Dr. Helen Benjamin is the president of HSV Consulting, a company that provides board and management development, strategic planning, and equity, diversity and inclusion services to community colleges. She’s had a long career in education: With a master’s degree and doctorate from Texas Woman’s University, Helen began as a teacher, and has also held positions as a professor, dean, chancellor and president during her more than 30 years in administration for community colleges in Texas and California. She retired in 2016 and is living in Dallas, TX, though retirement for her looks like sitting on the board of several organizations, serving through HSV Consulting, and writing and editing books.
Helen and I met at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in summer 2022, where she attended a retreat hosted by San Diego-based yoga teachers Lanita Varshell and Diane Ambrosini. She signed up hoping to find peace and respite, and as she shares in this conversation, she was able to access it—in the innate beauty and tranquility of the Ranch, the movement classes, and the like-minded people she met.
Born in 1950, Helen grew up in Alexandria, Louisiana, in the heart of the segregated South, when African Americans were forbidden by law to attend certain schools, restaurants, churches, shops and other public places. Of course we learn about slavery and racial segregation in history books, but how often do you have the chance to hear from someone whose early life was so directly affected by the fear that upheld these beliefs?
This history isn’t as old as we might imagine, and at age 73, Helen speaks of her upbringing, how she found inspiration, community and love despite the bigotry that surrounded her family and friends. She’s a similar age to many in the founding group at the Feathered Pipe Ranch, but her reality during the “hippie era” we speak of so mystically and magically was drastically different than that of our founders—and that’s why we want to highlight this story.
I ask her about her inner process of alchemizing the feelings that can stem from injustice, her spiritual path and ability to find peace and freedom within, and the importance of documenting the stories of her community and preserving history in order to move forward.
We talk about her recent book, How We Got Over: Growing up in the Segregated South— a memoir of 24 personal accounts from African Americans who graduated from Peabody High School in Alexandria, LA in 1968. This book captures the essence of Black life in the Deep South during Jim Crow laws and was born out of an epiphany Helen had while attending a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshop. She realized that where she grew up, between the railroad tracks, was systematically set up through redlining, and that her rise to where she sat now—in a leadership role for a college in New York—defied all odds. The stories of her and her classmates, who also went on to live full and accomplished lives, had to be told.
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Dr. Helen Benjamin (00:01):
I have righteous indignation. I believe firmly that there’s a moral order to the universe. I don’t believe in vengeance. I keep it moving. That’s been the theme of my life, is to keep it moving. I cannot wallow in pity. I give myself like 15 minutes and I gotta move on because I know I’ve seen what it does to people. And I don’t wanna be the walking around angry person holding all of this stuff inside me because I think it leads to really bad things for the individual. I don’t wanna hold that in me. Because that will make me like them. Cuz I think all of that comes out of fear and anger. And it’s not how I want my life to be.
Andy Vantrease (00:59):
Welcome to the Dandelion Effect Podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that help them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community, and empowerment.
Dr. Helen Benjamin is the president of HSV Consulting, a company that provides board and management development, strategic planning and equity, diversity and inclusion services to community colleges. She’s had a long career in education: With a master’s degree and doctorate from Texas Women’s University, Helen began as a teacher and has also held positions as a professor, dean, chancellor and president during her more than 30 years in administration for community colleges in Texas and California. She retired in 2016 and is living in Dallas, Texas, though retirement for her looks like sitting on the board of several organizations, serving through HSV Consulting, and writing and editing books.
Helen and I met at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in summer 2022, where she attended a retreat hosted by San Diego Base yoga teachers, Lanita Varshell, and Diane Ambrosini. She signed up hoping to find peace and respite, and as she shares in this conversation, she was able to access it in the innate beauty and tranquility of the Ranch, the movement classes, and the like-minded people she met.
Born in 1950, Helen grew up in Alexandria, Louisiana, in the heart of the segregated south, where African Americans were forbidden by law to attend certain schools, restaurants, churches, shops, and other public places. Of course, we learn about slavery and racial segregation in history books, but how often do you have the chance to hear from someone whose life, especially early life, has been so directly affected by the fear that upheld these beliefs? This history isn’t as old as we might imagine. And at age 73, Helen speaks of her upbringing, how she found inspiration, community and love, despite the bigotry that surrounded her family and friends. She’s a similar age to many in the founding group at the Feathered Pipe Ranch. But her reality during the hippie era we speak of so mystically and magically was drastically different than that of our founders. And that’s why we wanna highlight this story.
I ask her about her inner process of alchemizing the feelings that can stem from injustice, her spiritual path and ability to find peace and freedom within, and the importance of documenting the stories of her community and preserving history in order to move forward. We talk about her recent book titled “How We Got Over: Growing Up in The Segregated South”, which is a memoir of 24 personal accounts from African Americans who graduated from Peabody High School in Alexandria, Louisiana. This book captures the essence of black life in the deep south during Jim Crow laws, and was born out of an epiphany Helen had while attending a diversity, equity and inclusion workshop. She realized that where she grew up, between the railroad tracks, was systematically set up through redlining. And that her rise to where she sat now—in a leadership role for a college in New York—defied all odds. The stories of her and her classmates, who also went on to live full and accomplished lives had to be told.
This conversation gave me chills on several occasions. Helen’s life has been one of service and sovereignty, showing what’s possible when you embody the values of freedom, fairness, and worthiness, and don’t allow outside messages to break you down. I’m Andy Vantrease and you’re listening to the Dandelion Effect podcast with today’s guest, Helen Benjamin.
