She had what it took – Johnson City’s Laurice Coxe broke white-collar color barrier at local VA hospital

Black History Month

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Laurice Coxe had been a government worker in the early 1940s, taught school for a few years and served as a high school secretary in the 1950s.

But when the early ’60s rolled around and the VA hospital at Mountain Home was under orders to hire its first black “GS” worker, Coxe — then Laurice Yett — was toiling at one of the most common occupations for black women.

“She was a housekeeper — nanny,” Coxe’s son, Wayne Yett, said recently.

It wasn’t just any housekeeping job, though, and Coxe — then Laurice Yett — wasn’t just any person. That’s why Barbara and Herb Shulman encouraged her to leave them and their seven children when it became clear that if she wanted to break the color barrier at Mountain Home, all she had to do was say the word.

Interviewed in February 2020, Coxe — who died last August not long before she would have celebrated her 98th birthday — remembered well the lead up to a job that would change her life and allow her to prove just how capable she was.

The late Laurice Coxe, then 97, gestures during a February 2020 interview.

“The word had come down from Washington that they had to hire somebody,” Coxe said, referring to apparent pressure on the local VA to hire a black person for a “General Schedule” position. The federal employment designation most commonly refers to employees in professional, technical, administrative or clerical positions — none of which had been filled by a black person prior to Coxe’s hiring.

“At that time we all said the politics were done at the pool room,” Coxe remembered. “It came down then that somebody — what was that — Kefauver was in and he happened to go to the pool room and he put this message out, and somebody gave him my name.”

Coxe most likely was referring to Estes Kefauver, a U.S. senator from Tennessee who died while in office in 1963.

“I had not applied for a job at the VA,” Coxe said — despite the fact that she’d passed the civil service exam during World War II and worked for the government in New York City as a young woman during the war.

“They knew that I’d had the experience so somebody gave them my name,” Coxe said.

She certainly did. In fact, just a few years before the Shulmans moved to Johnson City from Massachusetts, Coxe had been the secretary at Langston, Johnson City’s segregated high school.

That job lasted until the school’s principal J. Neil Armstrong — considered one of the South’s top leaders at a black high school — was fired by Johnson City’s all-white school board in 1954.

So by the early ’60s, Coxe was pouring into the seven Shulman children by day and returning to her sons, Charles and Wayne, at night. Then came the opportunity — which Coxe remembered receiving with some skepticism.

“Well they called me and the first time they called me I said, ‘I’m not wasting my time — I know what their hiring practices are,'” she said.

Yett, one of her two sons, said his mother had every reason to feel that way. Mountain Home was a closed shop to blacks in many sectors.

Wayne Yett retired from Ford Motor Company and returned to Johnson City from Michigan several years before his mother, who he said was his hero, passed away.

“There were blacks out there but they were not in the white collar jobs,” Yett said. “You were cooking and you were cleaning. You was on the maintenance, grounds – but you were not a GS employee.”

But Yett also remembers the pool room — Simeon’s, a black owned business — and the role it played in local and sometimes even regional politics.

“And the information that was going on in the city came through there,” Yett said. “And (someone) told my mother, ‘you know you’re qualified – the job is yours.’”

“Because a lot of people at the VA, you know people didn’t want to be seen in certain places, but a lot of them went up there, managers and things went up there.”

The Shulmans weigh in

Yett remembers the Shulman family encouraging his mother to strongly consider the VA opportunity.

“My mother was at work and Miss Barbara Shulman told her, ‘Laurice, you have this job.’ And she said ‘I don’t wanna lose you. I want you to be here forever. But this is an opportunity for you.

Laurice Coxe had plenty keeping her busy before taking the VA job, helping care for the seven Shulman children, shown here officially all grown up.

‘We can match your salary out there, but you need that opportunity. Not just for yourself,’ Miss Shulman told her – ‘not just for yourself.’”

So Coxe took the job, leaving among others young Bette, Susan and Connie Shulman and their brother, Bill.

“I knew how crushed we were when our mom told us that Laurice was gonna take this really important job and she was gonna have to leave, and it was actually kind of devastating,” Connie Shulman said during a Zoom interview with several siblings Feb. 14.

The family was Jewish, and Susan Shulman Taylor said when they moved to a small Southern city in 1956, “their understanding of people who come from a different perspective was pretty great.

“I remember my mom saying, ‘this is important, this is something that Laurice needs to do and we will all be fine and we will support her.”

Another sister, Bette Shulman, remembers Coxe’s quiet dignity.

“You could tell when you were with her how you were supposed to act,” she said. “You were supposed to be a good person, you were supposed to do the right thing, you were supposed to honor justice, and that was just who she was, so when you were in her presence that’s the way I know I wanted to be.”

Bette Shulman said she expects that’s the kind of approach Coxe took when she said goodbye to the friendly environment of the Shulmans’ house — letting the kids run relays inside, sleeping at the end of the bed when little Connie couldn’t sleep, watching Mannix with them — for a new frontier that wasn’t guaranteed to be the least bit friendly.

“I think she just went into her work at the VA as a person who was going to do a good job and not worry about the people around her not liking her or being against her,” Shulman said. “She just didn’t think that way about human beings.”

Barrier breaking

When she first started in her GS role, which she said “paid well,” Coxe worked in the lab area. She remembered being at least slightly acquainted with one of the doctors there and said that helped a bit as she entered an all-white arena.

She recounted a moment with a lab technician with whom she’d developed a good rapport that illustrated the prevailing attitudes that were even held by this friend.

