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I Was A History Maker While History Was Being Made

PEGGY BEECHAM

Class of 1966

From birth, my journey as a baby boomer through my formative years, through young adulthood, and now into my mature status as a retired senior is fairly typical of many African American peers. My life ran parallel to and was shaped by the unfolding demographic, social, economic, political, and cultural trends of my times. My years from birth through college illustrate how I was a history maker while history was being made. I was both an eyewitness to and bearer of history. I’m blessed to be able to share my story.

 

 

A Large Number Of Baby Boomer Deliveries

When I was born in Philadelphia in August 1948, the nation was just beginning to realize the massive impact the post-WWII surge in births would have during the years 1946 to 1964 (or, for some experts, 1943 to 1964). We were part of a huge post-war baby boom, and aptly nicknamed “Baby Boomers” who were being delivered in large numbers that continued to grow!

How enormous was our growth? We numbered approximately 2.4 million at the end of 1946. By the end of 1964, we totaled nearly 72.5 million. At our demographic peak in 1999, there were 78.8 million us, including immigrants born between 1946 and 1964.

Our arrival sparked the beginning of social, economic, and cultural changes that continue today, even as we retire and age.

What were some of the changes our burgeoning numbers demanded?

  • To expand the housing market
  • To provide better jobs
  • To increase the number of schools
  • To abolish Jim Crow Laws and enact Civil Rights policies and laws so that the evolving “colored/Negro/Black” people would gain equality with whites
  • To increase representation in government and all institutions
  • To have an equal shot at success to realize the “American Dream” by everyone, without regard to race, national origin, or socioeconomic status.

 

The Baby Boomer’s Demographic Span

We were an influential cohort, sandwiched between the “The Traditionalists or Silent Generation.”

Who are the traditionalists?

They were born before 1945. Some of them were our parents. Many had fought in WW-II or sacrificed at home for The War Cause.

Who are the “Generation X” or Gen-Xers?

They were born between 1965 to 1980. Many of these are our children.

Right behind the Gen-Xer came the Millennials (Gen Y).

Some of them are our grandchildren, born from 1977 to 1995, and the only generation to have outnumbered Baby Boomers. They are exerting a powerful influence on society and culture just as we are doing.

Wait! Wait! Let’s not forget another cohort, Generation Z (iGen) or Centennials born between 1996 and 2012.

Many of them are our grandchildren.

 

My Early Years

I believe my journey as a Baby Boomer, from the time of my birth, through my formative years, through young adulthood, and now into my mature status as a retired senior, is fairly typical of many of my African American peers.

I was born to a young couple – my father was 22, and my mother 21 – whose families had known each other through membership at AME Union Church in North Philadelphia. They dated throughout high school and planned to marry shortly after that, but The War intervened, and after training at the Naval Station Great Lakes, IL, my dad was sent to serve in the Navy as a Seaman in the Pacific theater.

My mother worked as a stock and inventory clerk at several Philadelphia department stores before landing a highly sought-after job with the government at the Signal Corps.

When my dad was discharged from the Navy, he worked at several jobs until being hired in production at Sharp & Dohme, then known for its strong, pungent-tasting throat lozenges, SUCRETS, whose distinctive smell, my dad said, lingered in his clothing and coated his mouth for hours after leaving the plant on Broad Street!

A year after my parents married and moved to an apartment in Powelton Village in West Philadelphia, I was born in Mercy-Douglass Hospital. It was a hospital that was depended on and provided employment for Black doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff to ensure adequate patient services to the surrounding Black community.

My parents divorced when I was three, and my maternal grandmother moved in with my mother and me. “Mom-mom,” as I called my grandmother, was a Godsend in many ways beyond caring for me while my mother worked.

However, there were days when my grandmother returned to the toil of her earlier years as a “Days Worker,” an unappreciated vocation by some more affluent African Americans. The book and movie, “The Help,” fairly accurately depicted my grandmother’s work – give or take a few differences between the southern women depicted in the film and the relationships between similar women in real life in the north.

On those days that my grandmother worked, I went to nursery school. But I spent enough time with her that even from an early age, I recognized her wisdom, her love for my mother and me, and her willingness to sacrifice so much for the two of us. I also came to know her no-nonsense side! It was my Mom-mom who always impressed upon me the importance of getting an education!

