Last week, the country swore in it’s 46th President, Joe Biden. But there was another moment that day that really stood out: the swearing in of Vice President Kamala Harris, who, let’s be honest, is kind of a badass.
Not only is she the country’s first female vice president, but she’s also the first Black and South Asian person to hold that office. And she was sworn in by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice.
Being a “first” definitely comes with its own set of challenges and raises a whole slew of questions about justice in our country. But being first also comes with its own kind of inspiration. It’s a powerful reminder—especially for younger folks—to reimagine what’s possible.
It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m your host Kamilah Kashanie. On today’s episode, we’re listening to conversations with some other badass ladies who were trailblazers in their own right.
To start things off, we’ll hear from Dr. Olivia Hooker. She was born in 1915 in Oklahoma and was thought to be the last surviving witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. That experience stayed with her forever, but in 2018, she sat down for StoryCorps to talk about a different chapter in her life.
Olivia Hooker (OH): This is Olivia J. Hooker. I am now 103 and I was the first Black woman entering the Coast Guard.
I hadn’t known anything about boats before. And I was assured that I would never do any job but scrub decks and wash big pots and pans. But by Jiminy, I never washed a pot. Never scrubbed the deck.
There were girls from so many places. It was so interesting to hear their tales, there were so many things that really impressed me at how different life was in an African American home.
One thing I learned is that it’s a good thing to follow an order. But there are times when it makes sense not to follow an order.
Being in the military, it means a great deal to me because I truly think everyone should do what they can to sustain their country.
That’s Olivia J. Hooker. After leaving the military, she went on to earn a doctorate in psychology, and was part of the Fordham University faculty for more than twenty years. She died in 2018, just two months after this recording.
Next, we’ll hear from another woman, who, like Olivia, soared to new heights—only she did it from the top of a power line. At StoryCorps, Monica Harwell told her daughter Andrea about her unique experience working for Con Edison in New York in the early 90s.
Monica Harwell (MH): I was the first lady to climb poles there. They hated me. Nobody wanted to work with me. They kept bouncing me back and forth from one truck to another. But, uh, I will never forget my first climb on the top of the pole. They was like, ’Ok lady. It’s your turn…’
Andrea Cleveland (AC): ‘You’re up!’
MH: ‘You gotta go up.’ And they placed bets on me. “She’ll never get up that pole.” You know, I wasn’t going to tell you guys like ‘Mommy didn’t do it.’ So I just started climbing.
And when I got to the top of the pole, I was hanging 50 feet in the air, and I started painting my fingernails. And everybody was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, when I go up there I want them to know it’s a woman up there.
AC: I remember when it was parent’s night and you were coming straight from work, and you said, ‘Would you feel embarrassed if I go there with my work boots?’ And I said, ‘Not at all. I’m proud because it shows that my mother works.’ And it’s funny to me because of what I’m doing now.
MH: When I was getting you the job at Con Edison, I really didn’t want you there, ‘cause of all the stuff that I went through dealing with the guys. But, uh, they swear things have changed. Do you see that change?
AC: You have people that just don’t like you, just because.
AC: But I stopped being afraid of what other people thought about me. I learned that from you. Even people that have just crossed paths with you here and there, they say ‘Man your mother, like, that’s a bad woman.’ [Laughs]. You know.
MH: You know you’ve stayed strong in so many things, and that’s why I’ve always called you my eagle. You don’t belong on the ground. And, believe it or not your strength also motivated me and made me keep going.
That’s Monica Harwell speaking with her daughter and fellow Con-Ed employee Andrea Cleveland.
After the break, how a woman in Baltimore built a new career for herself, brick by brick.
Stay with us…
When Barbara Moore started working as a bricklayer in 1973, she was 21 years old and the only woman in Baltimore doing that job. It wasn’t her first job, but like she told her daughter, Olivia, it’s the one that stuck.
Barbara Moore (BM): Right out of high school, I worked in an office, but a couple hours behind a desk and I was falling asleep. So I became a bricklayer.
Olivia Fite (OF): Well I specifically remember getting bullied at school and telling boys that were bullying me, ”You better watch out, my mom’s a bricklayer and she’ll come beat you up, if you mess with me.”
