You Can If You Try
Ms. JoAnn Fritz with Claudia Watson


“You can if you try”

A Visit with Ms. JoAnn Fritz


I interviewed Ms. JoAnn Fritz as part of a small oral history project I conducted in 1998 when she was sixty-six years old.  Born in 1932 during the early years of the Great Depression, she, like many children, grew up largely unaware of her lack of material possessions and economic wellbeing.  Although she faced numerous challenges throughout her life, her sense of humor and buoyant optimism served as powerful tools that made defeat unacceptable. She knew how to laugh and have fun, and she also knew how to weather hard times.  A longtime community activist, she served three terms as Jefferson Township trustee.  When she was elected in 1989, she became the first black woman in Ohio to be elected as a township trustee.  Throughout her life, she stayed involved in a myriad of church and civic activities.  She died on July 10, 2001, at the age of sixty-nine.

 

Ms. Fritz: I was born in Dayton, Ohio, on February 27, 1932. My mother’s maiden name was Esther Black. And my father’s name was Theodore Pearil. My father was born right where the old Sears & Roebuck Store is, on Monument. [This building no longer stands].  My mother was born in a little town named Milford, Ohio [near Cincinnati], but they moved here when she was three years old, so Dayton was her home. But my dad was born right here, which is very unusual. ‘Cause very few people are native Daytonians.
 
My father was a tailor by trade. That was his love and he loved to sew. During the days of the W.P.A., he taught sewing at Linden Community Center. It wasn’t shameful then to be on W.P.A., but the art to W.P.A. was to teach people to work. And dad could teach them sewing.  And so he taught sewing. And my mother, she always did “day’s work,” and when she didn’t do “day’s work” she worked in restaurants.
 
Interviewer: What’s “day’s work?”
 
Ms. Fritz:That’s where you go into someone’s home and you clean, cook, take care of children, iron, wash. And she taught us how to do that so that we could go with her and help. My grandmother did the same thing – her mother. Only she worked on a farm over in Fort McKinley. [This was in Harrison Township]. The area then was owned by the family called “Lynchwaters,” and my grandmother worked for them. And we just loved it because we could get in that Model-T Ford and go over there and feed the lamb. Because we lived in an inner city, and we didn’t have an opportunity to see all the animals. But my grandmother’s nickname was “Dodo,” and in the summertime Dodo would take us out there. And Mr. and Mrs. Lynchwater had given her a house and she lived in it and we could stay in the house with her. And the turkeys would come up to the window, and we could see animals, lambs born, we could feed them in the kitchen. Those were interesting days. They had a bull that we knew not to go close to, and kid-like we would go close to it and run like a scalded dog trying to get away from it. But we had a good youth. And we’ve all been here.
 
Interviewer: So where did you live?
 
Ms. Fritz: I was born on Hawthorn Street, down near Third Street. And then as a youngster we lived on Weekly Street. And that street no longer exists today. However, if you can recall Washington and Germantown [streets] where they came to a point, Weekly Street was behind that, about a block behind it. And we lived there until I was maybe thirteen, fourteen years old. And then we moved up to Gold Street which was straight up Germantown to Summit, and then you could make a right hand turn on Summit. The first street on your left was Gold Street. And that’s where I lived until I was an adult.
 
I went to St. John’s Catholic School. And then from there I went to Julienne [Catholic Girls’ High School], and from there I went to Dunbar [High School]. So I’ve been around a long time.
 
[Regarding St. John’s Catholic School].  I remember that we always had nuns. We didn’t have a lay teacher until I got to Julienne. But we had nuns that were our second parents. The priest lived right there at St. John’s in the parish building there. And the Fathers, they were like big brothers, and they were good teachers. I felt very comfortable with them because as time has passed, I could always reflect back on that basic teaching that we had.
 
