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My name is Arnold Townsend, Reverend Arnold Townsend. I was born in Phoenix, Arizona in a Catholic father's Indian Mission clinic, because in 1943 African-Americans were not allowed to be treated in area hospitals in Phoenix. At four months old—I was born to an unwed mother, and at four months old went to Rentiesville, Oklahoma to live with my grandparents until I was about nine years old. In Rentiesville, Oklahoma it's a little all black town in Oklahoma. So I grew up in a very—well, spent the first six years of my life, certainly most of my early life, in a very protected, secure, insolated environment that had me believing at that time that there were more African-Americans in the world than there were white people, because I only saw white people when we went to town shopping and we saw the one white family whose ranch was right next to our farm and they were friends and I thought they were pretty much it. So that's kind of how, where I started. And then at six years old we came to Los Angeles, California. And I grew up there and went to a couple of elementary schools. The last and the one that had the most effect on my life was a place called Western Avenue Elementary School and went from there to John Muir Junior High School, then one year at Manuel Arts High School and the last two years at Dorsie High School in Los Angeles, which is a place that's had quite a few famous folk: athletes, musicians and people like that. And actors, because we're in L.A., and we got some Hollywood stuff going there, you know. So a lot of the those kind of people came out of that school who I knew and grew up with many of them and then some came right after me like Billy Preston and other well-known people like that.
What were your parents' names and their professions?
My mother's name was Thelma Nancy Rose, which she dropped the Rose cause she thought it was country. Thelma Nancy Cornwell C-O-R-N-W-E-L-L. She was born to my grandfather Ed Cornwell and my grandmother Nellie Cornwell, who up until a couple years ago I thought was a light skin African American women with straight hair and found out about two or three years ago as we were researching the family tree she was actually full blooded Cherokee Indian—and we had no idea cause she was just momma. And my mother was born to them in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And then she became a ward clerk in L.A. County general hospital, which is now run and owned by USC. And she was the first or one of the first African American ward clerks in any hospital in Los Angeles. Did that for twenty-three years, and then she retired—didn't like being retired—and become a state social worker for seventeen years after that. Then she retired when my dad retired. My dad is a more interesting, involved story. My dad who raised me—Benjamin Townsend, who adopted me was my step father and as I mentioned earlier my mother was unwed and he married—he met my mother when she was pregnant with me. And they got married the year I was born. He was stationed at Fort Wachuka in Arizona and when she went there to have me that's how they met. He's a wonderful man and raised me. If I had been biological son I can't imagine how he could have treated me any better. Just a wonderful man. And he was born in Charleston, South Carolina on a plantation. They worked the plantation. Pops had to quit school when he was about ten years old to work twelve hours a day in the bean fields cause his father died, and he never got a chance to go back to school until he was in adult in California. He went to working and went to night school. He worked as an orderly at General Hospital for a while and then he became he started working for the Southern California Gas Company and he was a lead man like a foreman on the truck. Worked there thirty-three years and was never late and I think missed about four days work in thirty-three years. He was that kind of guy.
In 1998 I was preaching in L.A. and met a man, a man who was in the pastors study. The preachers we usually gather in the pastor's office before we go out into the sanctuary some time after church has already started. When I walked in the study there was a man standing there and he turned around and I said you're my dad aren't you? Cause I had heard he might be in town I met my biological dad who I had seen only about twice in my life. The last time having been thirty-eight years before that when I was a junior in high school and he turned out to be a retired Baptist pastor. His name was Rupert Lee Paul, first name Rupert. I'm glad my brother who I have since met became the junior and not me. We got to know each other and hit it off and he was living in Florida. And I went to Florida the next year and met my three sisters and a brother for the first time after having been raised as an only child all my life so it's like real cool that all of the sudden I not only had sisters and a brother but to me even more importantly I had nieces and a nephew, cause I had never been anybody's—no one ever called me uncle until I was fifty-some years old that I became an uncle. So that was just real cool to me.
Can you describe your parents for us and what they looked like and defining stories about them?
My mother was a short woman. 5'2 and a quarter to hear her tell it. She always added the quarter. In fact one of the reasons she did not become one of the first African-American police women in L.A.—and she was about, well, I think you had to be 5'2 and a half or 5'3 something like that—she was just too short. My mom was a—first of all, physically—was a very as I said very short an extremely attractive woman obviously to me, but, as I have found she was in fact, I used to love for my mom to come to school, especially in junior high when you start to really become aware of the opposite sex. Because when my mom would come to school the buzz would start around school "damn, did ya'll see Townsend's momma? Townsend's momma's fine." And that was cool and I was like you that makes you like a sort of like a celebrity. And so she was short, light skinned woman. Her natural hair was red, which remained red long after nature intended because of the beauty parlor. But she was just a brilliant, brilliant woman absolutely one of the smartest people I have ever known in my life who actually had to drop out of college to have me and life never really allowed her to really get back to college. I mean she took classes later on in life, but life just never allowed her to get back.
