Spencer Howard is an activist, writer and a teaching artist who lived and worked across South Phoenix, Louisiana, Detroit, New York and South Carolina.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Howard’s family soon moved to a cotton farm in Pinal County, Arizona in 1945. At the time, African American families like his found work in California factories like Firestone where his father was employed but they were displaced overtime as white soldiers began to return after the war.
Upon moving to Arizona, Howard’s father was employed by Melvin Gammage (brother of Grady Gammage) at a cotton farm. During the Segregation Era, Howard attended an all-black school until third grade that served a close-knit community. At the time, education was an opportunity that people of color were only beginning to access. Howard remembers how he taught his father to write his own name when he was in middle school. However, access to education alone did not determine history for generations prior to Howard’s, which is why he refers to his father’s generation as an “Oral History Generation” which passed on stories.
The disparity and racism at the time meant African American children were limited even in the simple joys of playing. He remembers children selling candies in cotton fields to raise money to purchase a swing set for the school at the time, but the school was not allowed to make the purchase. During fourth grade however, the school integrated with Coolidge Elementary School.
In 1958, Howard was a sophomore when his family moved to South Phoenix (Maricopa County at the time) because of mechanised cotton machines which had replaced manual labour. Phoenix served several opportunities for work as construction jobs also became available. Howard remembers that mothers and grandmothers at the time would dress up in white uniforms to clean houses for the white women, which was better work as compared to working on the cotton fields. Additionally, after all this time in the countryside, amenities like plumbing and grocery stores were finally accessible by Howard’s family who had moved near Broadway Street. However, segregation persisted and was made apparent during his trips Downtown.
He attended South Mountain High School which he remembers was traumatising. He had to learn and unlearn accents having lived in the countryside. Moreover, he enjoyed playing baseball, but it was not a game that African American kids could play in Phoenix at the time. He struggled greatly and does not have many fond memories of school.
In 1964, Howard attended Phoenix College. At the time, discussions around colourism, black consciousness and the Civil Rights Movement were just beginning to be discussed which greatly impacted him. Places like Casa Grande, Florence and Eloy served like stops along the way for Black people migrating during the Great Migration. However, they chose to move to Phoenix because they could finally own their homes and businesses, which he exclaims as “a taste of the American dream”. South Phoenix was eventually redlined as zoning laws came into existence which placed several restrictions on properties owned by African Americans, gradually making them sell those properties and integrate.
Howard did not graduate from college at the time because he was so involved with local activism. He remembers picketing on several occasions during his early years as an activist, even serving as a member of CORE. He became active as a theatre artist around the same time and engaged in Guerrilla theatre in Detroit. The Civil Rights Movement ultimately inspired him to become a writer. He attended workshops hosted by Mr. Richard Harris at his initiative called Youth United which inspired several young African Americans like himself to start writing. He worked on a script for a PR Firm in Arizona and then moved to New York and became a writer for PBS Television.
Howard’s contributions and accolades are many. In Arizona, he received arts commissions from the Arizona Commission on the Arts for one of his plays. In 1997, he moved to Louisiana, where he worked at a radio station and as a teaching artist. He finally moved to South Carolina after attending the National Black Theatre Festival a couple of years ago, for the fresh air.
|Birthdate||September 10, 1945|
|Place of Origin||Los Angeles, California|
|Place of Residence||South Carolina|
|Years Active in South Phoenix||1958 –|
|Role/Occupation||Educator, Writer, Activist|
|Interview Conducted (Date)||April 8, 2021|
|Interview Conducted (Location)||Zoom|
|Interviewed by||Faculty Researcher: Summer Cherland|
|Story Written by||Independent Researcher: Jaya Singh|