This interview was conducted by Renata Denise Summers on October 13, 2009 in San Antonio, TX. as part of Palo Alto College’s History 1302 – Fall 2009 class.
Mr. Gabriel Obiora Ume was born in the coal mining city of Enugu, Nigeria also known as “Hilltop or Hilly City,” October 13, 1954. He was born to James Neeani, whose name means, “Take Care of the Land” and Teresa Unoma Ume; whose maiden name was Owumelu, which means “Glorious City.” He has five sisters, two of which live in the United States. Mr. Ume attended a boarding school, Christ The King College during his high school years and worked in the work-study program, Operation Crossroad Africa. It was during his work with Operation Crossroad Africa, that Mr. Ume got the idea to come to America to pursue his education. He applied for and received an educational passport to attend college in America and arrived in America in August of 1978. He first attended a college in Jackson, Tennessee, however due to limited educational funds; he soon transferred to Southwest Texas State University (today known as Texas State University)while living in Austin, Texas. In his last year at TSU, he became interested in political science. He graduated from TSU and pursued a masters degree at St. Mary’s University, finishing in 12 months exactly. It was in the library at St. Mary’s that Mr. Ume met his wife, Teresa Unoma Owumelu. The Ume’s have two children, Gabriel Obiora Ume II and Harlon K. Arinze Ume (whose name means, God’s time is best). Mr. Ume moved to San Antonio where he has taught government at Palo Alto College for the last 20 years. He is a member of the independent political party and considers himself to be middle-class. Mr. Ume enjoys reading books that deal with political science or political sociology as it pertains to the human aspect of politics. He also enjoys eating, mainly traditional African foods, traveling to different places to learn new things, and he enjoys watching and listening to news from around the world. I met Mr. Ume through the assistance of my teacher, Mr. Myers as I was somewhat new to San Antonio at the time of this interview.
What are your earliest childhood memories?
I can actually remember when I was three years old. I can remember in Nigeria they use to make this bread that would look like an 18-wheeler. And I like to ride the bread and no matter what my parents do, that was my biggest fun to just sit on the bread and scoot around.
What was your house like growing up? How many rooms/bathrooms? Did your home have some of the luxuries we all have today?
The home where we lived was, the staff quarters built by the company my father worked for, a Germany firm, called Costaine. This company build hydro-electric plants around Nigeria. So wherever they have a project they would build staff quarters where their staff lived. So in my earliest memory that’s what I remembered. And it wasn’t much of luxury. It was a two-room house with a storage area, a kitchen, and then a restroom and then a bathroom for each unit. And that’s where we lived.
Was your family required to move if your father moved to a different plant?
Yes we move every single time my father moved to a different place with similar situation that have quarters. Those staff quarters, are like are little communities. We remember people growing up in so and so quarter and various places. But in those days, we think it was fantastic, you have electricity, it was a water system toilet. At that period in Nigeria most people used the out-house, so it was kind of nice, so it was kind of a big deal. Yeah it was more luxurious. And also another class issue was, my father worked with white men which was also another upscale issue. The situation in Nigeria in those days is that we have Expatriates, white people who come to build our country but we didn’t have the middle management. The rest of the people were artisans or laborers.
Did you have chores? What were they? Which was your least favorite?
It’s a condition. When I was little, much younger, my parents would raise chickens, they have goats in the back yard. When I was much older, it was my job to get up in the morning to go cut fresh grass for those goats and let the chicken out because we allowed the chickens to roam around because they were range chicken they roam round in the evening they know to come home. My least favorite chore was, my father was a distributor for a old Nigerian newspaper called the Nigerian Outlook. So in the morning, I would just go and distribute within the quarters, you know, almost everyone reads the Outlook. That was like his side job that he makes extra money on. That was my least because we live in West Africa; there are two seasons, the dry and wet season. During the dry season it’s very cold in the morning, nobody wants to get up. During the rainy season it rained all the time. And the only time I liked to get in the rain is when we would play as kids. We take off our clothes and run around in the rain. But I don’t want to be doing my chores with a raincoat in the rain trying to protect the newspaper from getting wet. I hated it.
Describe a typical day of yours when you were a child.
My mother was a very sweet lady. She would sweet-talk you into getting up early in the morning. “Come and see the sun rising,” and all this stuff and if you can make it, it’s really amazing. And then she would prepare an early breakfast for us and after we eat, she would have our clothes ironed, she wanted her kids to look exceptional, which was one of the things I hated because my friends don’t look as neat. I’ve had situations where I would hide some raggedy clothes in my bag so once I get out of the house I wrap the ones my mom just freshly ironed and put them back in my bag so I could be on the same level with my friends. So when one day my mother visited the school and she was traumatized to see me in those rags.
