African American Studies


Interviewee: Cleo Silvers

Interviewer: Dr. Mark Naison, Lily Clarkson

Date of interview February 21, 2007

Summarized by Alice Stryker

Cleo Silvers comes from a very interesting background. She grew up in Elmwood, a suburb of Philadelphia, with both her paternal and maternal grandparents close by. Her ancestors on her father’s side were slaves and moved to Philadelphia from South Carolina with many former slaves. Her mother’s ancestors were free and assisted in the Underground Railroad.

Her mother had her when she was 18 and married her father who was 12 years older then her mother. Her father was the manager of a minor league Negro team located in Elmwood. In addition to this, her father was also a construction worker and built 2 houses for them. Her mother was a floor lady in a factory.

When she was about 9, she came to realize that the situation in the south was not fair to African-Americans. She clearly remembers the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and images of African-American children being abused by whites. She also read a lot of the popular magazines discussing the crisis, which had a big impact on her. She even met Malcolm X when she was growing up.

She discusses color internal and class hierarchies and how they affected her. For instance, she felt pressured into going to a certain college because she knew she would not fir in at the traditionally African-American colleges because she was dark skinned and from a working class background.

In 1963, she was part of the first African-Americans to go and dance on American Bandstand. They were not allowed in there, but her and her friends just rushed in front of the cameras. This was her first civil rights demonstration, although she thinks it’s a little funny.

She joined VISTA. Her training was in Baltimore and her fist assignment was in the South Bronx, specifically at St. Anselm’s Church on 151st and St. Ann’s Street. Her impressions of the South Bronx was that the conditions were terrible, especially the housing conditions. She was also appalled by the education and began tutoring at PS 151. Most of the students there were African-American and Puerto Rican. She also began to observe the community and the ways in which people interacted. She was not, however, involved in any community activism at this time. She also saw a lot of drug abuse in the south Bronx and worked in the Housing Projects. She also helped to establish block association in a few neighborhoods.

In 1967 she got involved with mental health work at Lincoln Hospital. A few weeks after she was hired the mental health workers began demanding more rights and better care for people suffering from mental illness.

Click below to download supplemental content.

Silvers, Cleo Interview 1 Pt 1.mp3 (87226 kB)
Silvers, Cleo Interview 1 Pt 2.mp3 (28327 kB)