Mary E. Swain
Interviewed by Deborah M. George
10 January 2014
Oral History Program
Weber State University
Mary E. Swain
Deborah M. George
10 January 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Weber State University, Stewart Library
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The New Zion Community Advocates worked with community members age 80 years and older to have
contributed to the history of Ogden city. The interviews looked at the legacy of the interviewees through
armed services, work, social life, church, NAACP and educational systems in an environment where their
culture was not predominant. This program has received funding from the Utah Humanities Council and
the Utah Division of State history.
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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Swain, Mary E., an oral history by Deborah
M. George, 10 January 2014, WSU Stewart
Library Oral History Program, Special
Collections, Stewart Library, Weber State
University, Ogden, UT.
Mary Swain, photo taken at her
home on January 10, 2014
Abstract: The following is an oral history interview with Mary Swain conducted on
January 10, 2014 by Deborah George.
DG: Okay I’m Debbie George, I’m here today to interview Mrs. Mary Swain. We are in
her home in her luscious living room and we’re going to start our oral history
interview. So tell me your full name.
MS: My name is Mary Ellen Swain
DG: What is your birth date?
MS: May 9th, 1937.
DG: And are we related at all?
MS: No, we are not.
DG: What are you doing now in your life?
MS: I am just having fun, enjoying my grandchildren. I have been traveling quite a bit.
I have gone on a few cruises, and I am just enjoying a life of leisure.
DG: Alright wonderful. So tell me some of the important lessons that you have learned
throughout your life.
MS: Well let me start back when I was in Arkansas. My father worked for the railroad
and he came here about a year before we did. When we were told that we were
going to come to Utah, I got a book and I started reading all about Utah. I
thought, “That is a religious state. Things are going to be so different than they
are here in Arkansas.”
You know in Arkansas, we were aware that we were segregated. We
knew that we had our schools there, and we knew that there were other schools
there, but we knew where we were supposed to be. Everybody knew what they
were supposed to do. When I began attending Elementary school here in Utah, I
had very high expectations for change. I did meet a lot of people and built a lot of
One of the girls that I had become friends with was named Ruth. One day,
Ruth and I had planned on going to her house after school. Ruth asked her
mother if I could visit and her mother agreed. I asked my mother if I could go with
Ruth to her house, and my mother agreed. With both of our parents approving
the idea, Ruth and I got on a bus and went to her house, I had not been in Utah
very long and I was not familiar with the area. She lived somewhere up on the
bench above Washington Boulevard. When we arrived at her house, her mother
said, “No Ruth. You cannot play with her. WI did not know that she was colored!”
Ruth broke into tears and her mother asked me to leave. This was the funny part.
I left, but I didn’t know where to go. I could not find my way back home. I
wandered around. That was very frightening. I was so afraid. I knew that I lived
on 25th Street, and I knew that I lived west. I walked until I could see a big hotel
that we lived by. I had finally found my home and I was so happy to get there.
The next day at school, Ruth apologized. We were best friends you know.
I was just shocked because I had no idea that would happen in Utah. I thought I
could have white friends in Utah. I thought that I could have all kinds of friends.
There were Japanese, Hispanics, and Caucasian, a little bit of every race in my
classes. I thought that was great. I thought Utah was the place, but that was one
of the worst experiences.
I did sing in the choir, and going from church to church, we were always
welcomed with open arms. We never had anyone say anything about our race.
We would just walk in with the choir and sing. We would go out and we would go
back home. Nothing was said, and I could not figure that out. I wondered why
could I sing with them at church, but I could not visit them in their homes.
DG: That surprised you?
MS: Yes, that was shocking to me. As I think about it now, it was funny that I got lost
when I was going back home from Ruth’s home. I think I had been in Utah for
about eight days.
DG: Wow, eight days!
MS: Yes, I had no idea where anything was. I was just going home with her. I was
happy to be in mixed company. It was just something I had looked forward to
DG: What was your proudest moment?