Who were your childhood heroes?
Actually it was my dad; my dad was my childhood hero. My dad owns a BSA , which is a big huge British motorcycle and when he turned it on, it basically claps like a thunder. And then he wear his shorts where his hosiery socks that get up to his calf (and he puts his pen right there…pointing to leg) and when he goes, takes off, usually he likes to go hunting, he puts his double barrel over his shoulder. I was so proud of him; I’m like when I grow up I’m going be just like my dad. And the most fun thing for me is to get on the back of that motorcycle and ride with him, I mean it was so amazing. I don’t get to ride often but whenever I do, I will be yelling and screaming to my friends I want everybody to see me.
Describe a typical family dinner. Did you all eat together as a family? Who did the cooking? What were your favorite foods?
My mother did most of the cooking. We also have house help, you know because we were kind of middle class you know so we have people who wash dishes and do other stuff but my mother basically do most of the cooking. The Nigerian situation is divided my mom and my dad eat by themselves, they sit in their big table and eat, me and my sisters eat on our own table. And that’s how we ate. In Nigeria, if you go to visit a friend with your husband and your children once you get there, you see how everybody would divide up into their own group. Where husbands will go to the man of the house and they stay in their own area talking. The wives usually hang out on their own and the kids would separate. So everybody have their place, it’s a social division. Even in high school we don’t have co-eds, they have boys high school and girls high school, so boys and girls did not go to the same school but in elementary school boys and girls went to the same school. So when we get to that adolescent age, they separate us. It might be a good thing but I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not. Most of the contact we had with our girl friends were through letters.
What religion did you practice growing up? Did you attend church?
In Nigeria they take religion seriously, we were Catholics. Even though my father is the only person of his sibling group that is a Christian. The rest of them are members of what we call the African religion and do you know the African religion doesn’t have a church that you go to every Sunday. It’s a tradition that is based on the self. When the self is selfish, the self starts stealing, start lying, start cheating, when the self is selfless, the self start giving, start sharing, and being kind, so that’s the way religion flows. Westerners call it paganism, but some sociologist in Nigeria gave it a name, they call it Ubuntu, which is secular humanism. The religion places a lot of emphasis on honesty, they hate lying and cheating and that concept and if somebody does something wrong to you, you can go to the shrine and cast a curse on them. They use these big icon-like structures, a huge tree or a huge rock and they make shrines out of them and worship it. You have them all over Nigeria. People will go to the shrines for various issues, well if somebody is having problems having a child you can go and make some sacrifice to the shrine, and it will give you a child, that’s what the shrine is specifically for, shrines for production in the farm, shrine for good luck, shrines for successful marriage, they have all have purposes. My family were Christians, my father was the runt of the family, he wasn’t big, so when the Christians came, since he cannot produce a lot in the farm, they said, take this one. Most people in his family followed the African religion, it was only him among his brothers and sisters that was a Christian because the missionary came and they would go from village to village trying to convert people that’s what they would do, they tried to invite people to come to the church, this is the modern way of doing things. And some people hated it they didn’t want to do that, they thought they were trying to destroy their culture. But it was much later in the history that they began to find that education is good, with a good education one can get a civil service job, a good job with the government to make a good living and live an enlightened lifestyle. It was much later that Christianity became things that people would inspire to do. In my father’s generation it wasn’t that attractive proposition.
What did your father and mother do for a living? Did you think you would follow in their footsteps?
My mother was a homemaker, she never worked anywhere, anyway work can be defined in different terms, anyway, she was a great seamstress she would make our clothes including clothes for me and my sisters, I had five sisters. She buys clothes and then designs their clothes. When my sisters would come out, people would just gawk at them, my mother was very good at that. Women were very loyal, in fact in 1991, when I had my son, my parent came to visit, I was having a conversation with my dad and he said my mother never knew how much she made as a civil servant, and I called mom and I said, is that true? And my mom said, “Yeah, I don’t have any need for that.” She said, “at the end of every month there’s an allowance to take care of food and everything in the house. And he would give it to me, and my job is to use it efficiently and whatever is left I buy my own stuff. And when he gets a promotion, we would do something called salaka; we celebrate and thank God for the promotion and then the allowance increases.” And that’s it, she was never interested in how much the man made. My father was an artisan. He would build or construct whatever they want him to create. Sometimes they tell him to design something, today you would call them an engineer, but in those days they called them artisans. I thought I was going to be a great soccer player, I wasn’t even thinking about work.
Did your family have special traditions?
