SUMMARY: Bill Eddings’ sharecropper family came to Arizona in 1935. Attending both segregated and integrated schools, Bill was challenged to reach for educational goals his parents could not have obtained—and that weren’t easy for any black man. His inspiring story of his struggle to teach, his desire to instill in young people a philosophy that would help them build their own successful futures, and his experiences as a member of Casa Grande’s City Council, are well worth reading.
Date of Interview: March 30, 2004
Interviewer: Sara Turner
Transcriber: Merrilyn S. Ridgeway
Begin Tape 1, Side 1
Sara: Today is Tuesday, March 30, 2004. It is 11 a.m. My name is Sara Turner and I am here with Mr. William Eddings, Sr. of Casa Grande, AZ, at the Casa Grande Valley Historical Society in the Rebecca Dallis School House to do an oral history. We will now start our interview questions.
Sara: Mr. Eddings, I understand that you were in the military during World War II. I was wondering what were the dates of your military service?
Bill: I went into the U.S. Navy in January of 1944 and was discharged in June of 1946.
Sara: I was wondering why you joined the Navy?
Bill: I really didn’t join the Navy. They drafted me into the Navy. Earlier, I had attempted to volunteer and I discovered that it was segregated and that the only thing I could become was a steward’s mate, and I didn’t want that. I waited until I was 18. They drafted me and gave me a choice when I was going through the line between Navy, Coast Guard and Marine. So I said “Army” and they said “You’re in the Navy.” (Laughter)
Sara: Where did you go to enlist? Where were you living at the time?
Bill: I lived in Yuma so we rode a bus to Phoenix. That was the Induction Center at that time. So they drafted me. When it was all over with, they told me I had eleven days to go home and visit my parents and then I had to report to go to Great Lakes Naval Station.
Sara: What was your job when you first started out and your rank?
Bill: I got good jobs. My first rank was Seaman, I guess. It was the first rank in the Seaman branch as such. I eventually made it to Seaman First Class. I had tasks as Mail Clerk, Store Keeping, and those easy jobs that I pulled up. I attribute that to having good communication skills because I knew how to read well and that kind of stuff. So, I got those easy jobs.
Sara: What year and when did you leave the service?
Bill: I left the service in June, I want to say 19th, 1946. I was separated in Long Beach, CA. I came back to Yuma.
Sara: So after the service you went back home?
Discrimination in the Armed Forces
Sara: Did you experience discrimination in the armed forces?
Bill: Yes. All the time that I was in there I was only barracked and lived with colored as we called them at that time. So there was a good deal of discrimination as such. I guess the point that I remember the most was that there was some lieutenant or ensign told me that I’d never amount to anything. That kind of irritated me because I didn’t think he knew me.
Sara: Was the Navy less discriminatory, do you think, than the other armed forces, or about the same? Or do you know?
Bill: Maybe about the same and maybe a little bit more. I’m not sure. At least in the Army you could make rank, but you were ranked among your own kind…among black soldiers as such. In the Navy, I guess, it was maybe six months before I was discharged that I saw anyone above my rank and they were aboard a tug. So I applied and went aboard a tug boat and these guys were aboard the tug. They were machinists and mechanics and electricians and that kind of thing.
Sara: So when you say you had rank but only over other colored soldiers, how did that work? Were you like your own little individual group?
Bill: That’s right. The black or colored soldiers were stationed, in my position and at my time, way down at the end of the pier. The white sailors were up in barracks up at the other end of the pier as such. So they definitely had us separated. We ate separately, we went to movies separately, and all of that kind of thing.
Sara: There was just as much segregation in the services as there was going on in the rest of the world.
Sara: Were your meals different?
Bill: The meals were somewhat the same because they bought the same kind of meals and just dropped them off for white sailors.
Return to Civilian Life and Marriage
Sara: When and where did you meet your wife?