A good place to start is just an acknowledgement of how you and I know each other and how we met at the Feathered Pipe Ranch last year. And at the Feathered Pipe, there’s kind of a crew of people who were around when it began in the seventies, and one of those elders is Howard. And so every workshop Howard gets in front of a group of people. It’s like his biggest thrill to tell the story of how India inherited the land at the Feathered Pipe Ranch and how they traveled all through Europe and the Middle East and India when they were in their young twenties, kind of on this train of looking for some higher purpose, some form of enlightenment, some form of like an answer to what the heck are we doing here?
But from what I know of the interaction between you and Howard, you were in a workshop listening to this story of their gallivanting around and having freedom of movement and being a part of that hippie era. The way that this hippie era story is told from the perspective of certain people is sometimes told as a universal, like this is what was happening at the time. And I’m just so excited to have the opportunity to talk to you about a very different reality during those years and during those decades.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (06:34):
I was listening to him that day, and you kinda have to know Howard, I guess, and I got to know him better after that. I’m in the audience and I was sitting in this room and he’s just happy-go-lucky as though this is the way the world was. You know, this is what you did. And I’m just thinking, I don’t think this guy has a clue that there was other stuff going on in the world. And I wasn’t being hypercritical of him because we all are in our own bubbles and we live our lives the way we live them. So I try not to be critical of people, but I am a critical thinker—and my critical thinking just <laugh> went there. And I just felt this strong urge to just talk to him. And I said something like, I just have to tell you that your life was so different.
I said, Now exactly what years were these? I said, So let me tell you what I was doing in those same years. I was in segregated south. I only knew that India existed because we studied it in history like fifth or sixth grade or something. You know, these were things that were just not in my existence. And so I was saying to him that everybody’s existence wasn’t that way. I said, you were there doing that… He’s just telling it with so much glee and just excitement about it. And he should have been excited about it. But I felt obligated to say to him that there were people in other parts of the world, in the United States who were not living that way. I said, I didn’t even know that such opportunities existed, that that part of the world was even open to me.
And he was a little defensive at first, which was understandable. And we talked more. I think he thought more about it. He brought me pictures the next day to show me people who were there and a couple of African American women, but they were from the east. They were from well-to-do families and they were married to white men. And one of ’em was married to a white doctor. So that’s something else and at that time there would be no way I would identify with that. And the interesting thing though, he had talked about VJ. He told her what I told him and she was of course a huge part of this story. Wonderful woman. And she came to see me and she apologized to me and she thanked me. She said, I never thought of that, and I just wanted to come and thank you and apologize to you. And I said, you don’t owe me an apology. That was your life. That was the life you knew. My point is just that you need to be aware.That everybody didn’t have that life and that opportunity. They just did all kinds of things. And he told us a story about going to Hawaii in shorts and no shoes and flying on an airplane. And when he met Hubert Humphrey in Hawaii. And so much of what happened to him was because he wasn’t identifiably a person of color.
Andy Vantrease (09:38):
Yeah. There was a, there was a freedom of movement. A freedom of opportunity.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (09:42):
And that was a point I made to him. I said, You had freedom that we could not even dream of. There was no way we could even dream of it.
Andy Vantrease (09:52):
And so what years were you talking about, and can you tell me a bit more about what was life like for you in the South?
Dr. Helen Benjamin (10:02):
My hometown is in central Louisiana. A small town called Alexandria. And we were in segregated schools, of course. I started school in first grade in 1956, and I graduated [high school] in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr., he died, I think it was April 4th. My birthday was on April 1st. I remember this. I was just… we were all just devastated. And then we graduated on May 18th or something like that. And I still have my graduation program. His picture is on the cover of our graduation program. Dr. King had been to Alexandria in 1966. We were living in our segregated community, and we had one high school for African Americans—public, one public high school for whites. They lived on one side of the tracks, we lived on the other. And on our side of the tracks, we had lumber yards and animal processing plants, all kinds of industries.
I mean, we should all have something as a result of what we were breathing. But we loved our high school, Peabody High School. We loved it, we still love our high school <laugh>. I describe school as a respite. It was the place we could go, where we could imagine and dream. And all of our teachers were black like us. They had been where we were. They cared about us. They saw hope and promise in us and encouraged us to do great things, to not have fear. And school was just… I’ve always loved school. And so I’ve been in school all my life from first grade cuz I worked in schools. So I’ve never left school <laugh>. But it was a source of freedom. I have a friend, Dr. Harry Robinson, who is the founder and CEO of the African American Museum in Dallas.
And he says, and I agree with him that museums, especially African American museums, are institutions of freedom. And I apply that to schools as well. They help you see the way. And we never got new books. We never got books that didn’t have somebody’s names in them already. They got the new books and then we got the books they had used. People we never knew, never met. Despite its drawbacks, it was an existence in which we thrived, to the extent that we could. We had communities that supported us, the neighbors, everybody knew everybody, pretty much. That statement about It Takes a Village—that’s what we were. It’s not to say that it was perfect, there was no crime or anything like that. But we cared about each other, and our teachers especially. We had a principal, my god, we had probably 1200 students in our high school… he knew every kid and he knew your mama <laugh>.
Andy Vantrease (13:08):
Oh that kind of amazing angel on earth <laugh>.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (13:10):
Yeah, he just cared so much about us. A lot of people hated him because he was just so strict; he had very high expectations of us. And most of us tried to live up to his expectations. So it was, uh, an environment in which we didn’t have anything, but we had our community, we had our churches, we had ministers who were also very important in our lives. They ran Sunday school and vacation Bible school and had us memorize all kinds of things from the Bible. You’d be surprised all the stuff I know about the Bible, because I was in church all the time. In a town like ours, where everybody who’s running everything is white, you look outward and you look at the marches and you look at how whites are reacting to that. But we never had anything like that in our hometown. It was all pretty much controlled except a few little demonstrations. But I learned about the demonstrations when I did the book. One of them was right there, and I had no idea any of that was going on.
