How, in your heart, did you overcome these awful things?


Thelma Wells: I had an anchor at home, which was my great-grandmother. In my great-grandmother, there was a strength that I had to derive from her, and I know that it has been one of my stabilizers. I went home and told her what had happened, and she said, "Baby, don't worry. God will make a way. If you want to go to college, God will make a way." 


She went and talked to a white lady. This is a paradox, an irony. She went and talked to this white lady that she worked for as a domestic. And the lady, who is now deceased, asked me to come to her home. She talked with me about going to college. I told her I wanted to go to North Texas State. That lady paid my tuition and books to North Texas State College when I went there the first year. It became a university. Her stipulations were these: "Keep your grades above a 'C'.  And if you decide to get married while you are in college, I will no longer help you."  


So I did - I decided to get married my sophomore year. And my husband of nearly 42 years completed my education for me, upon the promise that he made to my great-grandmother. That was one of the stipulations of marrying me - that I must finish college.  So he kept his word, and I did. What happened after college?


Thelma Wells:  I was the first black woman, black person, actually, hired in the John Deere Company in Dallas, Texas at status position. That was in 1964. They hired me as a secretary. But when I came to work, when I got to work that first day, I got demoted from a secretary to the mail clerk, in the mailroom, using a big antiquated address-o-graph. And standing on my feet all day, pumping that address-o-graph, pushing plates through there, addressing envelopes and delivering mail. 


By now, I'd been out of school.  I had two children, I had a degree, I had taught school, and I left teaching to go into industry as a trailblazer, and here I was in the mailroom, getting a corn on my toe. I had to talk to myself.  I said, "Thelma, be the best mail carrier you can be. Be the best person you can be. Show them that you can assimilate into their situation." 


When I first went there, they didn't talk to me. They didn't know how to talk to me. They'd never worked with black folks before.  But the way I assimilated in there, I noticed what they were doing.  I noticed how they dressed.  So I changed my dress, from my little dresses, to my skirts and blouses and suits. I noticed that every Monday, the ladies would come in and they would bring their recipes and, over the weekend, what they had fixed for the week.  And they all used Tupperware.