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The Supremes' Mary Wilson Reflects on Segregated South In Final Billboard Interview

The Supremes
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The Supremes

Mary Wilson, founding member of the Supremes, died Monday (Feb. 8) at her home in Henderson, Nevada at age 76. In her last interview with Billboard, conducted last summer in the wake of George Floyd's death, the Motown legend spoke about the segregation she faced while touring the South as one of pop’s biggest stars and compared her experiences to the systemic racism that still permeates the U.S.

"I'm glad people are protesting," she said. "I just really would like to see it move to a good result." Below is our interview with Wilson, condensed and edited.

When artists encountered segregation at restaurants in the '60s, and said, "Forget it, we're not eating there," what were the repercussions? Did you sometimes not eat?

Did you hear about that "Green Book"? We were going to different cities, so lots of planning had to be done before you left so you knew exactly where to go or where not to go. Someone had to have known where you could stop. Most of the time, in the South, you would stop at a restaurant and you could order -- like they're doing now -- curbside. You could go to the back and have the food taken out. However, sometimes if you stopped at a place where you tried to go in to eat and they said, "I'm sorry, we don't serve Black people here," you'd have to get back on the bus. On the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour, which was a multiracial bus tour from the American Bandstand days -- Gene Pitney, Jan and Dean, a lot of white and Black acts -- you had to know where interracial people could eat and most of the times that could not even happen. Dick Clark said, a couple of times, "If you don't take us all, then none of us could come in." He would say, "Get back on the bus," and we'd get back on the bus and find the right place.

Somebody from Motown handled routing, hotels and restaurants, so the artists mostly wouldn't have to deal with that type of segregation on the spot, right?

One thing about being on Motown, they always had the planning worked out. We stood on shoulders of people like Sammy Davis, Lena Horne, Rochester [vaudeville star Eddie Anderson]. They always had to do that, in terms of knowing where to go and where not to go. That was just a way of life.

I read in your book the discussion of how the audiences were segregated, especially early on -- Black people in the balcony, whites on the floor. How frequently did that happen?

We're really speaking about in the South. In other areas, it would be certain nights. You'd go to a show, and it'd be all Black, and another night, it'd be all white. Most of the places in the South were always divided. If it was one floor, the Blacks would be on one side, the whites would be on another side. A lot of times there would be a balcony -- they called us "colored" then -- the colored people would be in the balcony and the white people would be down on the floor.

I was born in the South. When I visited [before the Supremes], my cousin came to one of the shows and said, "OK, Mary, don't you be throwing anything. Even if you see someone else throwing popcorn on the white people, don't you throw any!" The Black people would throw popcorn down on the white people! Because everyone's young. It's a young, foolish thing. One time I was 17, and I was visiting the South because my father had died, and my cousin who lived there said, "We've got to go buy you some socks." We would go downtown in Greenville, Mississippi, and I was like, "These are cheap-looking socks, and look at this tie, this is cheap." And the [white] guy heard me say that and said, "I know she's not from down here because she's talking like one of them northerners." And my cousin said, "Mary, please, I've got to live here! You're going home as soon as you bury your father, so be quiet." And that's the way it was.

And you couldn't drink out of a water fountain for whites, if you were Black. In 1955, when Emmett Till died, I remember seeing it in Jet or Ebony. I must have been 12 or 13. That blew my mind, because in Detroit, I'd never experienced anything like that. My mom and aunt would tell me about it. That was the first time I ever saw racial things.

In the '50s and the early '60s, segregation in Detroit was still huge, but you lived in your Black area, and if you're white, you lived in your white area. We didn't feel it as much in the North. You didn't go to somebody else's neighborhood. We didn't have to go to the white neighborhood. You had to know. You knew where to go and where not to go.

But when we started touring, that was firsthand.

My family is from Detroit and my parents have passed, but they were a little older than you -- they would have been in their 80s now. But they were part of the segregated system you described. They moved to the white suburbs before I was born. I'm asking about the South, but segregation was just as present in the North, right?