Both of my parents remarried – first, my mother when I was 6, and my dad when I was 8.

I was enrolled in first grade at the Charles Richard Drew Elementary School, within walking distance from our apartment. My grandmother walked me to and from school, making three round trips each day, including a mid-day trip after preparing tasty hot meals for lunch for me to enjoy at home.

Just after I turned 7 in the summer of 1955, my mother and stepfather bought a row house in East Mt. Airy, complete with a porch with an awning and a small but attractive front and backyard!

Even at my young age, I knew this move was a change in social status for my family, including Mom-mom, who “moved on up” with us! She maintained her membership at our original AME church in North Philadelphia, but now a trolley car and subway ride were necessary to get there.

I had always enjoyed going to church with my grandmother, but I went with her less frequently because my family joined a Black Lutheran church in our new neighborhood, where my mother sang in the choir, and I attended Sunday School.

In September, I began second grade at the neighborhood elementary school, Eleanor Cope Emlen.

I immediately felt welcomed by my teacher, who several years later became a good friend of my mother’s, and I babysat for her daughter. I discovered classmates whose families also went to my church and easily made friends with others who lived on my street or around the corner! Before long, we were walking to school together, so Mom-mom no longer had to make those trips!

The next several years at Emlen went well – I liked school and got good grades. Teachers commended me on my rather unique high-pitched speaking voice and diction, which gained me many speaking parts at school and church. However, some of my classmates found my voice to be a source of amusement and frequently teased me by imitating it!

In 1957, with my brother’s birth, I happily traded my status as an only child for nine years to that of Big Sister – for life! That same year, I started to have a special interest in the news, which persists even today!

Since I was two, we had had a T.V., and it provided my earliest memory that my grandmother explained to me after a news broadcast of an assassination attempt made in 1950, on President Truman at Blair House, the President’s Guest House. But in 1957, Russia’s launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth satellite, really captured my attention.

By 1958, my parents had concerns about increasing gang activity in our neighborhood and at Emlen.

 

My Junior High School Years

My mother submitted several applications for me to transfer to other schools outside my neighborhood. On the second week of school in September, I received my approval. I began fifth grade at J.S. Jenks public school located in the affluent Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia!

The teachers and the majority of students were white, but there were a few Black students in my class and others who took public transportation to school. Attending Jenks also brought my first awareness of Jewish students and the Jewish Holidays when they were all absent from school.

Unlike those of us who rode to Jenks on public PTC trolleys and buses, the Jewish students were bussed to school in yellow school buses that arrived 10 minutes before school was dismissed for them to board.

Like typical kids, we resented Jewish got to leave school “early” every day. We should have been more upset about the fact that our parents paid weekly for our PTC tokens. At the same time, the Jewish students were bussed without having to pay, even though the neighborhood where they lived near Stenton Avenue was about the same distance East from Jenks as our homes that were South and Southwest of the school.

The four years I spent at Jenks introduced me to an abundance of resources I hadn’t experienced before — classroom discussions about current events, including the space race to the moon that was intensifying between the U.S. and Russia, and we got to watch manned rocket launches from Cape Canaveral on T.V.s that were rolled into classrooms; beginner classes for French; home economics, in which I learned to sew – we made our own dresses for our 8th grade graduation – and I started making my own clothes for many years afterward, plus I enjoyed cooking; my first time attending a play in Center City – Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and then having an understudy role in a class production of the same play!

For the first time, I became very aware of the Presidential election. I eagerly watched the televised debates between young Senator John F. Kennedy and former Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. I felt the jubilation when Kennedy won, and could hardly believe having a chance to see his inauguration on January 20, 1961, from home, even though it was a school day. The East Coast had been blanketed by a heavy snowfall the night before, and schools in Philadelphia were closed!

Among my classmates, Black and white alike, most were from households where their parents were college-educated professionals: teachers, lawyers, doctors, dentists, architects, etc. The mother of one of my longtime friends from 5th grade later became a Black Principal at Emlen! Their spacious homes that I visited on the west side of Germantown Ave, in my mind, were palatial, with huge porches and lawns to match!

 

My “Girl’s High” Years

Graduating from Jenks in 1962 with good grades also afforded me entry into the Philadelphia High School for Girls, more commonly called Girls’ High, for 9th grade.