Andy Vantrease (14:13):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (14:14):
Yes. Yes. Because my parents, I think like so many other parents, had that innate fear that comes with living in an environment in that way. And it was, you know, Keep your head down, do what you’re supposed to do. I had been seeing on television that we were “free” and we could sit on the front of the bus and whatever. And I was the oldest and so I’d have to run errands, I’d have to go to the bus stop. And I was by myself, even though I was usually with my friend Jackie. And I decided I was going to sit on the front of that bus—and I sat behind the driver.
Andy Vantrease (14:49):
What was that experience like for you? That choice, that like, This is gonna be something that I’m gonna do today.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (14:56):
I just know I was bouyed by what I had seen and the fact that it was over, you know, and I just did it. And he didn’t do or say anything, and I didn’t do anything but sit in that seat. The black folk ran the bus anyway! There were rarely white people on the bus, and we’d all be sitting in the back of the bus. It just didn’t make sense.
Andy Vantrease (15:19):
You know, you said that your parents—and I imagine the generations of your parents and your grandparents—had this built in generational control and fear that then trickled into your generation as protection. Of course.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (15:37):
Yes. They want you to live. There had been examples of what happens if you don’t.
Andy Vantrease (15:42):
Like how did that exist with also the existence of being somewhere like school, where you’re dreaming and you’re studying geography and you’re imagining and then you know, these pieces of reality? Like how internally and psychologically did you hold that?
Dr. Helen Benjamin (16:04):
I did a speech. Uh, I was in California a long time, and the Richmond, California. NAACP invited me to be their speaker. The speech was about my life is a series of contradictions, just based on living in that town. I thought about how in the elementary school we’d have to go to music every week. I think it was on Fridays. And we had this teacher, music teacher. Beautiful voice and oh, she could just really play the piano. She was wonderful. And she had us singing all these patriotic songs. This is my country, land of my birth. This is my country, grandest on earth. I pledge my allegiance of America, the bold, for this is my country to have and to hold. I held onto that. I believed that. Look, I love America. I do. I love what it stands for. It does not live up to it, it does not begin to live up to it. But the principles on which it is founded are just so sound to me. It’s disappointing that things are the way they are. And, and people don’t live up to that in my analysis of it. But I think those principles are just so good and so strong and affirming and all of that. And so I have that in me. So I’m in there singing these songs and then I’d have to get on the bus and sit in the back.
Andy Vantrease (17:25):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (17:26):
If my mother would send me to town and I’d walk through Chris’ or W.T. Grant and they’d have a lunch counter in there and the hamburgers just smelled so good. You know, and I couldn’t have one. And then I had to go to the colored fountain. So just these contradictions: Over here, I’m being taught, I’m seeing in my history book all of what the Declaration of Independence says. We had to memorize the preamble to the Constitution, stand before the class, and recite all this stuff they put into us. And then I go out and I’m not a beneficiary of that at all. But things were quiet in my town. And I remember my friend Jackie and I decided one day we were gonna go to that counter in W.T. Grant—this is kind of how integration happened in our town, we just kind of eased into it—and we were gonna order a hamburger. We would go through there all the time saying we were gonna do it, we were gonna do it, we were gonna do it. And then one day we did it and then we just kept doing it and doing it.
Andy Vantrease (18:25):
Did that feel like a turning point for you when you went with Jackie and ordered that hamburger? Was it a big deal or was it like, let’s see if we can do this?
Dr. Helen Benjamin (18:36):
We were kinda scared to do it. My mother knew nothing about any of this.
Andy Vantrease (18:40):
Oh I’m sure. <laugh>
Dr. Helen Benjamin (18:43):
And I was driving at 15. That was a thing that’s kind of surprised me. My dad, when I turned 15, he says, you’re gonna get a driver’s license. And then for each one of us—there are four of us—when we became sophomores in college, he got us a car. There was no big speech or anything. And he gave me that.
Andy Vantrease (18:59):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (18:59):
I didn’t know at the time what a gift it was. And as I reflect on it, I think that one thing that he did just told me so many things: that I had his support, that I could do anything I wanted to do. You know, cuz no other girls I knew were driving. Nobody was driving. I was all over the place in that car <laugh>.
Andy Vantrease (19:20):
Well, and you probably had all the friends who were like, She’s got a car, we’re going with her <laugh>.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (19:24):
No, I knew I couldn’t do that cuz they’d send my tattle-tale brother with me all the time. <laugh>
Andy Vantrease (19:30):
But it’s the sense of freedom.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (19:33):
Yes. And that has made me the kinda woman I am, which is not always good. I was driving by guys’ houses. They had no wheels. I had wheels!
Andy Vantrease (19:42):
<laugh>. Yeah. Yeah. I mean I remember getting my first car too. And it’s like the world or something opens up for you. You feel independent, you feel free. You feel like the possibilities have just expanded exponentially.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (19:57):
Yeah. And I don’t know what made dad do that, because he had nine siblings, but they didn’t do that. My first cousin was a year older than me, and I thought her dad was really cool. But he was different from dad. I’m the only girl I know who was driving.
Andy Vantrease (20:14):
It sounds like there’s these values that you were raised with, but also these gifts, like not material gifts, but these inner gifts, these strengths that your parents gave you.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (20:26):
Yes. The intangibles.