My family would celebrate things like birthdays and everybody in Nigeria have an ancestry home, your ancestral home is where your Forebears come from if you are from Africa, you have one. So whether you live in Lagos, Abuja, or anywhere else that ancestral home is your home. So during the Christmas everybody travels back to wherever their ancestral home and celebrate with their clan. So everybody would be the Ume’s, if you go ten miles that way, it’s just us. So one day we went home last summer, I took my kids to my ancestry home and I tell them, you guys are not from San Antonio, this is where you’re from. You see everything here, go see that place we went pass, we own all that land. The other way you go, we own it, you see every direction you go belongs to you. You can do anything you want here. They were like “whoa!” And my little one said, “I don’t think I need all of that land.” Yeah, but that’s what we do every year, every Christmas.
What local and national event had the most impact on you while you were growing up in Nigeria, did it personally affect your family?
Every year in Nigeria we do something called the Festival of the Arts. Where different cultures and different religions would come with different dance, masquerades, women’s groups and all that kind of stuff happens. But one of the more outstanding ones, was something called Festac, Black World Festival of Arts(Festac video link) for all African Diaspora and Nigeria hosted in 1973. They invited black people from every Diaspora in the world to show their various cultures. That was actually the first time I saw, the blind singer, Stevie Wonder. He was so young at the time and he basically performed a concert. After the Festival of the Arts and he gave all the money he made there to all the blind children in Nigeria. In fact they built houses; they called the Festac Village, The Festival of the Arts that accommodated thousands and thousands of people. It was at least 80 countries represented there in this festival, it was awesome. That was the first time I got to see Americans, black Americans were different from the rest of the group. They had their Afro and they were loud, like WOW! When they were talking, they were loud like Nigerians we say in the festival, this is our people. But one of the things you have to know also is my home town is about 100 kilometers from a place called Calabar. Calabar has the largest dungeon for slave export. So when I see people here, they look exactly like someone at home. Sometimes it makes me jump, because most of those slaves that came from West Africa, they are my people. But when Nigerian government made all this money, they went back and bought all those slave ships, rebuilt the dungeon. They arranged all the shackles in the ship, the way people would step into them and then pull it up, it’s amazing. They made a museum out of it; the museum is the African National Museum. And then when I was getting ready to be shipped from Nigeria. In 1977 Jimmy Carter went there with his daughter because Jimmy Carter is very respectful of African American issues. And his daughter Amy wanted to get a set of shackles, which was actually very offensive to Africans. So the father said, “no if you take one of these sets out it’s going to mess up the integrity.” And Amy, Jimmy Carter’s daughter said, “no daddy, I want one, I want one.” And the then president of Nigeria was this giant of a guy that overthrew the governments; he has only a fourth grade education. So when Amy tried to talk to the man, he said, “NO!” Amy was so scared, she ran the other way, but Babangida, put his finger in front of Jimmy Carter and said, “you don’t negotiate with kids, tell the young lady no and lets continue with the tour.” And Jimmy Carter said, “no, I must reason with her.” So he bounced his feet and walked off leaving Jimmy Carter behind. Eventually Amy said, “okay daddy.” That was kind of interesting. Jimmy Carter was such a nice guy, I like him a lot.
What was elementary school like for you as a child? What were your favorite and worst subjects?
I was very good in school as a child, I loved going to school. And all the teachers loved me and they sing my praise. And our elementary school was very informal. The moms would bring this thing called Akara, is a black eye pea with the skin peeled and blended with various ingredients, like shrimps, mushrooms, pieces of meat etc. they would bring it to school for the kids during the lunch time. So most everyday another mom would come, because our school time was very short, we did not eat in school. You would go to school at eight and by one o’clock we’re done. And we all walked to school and school was about two miles from my home, and we walk in groups. So when my sisters came along, I would walk with them, I was their protector. So as a young man, I’ve been protecting my sisters for many years, you know I learned how to fight, so nobody messes with my sisters. You can’t even look at them in a crazy manner, you’re gonna get a fight out of me. And eventually I had five of them, I was the oldest, all these girls. And I’m still protecting them from their husbands because some guys believe they have the right to beat their wife in the African culture and they don’t know the world has changed. Elementary school was very fun, I have a lot of friends, and I was very popular in school because I play good soccer in elementary school and also in high school.
What was High School like for you?