Bill: When I got back home in 1946 my dad had built a new home in Yuma. My wife lived right across the street. I knew my wife before I went into the service but then she was a little girl. (Laughter) When I came back she had blossomed. I met her in ’46 and she was a senior in high school. The high school was integrated. She graduated in May of ’47 and we got married the next month on June 21.
Sara: Did you date when you got back from the service and have a little courtship? Bill: Yes, we dated, had courtship, but it was very closely supervised, not like kids do today. I asked my father-in-law if I could take his daughter out and he said “Yes” and told me what time that I needed to bring her back. When I asked if I could come over to the house to visit, he said “Yes” and that I should leave at 9:30 and this kind of stuff. So I appreciated it because we had rules and I knew my boundaries.
Sara: Exactly. And you were engaged during this whole time more or less, or when did you become engaged?
Bill: We really became engaged pretty well as soon as I got out of the Navy. We were kind of halfway engaged from June of ’46 until we got married.
Sara: What kind of things would you do when you went out? Would you just, well, what activities did you do?
Bill: They were very limited. We went to movies and I was pretty good at athletics so she’d come out on Sundays to watch me play baseball, this kind of thing. She was very athletically inclined, too, so I’d go up to the high school. We only lived two blocks from the high school. I was up there to see all of her activities. So we went together and we’d go to the malt shop together. (Laughter)
Service on Casa Grande’s City Council
Sara: I’d like to change this a little bit and talk about your time on the City Council in Casa Grande. What year were you elected to the City Council?
Bill: It had to be 1972 or 1973, I’m not sure, whichever year they had the election. I was elected to City Council. That was a genuine experience like-wise because I had lived in the community and, I guess what contributed most to—well, I guess I had taught or counseled the majority of the young people that were in Casa Grande at that time. If they were school age, they knew me. They persuaded their parents to vote for me. (Laughter)
Sara: And what compelled you to decide to serve on the City Council? What made you feel that you wanted to?
Bill: At that time there were a lot of government funds available. At the junior high I had worked with government funds, I had put together a reading program over there and this kind of a thing. When I got to the high school they changed it around. I thought someone needed to know where the funds were and be able to speak on behalf of funds for the school system. So I ran primarily on the basis of being able to assist and to get funds and to help high school youngsters as well as the youngsters and their parents in the community.
Sara: So it was your civic duty, you feel, to kind of get that going?
Bill: Yes, I was a “people helper” as I used to call myself.
Sara: Was there something in particular that you wanted to change or be a part of with the City Council? Was that your main goal or did you have other ideas?
Bill: I guess my main emphasis was to know what finance was available to the community and the purpose of that finance, this kind of stuff, and to be able to speak out for the public in general. I guess, I had an experience early on the City Council there were some Block Grant funds and I wanted to put streets on the west side. I wanted to use those government funds.
Members of the Council asked me the question, “Bill, don’t you think that people who pay into the fund ought to be the people who get the funds?” Of course, that’s the perfect argument. Yes, if you buy into the program, the program ought to serve you. But soon after that as my awareness of programs became somewhat different, then I could speak in terms of “Yes, let’s use these funds here and we’ll have special assessments for those people.” The same way as I was on the Council when they built the park and recreation over on the east side. I had something to say about that. They named it after Mrs. Mosely.
I was aware of my ethnicity. I’ve always known that I was black. You know, I told my kids “In order for you to get as much, you have to do twice as much.” So I was always in that particular position and I advocated that. I wanted the community to know that I thought resources should be spread everywhere rather than just pick certain places. I remember Scottsdale used government funds to build Scottsdale Road and I resented that. Those funds were supposedly for the poor, not to build roads.
Sara: I was curious. When you were elected to Council, were you the first black person to serve on Council?
Bill: First black person to serve on the City Council, first black person at the junior high, first black person at the high school.
Sara: I’ll be darned. (Laughter.) All right. How many councilmen were there then
? Bill: Same number that there are today.
Sara: All right. And do you recall who you served with? The first group?
