Work Archives - StoryCorps

Two Bartenders Remember the Highs and Lows of Working at Brooklyn’s Historic Starlite Lounge

Sometimes a bar is more than just a business, it’s a part of history. These bars are places where cultures flourish, and often become a second home to devoted customers and a treasured landmark that neighbors proudly claim. For many years that was the Starlite Lounge in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which was one of the first Black-owned gay bars in the city.

“It was the most welcoming place in the world,” Albert Johnson remembers.

Closing night at the Starlite Lounge in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in summer 2010. Courtesy of Donna Cuthbert.

Albert tended bar at the Starlite for nine years, and in 2010 he came to StoryCorps with fellow bartender Donna Cuthbert to talk about their time working there; the nights of dancing, the beloved jukebox and the eccentric regulars—some of whom refused to go home.

That same year the property owner sold the building, and despite efforts by the local community it was last call for the Starlite. But its legacy as a gathering space for the gay Black community lives on in the memories of its former employees and patrons.

Originally aired December 30, 2022 on NPR’s Morning Edition. 

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

With your support, StoryCorps is able to record more stories that help lift up underrepresented voices, bridge political and social divides, and preserve personal histories for the future.

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The Women Behind The Men – James Brown’s Backing Singers Look Back on Life’s Choices

As a kid growing up in the late 1950s, Sandra Bears used to sit at the top of her basement steps, and watch her older brother’s singing group practice. She and her girlfriends decided they wanted to do the same thing, so they started their own group.

By the time they got to Roosevelt High School, in Washington, D.C., they were recording songs together. One day, they held an audition for a new member, and that’s when they met 16-year-old Martha Harvin. She hit her first note in harmony with the girls… and the rest is history.

3 out of 4 of the members of the girl group “The Jewels” (Sandra Bears, Grace Ruffin, and Martha Harvin pose for a Dimension Records publicity portrait in 1964 in New York, New York. Photo by James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Image.

The girls started performing out across the country, and they eventually were invited to a one week show for up and coming artists at the Apollo Theater. Every night they got a standing ovation, but one special night changed the course of their lives.

Martha High performing with James Brown.

Sandra and Martha came to StoryCorps in 2022, to look back on that time, their life choices, and their lasting friendship.

Top Photo: Martha High in Amsterdam, and Sandra Bears in Washington D.C., at their virtual StoryCorps interview on May 14, 2022, for StoryCorps.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired December 16th, 2022, on NPR’s Morning Edition. 

How An Unexpected Deportation Cut A Young Musician’s Career Short

Decio Rubano still remembers the day he learned to play the drums. He was 12- years-old and playing stickball outside his home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when his uncle Jimmy pulled up in his car. It was the start of WWll and Jimmy, a working musician, had just lost his drummer to the Army. Rubano remembers his uncle saying, “Hey kid, I need a drummer tonight, so you’re going to play.” Jimmy took out two spoons and showed Rubano how different beats were played.

From that first performance, Rubano says he got “the bug” and couldn’t stop making music. After high school, his career as a drummer was taking off until one night, when he was visiting his grandparents, a pair of immigration officers knocked on the door—Rubano was quickly deported to Montreal, Canada.

Middle Photo: At 17 years-old, Decio Rubano began his professional drumming career when he was scouted to play on the Arthur Godfrey radio show in Miami. Courtesy of Gina Livingston.

Rubano had been born in Montreal because his opera singer mother had taken a job for the season at the Montreal Civic Opera while pregnant with Rubano. As a young man, Rubano was shocked to learn he was not a U.S. citizen.

Rubano signed up for the U.S. Air Force and served in the Korean War. While he continued playing the drums for many years, he never returned to the music business. At StoryCorps, Rubano tells his daughter, Gina Livingston, “I did one thing right in my life. I raised you. You’ve been a joy as a daughter. Everybody should be as lucky as I am.”

Bottom Photo: While stationed on Johnston Island with the US Air Force, Decio Rubano hosted a jazz radio station in his spare time.  Courtesy of Gina Livingston. 

Top Photo: Decio Rubano and Gina Livingston at their StoryCorps interview in Decatur, Georgia on October 31, 2022. By John St. Denis for StoryCorps.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired November 11, 2022, on NPR’s Morning Edition. 

Your support makes it possible for StoryCorps, an independently funded nonprofit, to collect, archive, and share the stories of people from all backgrounds because everyone’s stories deserve to be heard.

