Oral history interview with Edith Lawrence Hilliard

Oral history interview for the Living History Project with Edith Hilliard. Edith speaks to her childhood memories of growing up in the historic Greenbush neighborhood, on Mound Street and Conklin Court. She attended Washington Elementary School and recounts winning an election for sixth grade class president. Edith recalls the close-knit nature of the Greenbush neighborhood and the fact that she still spends time with many former neighbors and Central High School classmates.

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    INTERVIEWER: Hello, my name is Laura Damon-Moore. I’m here at the Goodman Community Center. It is January twenty-fourth, and I am speaking with our narrator today. I’m going to have her introduce herself.

    EDITH HILLIARD [EH]: My name is Edith Lawrence Hilliard.

    INTERVIEWER: Hi Edith, it’s so nice to speak with you today. I’m going to open by asking you to tell us a little bit about your and your family’s history in Madison, and where you lived.

    EH: Well, my family has been in Madison for over 108 years. And, um, we lived in the area called Greenbush, on Conklin Court and Mound Street. I remember the address on Conklin Court was 607 Conklin Court. And it was just probably like a three-block area, for Conklin Court. But right on the other side of us there was a grocery store called Frank’s Grocery Store.

    Of course it’s no longer there, but I can remember as a child running across the little alley and going over to Frank’s Grocery Store and putting groceries on a charge account, if you will. And then my grandparents would pay on that charge account. So that’s one of the fond memories that I had.

    I lived with my grandmother on Conklin Court; I did not live with my parents. So it was my grandparents that I lived with.

    The Greenbush area was just a phenomenal area because in that area there were a lot of African-Americans there, and a lot of Italians. And what was very interesting to me is that it was like one big, happy family. The Italian kids and the African-American kids, we just all really kind of blended together as a family.

    I can remember, you know, just going outside and playing in the neighborhood, and being at other folks’ homes. And it was never a problem whose house we were at. But the rule was, for all of us, that when the streetlights came on, we had to be at home. And so that was our timeframe. We could be anywhere we wanted in the neighborhood. We could be in anyone’s home in the neighborhood. But when the streetlights came on, we had to be in our house.

    And, you know, that’s so different from today, because now I look at my grandchildren and I want to know exactly whose home they’re going to; and not only that, I want to know the people, you know. It’s just a different world now.

    When I think about living there, in Greenbush, it was so open and caring and loving. Like I said, it was like one big, happy family because everybody just blended together. If I got in trouble and I was at one of the Italian homes, then that’s where I was reprimanded. And then they would tell my grandmother and then I would be reprimanded again. And in today’s world you can’t even do that, you know, because people are afraid to. So looking back on those times—just absolutely incredible, beautiful memories of blended families, you know, if you will. The whole community was like one big, happy family.

    INTERVIEWER: Thank you. I guess you kind of addressed this already but do you have anything else to add about your association with the Greenbush neighborhood, maybe—?

    EH: Yeah, and still—and I will be seventy years old this year, but I still have friends from way back then from my childhood that we still communicate with each other, do things together, because again, it was like a family, so it was still like a family unit, getting together and doing things.

    INTERVIEWER: Yeah. Can you share a particular story about a person or place related to the Greenbush history that we should know?

    EH: Washington Elementary School. Right now, it’s the Madison Metropolitan School District Building, over on Dayton Street. But when I was growing up, it was an elementary school. And it was my elementary school.

    One of the fond memories that I have was—first of all, my grandmother worked on campus. She was the cook at Chi Phi fraternity house. So, I was at Washington Elementary School, and I had decided that I was going to be president of our class. And I was in sixth grade, and so the guys at my grandmother’s fraternity house made up all kinds of posters and slogans and everything for my campaign.

    And one of my campaign promises to the kids was that I would get them chocolate milk. (laughs) And I’ve gotta laugh. I didn’t say I would get them chocolate milk for the whole year; I just said “chocolate milk”, so we only had to do that for one time if I won the election.

    I also remember that the guys at the fraternity house made up a campaign slogan for me. And my campaign slogan was, “Edie-weedy sure is speedy, vote for Edie, yes indeed-y.”

