Taulbert, Clifton Lemoure 1945–
Clifton Lemoure Taulbert 1945–
Author, speaker, businessman
In the critically acclaimed book Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, Clifton Taulbert tells the story of his childhood, spent in a small town in rural Mississippi during the Jim Crow years. Although racial injustice is ever present, it is not the focus of Taulbert’s bittersweet memoir. Instead, he tries to evoke the sense of community that characterized his hometown—something he believes has been lost in the intervening years.
“In our desire as black Americans to put segregation behind us, we have put ourselves in danger of forgetting the past—the good and the bad,” Taulbert wrote in the introduction to Once Upon a Time. “I believe that to forget our colored past is to forget ourselves, who we are and what we’ve come from.”
Clifton Lemoure Taulbert was born on February 19, 1945 in Glen Allan, Mississippi, a small town in the western part of the state, near the Arkansas border. His young mother, Mary Morgan Taulbert, had been abandoned by his father, leaving Clifton to be raised by his large extended family. He lived first with his great-grandparents, and then his great-aunt. However, he always maintained close contact with his mother, who became a schoolteacher. The institutionalized racism of the time, which Taulbert would later describe in his books, could have been crushing. Instead, Taulbert remembered the “silent heroes” of the time, such as Louis Fields, a sharecropper. “There was nothing extraordinary about Mr. Fields,” Taulbert told the Chicago Tribune. “He had very little education.…[H]e’d tell me: ‘Boy, you can be anything you want to be. Get your education. You can be a doctor, a lawyer, an architect.’ He gave me the determination to go to college.”
Taulbert began his schooling at a one-room schoolhouse in Glen Allan. Later, he attended the town’s new public school for blacks, built under the “separate but equal” rule. Taulbert remembered writing countless essays about four African American role models: Dr. George Washington Carver, Mary McLeod Bethune, Marion Anderson and Jackie Robinson. “I would be out of college before I would fully realize that these four people, although they were great trailblazers, by no means represented the sum total of colored achievements,” Taulbert wrote in Once Upon a Time.
For all four years of high school, Taulbert had to rise before dawn to catch a bus to a black school in Greenville, 25 miles away—even though there was a white school in Glen Allan just a few blocks from where he lived. By the time the bus had picked up children from far-flung plantations, the trip had stretched to almost fifty miles. Taulbert refused to let this injustice dampen his enthusiasm for schooling, however. His classmates elected him “most studious,” and in 1963 he graduated as valedictorian of his class.
Taulbert desperately wanted to go to college, but his
At a Glance…
Born Clifton Lemoure Taulbert, February 19, 1945, Glen Allan, Mississippi; son of Mary Morgan Taulbert; married Barbara Ann Taulbert, December 22, 1973; one son, Marshall Danzy, and one daughter, Anne Kathryn. Education: Oral Roberts University, B.A., 1971; graduate degree from Southwest Graduate School of Banking, Southern Methodist University.
Career: Sergeant, US Air Force, 1964-68; administrator, University Village Inc., Tulsa, OK, beginning in 1972; marketing vice president, Bank of Oklahoma, Tulsa, OK; president, Fremount Corporation, Tulsa, OK; president and CEO, Spike USA; professional speaker and leader of community-building workshops; author, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, 1989; The Last Train North, 1992; Watching Our Crops Come In, 1997; Eight Habits of the Heart: The Timeless Qualities That Build Strong Communities—Within Our Homes and Our Lives, 1997.
Awards: Manager of the Year, Oklahoma Chapter, National Management Association, 1989; National Volunteer, National Arthritis Foundation, 1985.
Addresses: Home —Tulsa, OK. Office —7802 S. Louis-ville Ave., Tulsa, OK 74136-8001.
family had little money and there were no scholarships available. Instead, he headed north and settled in St. Louis, where his father was a successful Baptist preacher. In St. Louis, Taulbert had the opportunity to meet his father for the first time. However, the elder Taulbert had since remarried, and his new wife would not allow the two to develop a relationship. “I guess I understood,” Taulbert wrote simply in The Last Train North.