BM: [Laughter] Well it was kind of rough at first ‘cause, you know, a lot of the older guys, didn’t think I should be there and I was taking a job from a man. But I believed that I could do that job.
And I was working with this guy Tony Anello, who was a World War II vet, and he had a plate in his head. And he was, you know, a really old school guy. But he was willing to work with me when a lot of other people did not want me as their partner. And, uh, when he passed away, his daughter called me and said that he wanted to leave me his tools. So that, I think that’s probably – if you’re getting tools from the bricklayers that have gone before you, that would be a sign of respect.
OF: I can’t even really remember a time that you came home and you said, ”Ugh, I’m gonna quit,” or, ”This is too hard.” And I, at a very young age, learned how to massage your calloused hands, and then a little later on in life, sometimes I would paint your fingernails.
BM: Not that a manicure lasted very long.
OF: [Laughter] I noticed that throughout my life, people always come up to me on the street and say, “Are you Barbara Moore’s daughter?” There’s a lot of people in this town that have a great respect for you, and you’ve earned that.
BM: Well you’re very kind.
OF: [Laughter] Well how would you like to be remembered?
BM: The only thing that’s important to me, my dear, is that you remember me.
OF: But you’ve had your hands in so many things that will last for so much longer than either one of us.
BM: I know. I don’t care about that. Whatever I did, it was always something that I wanted to do for you.
That’s Barbara Moore speaking with her daughter Olivia in 2014.
And finally, we’re going to hear from a family rooted in medicine.
It all started with Ruby Brangman, who was a nurse practitioner during the 1970s, and one of the first black women to have that job in New York State.
Years later, Ruby’s daughter, Sharon Brangman, became a doctor, and then so did her daughter, Jenna Lester.
In 2017, Dr. Lester and Dr. Brangman came to StoryCorps to talk about being inspired by the matriarch of their family.
Sharon Brangman (SB): I was probably about 10 years old and I had already decided I was going to be a doctor. But the guidance counselor put me into typing, home economics. And I came home with my books and grandmother was like, ’Oh, no way.’ And I remember she went up to the school and said, ’I want my daughter transferred so she could go to college.’
Jenna Lester (JL): Tell me about your medical school experience.
SB: There was one professor, he would take a picture of an old Negro League baseball player holding a bat and start talking about the muscles using Black dialect. He would show us Playboy centerfolds when he was talking about anatomy. And when you were taking a really hard test, he would walk behind, linger over your shoulder. And he had this horrible pipe. You’d hear a little puff sound and smell this smoke come over you. And he would do that to all the Black students. So this was the classroom.
And I remember my mother telling me, ’It doesn’t matter if the teacher likes you or not. Your job is to learn.’ I mean, she didn’t go to college, but if she had come up in a different era, I think she would have been the first physician in the family.
SB: Was there a moment growing up when you realized what I did?
JL: Well, I remember knowing you were a doctor. I guess my earliest memory is when you came to the first-grade classroom to dissect cow hearts.
SB: Oh yeah, that’s right.
JL: And then you cut them open and you were, like, showing us the valves and the different chambers of the heart. And I was like, ’Wow, this is so cool.’
JL: The typical person who has a long line of doctors in their family are, like, these often white men that I sit next to in class, whose father, grandfather, great-grandfather were doctors. And it’s cool to be a part of the same thing, but that looks very different. To realize all the things that you had to go through, and that grandma had to go through, to get me to where I am today. I feel like I’m working for a little bit more than just myself.
That was Dr. Jenna Lester speaking with her mother Dr. Sharon Brangman.
To close things out, a quote from Vice President Harris that she got from her mom. ”You may be the first to do many things, but make sure that you’re not the last.”
That’s all for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast.
To find out how to record your own interview with a badass lady in your life, go to storycorps.org. While you’re there, you can also see what music we used in this episode, along with original artwork created by Lindsay Mound.
This episode was produced by Sylvie Lubow and edited by Jud Esty-Kendall. Our technical director is Jarrett Floyd, who also composed our theme song. Our fact-checker is Natsumi Ajisaka. Special thanks to StoryCorps producers Liyna Anwar, Danielle Roth, Mia Warren, Afi Yellow-Duke and Kerrie Hillman and facilitators Erika Romero and Cristina Kim.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m your host Kamilah Kashanie. Catch you next week.