“How can I learn to feel more comfortable when thinking about black people? I know their skin coloring is the only difference but I still feel strange, as you are the only one I have ever met.” – Third Grader, Madison, November 30, 1969
Marlene Cummings responded to this question in her first weekly column in the Wisconsin State Journal, published in November of 1969. Every week, children in Madison wrote to Dear Mrs. Cummings and asked her questions like this. They were encouraged to ask questions about “black skin to Black power, soul food to hair, prejudice to pride.”
She told the Wisconsin State Journal that one really had to have a Black experience to answer these questions. “How it feels to move into a white community as a Black family, how it feels to be a Black mother,” she said.
“In a community such as Madison (she responded to the third grader) where there are so few Black people, it is not always possible to really integrate your environment. You may start by integrating your mind, however, thinking in terms of people – Black and White.”
–Wisconsin State Journal November 1969
Mrs. Cummings, along with her four sons and her husband, moved to Madison from South Bend, Indiana in 1968. Finding a place to live was not easy for the Cummings family; housing was advertised as available but at the showing, the house would be mysteriously rented. Shortly after a real-estate agent signed a lease on their behalf, the owner of the property decided not to lease. “It was a subtle type of discrimination,” her husband told the Capital Times. But after three months of searching, Mrs. Cummings and her family settled on the West Side of Madison.
In the Classroom
When the Wisconsin State Journal asked Mrs. Cummings to start the column, she was a popular Human Relations Coordinator for kindergarten through fifth grade at the Madison Public School District, traveling to each classroom to talk with students about prejudice, stereotypes and judgments. She told the Associated Press she was tired of being asked how it feels to be Black and wanted to address the social education of Madison elementary school students. Trained as a nurse but with a natural gift for teaching, she started off on a volunteer basis and was shortly asked to be part of MMSD Human Relations staff.
In her resume, she wrote the goal of her position was to work toward teaching children to respect themselves and others regardless of ability, age, race, sex, size, ethnicity or economic background. Her presentation and discussions were so popular she received hundreds of letters from young children thanking her for coming to their classroom and asking her to return.
She created multiple activities with the children, one she called “the people package” helped students think critically about how assumptions are made. On one particular visit, according to a 1970’s Capital Times article, she asked for a volunteer to come to the front of the classroom and a boy raised his hand. She explained to the students that this boy’s “wrapping paper” on his people package, consisted of light skin, brown hair and freckles. His Star Trek t-shirt was the ribbon-and-bow that decorated the package.
“How do I find out what’s inside my people package,” Cummings asked.
“Cut it in half,” a child suggested. “Rip it open,” said another.
“Oh, if I cut him up or rip him in half, he’d be dead,” Cummings said. “I can tell what kind of person he is by looking at him,” she continued as she looked (the volunteer) over carefully.
“From his hair and skin color. I can tell he hates TV,” she said as a shocked look crossed (the volunteer’s) face. From the way his mouth is shaped I can tell he loves turnips, liver and spinach and hates chocolate.” The boy shook his head in disagreement.
“Is there something wrong with that?” Cummings asked. “You mean I chose the wrong way to find out what kind of people he is?”
The love students had for Mrs. Cummings was apparent. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, she walked down the halls at elementary schools and students yelled her name. “It’s Mrs. Cummings!” They’d follow her asking if she’d brought any of the puppets she used in her classroom teachings. “Mrs. Cummings, where is Mr. Yardstick” “Did you bring Horton with you?”
By 1973, after only three years as a Human Relations Coordinator, 3,000 children in Madison had been touched by Mrs. Cummings. Her program, which included classroom activities, a handbook and teacher-training course was adopted by cities in 27 states; including San Diego which required all teachers to use her curriculum and her hometown of Indianapolis, where she attended one of the first integrated high schools. She told the Associated Press that her program discourages the idea that sameness is automatically goodness and that prejudice is more than just a word relating to race relations.
VIP/ Everyday People
That same year, her television show premiered. Everyday People was produced, written and hosted by Mrs. Cummings. It aired every Friday at 6 p.m. on WHA, Madison’s public television station. Children were brought on the show to talk about differences and prejudices.
“Who knows what sexism is?” Mrs. Cummings asked to a stage of more than 10 children, ages 5-10 years old.
A young girl raised her hand, “Sexism is when one sex thinks they are better than the other sex just because they are a boy or they are a girl.”
“Where do people get these ideas to begin with, where do they learn that one sex is better than the other?” Mrs. Cummings asked.
Hands shot in the air and individually Mrs. Cummings called on the students; Jeff, Jay, Martha, Blanche.
People learn that behavior from their parents, or in school or from the games they play said the children. One child added that because she was a girl, she couldn’t play on any hockey team, even though when she played with her family she always won. Mrs. Cummings listened intently to each child and facilitated the conversation with ease. All the students participated and shared their view or experiences.
In addition to a stage full of children Mrs. Cummings used puppets to spur engagement on her TV show. There was Chip, who is black, Patrick, who has an artificial arm, Jason, who is blind and Ben who is Native American. They were designed by Mrs. Cummings and hand-sewn by a small Stoughton business.
“I can say things through the puppets that I couldn’t say to the children as an adult,” Mrs. Cummings explained to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Eventually the puppets were duplicated and given to each Instructional Materials Center at the Madison elementary schools so teachers could use them in their classrooms.
Third (and Fourth and Fifth) Career
By 1979, after ten years of working with the school district, Mrs. Cummings was appointed by Governor Lee Dreyfus to be the first advisor for Women Initiatives. She then owned and operated a temporary employment service on Park Street and lastly, worked as the Regulation and Licensing Secretary under Governor Tommy Thompson for fourteen years.
At retirement in 2001, she had a long list of accomplishments and awards including Woman of the Year and the Writers Cup Award from Women in Communications. She currently lives in Chicago near her son Jeff, who can be seen in the above clip as a young boy on his mother’s Everyday People TV show.
In one of Mrs. Cummings’s last opinion pieces she wrote that creating laws and programs about equal opportunities was one thing, but implementation and enforcement was an entirely different matter, an issue that is still being addressed today. She started the column with a quote from a popular tune: “The song has ended but the melody lingers on.”