Some of John’s roots come from Baltimore but he moved to Carroll County in 1967. He came as a freshman at Western Maryland College. He graduated in 1971 as a physics major and math minor, and was also part of the ROTC program.
INTERVIEWER: All right. I’m Stephanie Houck and joining me today is Mr. John Skinner. It is April 8, 2010. Thank you, Mr. Skinner, for being with us today and sharing your memories.
JOHN SKINNER: Well, thank you, Stephanie.
INTERVIEWER: You’re welcome.
JOHN SKINNER: It’s my pleasure.
INTERVIEWER: Are you originally from Carroll County?
JOHN SKINNER: No, I’m not. Um, my family, though, is an old family in Baltimore. As a matter of fact, um, our bible– our family bible was at one time was the third oldest in Baltimore City. So we have roots in Maryland that go back quite a ways. Um.
And I would suspect, um, we’re from Charles County. And, yeah, Anne Arundel. But since Carroll County’s so close, I would be surprised if there were family members in this area, too. I just wouldn’t know them.
INTERVIEWER: Right. When did you move to Carroll County?
JOHN SKINNER: OK, I came in September of 1967 as a freshman at Western Maryland College. And of course the name confused people back in Baltimore City. They thought I was out in Cumberland somewhere. But, uh, in fact, uh, Westminster is only 30 miles away.
JOHN SKINNER: And I was here for four years. I graduated in June of 1971 with a physics major and math minor. And I was completed the ROTC course here, which was mandatory when I first came.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, wow. I didn’t know that was mandatory.
JOHN SKINNER: Yes. Student protest changes a lot of things over the years.
INTERVIEWER: That’s good, though. That– most of the time that’s what it takes in order to–
JOHN SKINNER: Enact changes?
INTERVIEWER: –kind of get the ball rolling, yeah.
JOHN SKINNER: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: Um, was that the only activity you participated in, or?
JOHN SKINNER: Well, no, actually. I’ve been fortunate that Western Maryland McDaniel was such a small community that we had many opportunities to get involved in lots of things. And the main thing which helped my social integration on the campus was sports. I mean, we have this beautiful campus. I was a cross country runner in high school, and track runner.
And I was also– which I continued here, and I also was involved in choirs, in my church choir. I got involved with, um, singing The Messiah here on campus and at the local church. It was a combined, um, campus and community choir.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, wow. Lot different from now.
JOHN SKINNER: Yes. And it was a big production, and everyone in town came out to hear– the featured soloist, I even remember. Um, the tenor was a local deliveryman. You know.
JOHN SKINNER: He’s of Italian descent, and you know, he, uh, just had the, uh, the tradition of singing in his culture. And, uh, that’s quite a challenging piece even for a trained musician. So for your local delivery guy to get up and sing the solo part is pretty impressive. Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, that’s neat. So what brought you to Western Maryland College at that time?
JOHN SKINNER: Well, that’s, uh, that’s an interesting question. Um, I came in ’67. When I came there were– the first wave of African-American students had just come to campus about two years before. And that would be Victor McTeer and Joseph Smothers. A year after that, um, Charlene Williams.
And of course, so I thought since Victor, Charlene, and I lived on the same street in Baltimore, Wheeler Avenue, within three blocks of each other. Matter of fact, Charlene was about six houses away. You know, I thought Western Maryland was a well-integrated community. And of course when I got here, there was, uh, just a handful of other African-American students.
And the reason I came, um, well, I have an older brother, who was two years ahead of me in college. And I, uh, won the Maryland State scholarship. I had a good day taking the exam, I guess. And I won the scholarship, and of course you can use that in the state of Maryland. So that, um, even though my– that was a grand sum of $50,000, which was enough to pay the tuition at the time.
And then I went to see my state senator, and she said, uh, John– John Skinner? I know your dad. He teaches at Morgan. You know, um, I’m going to have to cut your scholarship in half, actually. I could send a student to the University of Maryland with the other half who wouldn’t have an opportunity otherwise. I know your mom and dad can, uh, you know, can cover that.