Andy Vantrease (20:28):
Just knowing a little bit about you now and what your life has been and what your work has been and the way that you have lived, at the core of this, there’s a deep belief that you can do this despite some of the narrative of your younger years and even the narrative of current events. Where did that come from?
Dr. Helen Benjamin (20:50):
The thing that they always told us, and this was my mother’s thing, Don’t worry so much about what other people are doing; make sure you are doing the right thing. That was a mantra. That was one mantra. Another mantra was, I don’t know what you’re gonna do when you’re 18, but you will not live here.
Andy Vantrease (21:09):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (21:10):
You gotta go. So my brother, the youngest of us is 10 years younger than me and he is so funny. He said he would hear them saying that to us, and he was a little boy. And he can remember being five and six years old and thinking, Oh my God, what am I’m gonna do? He said he was just worried to death.
Andy Vantrease (21:28):
<laugh>. He’s like, I gotta get my plan in place. <laugh>
Dr. Helen Benjamin (21:34):
And the way this all played out, we all left. That was what they wanted. And now my mother wants us all back. Right?
Andy Vantrease (21:40):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (21:41):
And so we said, You told us to leave, we did what you told us to do. But my mother’s parents were sharecroppers and my father’s parents were sharecroppers also. However, his father was, oh, he was just something! Just wirey, and he was a little man and you would think he was six feet tall, the way he carried himself. So they moved from the country. They started building highways in Louisiana, so around 1956, 57, they left. They were all over the place. And my parents would let me go visit them. Whatever town they were in, I would go in the summer. You making me think about this now. That was just freeing for me, I guess. And then my mother’s mother lived on a farm. She was in a sharecropping environment and her husband died in 1953. And she didn’t remarry.
He was her second husband, and she kept that farm into the sixties. She ran it. She was so tough. And she was a small woman, but everybody respected her, blacks and whites in that community. And she took nothing off nobody. I mean she was just the toughest woman I know. <laugh>. She was really something. So we loved to go to her house. So every summer till I was 13, I was at her house. And so she had all these animals. She had chickens and ducks and geese, and we’d feed the chicken. She had her garden. And there were just cotton fields all around for which she was responsible, cuz she had these children, you know. And even after it got down to her and two more, they were still doing it. So I would go and they’d be picking cotton like end of August, September. And that was just not my thing. I can remember this quite vividly, they would say to me, It’s a good thing you’re smart because you would never make it on a farm <laugh>. I would go out there, I’d take ’em water, you know. But uh-uh, that was just way too much work and the hot sun was too hot. Uh-uh. When you pick cotton, there are these bolls, and their hands would just be bleeding, you know, just, um, no.
Andy Vantrease (23:56):
I’m curious, you know, you mentioned you having a life of contradictions, and I think that’s really interesting cuz I think that a lot of people probably feel that way in their own ways because we all kind of have these unique inner thoughts and what we’re seeing in the outer world and these things don’t match up. At least from my experience, having those contradictions can lead to anger or hardness or why is it this way? Or why don’t I get to do this? Just this kind of like, grrr feeling. Curious to hear more of that inner process when you come up against those contradictions.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (24:32):
I have righteous indignation. I believe firmly that there’s a moral order to the universe. All that I can control, the few things that are within my ability to control. I don’t believe in vengeance. Many wrongs have been done to me. I keep it moving. That’s been the theme of my life is to keep it moving. I cannot wallow in pity. I give myself like 15 minutes, and I gotta move on because I know I’ve seen what it does to people. And I don’t wanna be the walking around angry person holding all of this stuff inside me because I think it leads to really bad things for the individual: sickness, negative outlook on life. A person nobody wants to be around because you’re angry all the time. That’s, that’s not who I am. That’s not who I ever wanted to be.
I can’t control what white people do. What I can control is my response to that. That’s what I have responsibility for. I can kind of fight for things to do. I can speak up, I can do whatever, but I don’t wanna hold that in me. Because that would make me like them. Cuz I think all of that comes out of fear and anger and it’s not how I want my life to be. My grandfather used to, my dad used to tell us this, that there were 10 of them and they’d be running around in the yard and this was his way of controlling them. And he would say, Y’all better stop all that running around. You only got so many steps. You don’t wanna use ’em all up now. And that says something about time and how you use it, how you apply it to your life. He told me that a long time ago. I never forgot it. I thought that was so smart. And he said they’d all just stop. They’d sit because they didn’t wanna use up all their steps <laugh>.
Andy Vantrease (26:12):
So funny. The things that the people in our lives, and usually the older people in our lives, tell us. And it really sticks with us.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (26:21):
Yeah, it does.
Andy Vantrease (26:23):
So let’s talk about the book. I wanna take it back to this epiphany that you had the idea for a book and kind of this broader realization of you at the age and stage that you are in your life, putting a huge importance on preservation and on story collection and on the realization that we have to preserve our stories.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (26:49):
Andy Vantrease (26:50):
Because it’s history and because without that, how are we to move forward?
Dr. Helen Benjamin (26:57):
Andy Vantrease (26:57):
And not from the sense of like, let’s put it in a textbook, but from the sense of let’s get some first person accounts of the people who are still living, who lived through these things that maybe people never even knew happened or have forgotten.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (27:15):
Andy Vantrease (27:16):
Tell me about this epiphany that you had for the book and then really curious to hear of the process of it.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (27:22):
Well, I was on the board for Excelsior College, which, the main office, I’ll call it, is in Albany, New York. I was on that board for 10 years. I just got off at the end of last year. And for the last four years that I was on the board, I was the chair of the board, and we got into DEI, diversity, equity, inclusion. And we decided to bring in this young woman to lead a discussion and a workshop for us. She had us going through a series of activities, and she was talking about redlining and the impact of that. She had a map. There’s a site you can go to and put in a town, and it’ll tell you if they have the redlining records and they got the map and everything shows.