In high school, my school was a very athletic school; in fact, you must know how to play soccer before you can be admitted into high school. In high school, before you get into high school in Nigeria, you have to take an entrance exam. They have premiere institutions, like the college I went to is called Christ The King College, it’s called CKC. CKC was a very popular High school because it has one of the best soccer teams in the country. Before they allowed you to enter the school, you must know how to play soccer, in order to get into Christ The King, you must pass the entrance and you must know how to play soccer. After the entrance exam all the people that pass, they throw the ball on the field and all the teachers would teachers will show up with clipboards trying to see who could make a good move that’s the final exam. And then the school was run by Holy Ghost Fighters from Ireland. So it was a premiere institution, today it would be the equivalent of going to a university because it was called a college in Nigeria, Christ the King College, that’s what we call high schools. Everybody wants their child to go to Christ The King College we wore all those jackets that people wear in those colleges in London, you know with the emblem. The regimen was fantastic even though it has a religious orientation. When we get up in the morning at six o’clock, everybody would wash their face and brush their teeth, we go into the chapel after the chapel, seven o’clock you come and take your bath and go to the cafeteria for breakfast, and after breakfast we go to our lectures. At twelve o’clock we go and take a snack, afternoon snack and then the lecture ends a two-thirty and we go and eat lunch, after the lunch, we go and take siesta. After siesta is physical activity, people who run, people who play tennis. After about five-thirty people go and take a shower and then go to dinner, after dinner you go to night preparation, night studies, yeah, that was the routine every day. Nine-thirty, yeah that’s when it’s lights out. That’s what we do every day. Our laundry, everyday Friday you put out all your dirty clothes and the school Laundromat would wash and iron them and then on Sunday afternoon, everybody’s package would be delivered and put on their bed. It was a highly disciplined school. If you do something wrong you would receive a prescription from the prefect. Every dormitory have a leader called a prifect. That prescription is like ten lashes or twelve lashes and you go to the Dean of discipline in the school who would deliver the lashes they would flog your buttocks yeah. They do it with a cane, a cane is a wood that they used to make wicker chairs you can bend it but you can’t break it, and it works, discipline works. And then the Britain’s, most of the orientation who teach there are Irishmen, so they believe that if you spare the rod you spoil the child and they’re not ashamed of it, Americans don’t believe in discipline and corporal punishment. They believe that if you flog your children or your paddle them that they become prone to violence. My father doesn’t do corporal punishment but my mom has a quick hand her back hand is fantastic and you don’t know when it’s going come. We go to college like American’s go to universities because our colleges are boarding schools, so once you finished your elementary school, you went to boarding school, you get to live there the whole year. During the year they would have like end of the quarter or semesters where you go home for like two weeks and then go back and that’s who went to high school. At the end of the high school, you would take an exam called “The General Certificate of Education,” which was actually set in London. So there’s a general exam that’s set in London so you qualification to go to college depends on how successful you passed your subjects on a college level. It was one of the elite schools and it was also a Catholic school, Catholics are very good in building very good schools. Even when employers are looking for people to hire, if you mention those schools, it almost guarantees you a job. So we had, had a lot of former students who were very successful in government. I was a member of the Voice of American Club. We would meet at certain times and we would do some lessons it could be English, it could be mathematics, and we would also have music programs and social programs. In fact, we discussed a story about a young man in Ohio who wanted to protect a one hundred year old oak tree, and they went to chain themselves around those trees while the bulldozer was already there to cut it down and they would not budge. So the mayor came to talk them out of it and basically got persuaded by how strong they were and he joined them and this oak tree was saved. So in Nigeria that was a big story for us because we can’t play like that in Nigeria. At that time we had a military régime. The military would shoot those kids and then jail their parents for having stupid kids. With Voices of America, we just listened to the lessons when they do their English program or math program and music program and social program and we would talk about different cultures and what’s going on. The Voices of America was actually a propaganda machine for Africa. They were trying to ensure us of how life is in a Democratic environment, how much it is accommodating, the government is there to do for you, you don’t have to be scared of government like we were in Nigeria because we had a military régime. And then in high school, our high school is very rigorous, and for example, in geography, Ireland both the social and geography of (this sounds like what Mr. Ume said, I’m sure I did not understand, ask for clarification) the United States. I know where all the fields are located in the Mississippi river that’s because Nigerian education is not like United States education. American education is very ethnocentric, most of the kids here they teach, you live in the greatest country, over and over which is good, because what it does to American citizens is make them very patriotic citizens. It’s rare that I walk into a class of thirty and without getting someone who is willing to die for this country, in Nigeria you’re not going to get anyone to lose a pinky and part of the reason is because we don’t have nationalism. One of the things that messed up nationalism is Nigeria as a country was a group of ethnic groups, groups that were put together, groups that use to war against each other, the British government came and put us together and part of the reason is to generate slaves so when we got in close community, the conflict would basically go high. And when you capture people, that is a slave that you’re gonna sell. Even though slavery was going on, in a different level through the Arab situation, but when the white man came, he was the one that brought the gun powder.