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“We Didn’t Have Time To Be Afraid”: Two Army Nurses Reflect On Serving At The Front Lines

Army veterans Diane Evans and Edie Meeks arrived in Plaiku, Vietnam on the same day in February of 1969. Both were from Minnesota, and they built an almost instant friendship. And they were “hooch” neighbors, so bunked right next to each other.

Diane Evans in Long Binh, Vietnam in 1968. Courtesy of Diane Evans.

In 1969, Plaiku was one of the hot spots of the war, and Diane and Edie worked as nurses on the front lines. They saw casualties of war firsthand, but they never shied away from their job of protecting their patients.

They came to StoryCorps to share their story of service.

Diane Evans treating wounded soldiers at the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau, Vietnam in 1968. Courtesy of Diane Evans.
Top Photo: Diane Evans and Edie Meeks at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Diane Evans.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired November 5, 2022, on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Your support makes it possible for StoryCorps, an independently funded nonprofit, to collect, archive, and share the stories of people from all backgrounds because everyone’s stories deserve to be heard.

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50 Years After Watergate, The White House Staffer Who “Kept His Integrity Intact”

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at  the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. One was a former employee of the CIA.

As the senate select committee began looking into President Richard Nixon’s involvement, a Republican staffer blew the lid off that investigation by revealing a treasure trove of evidence. 

A few years earlier, at Nixon’s request, Alexander Butterfield — a deputy assistant to the president and former Air Force Colonel — had overseen the installation of a voice activated taping system that secretly recorded all of Nixon’s conversations in the Oval Office and other key locations. Butterfield was told the elaborate recording system was for the purpose of gathering archival material for the Nixon Library, but no one who met with the president was made aware of the devices. Those recordings would eventually provide evidence of Nixon’s involvement in the attempted cover-up of the Watergate break in. The president resigned shortly after.  

Butterfield spoke with his friend Tom Johnson about what led to his testimony.

Top Photo: Alexander Butterfield testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee on July 16, 1973. By the Associated Press. 
Middle Photo: Alexander Butterfield and Tom Johnson at their StoryCorps interview in Austin, TX on April 27, 2016. By Jhaleh Akhavan for StoryCorps. 

The original interview took place through a partnership with the 2016 Vietnam War Summit, hosted by the LBJ Presidential Library and The University of Texas at Austin. This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired September 30, 2022 on NPR’s Morning Edition. 

“The Rug Was Swept Out From Under Me”: A 9/11 Survivor From The Pentagon Shares Her Story

Tesia Williams was one of the first in her family to go to college.

Shortly after graduating, she got a job at the Pentagon, and was working as a public affairs specialist when on September 11, 2001, one of four hijacked planes crashed into the building, claiming the lives of 184 victims.

At StoryCorps, her teenage daughter, Mikayla Stephens, learned some new things about what Tesia went through and how the events of that day would eventually shape both of their lives.

Left image: Tesia Williams with daughters Mikayla, Harper and Arissa Stephens, and husband Jamel Stephens, in Washington D.C., in 2018. Right image: The family in 2008, shortly after Mikayla and Arissa arrived in Tesia’s care.

 

 

Top Photo: Mikayla Stephens and Tesia Williams at their StoryCorps interview in Washington, D.C. on August 27, 2021. By Clean Cuts Studios for StoryCorps.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired Sept. 9, 2022, on NPR’s Morning Edition. 

After Four Decades In The Classroom, A Texas Teacher Is Keeping History Alive

Nelva Williamson grew up in a small town near Cape Cod, MA. Her mother was a teacher for 52 years and her father was a career military man.

Nelva Williamson (center) poses with her mother, Vird Ella Williams (left), and her father, Harold Williams (right), at Nelva’s college graduation. 

Nelva grew up with a love and respect for learning that she carried with her throughout her life. As a young woman she found herself drawn to the classroom, and 42 years later that’s still where you will find her. When faced with the option of retiring, Nelva instead decided to help found a public high school in Houston, Texas. The school is an all-girls institution serving predominantly Black and Hispanic students.

Nelva came to StoryCorps with her son Timothy J. Harris to reflect on her 42-year career and the importance of teaching ‘the whole history.’