So that’s what she did. She told me right up front. And she knew my parents, too. So, so, um, so armed with my half scholarship and, uh, and my friends from Wheeler Avenue, I showed up in September of 1967.
INTERVIEWER: OK. How were you treated by the community and the college and everything around? Was it different from your home setting, or?
JOHN SKINNER: That’s an interesting question, because person– on a personal level, um, as I mentioned with the athletics, it gave a male bonding type of thing. So one of the first activities I got involved with was touch football. We didn’t even have a cross country team when I got here. I was part of the original cross country team about two years later. So um, so we had a formal schedule and we’d go out and play games, and you know.
And then, of course, being a physics major, um, the rest of my time was really spent studying. A three-hour course meant three hours of study a week at that time, so um, I didn’t have much free beyond the activities, you know, initially. And of course, also being a physics major, you have to take chemistry for two years. So my first two years were pretty busy, you know, hitting the books.
JOHN SKINNER: As far as the social integration goes, um, the campus was small and very friendly, and there was not– I didn’t feel any overt discrimination. However, um, we were at a time where social integration amongst black and whites was, uh, was kind of a new concept. I was just checking back. It was in 1965.
If you look online, Loving versus the United States. It was the Supreme Court case of a white man filed– he was kicked out his hometown in Virginia for living with his black wife. Now when the, uh– when the police broke in, they tried to catch them having sex, which was against the law in Virginia. I guess the miscegenation laws. And so they pointed on the wall to their marriage certificate, and they used that to prosecute them, saying they were illegally married in Virginia.
So as part of their plea, they fled to Washington, DC, to avoid further prosecution. And then a lawyer took on their case. And in ’65, the Supreme Court overturned the right– the statutes that made it illegal for blacks and whites to marry.
So in that climate– of course, ’65 was my first year in high school, and I got here in ’67. So um, there was– the interracial dating that went on was still– um, there was, um, pressure, you know, the social taboos associated with that. And, um– but as, as my son said, any time you throw a bunch of young people together, parties are liable to happen, and people get together. So um– and that’s what happened in Westminster, that parties happened, and friendships, interracial marriages formed out of friendships that happened here on campus. So– so there was tension in that sense.
Um, there were not– there were three African-American girls that came the same year I did. All three of them, um, dropped out after the first year. And not for academic reasons. They just felt uncomfortable in the dorms and with the social situation.
And um, I remember Dean Zepp would bring us together, and he’d ask us how we were doing. So like how you’re asking me now. And the, you know, the girls would break down crying, and I’m like, I’m saying, oh yeah. I was– I’m playing football. I’m running around the campus, you know. And uh, hanging out the guys. It’s no big deal. And they were crying. So– so I probably need to tell you that to say that it wasn’t, you know, an easy environment socially.
And because I had a difficult major, you know, I really didn’t have a lot of time for socializing, number one. Number two, I had to go into an all-male school in Baltimore– Baltimore Polytechnic. So I’m looking back now. My social skills were probably not that– that advanced anyway. So the combination of things, you know.
INTERVIEWER: OK. Um, well, we kind of talked last night on the phone about you said you lived through most– some of the most important events in the history of, you know, our country. Do you care to elaborate on them, and kind of give your perspective at the time, and then looking back now?
JOHN SKINNER: Sure. And I think, um– I’ll kind of do it chronologically, but I think all the major issues that are in the news today, a lot of them were formed– were crystallized by student activism that occurred here and across the country. Because, uh, you know, my group of baby boomers was– and is– 30% of the population. So um, so I started with the social integration. And then, of course, we had the anti– the Vietnam War was on. I had a draft number.
Many of my classmates were, uh, what we call, um, draft-induced college students. They were here as a way to avoid the draft. And they were not serious students. Uh, so they did as little as they could until– you know, so they could avoid being drafted.
And having a draft number, you knew what your probabilities were. So basically the draft number goes from one to 365, depending on the day you were born. And so you could look up your number. So if you were in the lower 100s, you had a very high probability of getting drafted, which meant going to Vietnam and fighting in the jungles, which was not, you know– was not that appealing. For political reasons, most Americans didn’t really understand what we were trying to accomplish there. And also for the fact that people were dying and not coming home alive.