What was your first job in high school?
We didn’t have jobs in high school. They have different dormitories, with different names, we have different houses. I was in St. Joseph’s house. So we have like a class one, class two, class three through class five, that’s where we take the final exam. So in the high school, it’s not like the United States High School. Every class, you have to enroll in about twelve different subjects and during that final year exam, you have to take exams on all of them. Your scores went from excellent, good, average, and fail. At one point I was the food prifect, which means when the people cook the food, you have to go taste it and make sure it meets standard. We also basically decide who is going to be in charge of bringing them to the cafeteria and that kind of stuff. The contractors who sell the food to the school, we also have to make sure that the people who are buying are not overspending. So you can’t have an actual job like here, like a work-study, you can’t do that in high school. Money doesn’t exchange hands in there.
Where had you hoped to attend college?
In Nigeria in those days, there weren’t too many universities, there were only ten universities and I wanted to go to the one closest to home that was the University of Nigeria, where I had my eye out. Because in those days once you go to the university, you’re almost a designated middle class, because in those days once you graduate from the university, you go and do something called national service, it’s like part of a military program like ROTC, where they do some military training, but the whole of the year you work for the government and they don’t pay you, it’s called national service. But when you’re the national service you wear the uniform, you can get on a taxi free, you get in bars free, you don’t pay for anything. But then after high school, immediately after high school, I heard of these people did Operation Crossroad Africa and that’s when I started thinking, okay maybe I don’t have to go to a local university maybe I can just go to the United States. One of the schools they introduced me to which I was so happy I didn’t have to go to was Philander Smith College in Arkansas. I found out it was a trashy school, but in the catalog everybody looks beautiful, the campus looks fine, but Operation Crossroads, as we called it, finally introduced me to another university called,Union University in Jackson, Tennessee which was a very nice school. In fact, everything was under one roof. It was red carpet campus. Most of the rich folks in Memphis, that’s where their kids go to school. In fact on the outback of the school, there was some kind of a small landing patch where these people would land their private plane, bringing their kids back to college, yeah, that’s where I ended up going.
How did you get the idea to come to America?
I basically got the idea from Operation Crossroad Africa because they were saying, you don’t have to go to a university here, why don’t you just go to University in the United States and I know that people who studied aboard usually had a higher status than people who studied at a local universities for one thing. And part of what I wanted to do as a professional was to be an ambassador to some country or working in a foreign environment.
What did you have to do to obtain a passport to come to America? How has the process changed?
The passport is like every other country; it’s a privilege that your country grants you. Anyone can get a passport. There’s no educational requirement. The only thing you have to do is to feel out the application, so show your birth certificate and pay the fees. In fact in those days if you get a passport, you start feeling like your something. I didn’t have any problem getting my passport. As it turned out, one of my daddy’s friends works at the passport office. He just came to our house, fixed up my picture and the form and then when the passport was ready, he brought it back. One of the things we have to do in order to travel abroad to study, we have to go to something called student advisory. United States have certain requirements of individuals that they will give a visa to go study. They want to make sure that you have the same requirements that is required in a Nigerian university before you go to the U.S., because in Nigeria we didn’t have the same kind of open university system that exist in the United States. When you go to high school, out of those twelve subjects that you study, you must have excellent which means from 90 and above average on the exam to qualify so if you don’t have it, you have a choice you can go retake the exam to make sure you got those six credits. So when you go to the student advisory they look at your paperwork and also look at your money. What kind of money, because America doesn’t want destitutes in their country. So the student advisory board must you a recommendation and then you also have your admission letter from the university you want to attend here, and then I-20 (application for student visa) showing that they are ready for you, and you take all of those things to the passport office. And then after you get the passport before you leave, you still have to go to the U.S. Embassy and you take all those documents. After they check it, before they can give you a visa to travel to the United States. Not everybody gets a visa and not everybody have all of the requirements to go to the advisory board so all of those are different hurdles you go to make before coming to this country.
How would you describe your journey to America?