That's the way it was worldwide. All over America. You knew your place because the law said you couldn't vote or the law said whatever. White people obeyed the law, too. So if they were told that Black people were not citizens and were lazy and ugly and slow and violent and this and that, well, then, you believed it -- until Civil Rights started being talked about, and Martin Luther King, and everyone started protesting. Just like we as Black people were told white people didn't like us, white people were told that Black people didn't like them. You grew up with these beliefs.

My mother was a domestic worker and she worked with a family. She raised their children, she cleaned their house and they loved her. That's the way it was. It was very cruel sometimes. That's why I mentioned Emmett Till, because that brought it home for a lot of people. Because the laws were still the way they were. And people are still being hung and beaten and everything else.

How did you experience the segregated concerts from a performer's point of view? How surreal and disturbing was that to see that in the audience?

That's the law. [Laughs ruefully.] We were law-abiding people. We were up there to entertain and enjoying what we were doing. We were hoping that people there could still enjoy even though they were segregated. That was going on for years. We weren't the first. It was going on back in the big-band days. It was back when white people would go down to Harlem to see all the Black people perform in the clubs.

You talk about some of this in your book, but despite the careful tour planning, how often did you encounter white cops or others who were scaring artists and their entourages on the road?

In those days, if you would see a busload of Black people coming into your town, the policemen would think, if you were a stranger, "What are you coming into town for?" "Oh, you're coming and doing a show, OK." You can be sure they're going to follow you everywhere you go. So, yeah, always. We had times when we were shot at. The bus was shot at. We didn't have that kind of problem with Dick Clark's tour because, of course, there were white artists on it as well. If it was just a busload of Black people, then you can bet they would be weird. One policeman, I can't think of his name, told us, "I'll help you out of town, but just keep on going through, don't stop."

Did you ever feel like your life was in danger?

Well, the time the bus was shot at, yeah. We were all scrambling to get on the bus. That was the Motown Revue tour, too.

Duke Fakir of the Four Tops told me everybody on the bus was carrying a firearm for exactly this reason. Was that your experience, too?

No, we were girls. We didn't do all that kind of stuff. Maybe the guys did. And they were older. I didn't know anything about it.

The Supremes were so huge during this period -- did that help transcend some of the segregation? I don't mean to ask a naïve question, because obviously segregation affected everybody.

Oh, sure! One time, on one of those tours, we were coming at a motel and someone on the bus said, "Hey, it's a swimming pool here!" Everyone ran up to their room, changed their clothes, came back down and jumped in the pool -- and the white people who were there jumped out. Somebody had a transistor and the music came on and they started playing our music. One of the white people saw that and said, "Oh my God, is that who that is?" When they found out it was us, they all jumped back in the pool and we partied the rest of the day together.

That's a great story.

That's just one thing I remember because it was so funny, you know? But it's the same way now. I can go into a shop to buy something and may not be waited on right away. But if someone finds out I'm Mary Wilson, they'll bring me everything in the shop and try to sell me.

When did you stop noticing this blatant segregation while you were on tour? Did it fade away after the Civil Rights Movement?

You never stopped noticing it. I'm a pretty bubbly person. In a mall, if I tell a Black person, "Hey, how you doing?" they'll say, "Hey, how you doing?" But a white maybe won't even look at you dead in the eye.

I acknowledge segregation continues to this day, but it does seem like certain things, like having to eat at segregated restaurants and sleep at segregated hotels, eventually ended, right?

When the Civil Rights deal passed, and Blacks could vote and women could vote, then it changed. When the laws changed, it changed. You could go where you wanted to go.

I wonder what you make of the Black Lives Matter activity of the last few weeks -- and years. Is it something you've been following? Do you find it inspiring? Familiar?

The first time, in the '60s, when we were marching with Martin Luther King, it was really wonderful. His whole premise was peace. Today, what I'm seeing is that people are marching and they're protesting and the people who are doing that are peaceful. There are always people who are in there to disrupt certain things. That part of it is not happy. Even back then, people were marching and police were siccing wild dogs on them. I just hope we can get this done -- move onto the next phase of evolution of human living on this earth, and we can do it without much violence. I'm 76. I don't want to see violence at all, period. But sometimes there is violence.

I do want things to change so that people will not feel like I had to feel when I was growing up -- that I was not good enough, that I was not human. This is in our lifetime. This is in your lifetime. It's time to get beyond it.