Entering high school in the 9th grade gave me an advantage over many of my classmates who entered the 10th grade after graduating from junior high school. Like so many generations of young women before me, the all-girls, all academic high school was the preparatory step before college.

By this time, my parents and other family members joined my grandmother in stressing the importance of a good education. They all encouraged me to continue being successful in school.

During my four years at Girls’ High, I became more aware of how world events shaped our attitudes and impacted our plans as Baby Boomers. In October of my freshman year, the alarming significance of the Cuban Missile Crisis played out daily on the evening news, and the next day was dissected by our history class in intense discussions and considerations of “What If. . .?”

I began a diary in September. I recalled how worried I was that an impending nuclear war would snuff out my college dreams, a career in scientific research, and any hope of getting married and having children!

By the summer of 1963, the push for justice and equality in the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum as the August date for the March on Washington drew near.  Thought to be too young, previously, to participate in sit-ins and demonstrations teenagers my age in the South had joined, I was looking forward to taking a bus to D.C. with my mother for the march on August 28, as people from all over the country were making their way to the Nation’s Capital.

Unfortunately, I woke up early that morning with a migraine headache. My little brother wasn’t feeling well either; so, my mother decided to cancel her travel to remain at home with us – I really felt bad that she had to miss attending it in person.

The fall of my sophomore year seemed to be progressing smoothly; I was studying two of my favorite subjects – biology and geometry.

Our usual anticipation of Thanksgiving and the coming festive Holiday season was suddenly shattered, along with our restored hopes and dreams, on a tragic Friday afternoon when the young President had been assassinated in Dallas. I was in biology class when our Principal announced it over the PA system. Shock, tears, disbelief, and fear remained with the nation and with us throughout that weekend and all the days of solemn ceremonies that followed. Everyone stayed in front of their televisions, sadly seeing a traumatized, grieving widow with her two small children and hearing the haunting sounds of muffled drums.

After successfully completing four rigorous years at Girls’ High and graduating cum laude in June 1966, I felt confident. I was well prepared for college. I reasoned that I could defy not only the odds against my being my family’s first college graduate but also the pronouncement from my guidance counselor that, based on my SAT scores, I would not succeed if I pursued my dream of a career in scientific research instead of her suggested concentration in English or History, again based on my SAT scores.

 

My Howard University Years

Several weeks later, I noticed my counselor’s visible disappointment when I met with her and announced that I was accepting early admission to Howard University without even applying to the Ivy League and single-gender institutions she had recommended! In addition to saving my parents from paying the fees associated with multiple applications, my decision to go to Howard turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

At Howard, I was grateful to major in Zoology with an Allied Sciences minor after being awarded a full scholarship by the University! I lived in Wheatley Hall, the women’s scholarship dorm. There I met and became friends with other freshman from all over the country, who appeared to be much better prepared for academic success than even my highly-rated-single-gender high school had equipped me to compete against.

Many girls — especially those from Virginia, Georgia, California, and New York — had taken AP (advanced) math and science courses, and had studied exceptional languages, such as Russian; they also had scored much higher on their SATs than I had and were admitted into the Honors Program at Howard as freshmen. Undeterred, I found my stride that year – even though I mistakenly had registered for a Botany class when I was horrified to learn that my first required Zoology class was full, and most of the students in the Botany class were seniors – and was recommended and accepted enrollment in the Honors Program beginning with my sophomore year.

An afterthought regarding the frequently chaotic Class Registration process at Howard: in addition to the frustration of not being able to sign up for required classes and other inconveniences, I recall seeing a table, barely noticeable when the gym had been crowded with students trying to register, with a sign indicating forms for male students to complete to apply for a college deferment from the draft. These were the years of the horrors of the Vietnam War and the draft lottery by birthdate. I sincerely hoped that male students had seen the table and signed the form.

There was a growing tension on campus during the early weeks of the second semester of my sophomore year in 1968. The tug of war between militant students and indifferent members of the school administration intensified as students demanded that no disciplinary action be taken against students that had disrupted the annual Charter Day activities and also demanded that Howard change its traditional curriculum and leadership to become more relevant to the Black communities from which most of the student population comes from; and that Howard would become a Black University!