Bill: One of the first group was Mayor Gwinn. I remember him because, the first year I had been elected they had the National League of Cities in Puerto Rico and I wanted to go. The whole Council voted against my going. They were, I call them “small town Council members” at that time. They didn’t think that Casa Grande should go to big meetings like that so they voted against me. I was pretty good with words and I stood up and said “I’m amazed how we can think so small and not think our community ought to participate in national level meetings thinking they don’t have anything to offer us.” At that time, I knew Mayor Jackson and the mayor of Los Angeles (CA) and a mayor in Indiana, so I said “If I did nothing but sit at the table with one of those fellows, I’m bound to pick up on something. I just don’t understand our thinking.” The mayor called me the next morning and told me that I could go. And I said “Are you telling me that I can go, and the meeting starts tomorrow. I can’t go!” (Laughter.)
That, I think was one of the growing kind of things that were the result of Mayor Gwinn. So after he was elected the next time, he called me and said “Bill, I don’t care what kind of meeting you want to go to, you tell me and we’ll see that you get there.” I was really pleased with that kind of support. I guess the next meeting was in San Francisco so he and his wife and I and my wife went. It was the first meeting like that I’d gone to. After that, I think Council members began to see some benefits from going to national meetings. They didn’t mind going to state session—and then they’d leave early—but sooner or later they began to see the advantages. I used to tell people “I sat at the table with President Bill Clinton before he was president, he was still the governor of Arkansas, but we sat together.” I sat with a lot of mayors and people from big communities. You’re asking questions…how did you do this or that…and you’re bound to get some ideas about the things that would be good for a community.
I think Mayor Gwinn, Kate Kenyon, Dewey Powell, all of us were homies together. We came on the Council together and went off together. Maybe I was the last of the group that went off.
Sara: Was this the first town or city council or were there others prior to this?
Bill: There was a redheaded fellow who was mayor (possibly Amos Hawkins), and he sat me down before I said what I wanted to say. After that he understood. This was the first year that I was elected in November. They had this National League of Cities and I wanted to go. I’d never dreamed that I’d have a chance to go to Puerto Rico. (Laughter.) After that, I guess, they’re still attending national meetings. We went to national and regional sessions. We’d have a national session in November and they’d have a regional winter session in Washington, DC, where we’d have a chance to talk with council people and this kind of thing. It was an outstanding opportunity, but one not everybody chose to take advantage of.
Sara: So you felt this was a real good experience, to get with these council people from other areas and talk about their towns.
Bill: I really did. I wholeheartedly feel to this day that they had information and I had information that we shared and came up with some pretty good things to do when we got back home.
Sara: You learned some things from them and they learned some things from you.
Sara: Do you remember anything in particular that you recall as important?
Bill: I can’t recall anything particular, but my background was in counseling and social work. So when I went to conventions and talked to people, I also went out into the community—to schools and this kind of thing. So I picked up valuable information in many of the school systems. I went to a New York school and (laughs) said I wanted a job. He said “You got a job tomorrow!” But I said I couldn’t tomorro w. (Laughter.) But learning how children respond in these kinds of communities was valuable for me just like, in New York, they let teachers go first—they are dismissed from the class first! I’d never heard of that. I was in Atlanta and went to a guidance office and asked the counselor “How many youngsters do you have?” He said, “Seven hundred.” You know, he’s a white boy. So I said, “How did you get this?” He told me, “Nobody else was taking this so I applied and I got it.” So then he asked me what I had. I said, “I have seven hundred white kids.” (Laughter.) He said, “Man, we should trade!” (Laughter.) Experiences like this turn out to be very valuable. You learn you aren’t the only person in a different world or situation
Sara: What were some of the major issues facing Casa Grande in the ‘70s? Can you describe them to me in detail?
Bill: Casa Grande was small in the ‘70s. In terms of major issues, I guess I can’t pick them out except that government funds were available and I wanted them to be spent in the community for the community needs that had been requested as such. There was not really a big problem. The last year I went off the Council was the biggest year of conflict because the Board of Realty had gotten strong in Casa Grande and I was on the Governor’s financial committee and had refused that Board funds because they didn’t want to spend the funds in a way that I thought they ought to. So the newspaper didn’t back me, nor did the real estate (community) back me. I lost the election by four votes. (Laughter)
Sara: That was one of the major issues in the ‘70s to you?