    And I did win the campaign. What’s even funnier—I did, I did—so what's even funnier than that is that now—like I said I’m seventy years old—I sometimes run into some of my old friends and they’ll say, “Hey, Edie-weedy sure is speedy, vote for Edie, yes indeed-y.” (laughs)

    I had to laugh because I remember that. And it was just a real fond memory, and it was just a really fun time. And like I said we had the whole school decorated up. It was like a real political campaign, you know, for a sixth grader in elementary school.

    INTERVIEWER: Did they get the chocolate milk?

    EH: They did: one day. One day for the chocolate milk. My grandmother was a little upset that I made that promise, but it was only for a day so she went along with that.

    INTERVIEWER: So you may have addressed this already, too, but the Living History Project is being developed as a way to preserve the day-to-day activities that seem sort of ordinary in the moment, but become extraordinary as time passes and things change. Can you share an ordinary day-to-day story that will show the neighborhood’s extraordinary qualities?

    EH: Well, I guess when I think about that—just getting up in the morning, as a child, and going to school. And then after school, for me, would be going to the fraternity house, because that’s where my grandmother worked. And sitting at the big tables in the fraternity house, doing my homework, and being helped with [homework] by the guys in the fraternity house, which was really nice, and again, a fond memory for me.

    As I grew up older, my grandmother was very involved in the African-American community. She was involved in the NAACP. At the time there wasn’t an Urban League, but she was involved with another club called the Mary Bethune Club. And like I say, very actively involved in the community. Those organizations are still going on, and I can remember being able to go to the meetings they were having, as a teenager.

    And just really sparked my interest in things that were going on in the Madison community and in the world. And like I say, again, those organizations are still going on. So I just really felt, as a teenager, being a part of what was going on in my own city, in my own little area, by being a part of these organizations with my grandmother.

    INTERVIEWER: What was your grandmother’s name?

    EH: Grace Lawrence.

    INTERVIEWER: I would love to hear, and I know the Greenbush is a little unique in that it was a very close-knit neighborhood, and now it has dispersed because of the urban renewal process in the sixties. Can you share a story about a Greenbush neighborhood community tradition, and if they are still observed by the community or your family today?

    EH: The Greenbush Bakery, which is on Regent Street. It was a tradition to go to that bakery, for the kids—and not just the kids, for the adults also—to go by the Greenbush Bakery, and to go at a time when they were just making the donuts, when they were just coming out nice and fresh.

    That was one of the traditions that continues to go on today, because every time I’m in the neighborhood I stop at the Greenbush Bakery and I’ll get a couple of donuts. Because I can remember as a child and as a teenager—my whole life, going to the Greenbush Bakery and getting some donuts.

    INTERVIEWER: Thanks. So are there any other businesses, or institutions, or public gathering places that we should be aware of? These could be things that still exist today, or do not exist.

    EH: Josie’s Italian Restaurant. Just a couple of years ago, it’s been gone. But that was a place that I know we would go and have supper there. It was just a great place to go, and for many years. Just a couple of years ago it went out of business. But that was kind of a neighborhood place where the Italians and the African-Americans would go for a nice family dinner, just to sit down and chat with each other. Gone.

    But you know, there’s so many places that were there at the time in the Greenbush area that are all gone now. I’m grateful that the Bakery is still there. But most of the places are gone. I can remember Madison General Hospital being there, and now it’s Meriter Hospital. I remember the design, where you could drive into the circle there, but all of that is gone.

    INTERVIEWER: What else should we know?

    EH: That it was just really a great time. Madison was a real community. There weren’t a lot of African-Americans in the city at the time. And even when I went to high school, Central High School. Now Central High School—right now it’s the Madison College building. I remember going to high school there. It was downtown, and that was a really fun thing to be in a high school that was downtown. So that was a great place, it's gone also.

    But that was one of the high schools and all of us went to school together there, so that was a nice comraderie. We still have class reunions and still the same people are coming back to the class reunions, the Italians and the African-Americans. Like I say, I’m seventy years old. I just had my fiftieth class reunion for high school, and [I'm] still interacting with some of those people. I think that’s really rare. Because in a lot of communities people leave, and they just don’t come back. But there’s so many people that stayed here. And so we still get together for the different class reunions and everything, which is really nice. So Central High School was a highlight, yeah, it truly was. So you most definitely should know about that.