Andy Vantrease (28:11):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (28:11):
This was by design. Black people, people of color lived in these certain sections with railroad tracks and all that. So she’s talking about this and I knew where I grew up, but I don’t think I thought of it that way before. Where we lived until I was 12, there were four short streets. They all ran into what we call Texas Avenue. And each one of our streets was named for a tree: Poplar Locus, Cedar and Cyprus. Across the street from Texas Avenue was an oak flooring plant. Behind us was a railroad track. I’ve forgotten which line. And then on the other side… so you got four streets of these old houses, railroad track, railroad track, oak flooring plant, and then another lumber yard. And then behind that, a chicken processing plant. And that’s where we were just in this, this place. And I started really thinking about it at that moment and where I was at that moment—chairing a board for a college in New York—and I’m like, how in the world? That should not have even been possible.
And I just at that moment just thought, we gotta write about this. We gotta tell this story. What came to me was to write my classmates, see if they’re interested in telling the story. The name of the book should be “How We Got Over.” There was a song, a gospel song written by Clara Ward in 1951, and we were all born in 1950, called “How We Got Over” made famous by Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. So all of this is going on in my head. I got the title, the writers and everything. And I got off that phone and called the person who became the co-editor, Jean Nash-Johnson. What do you think? And she says, Oh, Helen, that’s a great idea. She’s married to one of my classmates. He was our valedictorian. And his story’s very interesting because he had already written his valedictory speech, but when Martin Luther King Jr. died, he rewrote it after King’s death. And he still has that handwritten speech from 1968.
So she and I got together and I said, Well, let me call Larry and see what he thinks. And then he and I got together, we made a list and we started calling people and they all said, Yes, I’ll write it. And I sent them an outline of what they could include, a suggested outline. And they went to work. There was no real length requirement or anything. And we ended up with like 400 pages, and after I included all the history stuff. After I started collecting the stories, I thought when we got it, I thought it needed context. And that’s how all the research came in. We researched all about our high school, how it was formed. I have an appreciation for journalists too. I can get upset with them as anybody can, but they tell stories. And our local paper goes way back. And then there were, during confederacy and pre-Civil War, 13 local papers. I had access to all of that.
Andy Vantrease (31:06):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (31:07):
Racist as they could be, but it’s all there. The other goal for me, I wanted to really document it, but I want some young person to read it and say, I am interested in history. I wanna be a historian. I’m gonna do… cuz we need people to continue to carry this torch that is our lives and tell our stories.
Andy Vantrease (31:28):
And I know you mentioned to me that some of the people that you asked, it was like they had been waiting. I just get chills every time I think of this. Just they had been waiting to tell their stories.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (31:40):
Right. Joseph Jet, I think Larry called him and Larry said that he said, Man, I’m starting tonight. He said he’s been thinking about it and wanting to do it and leave something for his grandkids. And I had them to give me photographs too. So some of them had photographs of great, great grandparents. And they’re in the book. It’s important to us, if it’s not important to anybody else. We did that, and people in our hometown were so appreciative.
And we brought attention to some things that people, uh, have found interesting. Two of the classmates wrote about seeing a man hanging from a tree. He had been lynched and nobody knew his name. We were trying to find out, figure out who was it. And then as I talked to different people, this one man said he was a student at St. James at the Catholic school. He says he remembers the morning cuz his dad was driving them to school. And his dad saw it first and made them turn their heads. And then one of my friends, she died last year, she said her mother rushed home. She was maybe seven or eight. The mother took, she, her sister and brother, she wanted them to see it. She saw it.
Andy Vantrease (32:54):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (32:54):
And I could not rest over that. I was just like, Who was this man?
Andy Vantrease (33:01):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (33:01):
What did he do? So the man who was in the car with his father and the father told him to turn his head, he became the chancellor of the Southern University System, Jim Lorenz. He found the story! And then just a month ago, a woman, she’s a woman now, but girl, she went to school with us until maybe the fifth grade. But they moved to New York. You wanna know why they moved? I just found it out: because that man who was lynched was her cousin and he lived with them.
Andy Vantrease (33:36):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (33:37):
And they left town, you know, but it wasn’t talked about.
Andy Vantrease (33:41):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (33:42):
Because my mother, I asked my mother about it. I asked another man, he’s 93, 94, he has a great memory, my friend’s dad. And he has no recollection of it. I just don’t know how they could have missed that.
Andy Vantrease (33:54):
So in remembering things like this and going down and figuring out who this was and doing the journalistic work and then also having it be through personal story investigation and word of mouth and all of that. Like, what is the importance of it for you? Does it feel like it’s the individual story? Does it feel like the collective that is formed when the individual stories are together? Does it feel like the story of your people, your culture and wanting to preserve that? Like what lights you up about it and what feels most important?
Dr. Helen Benjamin (34:33):
What lights me up about it is how the people in our hometown have reacted to it. Andy, we launched our book at the Dallas Public Library that when we were in high school, we couldn’t walk into. And this one woman at the library, I mean, anything I needed, I would call her. I wish I had kept notes, you know, of all the coincidental kinds of things and all the people who helped. So we had this opening. People knew, and it was a book signing. So our cousins and people in the neighborhood, you know, church folk—a lot of people came that day. It was really cold too. And they’d never been to a book signing. They didn’t know what that was. And you know, we’re reading, you know, doing what you do at a book signing, and they were fascinated.