Bill: I would think that was one of the major issues. We worked on getting additional equipment for the City; we worked on the airport project; the sewer project, we worked on that kind of thing. We were always interested in the growth of Casa Grande. One thing of mine was to maintain the inner city, the downtown. That was a big concern of mine because at that time they were beginning to build our shopping centers. I didn’t think it was nice for them to take everything and put it into shopping centers. I lived on the south side. I’ve been living on the south side since 1959. I didn’t want to have to go through town to go to a shopping center. I thought they should maintain the downtown since I had been shopping downtown previously.
Sara: I was wondering, do you think that the City Council correctly predicted and adequately prepared for the City’s future if you go back to the ‘70s and come forward?
Bill: I would say that we did. I think we had some level headed thinkers, thinkers that were concerned and interested in the growth of Casa Grande. I always distinguished Casa Grande in terms of growth different from Coolidge or Eloy. Eloy and Coolidge, I thought, wanted to maintain whatever they had before. That may have been the thinking of some of our fathers in this community, but in general, the Council was for growth—things that we thought would help the City grow we tried to implement. We wanted certain (types of) industry to come to town because we knew that that would help us in many kinds of ways. We would work hard to get those kinds of things to happen.
Discrimination and Low-Income Issues in Casa Grande in the ‘70s
Sara: OK. Did you ever experience discrimination at the City level while serving on the Council?
Bill: (Laughter.) Well, it depends on what you call “experience.” I guess the most memorable incident was the first time I was elected to the Council. One of the old time neighbor’s fathers came to City Hall and he was late. And I was late, too, but I always thought I was late because they didn’t give me the right information. But when he came, he sat down beside me and he kept saying “Where’s the nigger? Where’s the nigger? Where’s the nigger?” And so I said, “Here he is.” (Laughter) I guess that is the most memorable incident in Casa Grande as such. Of course, when you go to national meetings, you always have difficulty. You know, no one wanted me to sit with them, especially if they were from down South. If there was one person at the table, the other 5 or 8 chairs were taken and this kind of stuff. But, that was expected. That was the way the world was made, and I’m not sure it has changed too much THIS date. (Laughter.)
Sara: Who were the other influential people serving the City of Casa Grande during your Council membership? Does anyone stand out?
Bill: I guess they had names and were recognized in the community. Dewey Powell. Kate Kenyon. Mayor Gwinn. My Mexican partner, the name’ll come to me. He was on the board. But they were known in the community and, back in the ‘70s, you could forget about being elected if you didn’t have a name. That’s why I said earlier, I had a name in education so I always drew more votes than everybody because of my being visible. We had good people on there. They really did make a difference. When we went to meetings in the state of Arizona, I always took my wife with me. I took her with me for a particular reason--so I would never have to be without a partner. But here, I didn’t worry about that. It was nice. It was nice.
Sara: Were there other City committees and commissions that you were involved with at that time, and to what extent?
Bill: Every kind of government funds because they were for low-income (families). I was always appointed to those committees. I had committees running out of my ears… the Governor’s board, the behavioral health board over here on Main Street. There were meetings coming out of my ears. (Laughter.)
Sara: What was the extent of your involvement in some of these? Did it take up a lot of your time or were you involved even further than even meetings?
Bill: I had positions in most of them, Vice President, President. Even on City Council I think I must have served as Mayor Pro Tem at least five times. I always had positions or assignments. I always made a contribution, at least that’s what I thought. I guess I have the kind of background that, if I can’t make a contribution or don’t make a contribution, then it’s not worth my being there. You know I’m failing my task or job assigned to me. I always had a task or job to do, even in the school. Even in the high school, I never got to be head of department, but everybody knew me and the youngsters refused to move along to other counselors because they wanted to stay with me and get the services I had to offer. I thought that I was personally making a contribution even on individual and family levels. I’d have families call me late at night. If youngsters ran off, they’d call me long distance and talk to me. I made a contribution.