Upon his arrival in St. Louis, Taulbert received a rude awakening. During his childhood, when northern relatives had come back to visit, Taulbert had built up an elaborate fantasy about what the North was like. Suddenly, he discovered that poverty and discrimination were almost as prevalent in the North as in the South. “Where was the North I had heard about while growing up in Glen Allan?” he wondered over and over again in The Last Train North. Taulbert found work as a dishwasher in a restaurant, then as a messenger for Jefferson Bank and Trust. By this time, the civil rights movement had begun and the bank, which refused to promote blacks, was the object of massive civil rights demonstrations. Even as Taulbert started taking night classes at the American Institute of Banking, he realized that he would always be stuck in jobs outside the bank—opening the door for customers, driving the bank president to lunch. “I still marvel that … the president would place his life in my hands in St. Louis traffic, when he wouldn’t trust me with a calculator,” Taulbert wrote in The Last Train North.
Taulbert moved to Washington, D.C., where he took classes at the University of Maryland at College Park. Eventually, he earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology and history from Oral Roberts University in 1971. He then went on to earn a graduate degree from the Southwest Graduate School of Banking at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
Taulbert soon obtained a job at the Bank of Oklahoma, eventually rising to the position of marketing vice president. He later founded a marketing and consulting firm called Freemount Corporation, named after a plantation that had been owned by his ancestors. In the 1980s, he was instrumental in the national marketing of Stair-master, the exercise machine. In the 1990s, he became chairman and CEO of Spike USA, a manufacturer of isotonic sport drinks.
Despite his business success, Taulbert harbored a different dream. “I had always wanted to be a writer,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It was easy for me to write the stories of my family because I had written before. But I was never quite sure when it would happen or if I had the guts to follow my heart.”
In 1964, Taulbert enlisted in the Air Force and rose to the rank of sergeant. While stationed in Maine, he entertained his fellow soldiers with stories about the people of Glen Allan. With their encouragement, he began to write down some of his reminiscences. “So with pen and paper in hand …, I started writing about those wonderful ‘colored’ people, as I called them, who lived in the Mississippi Delta,” he recalled in The Last Train North. In the 1980s, Taulbert collected these stories into a slim memoir, which he began to send out to publishers. “Then I got rejections from every publisher in New York City,” he told the Chicago Tribune. In 1987 he met Paulette Millichap, a co-publisher of Council Oak Books. She told Taulbert that if he reworked the manuscript, she would publish it. Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored was published two years later.
The initial press run of Once Upon a Time was just 3,000 copies. “The book was easy to underestimate,” Paul Galloway wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “Although a hardcover, it was closer in size to a paperback and only 153 pages. The author was unknown. It was his first book. It was published to no fanfare by an obscure, financially shaky publishing house in, of all places, Tulsa, a considerable distance from the nation’s literary center in New York City.” The book was officially launched at a reception in Greenville, Mississippi. To Taulbert’s surprise, the reception was attended by the full range of Mississippi society: “In that crowd there were people who were part and parcel of the segregation system. There were 80-year-olds who were plantation owners. There were black doctors, black maids, guys who had just gotten off tractors. A microcosm of all Mississippi was there at one place at one time to share our story,” Taulbert told the Los Angeles Times.
Taulbert, with his years of marketing experience, worked tirelessly to promote his book. The Library Journal was one of the first to review Once Upon a Time, calling it “important” and “moving,” and recommending it for purchase by major public and academic libraries. Slowly, a few large newspapers decided to run reviews. National Public Radio featured the complete volume on the air. In 1990, Taulbert was one of only 12 authors chosen to address the American Bookseller’s Association.