One of our classmates lives in, Doretha Perry, lives in Houston. I guess it must have been like three carloads of them who drove. We had Q & A and her nephew stood up and said, We’re proud of auntie, we had to be here today. So it, you know, just what it has done for people, people who read it. I got an email (they’ve been sitting there a while cuz I don’t go to my Gmail that often) from two white women in Alexandria who have read it. One of them wants me to let her know when I’m coming again because she wants to meet the classmates who wrote, the ones who lived there. And another woman said, I’ve got these rocking chairs on my porch. I just wanna sit on my porch with you in a rocking chair. It’s touched people in a way that I think is important and to make their lives of value. Our hometown people are reading the book. They know the streets. They know this place. Our school spot was right here. Oh yeah. I used to go there. Oh, I had forgotten all about that. Then so many people said, I have never read a whole book in my life. I read this in three days.
Andy Vantrease (36:30):
That’s why I wanted to see if I could get my hands on it yesterday. Cuz I know it’s gonna be one of those books that you just fly through. Because for me, with personal stories and personal memoirs and anecdotes, it’s like, it doesn’t even feel like it’s being read by the mind. It feels like it’s being read by the heart or the soul.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (36:51):
And that doesn’t happen with everybody. The people I’m talking about are black folk, you know, live in town. This is their story. We were invited, 10 of us, to California for Juneteenth last year to talk about and read and stuff like that. There are people who are interested in it. People are reading. I’m a teacher, so it thrills me when people read, especially people who say, I hate reading.
Andy Vantrease (37:13):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (37:14):
But I read this.
Andy Vantrease (37:16):
Yeah. There’s something so special that can happen… I was interviewing a woman, Stefanie Tovar, last week or a couple weeks ago, and she’s from Dallas as well. And she was just talking about like the resonance when you’re with other people who have or may have similar life experiences to you. You know, we were talking about the importance of having teachers of color in wellness spaces. And I said like, What is the importance of that to you? Like, what does that feel like to you? And she said It’s a resonance that can’t really be explained but is so incredibly important.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (38:00):
Andy Vantrease (38:01):
I think that it’s an interesting conversation because it’s the simultaneous recognition of difference. But what I feel from you and what I feel from her is like, how can it be a celebration?
Dr. Helen Benjamin (38:16):
Right. There are remarkably good things that difference can lead to. And I am one who believes that tension is good, but you have to work through the tension. On the other side of the tension is the good thing. There’s nothing wrong with disagreement. There is not. It’s healthy. I mean imagine a world where everybody like me <laugh>. The difference is what gets us to innovation. And gets to the heart of creativity. But I think most of the time we don’t have the patience to work through our differences and try to reach some kind of common ground. I like to say that in the work I do now—I do a lot of consulting—I’m just a referee. I just go in and try to get people to, Okay, put down your gloves. Let’s see what we can do here. This doesn’t make any sense. You’re fighting over nothing. And I just think that should be our approach to life. I should embrace your difference, appreciate your difference, and try to understand your difference, but really appreciate it because we all have things in common. I worked in California and we had all this collective bargaining and stuff and we went to interest-based bargaining.
Andy Vantrease (39:25):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (39:25):
Which is the best concept ever because you start with what you have in common.
Andy Vantrease (39:32):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (39:33):
What do we all want? A good solution that works for everybody. What else do you want? You come up with this whole list of things you want. And then you figure out how you’re gonna get there instead of starting at what your differences are. Cuz then you’re…
Andy Vantrease (39:44):
Yeah. Because then that’s the focus.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (39:46):
Yeah. Many times we go about it in the wrong way, and we think that because somebody’s different, I don’t wanna talk to that person. What kind of sense does that make? I mean it makes none to me.
Andy Vantrease (39:57):
How much of this Helen—and how much of your outlook on life and your mindset—how much of this has to do with you being on a lifelong spiritual path?
Dr. Helen Benjamin (40:11):
That’s a huge part of it. I have a deep faith. I mean, I guess what’s in you comes out. And I’m not a proselytizer. I’m not going around trying to convert people or anything like that. I’m just trying to live a life that might be an example because I think that’s the best way you can do it. They see you and they say, Well I wouldn’t mind being a little bit like her. I wonder what she, you know, instead of me telling what I do and what I am and what I believe. Uh, but what’s in you comes out. From a little girl, just being up there in the country and visiting my grand, the other grandparents, wherever they were living and being in my school, being at vacation bible school that I went to. I talked about that church, and we were not members, it was just in the neighborhood. This minister would go around in the summer and tell us when vacation Bible school was starting, and we’d all be there cuz they gave us cookies and stuff at the end. <laugh>. You know, enticements.
Andy Vantrease (41:13):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (41:14):
I worked in white people’s homes. I’ve always had a lot of jobs. I started when I was 14, babysitting a little girl. And, I did neighborhood Youth Corps too. That was one of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs. So I did that. Worked in a hospital. So I had a lot of different experience. And all of that was around white folk who didn’t want us there. My parents didn’t have to pay any of my graduation fees because I had all of these jobs, and I did all that stuff myself. Strong work ethic.