And my parents were very strict. You could not play hooky from school. If something happened in school and the teacher spanked us, then they sent a note home by either the child – in our family there were five of us – they would send it home by the oldest child. So my brother would carry the note home at lunchtime, and my mother would whip us at home, bring us back to school, [and] take us back to the boiler room to get another spanking. The discipline was so good then. I don’t have any kind of bruises from those kinds of whippings – one from the nun, one at lunchtime, one at the boiler room – I never felt that was wrong then. I’m sure my parents didn’t. They felt that was the thing to do. When you’re wrong at school, you need to be corrected right then. And then when the parent becomes aware of it, you need to be corrected again. And because we had to go back to school after lunch, then my mom would hear the teacher’s side.And then, I don’t know why, but always after she spanked us at home, there was always that boiler room spanking we would get again. I guess it was to place emphasis on “this is where you did it.” I don’t know what her mindset was. But that was basically my youth.
 
And I’ll never forget going to Julienne. [an all-girls Catholic high school in Dayton].  That was neat. Simply because where we lived we had to ride the bus, and we had to transfer in town, and we all wore uniforms. So we were all students going to a school. But when I went to Julienne, there were only two of us – Connie Myers who lived right down the road here, she was a freshman and I was a freshman in the same homeroom. And other than that, the rest of the people in the class were of a different skin pigmentation than we were. So it was kind of a challenge.
 
And I got put out once for talking back to the nun. And then you really realized that you weren’t wealthy. The nun sent me home. I only had two tokens, one to ride to school, one to ride home. So when she sent me home, that was the token that was supposed to carry me home at the end of the day. Well, my mother cashed some pop bottles and bought some more tokens to carry me back to high school, and she said, “I sent you. You’re here to learn and you can’t be disobedient.” Julienne was my first experience with a lay teacher. Prior to that I’d had all nuns.
 
Interviewer: St. John’s was all black, wasn’t it?
 
Ms. Fritz: Yes, originally it wasn’t and then as things changed, it became all black.
 
Interviewer: Was it all black when you went there?
 
Ms. Fritz: No, ‘cause I remember Joanne Chirco, she went [there] and her family owned the grocery store over on Germantown, and she went to our school. It was predominantly black though by the time I went to fourth grade, I think. I went to St. John’s until eighth grade.
 
Interviewer: How did you end up going to Julienne High School?
 
Ms. Fritz: We were the poor district of the Catholic diocese, and they would pay half of our tuition to go to school and our parents would struggle to pay the other half. And they would pay half for our uniforms and my parents would pay the other half. And I was the only child in our family that did that. But they struggled to send me, and my parents couldn’t afford to send the other three children. And my oldest brother, he went to St. John’s and then to Chaminade. But during those times it was very difficult.  My father wasn’t Catholic; my mother was.
 
Interviewer: And so that’s how you began going to St. John’s.
 
Ms. Fritz: Right. And it was right here in the neighborhood. It was closer than Willard [School] which was the other predominantly black elementary school up on Germantown. So we just automatically went to St. John’s. And we became Catholics and did all the good things that Catholics do.
 
Interviewer: So do you still attend the Catholic Church?
 
Ms. Fritz: No, I’m African Methodist Episcopal (AME). And the reason for that is that I married a man who belonged to Wayman A.M.E. Church and I joined the church that he belonged to.
 
Interviewer: And so you still go over to Wayman?
 
Ms. Fritz: Yes. And, by the way, my grandfather, my mother’s father, was a sexton at Wayman when it was over on Eaker Street. So it would just stand to reason that I’d get involved with that, I guess. And I still go to Wayman.
 
Interviewer: So when did you graduate from high school?
 
Ms. Fritz: I did a GED in 1948-49 – something like that. Because then, see, it was a matter, we had to help at home and my mother decided we had to get jobs. But when I went to Julienne, there again, that was a good experience. They found a job for me in my freshman year after school. I could be a bus girl at Service & Buhl. [This was a wonderful long-time Dayton restaurant which closed in 1972]. I could be a bus girl down there and then I could study and go home. The transfers then worked a little better. And I made tips and that helped my family. And then I got off into the wrong track that I was just going to work full time. It wasn’t all that easy for my parents. With five children then it wasn’t easy at all. But it was fun – I enjoyed it. As I look back, I have very few reasons to regret. I regret not abiding by the rules of my father’s house and my mother’s house. And my father was quick to tell you, “If you stay in my house, you follow my rules.”
 