“We’d talk about everything,” Coxe said. “So one day he said to me, he said ‘you know what, if all colored people were like you I would like ’em.’ And I said, ‘Alan, if all white people were like you I would like em.’

“So we laughed about that but he got the message. Don’t  like me or dislike me for the color of my skin, like me or dislike me for who I am.”

Not everyone acted like Alan, though. Yett remembers his mother and uncle sometimes talking in hushed tones during the evenings after she’d get home from work “fit to be tied,” as he put it.

“He’d come down and they’d talk silently,” Yett said. “And I know that was her venting to him, and he was her wall. He was her wall to vent to. ‘Cause sometimes I know she wanted to quit, because she could always go back to Miss Shulman. She didn’t. She stood her ground and stayed.”

Laurice Coxe accepts her diploma at East Tennessee State University.

Coxe didn’t just stay. She moved up. Yett remembered her continually striving for self-improvement.

“She’d come home from work, we’d sit here, she’d study,” he said. “She was going to school at (East Tennessee State University) and I knew that was quiet time. She had her record player and she’d learned to do stenography work and stuff like that, but it was quiet time.”

Perhaps Coxe throwing herself into that part of her work helped allay some of the uncertainty she felt in a difficult environment — though she said she was “fortunate” to work with the group she did.

“You had to break the ice, some of them had this thing in their mind. They had a mindset as to what to expect from us and it’s so wrong. It’s wrong.”

Coxe recalled a patient coming in and staring at her before finally asking what nationality she was. She told she was American and he said “‘I never would have thought you were a (n-word,'” she said.

“Then he started apologizing all over the place and I got tickled. You know ordinarily I would have gone through the ceiling, but he started apologizing, apologizing and then used this old cliche that burns me up, about, ‘some of my father’s best friends.'”

Yett said those years, and her life as a whole, made his mother a hero in his eyes.

“To me she was like the Jackie Robinson,” Yett said. “She could take things, you know, and be able to come home and leave it there and go back the next day and put up with some BS. But she could take it.”

Susan Shulman Taylor referenced another well-known person from the Civil Rights era when describing Coxe.

“Looking to people who are courageous and who are willing to take a stand, put themselves out there, I would say that Laurice is one of those people,” Taylor said. “In a bigger city, in a different setting, she’s Rosa Parks.”

Climbing the ladder on the rungs of merit

In fact, Coxe did end up in a different city. After marrying William Coxe, she moved to Washington, D.C. where he was a school administrator. Armed with her bachelor’s degree from ETSU and some years of experience, Coxe wound up in a high-level position.

“She was the person that sent out investigators to investigate fraud in the VA system, the hospitals in the VA system,” Yett said.

Laurice Coxe with son Wayne Yett, center, and nephew Michael Young at the opening of the Langston Centre in Johnson City, November 2019.

“She did it, she had a lot of employees up under her, younger people that she tried to cultivate, and I’m very proud of her – my stepfather’s more proud of her – I mean he threw the flag up for her any chance he got.”

John Birchette operates Birchette Mortuary in Johnson City and remembers his grandmother taking him to Washington when he was 9 years old around 1976. She and Coxe were close friends and Coxe was already working there.

“I was looking forward to visiting the monuments and figured I’d be impressed by all that, but I remember when she took me to Ms. Coxe’s office and I saw this black lady in that kind of role, supervising all these people — it really stuck with me,” Birchette said.

As Yett put it, “she proved Miss Shulman right.”

The Shulmans remained close to Coxe, Yett and the entire family through the years. Connie Shulman wasn’t surprised to hear of Yett’s description of his mom as a mentor to young co-workers.

“She helped bring me out of my shell,” said Connie, who came out of that shell enough to carve out a still-active career as an actress — including a significant role in “Orange is the New Black.”

“She was a very small person, and I was small.

“Her strength, her ability to pull me out, that says who she was,” she said. “That she could find that voice in somebody else that couldn’t find it yet. And she helped me find mine.”

Laurice Coxe in the late 1970s with Susan Shulman Taylor’s oldest child, who will be 45 this year.

Taylor said that nurturing came in a stern package, but that Coxe really became a long-term parental figure after Herb Shulman died in 1991 and Barbara followed in 1992.

She remembered Coxe at a family event, years after their parents had died, telling her and Bette — both of whom have adopted children — how proud their parents would have been of them.

“And it mattering that she said that, because it was like a voice of our parents of that generation who said, ‘you’re doin’ a good job.’ And they weren’t there to say that.

“But she was always quick to say what was true and to point out and be proud when she had a reason to be. She wasn’t a person who was going to BS you at all. She wasn’t gonna tell you you were doing something great if you weren’t, and because of that I think most of us were a little afraid of her growing up.

“Her approval mattered and so I’m sure it did in probably every facet of work or in any place that she was involved. That people looked to her to win that approval, that that approval mattered and that she gave it when it was due.”

At the mountaintop? Not Yett

Yett, who earned an engineering degree in Michigan and carved out a long career with Ford Motor Company before moving back to Johnson City several years ago, said he doesn’t believe his mother was completely satisfied with the extent of racial progress even when she died.

“I think there’s a place where we’re allowed to go – and don’t cross the line,” Yett said, adding that the country has “plenty of room for improvement.”

“I would tell any white person who asked me a question ‘what do you want?’ – And I would tell them, the same thing, the opportunities, the same thing that you’re allowed to get. Go to the bank, get a loan for 2 percent instead of 10 percent.

“I don’t want to take nothing from you. I can’t take nothing from you. I just want the same thing. There’s a quote that I like (from) John Lewis saying – ‘let’s make trouble – good trouble.’ And I’ll stand up for that any day.”

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