Top Photo: Nelva Williamson and Timothy J. Harris at their StoryCorps interview in Houston, Texas on May 26, 2022. By Jey Born for StoryCorps.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired August 26, 2022, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Her Father’s Piano And A Page From WWII History

Loretta Berning’s father, Air Force Pilot Major Harold Martin, spent most of World War II training other pilots stateside. But just after the war he was stationed in Germany, flying relief supplies to Allies trapped behind Soviet lines in Berlin.

Harold was also an accomplished musician, playing saxophone in Big Band Jazz groups. Loretta and her younger sister grew up in a house full of music and were expected to learn the piano from a young age.

Harold Martin (5th from the Left in the back row) posing for a photo with Purvis Henson and his orchestra at Macdill Air Force Base in 1947. Photo courtesy of Loretta Berning.

While in Germany, Harold had found a rare and precious object that he had flown back to the States after his tour. It was a Victory Vertical Piano, made by the Steinway and Sons piano makers. In 1942 Steinway was tapped to make war-proof pianos for troops in the field.  In total they made about 2,500 pianos  built to be strong enough to be dropped out of supply planes, resistant to the humidity of the Pacific, and small enough to fit on submarines. Each piano was delivered by parachute from a supply plane.

Loretta Berning, age 15, pictured with the family’s Victory Vertical piano. 

When Harold brought the piano home after the war, it was one of the few to make the roundtrip journey back to the States. For Loretta, it was a lifelong reminder of her father and his love of music.

Top Photo: Loretta Berning at her StoryCorps interview in Mandeville, LA on May 11th, 2022. By Katie Fernelius for StoryCorps.

Originally aired July 30th, 2022, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Doctor Remembers The Lasting Impact Of A Small Gesture

Robert Carolla was just 11 years old when his brother, John, died of Leukemia. It was a dark and quiet time for the family as they grieved the loss of their youngest child.

Norma Carolla (left) with her sons, John (center) and Robert (right), taken in the early 1950s.
Courtesy of Robert Carolla.

Robert later went on to become an oncologist, helping many patients and their families through treatment, and sometimes loss.

During his career, Robert often reflected on a small gesture from his brother’s doctor and the impact it had on his family as they grieved.

At StoryCorps, Dr. Carolla sat down with his wife, Margaret, to remember how it shaped his own career.

Top Photo: Dr. Robert Carolla and Margaret Carolla at their StoryCorps interview in Springfield, Missouri. By Sonia Kinkhabwala for StoryCorps.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired Friday, July 8, 2022, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

“He Took Me Under His Wing”: The Father Figure Who Mentored Aspiring Black Surgeons

As a kid, Vivien Thomas had dreams of being a doctor. He enrolled in college at Tennessee A&I State College, but in 1929, the stock market crashed, and he couldn’t afford to continue. But Thomas was determined to make his dreams a reality, and he got a job working under prominent surgeon, Alfred Blalock. Eventually, Thomas became the Director of Surgical Research Laboratories at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Thomas was at the forefront of medical breakthroughs. He invented several surgical tools and methods, many of which are still used today. He is most notably credited with identifying a solution for a deadly condition known as “Blue Baby Syndrome” — a congenital heart affliction in babies.

During his over four-decade career at Hopkins, Dr. Thomas passed down the knowledge by training dozens of other aspiring surgeons, particularly Black men, like Fred Gilliam and Jerry Harris. 

Fred Gilliam and Jerry Harris at their StoryCorps interview in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by Alletta Cooper for StoryCorps.

Many of the men who Dr. Thomas trained had little-to-no formal medical training before they worked for him, including Fred and Jerry.

They came to StoryCorps to remember the time they spent learning and training under Dr. Thomas, and how his mentorship changed their lives.

Dr. Vivien Thomas in his lab. Public Domain. 

Dr. Vivien Thomas never received a formal medical degree, but In 1976, he received an honorary degree from Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Thomas died in 1985.

Fred Gilliam started his work with Dr. Thomas shortly after finishing high school. Dr. Thomas encouraged and enabled Fred to continue his higher education. Fred received his Associates degree in Emergency Medical Technology, and he went on to work at the American Red Cross.

Jerry Harris had previously been in nursing school before his time with Dr. Thomas. He honed his skills in pediatric surgery during his time with Dr. Thomas, and later stayed at Johns Hopkins as a coordinator in the School of Medicine. Harris died in 2019.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired July 1st, 2022, on NPR’s Morning Edition.