And then it wasn’t long, in 1951 I got a job at Wright-Patterson [Air Force Base] and then I was off and running sure enough. I moved out. “I’m a big girl on my own.” I don’t know if that was so wise either, but I was growing up and I did it. I guess I feel bad about some of the mistakes I made, but I learned a great deal from them.
 
You know, you retain some of your basic training. If you have good basics, you can survive. I feel badly for people who say, “Oh, I can’t make it. I can’t make it.” You can! You really can.  Because after I was married and had two children, I decided marriage was not a good thing. And I was gainfully employed then. And my mother said to me, “No one in our family ever got a divorce on either side of the family.” [And I said] “Well, you guys are in for a rude awakening ‘cause I’m not going to live under this.” So I got a divorce. And I think my God likes me a lot. He does ‘cause I raised two girls, and during that era to raise girls by yourself was the pits. I live in Jefferson [Township] today because I could not buy a home [in Dayton] and I had a decent salary. I had saved the money for the down payment to buy a home, but they wouldn’t sell me one for two reasons: I was female and single, and I had two children. So they were building these homes out here. And I came out to look at them and that’s how I wound up out here. And there was no stigma being single, having two children, and I was still working for the federal government then.  I did for 37 and ½ years.
 
Interviewer: What did you do?
 
Ms. Fritz: When I came out, I was Inventory Management Specialist.  But I started at $1.27 an hour as a clerk.  Just to show you how good God is I came out making close to $14.00 an hour as a GS-11.  So he’s a good God.It’s common sense, it’s having faith, believing that you can. And most people have to understand that. And you can if you try. It’s not easy. I’m not going to pretend that I was all good. I’m not going to pretend that it was easy. But I made it.
 
When I look at my great-grandson – and I have four great-grandchildren by the way now – I am very, very proud. My grandson is a mortician. I am so proud of him. I have a grandson that graduated from Heidelberg [College]in Sports Medicine. Their road hasn’t been easy, but they’ve done it.  And I don’t promise them easy roads, but I do promise them if they keep the faith, they can do it. But they have to believe, first, that there’s a God, and secondly, believe in themselves. So this one that’s a mortician is the oldest grandson, and I have a granddaughter that is in her junior year as an electrical engineer. But she decided that she would stop and go to work and make some more money and then she’ll go back to school. So that’s the child I’m raising now [the great-grandchild – her granddaughter’s child].  She elected not to marry the father because she said she didn’t think it would make a good marriage. And sure enough, he’s in prison today. So I’m glad to help her because she’s still trying. She has a good job in Washington, D.C. The cost of living is astronomical.  So I went up in September and carried the little one home.  It had to be the Lord’s plan.  I got up there on the first of September. On the 6th of September I was on my way back home with this little one.  She enrolled him in school on the 2nd. That Wednesday she knew that she did not have secure after-school care for him. So she called her brother and told him, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Her brother said, “Send him back by grandmother and we’ll take care of him.” So it wasn’t my plan, but the Lord’s plan and I’ve been surviving. And I think I’m blessed. I’m taxed – gosh, twelve hours ago I was trying to “Get up out of bed. Get up out of bed. Oh no, I didn’t get enough sleep.” But it’s been an asset for me.  I’ve been fortunate. I just think somebody likes me up there. Good, bad or indifferent, He likes me.
 
Interviewer: Can you tell me a little bit about family life?
 
Ms. Fritz: I felt that being the oldest girl was an awful position because both my parents went away from home to work. My parents planted gardens. My parents had a roof over our head and provided us food. The thing that disturbed me is that being the oldest girl, I was responsible to make sure that my sisters and brothers got their work done. That they washed the dishes, came in from school, changed their clothes, didn’t go out of the yard, swept, ironed, whatever mom left for us to do.
 