To further press for these demands, students seized and occupied the Administration Building for several days, and classes were suspended until their demands were met. I still have a copy of the Washington FREE PRESS, dated March 27, 1968, with a headline reading, “Plantation Seized.” One of the prominent figures that encouraged the takeover and instructed the A-Building occupants on organization and tactics was then called Stokely Carmichael, an earlier Howard grad.

I got to hear him speak in the Biology Auditorium as he continued to call students to action. It was the first time I heard him utter the words BLACK POWER! I supported the effort but took only a passive role by standing outside the A-Building with hundreds of other students who had gathered. I can admit that I feared losing my scholarship had I been inside.

What I find to be most remarkable now, in addition to what was gained by the takeover, was the fact that just one week and one day after the FREE PRESS publication, Howard’s campus, the N.W. community, the city, the country, and the world would be rocked by news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and its aftermath as D.C. and other cities were torched and were looted. Howard’s campus closed early for Spring Break; to safely leave for home, we had to honor the city’s curfew.

A scant two months later, in June 1968, there was news that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated after winning the California primary in his campaign to be the Democratic candidate for President. It was hard to imagine what else possibly could happen. In August, the next big newsmaker was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Protestors against the Vietnam War who gathered outside the convention hall were met with Billy Clubs and tear gas, and many were injured, and others were arrested. Baby boomers were making history once again.

My earlier elementary school interest in the Space Race reached an all-time high during the summer of 1969 when we as a nation collectively held our breath during a fantastic weekend in July. The Apollo 11 mission had put three U.S. astronauts into lunar orbit, and they successfully landed the Apollo Lunar Module “Eagle” on the moon’s surface. On Sunday, July 20, two astronauts became the first humans to set foot on the moon! To call this achievement “historic” would be an understatement. . .

Fast-forward to the second semester of my senior year in 1970, having verified my eligibility to graduate by nervously checking to confirm that all the courses I had taken were on record with the University and met the required hours and grades. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that come June 5, I would receive my Bachelor of Science degree! However, before that could happen in May, we witnessed yet another unprecedented time of violence, directed this time against fellow baby boomer students at Kent State University and at Jackson State College. At Kent State, four white students were killed, and others injured by the National Guard members during an anti-Vietnam war protest. Days later, two Black students at Jackson State were gunned down, and local state police officers wounded others. Howard and other college communities across the nation closed, even suspending final exams, as we gathered, instead, to discuss what had happened and what would be done about it.

 

Looking Back On Those Years

Although Zoology had been part of the pre-med curriculum, I planned to go into medical research, not to become a medical doctor. Two weeks before graduation from Howard, I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude! Having my proud parents, and especially my grandmother, in attendance remains one of the happiest moments of my life! I was awarded a two-year fellowship by Bryn Mawr College to work toward a Master’s degree in Biochemistry, beginning in the fall of 1970.

Ironically, I met my husband, also a graduate of Historically Black College and University (HBCU) grad, while we were students living in the co-ed graduate dorm at Bryn Mawr!

We got married and moved off campus after the first year of our Masters’ programs. Following graduation in 1972, we eagerly launched our professions: my husband was a psychiatric social worker, and I was a research technician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). I was excited to have chosen to study and now work in hematology research when there was a lot of interest in sickle cell anemia, a genetic disorder with a biochemical basis that mainly affects persons of African or Mediterranean descent.

When funding for sickle cell research vanished, I sought employment in the pharmaceutical industry, which would define my career for the next 35 years. The rapid passage of those years is a blur: my husband and I had two sons, now 44 and 41, both second-generation Phi Beta Kappa-HBCU grads, and now both have a son. My husband and I divorced after 10 years and shared our sons’ rearing in a joint-custody arrangement.

In time, once-booming pharmaceutical companies resorted to takeovers and mergers in the quest for safer, more efficacious drug treatments and top revenue shares of global pharma markets. Working in Regulatory Affairs for companies that included Wyeth, Merck, Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson had its advantages; however, enduring three mergers, moving to Chicago, and later being downsized took their toll, and I was grateful to choose to retire in 2014.

I will be forever grateful to my family, their unwavering encouragement, resourcefulness, and sacrifices that enabled me to get an education and succeed. With their help and our strong faith in God, I’m blessed to look back on those years of my life with a generous measure of gratitude and peace.

 

 

 

 

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