Two sides of town with one shared vision

Senators Currie and Forehand's Southern roots led to careers in politics

General Assembly

March 03, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Their lives first intersected in segregated 1950s Greensboro, N.C.

Jennie M. Forehand attended the all-white Woman's College of the University of North Carolina. Ulysses Currie worked his way through nearby North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University by cleaning trays in Forehand's school cafeteria for 50 cents an hour, careful as a black man not to make eye contact with the female students.

Now they sit two rows apart in the Maryland Senate. And it is Currie, a sharecropper's son who spent his childhood working the tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina, who is perched in the front row as the powerful chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee and an aspiring Senate president. Meanwhile, Forehand, an engineer's daughter from Charlotte, has served in the General Assembly for nearly three decades.

The two Democrats have forged a friendship over time largely framed by the social struggles of their Southern youth - and the distance they have come.

While they didn't know each other in Greensboro, they were in school there at the same time - in a city poised to take center stage in the civil rights movement. In 1960, four young black men would change the course of history at a Greensboro lunch counter.

Soft-spoken with a distinctive twinge of a Carolina drawl, Currie and Forehand realized their shared roots while serving in the Maryland House of Delegates; he was elected from Prince George's County in 1986, she from Montgomery County in 1978. They were sworn in together as senators Jan. 11, 1995.

"My whole life growing up was a totally segregated world," Currie, 68, said during a recent interview. "It was white-only. It was back of the bus. It was you couldn't go to the bathroom. You couldn't eat in a restaurant."

Forehand, too, said that her generation of Southern women struggled to find their way - in higher education, in the workplace and in government.

"I think women of my age have a lot of stories of discrimination that they've gone through," she said, before turning to Currie and adding, "nothing like what you've gone through."

Currie's mother died when he was 18 months old. He was raised by his father in a house that had no running water or electricity until he was a teenager. He often missed school - classes were held in a one-room building - to work the fields in Whiteville, N.C. It was physical labor that awakened a yearning in him for something more.

"Got to get some learning" was the expression of the day, Currie said.

Still, the curious thing about picking tobacco was that it brought the destitute of all backgrounds together.

"We were all farmers, blacks and whites alike," Currie said. "So there was not the divide. We were all very poor. We called ourselves dirt poor."

Ultimately, Currie used his savings - $120 he had earned in the fields and during the summers working on the railroad - to cover his enrollment fees and first quarter in Greensboro. He bid his father and sister farewell, and headed off to school. The first in his family to go to college.

Like many Southern cities at the time, Greensboro in the late 1950s was two separate worlds. The colleges were on opposite sides of town, and the only reason a North Carolina A&T State University student would venture to the Women's College was because he worked there.

"Generally people stayed in their place and didn't challenge the system," said Claudette Burroughs-White, a former Greensboro city councilwoman and one of the first black women to attend the Women's College in the late 1950s. The college went co-ed and was renamed the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the early 1960s.

Though they hailed from different circumstances, Currie and Forehand each held jobs while they went to school. Forehand said her parents, raised during the Depression, had instilled in her a valued work ethic. She noted that her mother, a teacher, was unable to work during the country's economic downturn, when jobs were scarce.

Forehand wrote articles about school life to send back to hometown papers. At 35 cents an hour, she was hardly raking in the cash.

But she only worked part time, and Currie worked seven days a week. His weekdays were spent in the cafeteria. Over the weekends, he would wash the dormitory floors at the college.

"Did you have enough time to study, or were there a lot of people in the same situation?" Forehand, 71, asked Currie during a joint interview recently in the Senate lounge in the State House.

Currie said most of his schoolmates worked, and that no, he never did have enough time to study.

"But in order to stay in college, you had to work," Currie said.

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