Patricia L. Yancey remembers the stories her late father, Paul Lawrence Rivers, told of how proud he was to be an American citizen and to serve in the Army during the 1940s even though it was segregated and he experienced many instances of racism. In the Army, he was an ambulance driver and EMT, but once he retired from the military, he was not able to find a job. She said the difficulty stemmed from him being African-American and his wife being Japanese. He met her while serving in Japan during World War II.
After her father wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy, Mrs. Yancey said, he received a letter from the White House saying the president's staff would help him secure employment as an EMT at the General Cutler Army Hospital at Fort Devens. "As a young child my father would read the letter to me and tell me over and over that it was important that I vote for the people who would help working families. Election night was always a big night in our household and still is today," said Mrs. Yancey, who lives in Holden.
Getting people to vote is one of the main goals of Mrs. Yancey in her role as president of the Worcester branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The local branch was established in the 1920s and was inactive for at least four years before being revived in spring 2011. Mrs. Yancey's two-year term as president runs through December 2014.
"I wanted to become president because I didn't want the chapter to die. I saw the branch was struggling, and the skill sets they were looking for, I could do," said Mrs. Yancey, who has degrees and certificates in business management, graphic design and web design. "The community needs to understand the importance of the NAACP and how we are empowered as a community to make the changes that we need to make." The mission of all the branches is the same as that of the Baltimore-based national organization: to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination. The organization continues to answer that call, but has identified what it calls the "game changers for the 21st century." The five game changers address the major areas of inequality facing African-Americans: economic sustainability, education, health, public safety and criminal justice, and voter rights and political representation. "All these issues impact our community the most. We realize we have to address issues on a socio-economic level," she said.
Most people know about the NAACP through its work before and during the turbulent civil rights era. The organization was formed in 1909 partly in response to a 1908 race riot in Springfield, Ill., the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated slaves, and the horrific lynchings and other violence against African-Americans in the United States. Its starting date coincided with the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birthday.
Mrs. Yancey said that as a child growing up in retired military housing in Clinton in the 1960s and early 1970s, for the most part she got along with her peers even though there were only five African-Americans or mixed-race families in the small, mostly Irish Catholic community. Her parents, she said, were fearful of the quality of life they would have not only because of the color of their skin, but because her mother was Japanese. She said her mother, Kazuko Rivers, 82, of Springfield, stopped the family from speaking her native language in hopes that they would not be looked at differently. "I regret we don't speak Japanese anymore and that part of my culture was not strengthened because she experienced prejudice after World War II because of how people felt about Japanese and blacks," said Mrs. Yancey.
She said that being a cheerleader and athlete helped her bond with people her age, but it was different for the parents because they grew up in a different generation and had their own prejudices that were imposed on them. One particular instance of racism, in which Clinton High School's football team was about to play a team from Fort Devens, has stayed with her throughout her life. "I remember being called into the office because they were concerned there would be some racial tension if I attended the game," she recalled. "I told my father and he went to my school. He told them, 'You will not treat my daughter like that. Any game the team goes to she will go.' There were no problems after that."
Mrs. Yancey said the NAACP, the country's largest and most organized civil rights advocacy group, remains as needed as ever and continues to experience successes all over the country. "You look in Florida. If it was not for the NAACP, what happened to Travon Martin would not have come to light," she pointed out. "The stop-and-frisk for no legal reason in New York and New Jersey ... the NAACP there is fighting against that. And we're fighting against voter ID laws that disproportionately punish minority and poor people who are less likely to have forms of identification." During a speech in August on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Mrs. Yancey's husband, Dr. George M. Yancey, a retired veterinarian, said to make Rev. King's dream a reality, "stand your ground" laws need to be abolished and the Voting Rights Act needs to be reinstated nationwide. Dr. Yancey is the branch's first vice president and religious affairs chairman.
"There's no other organization that has the strength ... the numbers to mobilize people. That's why I wanted to become president ... to share this with our community so our kids can have equal access to better education, fair housing, economic success and an equitable distribution of justice," Mrs. Yancey said. Since its resurrection the Worcester NAACP branch has begun to grow in membership and accomplishments. Even more encouraging, the branch is partnering with other organizations. The branch is working with Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement in its efforts to redirect resources from expanding prisons to creating opportunities to help those who have paid their debt to society. NAACP members also worked with the Committee for Public Counsel Services to hold two youth empowerment workshops at Worcester Youth Center regarding voter rights and civil rights when stopped by the police and to teach youths about voter rights and consequences of being involved in the juvenile system.
The branch recently worked with the Initiative for Engaged Citizenship, an arm of Mass Vote, to sponsor two forums for candidates for the Worcester School Committee and Worcester City Council. Last year, through IEC, the branch reached out to more than 3,000 people to encourage them to register to vote if they haven't and to vote. The group also brought former interim U.S. Sen. William "Mo" Cowan to Worcester State University to speak to elementary students at the Chandler Magnet School on the democratic process. Mrs. Yancey said she has a lot of high hopes for what the NAACP volunteers and other members of the community can make in the lives of people in Worcester.
"One of the things I hope that comes out of it is we groom our young people to become city councilors ... to sit on the School Committee ... to become mayor to diversity our government because we really don't have that now," she said. "And I hope we teach people the importance of our vote. Our vote is our voice and our strength. People don't realize how much power we have if we were united and voted."