I knew already a lot about America before I came here because working with those Cross Roaders and then after that I went and worked for my brother-in-law who was running a marketing company, and the marketing company was doing business with Americans. In fact one of the guys, Mr. Clarence Long who was from Boca Raton, Florida and in those days most of the things they were selling were jeans, jeans were becoming a hot issue, everybody wanted to become like Americans so everybody was wearing jeans in those days. So when you go to the student advisory you can get all of these books that will tell you a lot about America, like how much jeans cost, how much a tube of toothpaste cost, a bar of soap all of that stuff, how much the average rent is and all those kind of information. My journey on the plane was fine, I had flown in West Africa, I’ve been to Ghana, Cote de Voire, what we use to call the Ivory Coast, I’ve been to those places on local flights, but I had never traveled internationally. For example we flew on a DC-10. The DC-10 is a plane that have two stories, it has one level and another level so it was kind of impressive. One of the things that happened when I arrived at Chicago airport, cause when I left for America from Enugu, we had something called an Enugu Aerodrome, we don’t have an airport, only small planes would arrive there, so when I looked out the window at O’Hare airport, I can see a line of 747’s, big jumbo planes go as far as I can look. You know as a human being I didn’t know something of that nature is possible and also I’ve never seen snow in my life once I get to O’Hare. So it was early morning because I landed around four in the morning, before I knew it, this white stuff covered the whole place, I’m like, “WOW!” And I’m thinking, if there was a heaven, that’s how it would look, but anyway later in the afternoon it was slushy. Unfortunately I was wearing I was wearing outfit. I just have a shirt and a tie and my pants and it was like sub-zero temperature. So I was walking around the airport with one of those thin blankets. One of the other things that happened, I was supposed to go to the next concourse, so they told me to go down stairs and get on the tram? So when I get downstairs the tram pulled out from a dark hole and then the door opened and tells me to get in and I’m like, no, and when I get in the door was going to close and go into the dark tunnel, and I’m like, my momma didn’t raise no fool, I ain’t getting in there. So I went upstairs and they said, well if you wanna walk it, it’s okay but its gonna be a while. I’m already tired, jet-lagged, so I drug myself, so eventually I got to the next concourse that’s gonna bring me to Jackson, so I get in there and I saw this sign that says, restrooms. So I was thinking, oh they probably have some luxury padded couches I’m gonna flop myself in and rest. So I was getting ready to push the door and I was thinking, this door is between me and the life of luxury, so when I pushed the door it was nothing but toilets. I didn’t know, and I said to myself is this how Americans rest? You know I had been to Europe and everything in Europe was toilets, sometimes it was misspelled but it was still toilets but here it was restrooms.
What did you bring with you from Nigeria?
Well I bought some of my favorite music and some of my clothes; I had some African clothes that I also brought with me. What I bought actually, well because I was coming to school, so I didn’t bring sculptures and stuff like that.
So Chicago wasn’t your finally destination, what was your final destination and how did you get from Chicago to Tennessee?
My destination was Tennessee, Jackson. So I was thinking I was going to Jackson Tennessee and they sent me to Jackson Mississippi. And also the airline in Nigeria had known a lot of people were going to Jackson Mississippi because it was a black school that played football to, so they overlooked Tennessee, so when I ended up there (Jackson Mississippi), I called the foreign student advisor and he came to pick me up. So when we got to his office, he said okay Mr. Ume, let’s see your I-20 (school visa forms). So when I pulled my I-20, he said oh, oh no, “well,” he said, “you’re in Jackson but you’re in the wrong Jackson.” In Nigeria we never had cities with the same name, if it was a Jackson in Nigeria that would be the only Jackson. He said, “you’re in the wrong place and unfortunately I have to take you back to the airport, you have to go to Jackson Tennessee, you see, Jackson Tennessee, and Jackson Mississippi.” So I got to the airport and the airport people wanted to give me a hard time saying, you’re going to have to pay for it again. So there’s a lady standing behind me and I was trying to tell the guy, that’s it’s not my fault that I came to Jackson Mississippi, that I could not have known there’s two Jackson’s. But they say, I don’t care what they told you, you have to pay. So the lady behind me said, “look, you, the airline screwed up, he’s not going pay he’s a youngster and he probably came here to go to school, if you don’t issue him a ticket, if there’s no flight to Jackson, find him a hotel room, you better give him something to eat or I will create big problem for you.” And the guy said okay, okay. So the guy wrote me a new ticket, give me a receipt, book the hotel, right there, and give me some of the airline coupons and tell me where I can go to get me some food. And I was ignorant, I didn’t even get the woman’s name, cause I would like to, today, to bow to her for being my first angel in the United States. When I left the airport I was trying to get into the hotel, the hotel have one of these circular doors what you walk in and it puts you to the center, somehow that door would not let me in once I get in I’m outside again, I would go with speed and I’m outside again. So I stand on the side to see other people and other people would just go in and then I try again…and it was so cold tears was running down my eyes, I didn’t know in my spirit that it could ever get that cold, it doesn’t in my memory. So what I did, I saw this lady come in so I basically run into her and both of us landed inside the hotel and so I finally get into the hotel and I say, “wow, everything is so neat.” It was really nice, so the next day I get up and they got on the plane and one of my other cultural shock was that this plane was going to fly to Jackson, but it seats five people. It was like a fork plane, it had little propellers in front of it and then this young lady came and was messing with stuff so I thought it was the little people that comes to clean out the plane, set things up for the pilot, I didn’t know she was the pilot. So I waited for her to hurray up so the pilot could come in. All of a sudden two or three people came in and she said, “okay, is everybody ready?” Off we go, my jaw dropped the rest of the time, I was like thing. It was a scary flight because it didn’t go too high, we could see everything and then when I got to Jackson Tennessee at the airport because they didn’t have a big airport I saw this trees, I think they called them birch trees, they like 200 feet, all around the airport. There’s only one person, the airport is closed, they guy that maintains the floor, black guy that has enough gold in this mouth to support a central bank. We could not understand each other he has no clue to what I’m trying to ask him and I couldn’t understand what he was saying, not even. Eventually he said, “okay here’s a quarter,” and he pointed to the telephone, I understood that so I took his quarter, thanked him, and took out my stuff and then called the Union University and the guy came and picked me up. So that’s how I got into Jackson Tennessee.