I have a brother that when my mother gave birth to him, I was like the midwife. Now, [it was a] horrible experience. Oh, God! But she told me what to do, and I always tried to be the obedient child and it worked. And I’ll never forget, he was four years old and he got out of the yard, and we lived about two blocks from the railroad track. I looked up and he had walked across the street, up to the railroad track. I knew my mother was going to whip me for letting him out of the yard and not watching him. ‘Cause I was the oldest girl responsible for the rest of them.
 
I had two sisters and two brothers. I had two brothers – I only have one brother now. But my oldest brother – it appeared to me he didn’t do anything except carry out the ashes. When it snowed then, you took the ashes and put them out on the sidewalk so that people wouldn’t fall. I think that’s all he did. ‘Cause we had to bank the fires at night. He carried papers; I think that might have been it. But other than that it seemed like he didn’t do anything.
 
And my two sisters being younger than I am, and they were bigger than I am.  They were heavier, taller and here I am, the oldest telling them what to do.
 
Oh, my baby sister, her name is Florence, she’s a neat person – an individual. One day I was telling her to get her ironing done.  I don’t know where she got the nickel from, but she had a nickel, and she put the iron on top of the nickel and she picked it up and flopped it on my face. I cried and cried and cried. She just went, “Na nananana,” you know, like that. We laugh about it sometimes, not often, because now at our age, we talk about the more positive things. Like we weren’t kids that were permitted to go out of the yard, so our dad taught us how to play jacks, our mom taught us to roller skate.  You know, things like that. We did things together even though we had all the other chores to do. And it wasn’t really bad.
 
I didn’t realize that we were truly poor until I went to Julienne.  Because, you see, after school, wealthy kids would change their clothes, they’d take off the uniform. We even had gym uniforms, would you believe that? The bloomer type, they had those, and they would take those off and put their rings back on and their nice coats and what-not, and I’d have to come across town in that uniform and wash it out for the next day.  Which is all right.
 
In our neighborhood group, my mother bought our clothes at the [unintelligible] store, but my daddy also made a lot of our clothes. I remember once when I was a kid, my dad made three outfits for all three of us girls Saturday night before Easter. I never would have believed that he was going to get those ready for us. And we looked as good as anyone. We really did.  My dad was that good. He could take a piece of material and not lay a pattern on it and cut a man’s suit. He was skilled.  During the flood, he had caught tuberculosis, and then they didn’t have all the modern stuff they have now so what they did was they took a bone out of his leg and one leg was shorter than the other.  And he was constantly trying to make up for that. “I’m just as good as a two-legged man!” You know, those kinds of things. And we understood that because mom explained it to us.
 
He knew the catechism backwards and forwards. He never was a Catholic. He would not let us go to the movies unless we went to church on Sunday. He never went to church. He could tell you about anything east of the Mississippi [River]. He had never been any farther than Kentucky in his life. But he read. He read all things all the time. He could tell you about anything east of the Mississippi you wanted to know. When my dad died, I believed he had been to St. Louis, Missouri, ok? And as a matter of fact, in his obituary that statement was in there. But his sister, my aunt, called me up and said, “What are you doing putting that in the paper about my brother?” And then she explained to me, it’s his reading ability that made him so wise. He hadn’t been anyplace. He’d go as far as Springfield and that’s about the sum total of his travel.
 
Interviewer: Where did he get his sewing skills?
 
Ms. Fritz: He went to Stivers. [Perhaps she was referring to the old Steele High School]. See, then, this was after the tuberculosis and the shortening of his leg. Then, the State would provide an education so that you could acquire a skill so he went to Stivers when it was still on Main Street, right there where the fire station is.  And he worked at some of the better shops for ages when he was a young man. And he could press. He [also] used to work at the bowling alley setting pins. He had a lot of talents and skills and during that era that was a way to make money.
 