Andy Vantrease (41:46):
It seems like you’ve turned around and really used that to, like you said, I have never left school <laugh>. [You’ve been] a teacher and chancellor and president on boards.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (41:56):
No, I have never left school. And I have so many students… I haven’t taught in many, many years, but I taught high school here in Dallas. Teaching is the thing I love most. I came back here though, I was gone almost 30 years, and I came back when I retired in 2017. And I’ve run into some of my students that I taught in high school. I started teaching in 1972, which I think was the second year of integration. That’s… that’s a whole book. It was seven years—and those white folk did not want us at that school. But I came to work every day and did what I was supposed to do, cuz they were black kids there and there were white kids here too. I had to teach them all. And it was a good experience for me cuz I was 21 when I started teaching. And so they were like 15, 16, 17, 18. So I’m not that much older. And so two of them came to the book signing we had here at the African American Museum. I have never been as happy to see two people in my life.
Andy Vantrease (42:56):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (42:56):
And they were just saying, you saved us. There was a coach there too. And they said, You and coach saved us! Cuz you know, just imagine being 17 and 18. And they were athletes and that helped them too. And being in an environment where you are the minority, you know, they’d come by my room all the time. They had to go somewhere where they felt safe.
Andy Vantrease (43:18):
Yeah. Just like where your heart can rest.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (43:20):
Yeah. So I loved those kids.
Andy Vantrease (43:24):
A lot of times in these podcasts I ask who have been the people who have been the biggest influences on you? And so many people say one of their teachers.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (43:33):
Andy Vantrease (43:34):
And they know, and they say, Oh, it was Ms. Brown in third grade. She let me, you know, sit in her classroom after school when my parents were late to pick me up. And she read to me. It’s like, these people are so important!
Dr. Helen Benjamin (43:48):
They have so much power. So much power. I could tell you some stories. And I will tell you one quickly, this was just so funny. My grandson is eight, one of them is eight. And they call me every day on the way from school. So he has to tell me something. And one day he says, Mimi, did you know Mahalia Jackson stabbed Martin Luther King and said, If you sneeze or cough you die? I said, I think you have that wrong. I said, it was not Mahalia Jackson. This happened in 1958. He’s got pieces of it right. King was in Harlem and this woman stabbed him very close to the heart with a letter opener. She was mentally ill. And later on, the doctor said that if he had sneezed or coughed, he’d die. So you could see the parts of it that he got right. But the teacher had also been talking about Mahalia Jackson that day. I said, You got parts of it right. And blah, blah, blah. And I was trying to tell him the true story, the woman’s name and all that. And he said, But Mr. Peabody said…and Mr. Peabody is his teacher.
Andy Vantrease (44:51):
He’s the authority.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (44:52):
And every time we tried to correct him, you know, he says, No, but Mr. Peabody said it <laugh>. And that just shows the power—here’s your grandmother, your mother, your brother, we’re all telling you this <laugh>. We finally took two or three days and got it straightened out. But it just shows how much influence that the teacher has. And all I’ve tried to do is be like them.
Andy Vantrease (45:16):
Yeah. You know, to me, having such a theme of preserving history and the way that the future happens, it’s just time and relationships and learning and individuals moving forward. I feel like sometimes this subject of history as like a formal school subject where you learn about it in books, it’s this different entity. As I’m talking to you, I’m just realizing like history is being made in every conversation in every relationship.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (45:51):
Andy Vantrease (45:52):
And it is the foundation with which the future is forming.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (45:57):
Yes. This one other thing, too: The United Negro College Fund, I went back to my alma mater to teach after, uh, I taught high school for seven and a half years. And then one day I just decided I’m not coming back next year. I don’t want to teach high school anymore. And I just quit with no plan. And this same woman I just told you about, I ran into her one day in a mall and she said, What are you doing? And I said, I’m not doing anything. I had a kindergartener and a little baby. She says, well come out and see me. So I went out to the college and she hired me to run a communication skills lab. This is me with no plan, which is most of my life. It was just a wonderful thing. And we got a new president and he called me in one day, and I had a master’s degree at that time in reading.
And I got a call from his assistant and she said, Dr. Wright wants to see you. And I’m like, Oh, why does he want? I had no idea. And he worked at the college when I was there as a professional of religion. And I wanted to have him, everybody wanted his class. He was so wonderful. But I was too late. I didn’t get it. I got somebody else. But I went up to his office to see him and he said, I want you to be chair of the English department. And I said, No! I was just, just totally thrown off. And I said, Oh, oh, absolutely not. He says, No, no, no, Helen, he says they don’t like each other, but they all like you. He says, you’ve gotta do this. Can you imagine? These are all people with earned PhDs. Brilliant folk. I was reluctant, and he just forced it on me. And he said, however, you have to start on your doctorate.
Andy Vantrease (47:36):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (47:37):
And I said, Well, okay. I mean, I’ll do it. I mean, I had my kids, I was divorced by then, and I took the job. They were all very happy because they were happy that it wasn’t one of the others.
Andy Vantrease (47:47):
Right. There’s no need to fight if…
Dr. Helen Benjamin (47:49):
He was right. So here I am twenty-nine, I think I was.
Andy Vantrease (47:55):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (47:56):
So I got into graduate school, at Texas Woman’s. I had all these things. I had so many things going on at the time and, you know, just trying to get everything done. And I got this letter, or somebody gave it to me. I can’t remember circumstances, but it was from the United Negro College Fund, to all professors at member colleges. It said that you could apply for this scholarship fellowship, that they would give you $10,000 a year if you’re working towards your PhD. And Andy, I applied and they gave it to me.
Andy Vantrease (48:29):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (48:30):
I could go to school full-time and work on my doctorate. They gave me $20,000. They gave me two consecutive years. They gave me $10,000 in 1981-82 and 82-83. I finished all of my coursework while I was working.
Andy Vantrease (48:46):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (48:47):
They gave me that. I love the United Negro College Fund. I have given them all that money back that they gave me.