I think the war effort at that time was crystallized in several events. Um, the massacre at Kent State and Jackson State occurred while I was on campus, which probably the only time where we had– at Kent State, the National Guard basically fired on college students and killed four of them, because they were protesting the Vietnam War.
At Jackson State, it was a similar type thing of officials going in on a college campus– this was a black campus– and basically killing students who were protesting the war. So that was, um, you know, one central issue, uh– it was an overriding issue on this campus. I mean, think about it. We had mandatory ROTC, I said.
JOHN SKINNER: So we would be out here drilling, and I remember, um, behind the dorm on the drill field here. And some– and every, every week when we would drill, someone would put a speaker in the window and play a– an anti-war song while we were drilling.
(SINGING) I don’t know what we’re fighting for. I don’t know, but I don’t give a damn. I don’t want to go to Vietnam.
You know, that kind of stuff. And it was blasting. And, you know, we’re trying to learn our ROTC, and that’s what we were listening to every week.
The, uh– another issue was, of course, um, the voting rights, the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Act was 1965. And um, and of course that’s tied in to social integration as well.
And then the woman’s movement. Title IX, which mandates equal spending for women’s athletics in college, was enacted, I believe, in the early ’70s. Um, and NOW, the National Organization of Women, was founded during that time. So you really didn’t have a concept of feminism before Gloria Steinem and others defined it, which– again, that came out of our generation.
The– another thing, moving on, was the environmental movement. The EPA was founded, again, in that– during that time period. People were concerned by today’s news about the coal mining. And environmental damage was part of the social movement. Um, and I guess it grew out of the anti-war feelings.
Basically, um, what we called the hippie movement, and Woodstock, which was ’69, I believe. The environmental movement, the healthy foods movement– all that stuff started while we were on campus. I mean, and it was basically invented by– by the young generation.
And so I guess the other thing that I was thinking about that really rocked our lives at that time point were the assassinations. And it’s the final thing. Of course, the first one was, uh, John Kennedy in 1963. Well, that was the first time in television history that we had a murder live on television. And guess what. The next day when the suspect, um, Lee Harvey Oswald, was brought into detention, Jack Ruby shoots him again. Again, that was on television live.
So you know, your whole sense of the country, of having some sort or order– not only can you kill a president on live TV, but then the suspect gets murdered in the police station before he even gets a fair trial. So that began a lot of cynicism and started fermenting a change of, uh, views in the youth culture.
Then the next two assassinations occurred. Of course, was the Martin Luther King assassination, which was April of, um, 1968. And then Robert Kennedy was June of 1968, about three months apart. And um, the Carroll County community after the, um, the King assassination, there were riots in Baltimore and Washington. A lot of frustration was expressed.
And the, uh, grocery stores– basically the services were shut down temporarily. The National Guard was called in. So we organized drives on campus here, and we loaded up the Volkswagen van, and rolled– I took two trips. I went to Bal– inner-city Baltimore with one group, and inner-city Washington with another. And we distributed food to the communities.
So during that, um– so that– those were really the, you know, the cataclysmic events, which if– you know, just fast forward today. I mean, what are the issues of today? The environment, or women’s rights. You know, uh, same things.
INTERVIEWER: OK. Um, you actually brought some mementos with you– your yearbook and then a book I believe you said your father wrote.
JOHN SKINNER: Yes. Uh, OK.
INTERVIEWER: Do you want to pick out something important, or tell us a little bit about what you brought with you?
JOHN SKINNER: OK, yeah. Um, my father’s book, uh, basically is about the family. It’s entitled, uh– well, he put it in Swahili or something. My father’s a linguist. But in parentheses it says, “Black Professor.” And my– as I said, our family is from Maryland. Some of my ancestors were part of the original Morgan College, of the founding.
My father happened to be, um, born in Boston. He had the opportunity to go to Harvard, and I believe he’s the first, um, Harvard PhD in foreign languages– uh, African-American. So he has a, you know, a real historical place.
