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Nancy Bolden

Many of the Urban Heroes are reluctant to talk about themselves. They are quiet, self-effacing and not comfortable drawing attention to themselves or their work. Nancy Bolden is just such an Urban Hero. In her own quiet way, Nancy went about her life’s’ work of helping people, white and black, in her career as a social worker. Since her retirement, she has continued to serve in many different capacities, all of which have served to qualify her for this year’s Urban Heroes class. Read this interview and see if you agree. (We had more than our fair share of problems with this recording, so please excuse the occasional breaks in continuity.)

JS: Nancy thank you for giving your time to be part of the Urban Heroes program.

NB: Well, thank you.

JS: So, I asked you if knew where RPTS was, and you told me you drive by it and it’s close to your home. Where do you live? Squirrel Hill?

NB: Yes.

JS: Long time resident of Squirrel Hill?

NB: We bought our home in 1967.

JS: Oh yeah, that’s long. That’s 46 years. That qualifies. And who is we?

NB: My husband and I.

JS: Tell us about your family.

NB: Two parents and a brother. And, of course, they’re all dead by now.

JS: Pittsburghers?

NB: No. I’m from Kentucky.

JS: Tell us about growing up in Kentucky.

NB: A little town in Kentucky. When I was there, there were about 1,500 people who lived in that little town. I think there are substantially more than that in the county at this point.

JS: What was it like growing up in small town Kentucky?

NB: You know, where you grow up is the only place you know!

JS: That’s the center of the universe!

NB: But it was good.

JS: Tell us about mom and dad.

NB: My mother, had been a school teacher before her marriage. And after that she was a stay at home housewife. [parts of the interview were inaudible – editor’s note]. But when [father] came
back from college, his father, who had started his business, was in declining health. And my father, who I understand had planned to go to medical school, changed his plans and bought
a partnership in his dad’s business, which was a general store. And he did that.

He was an extremely involved person in the community. And whatever values I have, I got from my parents. My dad was very interested in education. He originally, in my little town, and of course Kentucky is below the Mason Dixon line. But in my little town there were, for instance, four one-roomed schoolhouses for African-Americans. And my dad, around 1930 or so, thought
that wasn’t the best way to get an education.

So he provided about an acre of land, was instrumental in getting a Rosenwald Foundation Fund, to fund the one-room school houses and got into something better. He then raised money and bought a bus from a cab company that had gone out of business. Because farmers needed to know that their kids were going to be picked up every day to go to school. He also paid the bus driver a year’s salary.

Was active in his church. I grew up in the African American Methodist Episcopal Church. He was very active there, locally as well as nationally. He was politically involved. He was a Republican. He was, for many years, on the State Central Republican Committee. And at the time that a governor was running, and this was after 18-year-olds could vote…

[parts of the interview were inaudible – editor’s note]

my father worked for a candidate who promised if elected he would put him on the State Board of Education. And there had never been an African-American on the State Board of Education. So, his candidate won, and my dad said he wanted the State Board of Education. So he appointed him to the State Board of Education.

My dad used that position to see that the salaries of African- American teachers were equal to that of white teachers in the state, and to improve the quality of education for all corners. So,
there are a few other things that my dad did. But that gives you some sense of the value system in my family.

So my brother and I grew up with this. And we understood that you have a responsibility to. I am told that my brother at one point said to his wife, that you have a responsibility at 55. And he did. A great deal, himself. So, people were raised to have some sense of responsibility.

JS: So how did all of translate for you individually? You’re watching all of this, growing up. What path do you take?

NB: You know, when you’re growing up, you just don’t think much about it. Dad would come home and tell these stories, and we’d say, “Boy, isn’t that nice.” And you don’t realize the impactof it, or the importance of it, maybe until you’re grown. And then you begin to realize what he really did.

JS: So, did you go to schools that your dad helped impact?

NB: I went to that school through the 11th grade. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough kids for 12th grade. So I went and lived with my grandmother in the next county, and graduated from school there. And then I left the state and went to college, because my family all went to Wilberforce, in Ohio. And, I went there. Then, I graduated from Central State University. Left, and then went to Ohio State for graduate school, for Social Administration.

JS: And, your dad maintained that dry goods store?

NB: Yes, he did. He maintained it until the late 60’s. My brother, at one point, was in business with him. And then, when what began to develop outside, shopping centers outside the city
limits. In a small town, the center of town is a square, in the middle. And that’s the center of town. And our store was on the square. When shopping centers, and I don’t mean the things that you see around here with just small little strip malls. Began to [spring up] outside the city limits. Then businesses began to move out. And my father retired.

And my brother, who majored in business administration in college, moved to Lexington, Kentucky, and started on his own in politics there, and in his church. My father then had an
additional interest. And that interest was, I don’t know if you’re familiar with artificial lakes. Before WWII, the government had decided to build a dam across a part of Lake Cumberland to
generate electricity.

JS: In Kentucky.

