A Short Visit with Vera Shorter

Vera Shorter at home. Photo by Lynn Christoffers

On Books, Civil Rights and Smoking

At 92, Vera Shorter has slowed down. Slightly. Her days of consciousness-raising to fight racism and injustice wherever she found it have passed, but her spunk, her no-holds-barred opinions, her attitude — and a laugh that says so much more than ha ha — are fully intact.

Born and raised on Long Island, trained as an accountant, Vera worked her way up at the Manhattan IRS headquarters to supervisor of tax auditors, and went on to become the IRS’s first African-American equal employment opportunity officer. Her husband, Rufus, had been on the New York City Board of Education when he was hired in 1976 as Martha’s Vineyard’s Superintendent of Schools (the first African American to hold that title). That’s when the couple moved full-time to the Island; their two adult daughters were already out on their own.

Vera was active in the civil rights movement in New York, joined the local NAACP chapter, and served at such other Island organizations as the Nathan Mayhew Seminars and the Affirmative Action Advisory Committee to the Vineyard schools.

It’s fitting this interview took place just after the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, on a chilly spring afternoon at her home of some 40 years, off the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, which looks out over Lagoon Pond. She sat in her favorite stuffed chair against the window, her command post. As is her custom with all guests, some nibbles and something to quaff were proffered. But one thing was missing …

Perry Garfinkel: Since you have been written about in so many Island publications over the years, we need a new news hook, so to speak. So, what’s new?

Vera Shorter: Well, stop the presses: I quit smoking.

PG: For real? You were like a human smokestack. I thought I noticed that smell missing. How or why did such a smart woman like you get into that habit in the first place? And how did you stop?

VS: It had been 62 years; I started at 24 when I was so stressed out about terrible face and neck welts that no one could diagnose, until one smart Harlem allergist figured out it was Rufus’s shaving cream. I started smoking then as some kind of psychological weapon. I must have had a reason for not stopping … but I can’t think of it now. Then in 2011, I just stopped; something just clicked. Once you make up your mind, you can do anything.

PG: And you never had any physical repercussions?

VS: (She knocks on wood.): No chest pains, no heart problems, no lung or respiratory problems, no cancer. My doctor couldn’t believe it.

PG: You dodged a bullet. We should drink to that.

VS: Definitely. (We sip vodka.)

PG: Tell me more about those years you were so involved in fighting racism.

VS: I wasn’t a rabble-rouser — I was a peaceful activist. Both Rufus and I believed people would change their attitudes if we persevered relentlessly but with dignity. We felt reaching and educating young people was a very good strategy to bring a brighter future. That’s part of why I became an advisor to New York’s citywide youth committee, a volunteer group — inclusive of both blacks and whites, I might add — that helped give young people the education and tools to fight racism and discrimination. I was also a member of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, known as ASNLH, but later changed to Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH – more PC.

PG: I know you have always been a proponent of nonviolent protest. But have you ever been involved in a protest that challenged that stance?

VS: Well, I don’t know how dramatic it was in the context of so many other events and nonviolent confrontations, but I got arrested one time. Our youth group went to protest at a skating arena that wouldn’t allow black kids in. Some sailors started provoking and attacking us verbally. I told one officer they should try to intercede before someone gets hit. He said, “You shouldn’t be doing this in the first place.” You don’t say that to me. I took his badge number and said, “I am passing this information on if I die or anyone here dies.” Then a sailor pushed me, but I didn’t push back. That cop saw this, looked embarrassed and said, “Let’s put an end to this.” But instead of arresting the sailors, he booked all of us.

PG: On what charges?

VS: Disturbing the peace — isn’t that what they always get you on? (We both laugh.) They take your fingerprints and all that; we weren’t thrown in jail. But I wondered about the impact of that arrest record a few years later when I applied for the IRS job. I was asked about it, I explained the details — and don’t you know they hired me anyway. So it gave me a different attitude toward the IRS.

PG: I know you are still a voracious reader. And I know about the book club you belong to, through our mutual friend Arlan Wise, who is a member.

VS: Actually I belong to two, one in winter, one in summer. You know the winter one, which has been going on for some 15 years, usually once a month from fall to late spring. It’s a very eclectic group. We’re only about eight of us, but every woman — yes, just women — has something unique going on, and all are so smart, with strong points of view, which always makes things, well, interesting. We pick books by consensus; someone suggests a book they recently read, and we all get to decide if that’s next.

PG: And the summer group?

VS: That’s about 25 women who select books by black authors. There are a bunch of Ph.D.s, but absolutely no pretension about their academic or professional credentials.

PG: In your many years of accomplishments, what will be the legacy you leave behind that you’re most proud of?

VS: (without hesitance): My daughters, who both live in Europe now. Lynn Shorter, my elder, is a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Central Lancaster in Preston, England. Went to Bard and BU, and has a master’s from Smith. Beth Shorter-Bagot, Barnard grad, former dancer with Alvin Ailey and Bob Fosse, married a French man and lives in Sancerre, France, with their two children. She teaches French and English at a private language school there. What I feel more proud of than their professional accomplishments — I know Rufus would feel the same — is that they are both highly cognizant of the global situation. They believe in helping others. If the world had more of them, perhaps we would have less people doing harm to each other.

PG: Do you listen to books on tape?

VS: Nah, I like reading. I see the images better when I read, I can imagine the characters’ voices as I choose, not as some reader reads. Maybe that’s old school, but at this age — hey, I can’t fake being a Generation Whatever-er. And I can do what I want, right?

PG: Right. (We click glasses.)

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