From Chicago you were flown to Jackson Mississippi, how did you get to Jackson, Tennessee?
The airline in Nigeria made a mistake; they could only find one Jackson on the map, on their map in Nigeria was only Jackson Mississippi, which is a much bigger city. Jackson Tennessee is like population 5,000. It’s only about two or three traffic lights. Everything is one, one post office; in fact I don’t even think they had apartment complexes in Jackson. Everybody lives in those white buildings that sit on low blocks. Union was a beautiful university; everything is under one roof, red carpet. And once you come in if you have any money you deposit it, they have a bank and they give you a credit card, I mean a university card and with that card you can buy anything you want, you can buy books… they made life so easy and the dormitory was nice. One of the other issues was almost everybody in the student body was rich. In fact I had a part-time job in Tennessee, one of my friends, his father owned a restaurant and I was a business major and he was a business major so he said, “would you like to come and work part-time for us?” So after school me and him would go to that restaurant and clean up, wash dishes, and bust tables and after we’d sit down and eat and then he would take me back to school so but the name of the restaurant was Sambo, Sambo has a racial connotation, the Black Sambo, is a very ugly woman, with thick lips and popping eyes, and very flat nose. So I didn’t know. I was throwing away trash and one black guy said, “so you look for every place on this planet to work and you choose to work here?” So I look at him and I say, “why don’t you don’t you go and mind your own business?” “I’m pretty sure you don’t have a job, why don’t you go and get your own job?” I didn’t know that he was trying to pint out to me that I’m supporting racism by working at the Black Sambo, because I never seen any black people come in there to eat. But the thing is my friend was the assistant manager, I mean this guy would give me a raise almost every week. And then we work like two or three hours and then go back to school, so every Friday I would get a check, it was a win-win situation. It was much later about maybe three or four years in the U.S. that I discovered the racial connotation.
What were your goals and expectations before arriving in America?
I worked for my brother-in-law’s marketing company who lived in Lagos. In Nigeria you can’t just set up business and start doing export and import that’s why import licenses are like a patronage you get from politicians, government you have to know someone who know someone who is a big shot so once you have it your made business will come to you to order stuff overseas so when they arrive they come and take it and pay you a fee for that transaction so that’s what he was doing so he was making a lot of money when I try to contract ships to get all the shipments we had come in and then once the ship arrives the crowning agents who go and take goods out of the ship, so I was coming here to study business so that when I finish I would come back and compete with him. So that was my goal, because I didn’t have any other goal. It was after I got here that I studied ideas on what I wanted to do. I basically fell out of business people in college cause when I went to Southwest,…….. I was a business major, but during my last semester I took two electives in political science. And I was like this is cool. It was so easy and so much fun that after that I went to St. Mary’s and did my masters program in one year straight ,but I loved it so much that’s why I came from business to Political science. Yeah. So that’s what happened.
Were there any obstacles you faced in becoming an American citizen?