NB: Yeah, in Kentucky. And, where you have that, it would create an artificial lake. Where you have that, you also have a recreational industry. What my father, and some of his friends
understood, was that African-Americans weren’t going to have access to it. So WWII came along, and that was put on hold.

But after WWII, they came back to it, and my father and two of his friends put some money together and bought a farm on the lake and created a situation where the African-Americans would be able to have access to the lake and to the kind of recreational activities that the lake provides. It was probably today, one of the remaining things of its kind. There are, I think we have about 25, 26, 27 cottages. There are probably 10 or 15 property owners. But it’s that kind of thing that was very important to my dad. He ended up being solo owner of it because everybody else died or retired.

JS: So what was the church involvement along with all this political and community involvement?

NB: My dad was instrumental in forming a layman’s league. Nationally, he was on at one point the Finance Committee. He was on the Education Committee. Any one of a number of the National bodies.

JS: And so what did you do as a teen, once you’ve been marinated in all this activity, and philosophy?

NB: At eighteen, I was a sophomore in college!

JS: You were about ready to graduate! Alright, sixteen. You go off to school. What kind of decisions are you making at this point about how to make a difference while you’re here?

NB: I changed my major about four times in college. Didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to do the day I graduated. But I had, in my senior year, I had taken a heavier schedule. And somewhere I took a course in social work. And became very interested in that. And so when I went back to school in the fall after I graduated from college. I went to the School of Social Work at Ohio State.

JS: And that’s where you got your masters. MSW.

NB: Yes. Masters of Arts in Social Administration. That’s what it was.

JS: So then what?

NB: My first job was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had not a clue as to where Grand Rapids was. Didn’t know anybody living there. I went there as the assistant teenage program director.
When you’re in a school of social work, you do field work. My fieldwork placement had been at the YWCA in Columbus. And there I got introduced to racism.

That sounds strange, because I grew up in Kentucky and I went to segregated schools. And if you got on a train, you rode in the Jim Crow car. But other than that, because of what my father did and who my father was, it was not a big deal.

But that fieldwork placement, I began to learn about racism. And, doing something about it. So the real reason I took the job in Grand Rapids, was because the YWCA had recently, in general convention, adopted an interracial charter. And the person who at the time the charter was being developed had done the research and helped to write it, was then no longer
national staff but had moved to Grand Rapids and was president of that association. So, it was for someone fresh out of graduate school and at the beginning of their career, it was an incredible opportunity, to just sit at the feet of somebody like that, and learn. And that’s why I went to Grand Rapids.

JS: Mom and dad were supportive?

NB: My dad had a different notion of what I ought to be doing for a living. My dad’s notion for my brother and me was that my brother would come back and take over the business, as he had from his father, and that I would come back and be a schoolteacher. What I did was humor him by getting a teaching certificate. But, I kind of knew I was never going to end up in the classroom.

JS: So Grand Rapids was a good experience?

NB: It was a very good experience. It was a growth experience. It was a wonderful experience. I was there for two years. Grand Rapids was very cold. It snowed the day after Thanksgiving, and
you didn’t see the ground again until April.

So, after two years, I took a job in Pittsburgh, for the first time. I moved to Pittsburgh twice. I came here and worked for the YWCA. And I worked here for almost four years, again, a teenage
program. My mother became terminally ill at age 53, and the doctors gave her a month or two to live. So I went home to be with her, until she died. She knew she wasn’t going to get well. She didn’t know she was supposed to die in a month and a half, so she lived four months.

But in the fall, I took a job in Detroit. There I was adult program director. And I worked, for me the thing I remember about that experience that was most important, and the reason I took the
job, because it called for developing program in a housing project. The housing authority had given the agency an apartment and said, come in and work with our tenants. And,
that sounded fascinating. So, that’s why I went there and I learned a lot about folks who live in housing projects. And, I stayed there until I married and moved back to Pittsburgh.

JS: Your husband was a Pittsburgher?

NB: Yes. He lived in Pittsburgh. He really was from Little Washington.

JS: Little Washington. A true Western Pennsylvanian says Little Washington! So that we won’t get it confused with the Big Washington.

NB: Yeah, he came here to go to college and never quite left. Except for a few stints during WWII. And also, then when he was a journalist. When he was away on doing other things.

JS: He worked for The Courier?

NB: Yes. The interesting thing about my husband was that he never intended to be a journalist. He was a science major at Pitt. He had intended to go to medical school. They weren’t taking
folks of color at that point. He said he went over to the Board of Education building and
they weren’t hiring folks of color to teach either. So he went to graduate school. And was in the doctoral program there. But he worked part-time, and started writing part-time for The Courier.

And, WWII came along, and there was a campaign to get African- American war correspondents because the white war correspondents were saying that black troops were cowards and
wouldn’t fight, and that sort of thing. So, I guess it was some kind of process they used. And he ended up being one of the first two African-American war correspondents in WWII. And had
a really incredible experience, opportunity and experience during that time. When he came back, he did not go back to school. He stayed with The Courier, until about ’63.