Sara: You get this feeling of what you’re talking about, of being an influence, you want to be a leader. Is this from your parents? Did they instill this in you or is this your own?
Bill: I expect so. My dad was a bishop. He was a bishop over the diocese of Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Texas. So I’ve always worked in the church, always had positions in the church. As I tell people, I have a good resumé. (Laughter.) I’m saying that some of this had to rub off from them. My wife and I took care of her parents ‘til they passed away, then took care of my parents ‘til they passed away. I have two brothers who passed away and I was the guardian in their particular case and this kind of stuff. It seems to me that I have always wanted to help people, to make a contribution. I may not have liked some of the things I got into, but it was my task because it fell at my door, at my feet, so I went forward and worked with it.
Sara: I see you were scout master for the first black scout troop in Casa Grande.
Bill: Yes, the first black scout troop in Casa Grande.
Sara: Was that a good experience?
Bill: It was an excellent experience because we had white kids who wanted to join my troop but their parents forbid them so I had black students and, I think, two Mexican students. One was the Assistant Principal at one of the schools…
Sara: You’re talking about the Middle School?
Bill: Yes. The Assistant Principal was a member of my troop. I remember we had a real, good strong troop. I wanted to take my troop to Disneyland. We had two station wagons, 15-16 kids. So I asked the Elks for assistance and they gave it to me. After that year, they integrated and so I was assigned to the junior high as a social studies teacher.
Sara: Did you leave the boy scouts?
Bill: I left them and no one took them over. So they haven’t had a black troop, I think the troop was #78, the troop has not functioned since. I hated that kind of thing, but I was up to my neck so I couldn’t work at the junior high and go back over to what we called East School at that time to operate a boy scout troop.
Sara: But the Elks did come through and help you?
Bill: Oh, yes. They must have given me $125 to go to Disneyland.
Sara: I have a question now that you’re talking about school. You mentioned that, when you came back to Yuma or moved to Yuma when you came from Oklahoma, you and your brother were the only two black children in the Yuma school?
Bill: In this classroom. There weren’t too many black children period that went to that school. It was amazing to me because I’d never dreamed that I’d go to school with white kids. Here, when I report, they assigned me to Miss Brown’s classroom. All the kids were white except for the two of us. We played real games in those days like “Ring Around the Rosie” and “Drop the Handkerchief.” I was amazed at the little white girls that wanted to get next to us because we could run fast. These are the kinds of things that were brand new for me. I’m sure it was new to them, too. It was a genuine good experience. If we didn’t eat at the cafeteria, Miss Brown brought our lunch. Lunch in the cafeteria was three cents, but we couldn’t afford it. The kids would bring three cents. I’d never heard of that because I’d never gone to school with white kids. There weren’t even any Mexicans in the room. Just white and the two blacks. To me, this was a genuine experience, but it came to a climax at the end of the year. (Laughter.)
Sara: How so?
Bill: We moved across the street from where we’d been living, so then we had to go to a colored school. So I passed, I’ll bet you, six white schools to get to a black school in summer. That wasn’t unusual for me at that time. That’s how I thought.
Sara: Why couldn’t you stay in the same school you’d been in?
Bill: We moved outside the city limits. If you’re out of the city limits, you had to go to another school district and none of the others accommodated black or colored children.
Sara: You mentioned that there were only the two of you in that classroom. Where were the other black children going to school in that area?
Bill: The number was small, so maybe there was one in another room, scattered around. There were never too many of them. That’s the problem we have here in Casa Grande. I used to complain a great deal about the school system. I’d have maybe 60 or 70 black youngsters come to the junior high, and when it came to graduation I had 10 if I had that many. So this isn’t a new concept. It’s there. I guess what strikes me the most was Miss Brown was willing to teach me. She was willing to work with me. Of course, I could read, but she was willing to work with me the same as she was willing to work with other students in this group. Maybe we don’t have that kind of liking in many of our classrooms today.
