Judy Eason McIntyre doesn’t take a minute of life for granted. A breast cancer survivor who grew up in segregated north Tulsa, the 75-year-old built a career in social work, served on the Tulsa Public Schools Board and spent 10 years in the Oklahoma Legislature.
Today she remains involved in community projects such as the OKPOP Foundation Board and volunteering at the Pencil Box. Her personality and sense of humor are infectious, and although retired she chooses to stay busy. “Otherwise, I’d probably get in trouble,” she says with a smile. Eason looks for the light and joy in each day, gaining strength from the adversity she has faced.
Where did you go to school/university? Why?
I went to Tulsa Public Schools from 1950 to 1963, and it was segregated. Although my parents met at Langston University, they kind of redirected all four of us children to go to the University of Oklahoma, so in 1963 I went to OU. I got my undergraduate degree in 1967 in social work and then went back and got my master’s in 1979. I wanted to major in art, but my dad said there was no money in it so I went into social work, which was my second choice.
What was one of your most defining moments?
It was when I left the safety and security of a segregated community and went to OU. I had no idea the color of my skin would make a difference. There were 50 Black students when I went to orientation, and we were told half of them would be gone by midterm. We were placed in dorms alone without other Black people, so the white girls and I began to learn about each other. … A defining moment for me was to be called the “n” word in the classroom by these same girls I had come to know in the dorm.
At that point, I went down a long trail of innocence to ending up with the Black Panthers. Thank God for my parents who saved me. When I was handed a gun on Greenwood by the Black Panthers because the police showed up, I thought, “Wait a minute, aren’t we just talking?” My daddy said it’s OK to be passionate about your issues, but don’t stand on the outside throwing rocks. That defining moment in my life could have taken me to a whole different place.
What age do you feel right now and why?
I feel 20 years younger than I am. I’m 75, but I’m a kid at heart. I spent 31 years working in child abuse, and I couldn’t have kids, so I could legitimately always be a kid. After having breast cancer, forming the breast cancer support group (Soulful Survivors) and learning more about breast cancer, I realized how precious life is and to make the most of it. I was diagnosed in 2007, had surgery and took cancer medicine for five years, but I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation. I am blessed.
How would your friends describe you?
They would say I’m nutty. They would say I’m passionate and creative. I love to read. I’m a protest queen. I’m the first one to cry, and I wear a false face of sternness.
I found out in life that if you learn from it, you grow stronger. I realized I’m stronger than I thought I was. I think my friends would say I’m honest to a fault. I got one whipping from my dad growing up, and that was for telling a lie. The only thing you have is your word.
What genre do you like to read?
I’m eclectic in my tastes, but I don’t like fiction. As a social worker, my philosophical thinking is reality. It’s hard for me to read fiction. I like to watch cartoons. When things are so chaotic in life and sad in this world, I go to cartoons, to a happy place.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I’ve always been so open. I’m an open book. If I learned how to cook, my friends wouldn’t believe that. If I said I’m athletic, they wouldn’t believe that either!
If you could witness any event of the past, present or future, what would it be?
The time in history that I enjoy reading about a lot is the Renaissance in Harlem. I love art. I’m on the OKPOP Foundation Board. During the Renaissance, there was literature and art and yes, there were discrimination and racism, but so much creativity came out of it (that time period).
Did you participate in any national civil rights marches?
I was 18 years old and at the Vernon AME Church when they were filling up the bus to go to Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington. I had never been anywhere but Oklahoma City. My parents didn’t want me to go. Finally, I wore them down. The march was the first time I had seen Blacks and whites marching united together. I had no idea what it was about. I had no idea why my parents were afraid. When Martin Luther King Jr. kept repeating, “I have a dream,” I had no idea. That was Aug. 28, (1963), and a week or two later, I started at OU, and then it began to hit me what civil rights was all about. After that, I was a protestor for civil rights all over Oklahoma. I was on the school board. I went to women’s marches. Anytime I could go to a march, I was there.
What was a “worst time” and how did you pull through it?
There are two parallel times — the introduction to overt racism at OU. I was unprepared. My parents did everything they could to protect us, but they didn’t prepare us. Every time I would call and say I wanted to come home, they would say, “Hey, you’re not down there to save the world. Get an education and come home.”
The second worst time was my second divorce. I met my husband through a friend, and he was running for Tulsa County Democratic chair. That’s how I got into politics. He probably saved my life even though we didn’t stay married. It was so public. He got on cocaine. There was a younger woman involved. My mom’s friend said, “You need therapy.” That was very helpful. People would say, “People are going to think you’re crazy,” and I would say, “I am crazy.” When I get young women in my clutches, I tell them my story. When you tell the truth, you don’t have to worry about keeping your story straight.
What concerns you today?
It is the feeling that what I left in the ’60s — the anger, the hatred — has all resurfaced. The silver lining in that is protests in the early days were usually Black people with a sprinkling of white. But the joy of what I’ve seen with young people today is that all colors are protesting issues that really haven’t ever been of interest. It worries me about what’s going on politically with the hatred, lies, violence and insurrection. We’re living in fear. This doesn’t look like America. My hope is in the younger generation, and part of what will make them a lot more successful is that they grew up with integration. I am fearful about what’s going on, but I’ve lived long enough to know that the good in people of all colors is going to come through. We may have differences, but we’re all Americans. What’s going on is not the American way, but it’s going to turn around.
How do you measure success?
Conquering the unknown, I walk with fear. When fear subsides, I’m rational to execute, and I know I’m successful. If I don’t accomplish what I set out to, I don’t beat myself up because I did try, and I beat fear.
What is a favorite Tulsa memory?
I would have to go back to my childhood in segregated Tulsa and the (W. L.) Hutcherson YMCA on Pine. My mom was on the board. We had international teas and learned about different countries. We had swimming and social parties. It was just us, so those were happy memories at the Y.
Describe a perfect weekend in Tulsa or elsewhere.
My baby sister, Yla Eason Puryear, teaches at Rutgers University. She lives in New York, so my favorite is to go to New York, attend a Broadway show, walk down the streets and see the people. One of my favorite times is to go in the winter and walk Central Park in the snow. But I wouldn’t want to live there.
What place in Tulsa do you miss most?
It would be the barbecue places on Greenwood and all the stores. We had drug stores, a dry goods place, Betty’s Chat ’N Chew (old barbecue restaurant) That’s what I miss the most because I couldn’t go to other places in Tulsa.
What have been the most significant changes you’ve experienced in Tulsa?
I’d still define this city as a tale of two cities — one so different from my childhood experience of segregation to an openness of opportunities. Are there problems? Yes, but there’s so much progress. We (Black Tulsans) can sit and eat in restaurants; we can try on clothes in stores. You see the difference at my age. Those of us who grew up in segregation, we don’t take those kinds of changes for granted. The best thing about Tulsa is its people. We may not get along all the time, but what’s so unique about this community is that when there’s a need to come together, the people of Tulsa come together to help. I didn’t grow up with that, so that’s a major change I see.