JS: And he knew my friend Mike Adams there at The Courier.

NB: I knew Mike Adams. Whatever happened to Mike Adams?

JS: He passed away a couple years ago.

NB: Did he?

JS: Yes, he did. He went in for a minor heart procedure – is any heart procedure minor – never really recovered consciousness.

NB: He and his first wife were good friends.

JS: Yeah, I didn’t know her well. It was towards the end of her life that I had met her. And then Mike and I were at a church together, and we met in his home some. And then he broke up house, moved, and was getting ready to remarry. So now what were you doing in Pittsburgh? You’re married and you come and you’ve got all this life experience?

NB: When I first came back, my first job, I worked for a year with the juvenile court. Which was another really great learning experience. But I thought I should have regular working hours
for a change. So I went to work for the school system as a school social worker. Worked for them for over 30 years.

JS: So Ellen Sandidge, You knew Ellen?

NB: She came in later towards the end of my time.

JS: She was our Urban Hero, last class. And she teaches here, every now and then. She’ll do English for us and some other things for us. Faith. How about church involvement? Stayed true to that as your parents raised you?

NB: I am an Episcopalian. Which is not the church I grew up in. I started going to the Episcopal Church when I was in graduate school. My best friend was an Episcopalian, and she had just
graduated from Fisk. And I started going to church with her. When I went to Grand Rapids, there was a church, it was very interesting, downtown. Fountain Street Church. And the interesting thing was that if you got the Sunday or Saturday paper, where they listed all the churches, it was Fountain Street Church, Baptist, and then there was a column that said “Regular Baptist Churches.”

JS: You had to make that distinction!

NB: It was a liberal church. They called themselves the “thinking man’s church,” thinking person’s church. But it was a great experience. When I came to Pittsburgh, I was alternating between Holy Cross and Warren United Methodist Church, which are right across the street from each other, for a while. When I went to Detroit, I started going to the Episcopal Church exclusively, and was confirmed there.

JS: How long were you with the school system?

NB: A little over 30 years.

JS: Retired from there?

NB: Yes.

JS: To do what after retirement? Have any involvements?

NB: Actually, yeah, I do a number of things. Most of my time right now, I can’t even say that. I’m very active with my church. My husband was active with the John Heinz History Center. He
was on the African-American Advisory Committee. He retired, he died, and they thought I should inherit his position. So it’s become rather interesting recently. But I’ve been involved with
them all along. What else do I do? For a number of years, in my sorority, we did some work with kids who were teenagers…

[parts of the interview were inaudible – editor’s note].

Then we also did a thing in the summer with them. I have some responsibilities that have to do with my family. I have some interests in Kentucky. I spend a fair amount of time
down there.

JS: So you kept your roots in Kentucky.

NB: Yes. But a great deal of my time right now is spent with some family interests we still have.
I’m active with a number of organizations locally. I chair the Dawes Information on Racism. And, also in the Episcopal church you have diocese, you have provinces, you have the
national church. So, I’m also coordinator of the

[parts of the interview were inaudible – editor’s note]

to root out racism in the church. I guess you would say.

JS: Raise awareness, of where it exists. So Jay Gilmer is one of our board members. So you know Jay. This is a travesty to only talk to you for 30 minutes. We could and maybe should talk all day. Because there are a lot of stories that need to be told of the past. When I went to Israel, they have a Holocaust Museum. And the original museum, you can walk through in ninety minutes. It was built for tourists. Now they have all the stories. You know, before this generation leaves, they wanted to get these stories of those. And we need the same thing with our community of color. The stories are painful, but need to be told.

NB: I remember one other thing, I do.

JS: Please, go ahead.

NB: My husband was very interested in young people with developmental disabilities. He was on the board of the Early Learning Institute, and he was also on the board of the Cerebral Palsy Association. After he had been on the board of Early Learning Institute for about 30 years, they decided they wanted to do something to honor him. So they had a fundraising thing. And the money that was raised went to establish a scholarship in his name. His decision was that the scholarship would be for people who had certification programs for either special education, or early childhood development.

We placed the money with the Poise Foundation, and we give an annual scholarship. At this point, I chair that committee. It’s open to anybody in an institution in Western Pennsylvania. So that takes up a little bit of time. It’s taken up a little bit of time right now as a matter of fact because we’ve just gone through the process of accepting applications. We also put out a
newsletter annually. That’s another thing.

JS: So, family, faith, roots, history, awareness. All of that has played a part in who God has made you to be. So thank you so much for consenting to be a part. We know your stories and other stories are going to inspire a lot of people.

NB: I don’t feel like I’ve done anything except be myself. And I don’t see that as being anything extraordinary.

JS: Yeah. I teach on purpose. When you see your purpose, you think the whole world sees it and you think this is nothing very special. But obviously, they don’t. And that was makes you unique.

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