MS: I think that my proudest moment is the birth of my children. Not just the birth of
one specific child, but the birth of all my children. I have been blessed with seven
children and nineteen grandchildren.
I am also proud that I have been able to work in different areas. I have had
some good jobs. I have been blessed in so many ways. I remember a time
before I became eligible for each job, a friend and I were going to work in a
cannery to peel tomatoes. We were so excited about it. We got a ride out there
because we were young children, and our parents did not own a vehicle. When
we got there, the supervisor had a long line of people. We had called ahead of
time and were told that he needed people to work for him. When he saw us, he
told us that he could not hire us because he could not hire colored people. We
had to walk all the way back to Ogden from Clearfield. That was a bad
experience. Even though we had to walk all the way back to Ogden, we were not
angry or upset about tit. We laughed at it, and came on back to Ogden.
I had that same experience with so many jobs I had looked forward to
being hired onto before. Colored people would not be hired in many areas at that
time. I did enjoy elementary school though. I have a lot of good memories of
elementary school. I cannot say I have many from junior high or high school.
When I began Junior High, there were a lot of dances that were held at my
school. There were only three black people in my school and were all females, so
we would not attend the dances because we never had a partner to go with. We
were not allowed to dance with white males and they were not allowed to dance
with black females, so I missed out on that.
I remember a time when a Japanese boy asked me to dance with him.
There were no special events on this day like prom or anything, it was just a
normal Friday afternoon. I was so excited to have the opportunity to dance and
as he began walking towards me, a few guys started teasing him and he ran off. I
was not going to let that spoil my time, and I did not let that make me dislike
people. I felt sorry for the guy because I was no stranger to rejection. Being
rejected did not hurt me.
While working with Ogden City Schools, the social worker and I were
going to do a home study with a family. While we were in this home, the social
worker said to me, “I am going to write them up because there are no books
being displayed anywhere in side of this home.” They had a Jet magazine, and
Ebony magazine on the coffee table. She said she had never heard of them
before. I informed her that is how we learn about our history. That is how we
know what is going on in the Black community. We take Utah history classes in
our schools, but we do not learn much about Black History.
One of the Psychologists was writing a program for under privileged
students, but not including the areas where most of the blacks lived. I asked him
where the black students were going to go when they needed help. His reply
was, “blacks take care of themselves. They do not need help. They are usually
well behaved. They rarely have behavioral problems, and when they do, they can
go see their school counselor. Blacks have always taken care of their own
problems.” I told him, “If you think that makes me feel better then you are wrong.
We were born oppressed. We have just learned to live in the society that we
were born in. We have adjusted to being treated as second class citizens. We
take care of our own issues because people like you refuse to help us. We have
problems just like everyone else in the world does. We do not have access to the
same resources as you do. We have worked two and sometimes even three jobs
just to make ends meet.”
Although we lived on 25th street, we were not able to eat in any of the
restaurants on the street, or any other eating establishment for that matter,
unless it was owned by a black person. There was only one of two black school
teachers in the Ogden area.
When I came here in the 40’s, there were employment opportunities
working with the railroad system and the government. They were not the best
jobs. If you would go and apply at any of the local stores, they would tell you that
you could iron the clothes and unpack the boxes. No matter how busy they were
up in the front of the store, we were never allowed to go up to the front and sell
anything. We were not even allowed to greet customers. Although, when you
have the support of your church, family, and local black community, at the end of
the day everything is not all that bad.
When we tried to buy a home located on Polk Street in Ogden, we were
unable to do so because the realtor that we were working with told us that if he
sold that home to us, he would be run out of Ogden by his peers. There were
several black businesses here when I first moved her. Blacks owned beauty
shops, clubs, dry cleaners, hotels, and new paper companies just to name a few.
Somehow we got systematically destroyed in that area. I am not quite sure how
or what happened, but one by one, the businesses started to disappear.
DG: Thank you so much, Mrs. Swain. This concludes our interview.
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