By 1991, the Once Upon a Time had turned into a “minor miracle,” according to the Chicago Tribune’s Galloway. Over 20,000 copies had been distributed, it was in its fifth printing, and a paperback edition was planned. (The paperback edition appeared under the title When We Were Colored.) Later, the book found its way into the multicultural programs of school systems across the country. “We’ve only scratched the surface,” Michael Hightower, a Council Oak co-publisher, told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. “It’s not Tom Clancy, but the way it’s been building is phenomenal.”
While many books about race in the South tended to focus on the civil rights years, Once Upon a Time … was set in the forties and fifties. The period had been widely neglected in literature, Galloway wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “perhaps because it is so painful for blacks and embarrassing for many whites.” In Taulbert’s view, however, the pre-civil rights years were a crucial part of American history that should not be allowed to be forgotten. “The era of segregation is like a missing piece of the puzzle,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “Without it, I don’t think we can fully understand the sixties or even today.…Segregation was humiliating and cruel, but everyone today should know there was a sense of family and community behind that wall that white society had erected.”
In 1992 Taulbert published the next installment in his memoirs, The Last Train North, which was later nominated for a Pulitzer prize. The book begins just after Taulbert’s high school graduation, and chronicles his trip north, the period he lived in St. Louis, and his first few years of military service.
Taulbert released the third volume of his memoirs, Watching the Crops Come In, in 1996. This volume opens in 1967, while Taulbert was stationed in Washington, D.C., and the civil rights movement was at its height. On leave, he returns to his hometown and finds a South that is slowly being transformed from within. According to a review in Publishers Weekly, “his eloquent memoir offers a stirring picture of the birth of the new South.” Not all reviews were so positive, however. The Washington Post picked up several factual errors in the text, while criticizing Taulbert for writing about a movement that he did not actively participate in: “If there is a story worth telling here, Taulbert has not found it.”
In 1996, Once Upon a Time was made into a critically acclaimed film starring Phylicia Rashad and Al Freeman, Jr., and directed by Tim Reid. Taulbert co-produced the film, along with Black Entertainment Television and United Image Entertainment. “In a nation torn by racial unhappiness, Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored is a film we need right now,” Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, calling it “one of the most important films I’ve seen this year.”
Taulbert published his fourth book, Eight Habits of the Heart: The Timeless Qualities That Build Strong Communities—Within Our Homes and Our Lives, in 1997. As Taulbert explains in the introduction, the book grew out of a commencement address he delivered at a suburban Chicago high school. Later, he delivered the speech to business groups in the United States, Germany, and Japan and always received an overwhelmingly positive response. Taulbert eventually decided to develop the speech into a book. In the book, he illustrates each of the “eight habits”—a nurturing attitude, dependability, responsibility, friendship, brotherhood, high expectations, courage, and hope—with stories from his childhood.
Taulbert has received numerous awards for his writing, including the 27th annual NAACP Image Award for Literature. He was one of the first African American writers to win the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Nonfiction, and was named one of America’s outstanding black entrepreneurs by Time magazine. He currently travels around the world lecturing and leading workshops designed to build strong communities.
“Today, I wear a label called ‘successful,’ but it would not be so if not for them, the leaders of my ‘colored’ community in Glen Allan, Mississippi, in the 1950s,” Taulbert wrote in an article for USA Weekend. “Because they cared, shared their lives and trusted each other, they showed me the future. I never want to forget the basic ideals they practiced, he concluded.”
Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, Council Oak Books, 1989.
The Last Train North, Council Oak Books, 1989.
Eight Habits of the Heart, Viking/Dial Books, 1997.
Boston Globe, April 4, 1991, p. 65.
Chicago Tribune, March 7, 1991, sec. 5, p. 1; November 4, 1997, sec. 5, p. 1.
Jet, February 5, 1996, p. 32.
Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1990, sec. E, p. 1.
USA Weekend, January 19-21, 1996, p. 10
Washington Post, January 26, 1996, sec. F, p. 1.
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