Andy Vantrease (48:54):
Dr. Helen Benjamin (48:55):
It was an amazing gift. All this stuff just fell into my lap. And these are my own people helping me. I have an obligation. I can’t not help other people.
Andy Vantrease (49:06):
If you’re living your path that you’re kind of here for, you have these helping hands, you have these things that happen, these synchronicities.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (49:14):
Right. And I’ve never been a person who just prayed for things because the scripture says you’ll be given the desires of your heart, that you will be supplied with your needs. And I just figure that’s gonna happen. It’s in the universe. It’s just gonna happen for me. It’s automatic. I don’t have to beg and plead because I see that as a promise on my life. I show gratitude for that because I am, verbally, but I also show gratitude by helping other people. This is the most I’ve talked about it. I mean, it’s not anything talk about, you just do. You know, I was saying to somebody yesterday who was complaining to me about something, some process we’re doing. And I said, I’ll tell you what Ray Charles said. I attribute this to Ray Charles. I don’t know whether he said it or not.
It’s “Let it do what it do,” cuz we don’t need to mess with everything. Some stuff, it’s just gonna happen. We gotta be in the right space. And sometimes I wanna rush things. You know, I’m not patient enough, and I know that. I know I have to exercise patience. But it’s like my mother told us, You make sure you’re doing the right things. If you are doing the right things, it’s gonna come to you. I just believe that. That’s how I’ve lived my life. If it’s abundance, I’ll have it. If it’s scarcity, I’ll have it. And then with the scarcity, I gotta figure out how I’m gonna get to abundance or how I’m gonna reside in scarcity.
Andy Vantrease (50:38):
Your spirit reminds me so much of the spirit of India, who was the founder of the Feathered Pipe. This just like unwavering trust and belief that it’s gonna work out.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (50:54):
It always does.
Andy Vantrease (50:56):
Like you don’t have to mess too much with it. We really just have to be here. And so much of her life was service as well and helping other people. What you just said, it’s like, How could I not? I’ve been given these things, and I’ve been given this life and how could I not pay that forward?
Dr. Helen Benjamin (51:15):
How could you not? I feel, and have felt for a long time, that I’m a work in progress. If I get to be 90, I think I’ll still feel that way. I’m just developing and learning and just trying to get it right. You know, just live a life that’s meaningful. I went on that retreat because I did a lot of work last year. I wanted to go on a silence retreat, but I thought they’d put me out. I didn’t think last year I was ready to go on one, you know, cuz you just cannot talk. And I went back and forth and back and forth about going. And then all of a sudden one morning I said, I’m gonna do it. And it was the best thing I’ve done for myself. It checked all the boxes for me for what I needed then. And I learned some stuff and it forced me to slow down. And just being at Feathered Pipe and you know, up there where the canopy is, it is just so beautiful. I was in search of peace that I needed at that time and not working, no phone. Cause I have all this stuff going all the time. And that whole week, I didn’t have any phone. I didn’t have it. It was wonderful. And I was taking care of myself.
Andy Vantrease (52:33):
Is there anything about the land, the place, the people, the workshop itself? Like, anything that felt particularly special or particularly nourishing?
Dr. Helen Benjamin (52:46):
Just the things that we were doing with our bodies. I got up every morning, and I’m an early riser anyway. Every morning I went to that session. I went to all the sessions. So that was really good. That was a disciplining activity for me. And just being in that space with like-minded people. That’s another I important part of it. I think of that experience, I didn’t think I could do it, but I did it. So it was really refreshing for me. And then to meet people, meet Howard and Eric and those guys. Then VJ, she brought me this necklace. I don’t have it on on right now, but I wear it a lot.
Andy Vantrease (53:25):
Seems like you’re still in touch with some of the people that you met there too.
Dr. Helen Benjamin (53:28):
Oh yes. With two others. One lives in Arizona, the other lives in Los Angeles. So we had a phone call Sunday a week ago. We did a Zoom call and we were planning another get together and we went to an opera in LA in November. We just all met in LA for the weekend. We had a ball. And these are people I met there.
Andy Vantrease (54:01):
Dr. Helen Benjamin, a brave and fierce woman who no doubt has left you inspired and ready to overcome the obstacles in your life. Talking with Helen was such a gift of perspective. And it felt like we time-traveled together, her reflecting on her early life, visiting her grandparents, getting her first car, and the big moments of testing the waters of desegregation, sitting in the front of the bus and ordering the hamburger at the local restaurant that historically she hadn’t been allowed to do. Her accent even reminds me slightly of my own grandmother who grew up in Virginia and is now in the spirit world. So this conversation and editing process touched my heart in ways that I didn’t quite expect.
Above all, I’m leaving this conversation with the awareness that we are all living different realities at once and how important it is to take into account that my experience isn’t universal and that this doesn’t have to be seen as a negative truth. Thank goodness we have differences. Thank goodness not everyone sees the world the same. And how can we celebrate each other, uplift each other, and make space for everyone’s experiences to be held in reverence and recognition?
To hear more from Dr. Helen Benjamin, buy her book, How We Got Over: Growing Up in The Segregated South, and read about her life in Louisiana, as well as the firsthand accounts of her classmates from Peabody High School class of 1968.
A big shout out to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world. This podcast is brought to you by the Feathered Pipe Foundation. Help support us and donate at featherpipe.com/gratitude. Also share this episode with your friends if you think it can be helpful. This is the most organic way that the show grows, and we even get to meet people at the Ranch who first heard about us through a friend sharing a podcast. So keep the Dandelion Effect going, and until the next episode, have a beautiful day!