And I laugh because I acquired some of that desire to have an income by working. And when I was raising my girls I waited tables. And I’ll never forget when the bishop and pastor of my church came by Henrici’s [restaurant] and saw he waiting tables, and Reverend Flanagan said, “Sister Fritz, what are you doing here?” And I said, “I’m making a living.” And that’s true. I worked at DESI [earlier she referred to working at Wright Patterson; both were government operations], but I was moonlighting down there because I had two daughters. So you see you can do it. My dad was that example. He took the things it took to make an honest living, and somehow that just rubs off on you. You want to continue. And that’s why, I guess, with my grandchildren I’m very proud because they too know that there are no free lunches. Everything you get, you must earn. And if you don’t have it, you must earn it and then go back and try to get it.
 
Tony’s doing it.  He’s a shining example of that. He stopped going to University of Cincinnati after his third year, came back to Dayton, got on at Bank One, and worked during the day and took one subject at Wright State at night until he saved enough money to go back to mortuary school. So last year when he graduated, we were all just really proud. And now he’s going back for his Master’s. It disturbs me when I hear people say, “I can’t make it. You can if you try.”
 
Interviewer:You were really Depression children, weren’t you?
 
Ms. Fritz: Yes, I was born in 1932. But we didn’t really realize that until we went out of our neighborhoods. When we went to St. John’s, we had a roller rink and a gym, and that’s where mom taught us to skate.  We had a lot of down-to-earth fun. You know, I never would have learned how to play jacks if dad had not taught us. We didn’t do a lot of things away from home, now.We would do picnics out at the farm – the Lynchwater farm when we’d go out there. (There’s now a Fort McKinley church over there, and the Lynchwaters owned all that farm). My grandmother lived on Olive which is now Shannon; it runs off Third Street. And she lived right there on the corner. It was just a given that on Saturday morning we’d go over and help Dodo – go up and buy the live chickens and wring the necks in her yard and put them in hot water and pluck the feathers. That was just a given. And she would carry us up to Schiff’s [Shoe Store]; if the oldest ones needed shoes, then she would buy us some shoes when she came to town. She only came to town on weekends, now. Remember, she stayed on the farm. So it was kind of neat and it was always a treat to go stay with Dodo. She would never let us drink coffee, and I drink it like it’s going out of style now. My grandmother told me that if I drank the coffee it would make me black. Now, then I was brown. I’m brown now. People call me “black.” But she made that so emphatic. “You’ll get black if you drink coffee.” Would you believe that people said that back then?
 
And when Dodo died it was a [sad] period for me because I was her favorite. She would let me wash dishes at her house, and I didn’t have to go home at the end of the day. Dodo would let me help her with work when she did extra work for some folks out on Brown Street in Oakwood on her day off and would let me run the “wrangle”, an ironer that [was used to] iron sheets. Dodo would let me do that and she’d let me dust.  And I don’t like antiques to this day. Never broke any, but there was always that threat – “You will not get out of Oakwood if you break one of these!” Oh, I told her, “Fine, just let me iron, wash, but I don’t want to dust,” but she would insist that I dust. That was to teach me to be careful. Today, I understand it. Then, I thought, “I’ll never clean anybody’s home.”  But I did.
 
Interviewer: So she did work up in Oakwood?
 
Ms. Fritz: Yes, both my mother and my grandmother worked in Oakwood for years. And I don’t remember the name of the people she worked for, but I know it was on Brown Street. But then, you know, when my mother came to Dayton, Ohio, to live with my grandmother, they lived over there on Brown Street, too. Well, you know, the East End then had pockets of people. Like dad was born right where the Sears & Roebuck building is.I think that’s so neat because no one would ever believe that anyone had ever lived there; it’s always been Sears & Roebuck, right? And when we got his birth certificate, that’s how we found out.
 
Interviewer: Where on Brown Street did she live?
 
Ms. Fritz:Let’s see, there’s UD [University of Dayton], then the Catholic Church, [and the land] where NCR [was] – it’s before you get to the Post Office on Brown Street on the left hand side.
 
Interviewer:So there was a little pocket of black families there?
 
Ms. Fritz: Um hmm.
 