But man, my momma was smart. A woman of faith. A serious woman of faith which she then endowed me with and I'm grateful for that at a very early age. And just a very honest woman. And she was just tremendous because she was what is known as a career woman before the term was really popular. Just so totally independent totally strong, but had that knack that I have not seen—well I've seen a whole lot in the African-American community but I haven't seen a lot of other communities where these women are strong and independent, but somehow still respect their husbands in a way that it's clear that he is the man of the house, and that there is no breakdown in that but they were a partnership, very clearly a partnership. My mom after my grandmother passed became the matriarch of our whole extended family, and so I talk the way I do a lot because whenever little kids in the family would get screwing up, their parents would threaten them by saying, "if you keep on doing it I'm going to take you over to aunt Thelma and let her talk to you." And it was like, "oh god no, please." Because after a conversation with mother, you always felt whether you were an adult or child, you felt that big.
My dad Benjamin Townsend was not real tall, probably about 5'8. Very dark skinned man which is really interesting my mother was very light skinned. And those of you know some of color issues in the African American community that was a problem for a few extended family members, but my momma really didn't care. Dad, as I said, worked for the Southern California Gas Company. He was a very quiet, studied man. Of course my mom and I used to say, with the two of us around, "when could he talk?" He had no choice but to be quiet. As I said, earlier Pops had to quit high school very early, so he went back to school when he got to California and one of the greatest things that I've ever heard about my parents, and there were a lot, was dad—they moved in 1989 after forty, fifty years, something. Well they moved to L.A. in '47, '48 and in '89 they left to move to Vancouver, Washington which is right near Portland.
When they were getting ready to move, they were at the house, our house, my parents' house in Altadena, where they moved from. One of my aunts was there, and she told me after mom died that they were all packing and so forth and she was real close to dad. And dad said to her, "hey Florence, you know what? You see that little funny looking woman over there?" And she said "who, Thelma?" That was her sister. And he said, "yeah, Thelma." "Yeah, what about her?" he said "she made me everything that I am." And dad was very successful. And he said, "when I met her I was not in school, I had no education, I wasn't going to go and get an education, and she told me 'I can't be with someone who doesn't know anything. I can't be with someone who doesn't love books and learning'. She encouraged me to go back to school, and that made me everything I am. I would be nothing without her." My aunt said that when they moved to Vancouver she went up to visit and she told my mom that. My mom said, "he said that?" and sat down on a pile of lumber that dad had to build a corral, and just cried. And she said, "I really didn't know if I should have told her what he said." And I said, "he told you, so you would tell her and I said that to tell you about my dad.
He was an African American man, born in the '20's, who grew up an amazingly hard and difficult life. Grew up in a very unfair life, in a very unfair world, and had to be a man when a white man could walk up to you can all you a nigger to your face in front of your family, and you really couldn't do anything without risking your life, and more importantly the life of your family. To be a man under those kind of circumstances, you lost sometimes the ability to show tenderness. So that's why sometimes things would be get filtered through somebody else, and a lot of the stuff my dad had for me would get filtered through my mom. My mom would tell me that they would be around the house and I'm living here and dad would walk in said, "you heard from that boy lately?" and she would say, "no, I haven't heard I haven't talked to him." "Well you better call him and make sure he ain't in jail or died or something”. Which was difficult for him to say, "I wanna talk to my boy and see how he's doing." And it was so interesting, because when I would go home to visit, I would usually go home every New Year's Eve. My parents used to have this big party chitins, black eye peas, New Year's tradition and we would party. So I would go home every New Year's Eve but then I would stay about ten or twelve days and basically get pampered. They would wake me up and cook breakfast then they would to go work when they were still working, and I would go back to bed. Then I would hang out, pick my—they were raising nieces—pick my nieces up from school, and my folks would come home, we'd hang out together have dinner and maybe go to a movie. When they came in go to bed, I'd hit the street. My mom, all my life, would not go to sleep soundly until I came in. If I was in the kitchen trying to cook something, fix something to eat, she'd come and say, "get out of the way!" Well dad used to always get on her about doing those things. "Ah, that boys big enough to go." When she died he did the same thing. When I'd visit him in Vancouver, if I stayed out too late he wouldn't go to sleep until I got in.