Sara: Do you think that’s why sometimes you start out with 70 black children and by graduation they had dwindled down to 10. They’re just dropping out.
Bill: They drop out, they get kicked out, and all these kinds of things happen or happen to them.
Accomplishments While on City Council Sara: OK. In your opinion, what was the City Council’s greatest accomplishment during the time you served?
Bill: I would say the greatest accomplishment was sponsoring growth in the community, developing relationships and the growth concept—not remaining the same. We had some things to offer, but we had to make it happen. The city limits were increased and these kinds of things.
Sara: You were on that City Council for how long?
Bill: Fifteen years.
Sara: So during that time you believe that…
Bill: Yes. We worked to improve the downtown. We even had a committee to work personally with the downtown sections. These were things I think we were all concerned about in addition to the shopping centers. I was especially concerned with the downtown because I had the argument that I didn’t wish to drive through the town in order to shop at one of the shopping centers. I think my neighborhood appreciated that same kind of thing.
Sara: Were there any issues that were not addressed during your tenure that you wished would have been?
Bill: (Laughter.) Well, I don’t suppose there were any issues that I was overly concerned about that weren’t addressed. If there was an issue, I guess I had this thing that I didn’t think Eastland Park should have been named after Mr. (Len) Cholla. But I was only one person on the Council, and everybody else voted for it.
Sara: What about the downtown issue? Did the Council ignore you on that? Did they go ahead with all the shopping centers? What were the shopping centers during the ‘70s?
Bill: The first one, just after you pass Trekell Road, it was growing. The Gilbert house became empty and it was vacant land so they wanted to develop in that particular area. I think the City Council was a lot more concerned with where they lived than where I lived. From time to time, we would discuss City services. City services on the south side would become delinquent at times, but they never became delinquent over there. I would bring these things up.
One of the main reasons that I wanted to get on the City Council was that where I live now used to be low, very low. Every time it would rain, water would come into our house. So I ran for City Council. A friend of mine was in that area where he had the advantage of big equipment and he literally took the equipment and his men and lowered Chui Chu Road so the water would just keep going. I’ve always appreciated that. I thought the community was outstanding in that kind of thing. It must have rained on a Friday, I remember, so Sunday when we returned from church there was so much food in the house—it almost makes tears come from my eyes the way the community could turn out. It was fantastic! So, in general, I think this is a good community. If there are problems, they are problems that they have learned, and not learned to get rid of them.
Advice for Council Members Today
Sara: OK. In your opinion, what are the major issues facing the City Council today? With your extensive experience, what advice would you offer to City Council members today?
Bill: I definitely would say “Be concerned about the rapid growth.” Don’t outgrow your means of serving, helping and that kind of thing. I think about my retirement. My wife always tells me “Remember now, we can’t spend it all now ‘cause we might live a couple of years longer.” So I say the same thing about the City. They might wish to grow, but look at it carefully. Don’t take services from one community and put it in a new community. That could happen very easily. That would be one of the major things I would be concerned about. Consider growth.
Sara: What advice would you offer to any Council members today?
Bill: Well, I would tell them “Be sure you have adequate information before you vote on certain issues that might be coming up.” I recognize that City Council members are people and they might not have the expertise of the people that they hire. But make sure those people that are hired give them the right kind of information especially before we jump out and grow. Make sure we grow in correct ways. I wouldn’t want to see Casa Grande like Yuma with all those mobile homes. I wouldn’t like to see that. I would definitely tell them to watch that kind of thing. Again, they need to watch the home building thing because, everybody that’s buying a home, that isn’t there first home. They might be leaving an empty house over here to get to the house that they are moving into. They need to watch out for that kind of thing or you’ll have blight in those areas that you thought were filled.
Sara: OK. Are there any other issues?
Bill: Off hand, that’s about the size of it.