And the second thing I brought was my yearbook from 1971. And um, I’ll kind of preface this by saying, I understand that colleges are starting to eliminate their yearbooks. And of course a yearbook to us is– it was like a time capsule. And basically, that’s me on the inside cover. And this was taken over at the, um at the auditorium, in the basement there, where they teach the, uh– there’s a nude sculpture, and it, you know, appears to be a white female. So um, my classmates weren’t real happy when they got their yearbook.
But the idea was– and I think it’s still relevant today– is that, um, a lot of, uh, American history, um, was built on separating, um, black men from white females. And um, a lot of the problems of this country, a lot of the laws of the country, were all– as I mentioned, the, uh, the Loving case– were all about interracial, um, interactions and dating. So um, the– so that’s why, um, when the yearbook people asked me to pose for this. You know, I got– I got it right away.
And uh, and I think, you know, it’s been– this was 1971, so it’s almost 40 years– and if you really think about it, it’s really a lot of the same issues. A lot of people say the quickest way to end a, um, a discussion at a dinner party is to bring up the subject of race, because it makes people uncomfortable. And yet, our– many of our problems stem from the segregation and the, uh, discrimination that followed. And it has left, um, many African-Americans poorer and less educated even to this day.
And so, so yeah. I would imagine 40 years from now, um, some– unfortunately some of the same issues will still, uh, be relevant. But I would encourage you all to, uh, to do your yearbooks so that you’ll– you’ll have a, you know, a time capsule of what it was. I mean, I can pick out a nice picture of me when I was young, but maybe you stop the cameras if you want– if you want that. And also in the book there, you’ll see pictures of me when I was young.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, OK. Um, one of the things that our teacher actually told us was that– going back to the Martin Luther King assassination– was there was a march that took place. Did you take place– or, um, did you take part in that march that happened from campus to– I think she said it was in her town, or the inner.
JOHN SKINNER: Um, I may have been away when that took place. No, I did not. You know, as I said, I made two trips after the assassination.
But I found that, uh, the race relations here, um, were good in the sense of a small town. There was not a lot of violence. There was one murder here in the four years I was on campus, and that was a bar fight that involved somebody from out of town. So we felt pretty safe, compared to, say, west Baltimore, where policemen get shot. You know. So I always felt safe here on campus, and um, and I appreciate it.
Some of the troubling aspects at that time, though, um, was there was a lot of rumors of cross burnings, and um, Ku Klux Klan activity in Carroll County. And for the black students, that created a sense of uneasiness, even though we never had any confrontations. I even remember the names of some of the towns associated with cross burnings, but I don’t want to mention them here because, um, I don’t think it’s fair, since I don’t have any first hand knowledge.
And number two, ironically, um, one of the towns my, uh, my men’s group of my church goes up to the Catoctin Mountains for a retreat every year. And they stopped by one of the restaurants in one of the towns here. And they even– the restaurant even caters the– caters for the weekend. So I don’t think it’s fair to, uh, to judge people by– to judge a whole town by what maybe some, uh, a few people may have done a long time ago.
And also if you think about it, there was fear. I mean, if you were– what I noticed was if you were a McDaniel College professor, like, uh, Richard Smith and his wife, and you have a PhD, well, you know, you’re not– you’re not really threatened in the economic workplace by competition from, um, minorities. I mean, there are black scholars. There are black professors. But they’re not a threat to your livelihood and, uh, your ability to make a living. So– and also, of course, if you’re a PhD in chemistry, you’re pretty bright anyway. So– so you’re not, you know, you’re not really threatened.
But let’s say, put yourself at the other end. And maybe you’re a truck driver, or you work at the local, um, Black & Decker plant, which lot of people did at the time. Then yeah, I mean, social change, and it was at my job that they were going to take, you know. And you know, you got a high school education maybe. And um, you’re an hourly worker.
So I think a lot of the fear was because of change, and maybe people couldn’t even put a– put a– put a finger on it. But they saw change. They saw, um, you know, blacks, um, coming up on the hill as students, whereas previously blacks had only worked here from Union Street, to support the campus.
INTERVIEWER: OK. All right. Well, it looks like that’s all we have time for. So thanks again, Mr. Skinner, for sharing your memories with us today.
JOHN SKINNER: OK, well, thank you. It was my pleasure.