutest Spelman  paraphernalia snacking on French fries and  barbequed ribs.

Homecoming week for me began  with a phone call from Dr. Gloria Wade-Gayles,  professor of Spelman’s Independent Scholar (SIS)  Oral History Seminar.

 “We have an elder, Ms. Gladys Brumfield, 92  years young. Truly, she is a phenomenal woman!  Camille, I’ve chosen you to interview her,” Gayles  explained. “Well, is everything OK?” I responded.  Dr. Gayles assured me hat everything was fine  and told me to prepare accordingly.

Later on that day, I received a text from Dr. Gayles with information that turned this once honorable task into an insurmountable obstacle. The interviews would begin the next day. The elder was eager to share life story with SIS. Along with this unexpected request, I was ordered to conduct the interview unscripted. Immediately I became tense and full of anxiety, as is my initial reaction to all things absurd. “How could I … but how could Ms. Brumfield. . . ?

Oh, this just isn’t going to work out,” I concluded. I spent the entire night preparing a script for my first interview as a Young Scholar in SIS. I took comfort in knowing that Sha-Vashtiy Young, another Young Scholar in SIS, would be there to support me as she videotaped the experience.

A Bundle of Nerves and Joy

The next day, we made our way through heavy traffic (the result of tail-gating, of course) to Greensferry Avenue, where Dr. Gayles was waiting for us to drive us through the city to Arbor Terrace Assisted Living. I was nervous, but excited!

Walking into Arbor Terrace was an eye-opening experience for me. As the three of us were escorted up the steps to the second floor, I greeted residents who were walking in the hallways en route to their room or to activities. We walked down the hall to her room We  opened the door and Ms. Brumfield greeted us with a pleasant, but surprisingly deep, “Well hello!” There in the bed lay a petite brown-skinned woman with eyes that simply gazed over her inquisitive visitors. Donning a bright red turtleneck, she was obviously pleased that we were there. We complimented her on her vibrant choice in color as her wardrobe shined against the crisp white of the bed sheets beneath her.

Being Told a Story I will Never Forget

I sat adjacent to her bed and Sha-Vashtiy stood in front of a chest that was decorated with pictures of Ms. Brumfield at different ages. The interview began. “So Ms. Brumfield,” I asked, “Tell me your name as it appears on your birth certificate.” After giving me her name—“Gladys Brumfield”__  she took charge, something we are told narrators often do at the very beginning of an interview. “Well, I want to talk about the war.” A little intimidated by her candor, I switched from interviewer, doubting the harvest of this conversation, to avid listener humbled to be in the presence of one of the first African-American women to pass both the physical and the mental exam for enlistment in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Ms. Brumfield’s story was a testimony of her courage and determination. Before the women’s movement, she was determined to join the “CC camps” that were then for men only.  When separate CC camps were made available for women, Ms. Brumfield was on the first train to Iowa. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, she soon became a world-class traveler who journeyed with the U.S. Army across Europe as a mail-carrier. She explained how something as simple as mail was the biggest morale builder during that time. Mail from loved ones fueled the soul and encouraged troops to continue fighting. Ms. Gladys Brumfield was vital to this operation. 

From War to Clark College

Following the war, Ms. Brumfield returned home and attended Clark College. There, she majored in biology and went on to becoming the first African-American hired to work at the Center for Disease Control. Far from her mail carrying days, she served as a microbiologist engaging in cutting edge research on HIV/AIDS. Not only did she conduct research, but also taught her peers in the subject as well.  She explained her white counterparts’ dependency on her teachings despite their hesitation of being taught by a Black woman: she was the only one at CDC teaching on matters of HIV/AIDS. They could look only to her for the information they needed.

As I listened to the stories Ms. Brumfield was sharing with me, I thought, “Wow!”  Often, students search for secondary sources that will inspire and enable them to be excellent. I was in the presence of a primary source, an African American woman eder with wisdom and wit, who was sharing her life with me. What I learned from the tenacity and grace Ms. Brumfield showed in the interview and in her life is that, with deep inspiration and fierce motivation, there is truly nothing we cannot do if we set our minds to doing it.