Interviewer: I didn’t know there were any black families living up that far. I knew there was a black settlement on Springfield Street.
 
Ms. Fritz:Right. ‘Cause I lived on Springfield Street at one time.
 
Interviewer:: Can you tell me anything about that? 
 
Ms. Fritz:Irving Center [a community center] was right there at Irving and Springfield. Right now it’s a church or something like that. I don’t remember exactly what’s out there now.
 
Interviewer: So it’s gone.
 
Ms. Fritz: It is gone. But it was just a recreation center, and that pocket of people could go in there and play pool, table tennis – what else did we do in there – and I was just reading an obituary of the last person I knew who lived out there.
 
Interviewer:Was the West Fifth Street area a part of your field of operation?
 
Ms. Fritz:Yes, it was in the areas that we would go.Most of all, because originally there were only two theaters on this side of town – the Palace and the Classic.And it wasn’t until later that they built the Regal on Germantown [Street].  But that was a big treat. When we were kids, the treat was to ride the streetcar from the East End to the West End. That was a big treat. But as we got older, on Fifth Street, we wanted to go to Cox’s Drugstore to get a soda. And then we really wanted to go the Classic Theater because they had a balcony, and you really had to save your money to do that.
 
But we could always go to the “Y” [YWCA].  And we could always go to Linden Center. Because I’ll never forget going there to learn to swim. I’m very, very proud of the City of Dayton for holding on to that. We used to go to the “YW” there at the corner of Fifth. We had Girl Scouts because I was a Brownie at the Linden Center. Then we’d go over there at the “Y” and we’d learn crafts. But my mother also as a kid went to that particular “Y” – now when it moved up on Summit Street it became a modern type thing. Because I was a teenager then.  And they built the housing down below. By then by the time they built the housing, I was in the working force so that had to be about 1951.
 
Interviewer: You said it became a more modern thing when it moved over on South Summit Street. How was it different than the old frame YWCA?
 
Ms. Fritz:Well, we had an opportunity to have more hands-on, and when it moved up on Summit it was like more bureaucratic – you go to the office before you can do this – down on Fifth Street we could walk in and say, “Hi, Ms. Rose (Leticia Rose). And you know, those were people that you felt close to. They lived in that neighborhood, on Mound Street, and Dr. Rose lived up on Summit. But she wasn’t so big that she couldn’t help us build our character and she did that.  
 
The Fifth Street – and the war came along – and they built up all these night clubs and then you become a young adult and you’re going in and out of that scene. And that wasn’t all bad. I recall after giving birth to my first child, my husband said, “It’s time for us to go out.” So where’d we go? Well, Fifth Street to the Palace Theater to hear Jack McDuff, I think, on the organ. And I loved to dance and we just danced.But Fifth Street was the place to go to. Third Street was the shopping area. And whenever we went downtown, that was the biggest treat. That was really a big treat!
 
Interviewer: So what did you do when you went downtown?
 
Ms. Fritz:Go to the ten cent store or go to the Keith Theater or the Colonial Theater. That was a big treat when I was a kid. And it took some savings to get enough money to go down there. And then, we were kids, ok, and we weren’t always good. One time we spent all our money on popcorn and candy at the theater. Had to walk home.Guess what? As I was walking down the street (we went, just the girls) and some fellows joined us. And then we got near home over there on Washington Street. And then we weren’t afraid to walk. My mother was standing right behind the billboard – in front of the boys she whipped us home down the alley. She just stepped out of the dark.
 
Interviewer: She was waiting for you.
 
Ms. Fritz: Yes, we were late. We were supposed to be home before dark. But she didn’t have any choice but to whip us. In front of the boys – oh, gosh – and the next day the boys just teased us. She did that to me twice because I knew the rules. You get home by whatever time she said and then after the second time I knew that if I don’t make it she’ll be out there looking for me, so I might as well go on home. It was neat – today it’s neat – then it was embarrassing. Oh, gosh, then as you get older you say, “Oh, I’m not going to do that.”