No there were absolutely no obstacles in getting a green card and my employer getting a green card for me. Most of the guys go marry someone and have their wife file for them. I was lucky enough not to do that. And then I was when I filed for that the citizenship I was in doctorate program at Denver University. So the immigration is not a political issue and economic issue. So anyone that look like they are enterprise they would love to give them a visa. The only time you have a problem with immigration is you don’t have a job you don’t have a steady job you know you status as a human being is questionable that’s when they start telling you to go get this go get that natural you start going to court. One I presented my papers my citizenship was don’t in under two weeks I think it could have been long because they usually the approve a lot of people then they pick a date when everybody is sworn in. So the application has color of skin. I said brown but the white secretary for the judge said, “you need to cancel it and put black.” “You’re a big ole black man,” and I said no I’m brown and I think your kind of pinkish red. So she was so mad she was fuming she went to the judge and said, “there’s a clown out here, there’s this big ole black guy wrote on his application that he was brown” and the judge said, “wait a minute, I need to come and see that.” So the judge came out and saw me and the judge was trying not to laugh so he had to go back into his office before he choked, and then came back and called her by her name, and said, “you know what, I think we’ll let him pass, we’ll let him be brown,” and the lady say, “you going to let him be brown? Look at him?” So if that was an obstacle that was the only one I had.
Where did you attend College? How was school different in the United States as compared to Nigeria?
Going to my high school, was like three times more hard than going to college here. Because one of the things we do, is that everything is done by the year. So when you go to college you’re a freshmen at the end of the year, if you pass all of your courses then you go to second year, then you’re a sophomore. So Nigeria doesn’t play just taking random courses to complete your degree plan and you get a degree, no, you have to take a final exam for that particular year to pass the grade. And they do rank order so someone was the first person, the best in the class for every subject, and that’s how the British system is. In Nigeria people get something called, “brain fog,” when you study too much your brain will go wacko and you start acting crazy, it doesn’t happen here. Because that study, it usually went on for a year, so when final exam come, you shave off your head, cut off your shirts and become a monk, you don’t want to talk to people. Vivarin and strong coffee was your major diet. When exam come, people can study two days straight, no sleep. Vivarin is a tiny tablet that is pure caffeine pill, concentrated caffeine, you can have either or. Or you can eat cola-nut. There’s a nut called cola, the whole nut is pure caffeine. Traditionally, they use it as welcome ritual, so if you go to somebody’s house in Nigeria they greet you, sit you down and they bring you cola. They bring it in a plate and offer it to you. So that cola, will allow both of you to break cola, is like breaking bread then while the cola is being break, if there are people who subscribe to traditional African religion, they will invoke the spirits of their forebears to come and visit with them as they welcome this new friend or this visitor. Both of you pray for the well being of your various families and then you break the cola-nut and then eat it. Because in the traditional African religion, they believe that the only way you can get to your god is through your ancestors. So that’s why in Kunta Kinte, he keep calling their father and their father before them, that’s the process.
How often did you visit your family after moving to the United States?
Oh, I didn’t visit my family until after I got my first degree. That is tradition. What are you visiting them for, your job is not done. You don’t have anything to show. After I got my degree, I wrote them and say, “hey, it’s all done, I’m on my way home.”
How was the first visit?
Oh, it was fantastic. Everyone say, “how you have grown, oooh, look at how fat you are, they plump you people up there.” “You are huge.” And my diploma from Southwest Texas is Texas size. My father was so impressed; I was the first person to go to college in my family, so I was also impressed myself. But I told them, I’m not done, I’m going to do my master’s program. My dad say, “well, okay, after you do that, then you come home right?” I said yeah. Then after I do the master’s program, I say, “dad, hey, I’m smart, why don’t I get my PHD?” As the process was going on, the country started to deteriorate. When I left, you know once you graduate, you’re guaranteed to have a job if you did anything with private industry, the government will always hire you, that situation didn’t exist anymore in Nigeria. Unemployment started to increase, mismanagement in government started to increase, corruption became an issue. When I left, we had a military government. The military was pretty disciplined but once we handed it over to the civilians, everything is for sale. So the oil company, Nigeria is a very wealthy country that oil money became a curse. The government started distributing money. They were giving villages money, people who use to farm didn’t want to farm anymore, beer drinking became the national hobby.
When and how did you meet your spouse? How did her family accept you as being form a foreign country?
I went to Southwest Texas University and I was a business major and one of my finance classes, the guy that taught that class was Dr. Kruger, he was from Nicaragua. He was a very smart guy, he went to the London School of Economics. So he speaks with a very thick accent, so the students always try to laugh whenever he’s speaking so they didn’t pay attention. I was the best student in that class, so every time he say something to ask a question, and I went to answer, he said, “no, not you, can anybody else answer the question?” Sometimes he would even ask me to go to the board and explain to him what he was just saying. So my wife sits in front of me so every now and then she would look at me and roll her eye at me. Thinking I was being very cocky. But I wasn’t paying her attention in class; I wanted to make my grades. So one day I was riding the tube and she road past me, and I’m like, so they have people that look this good over here. So I went to her and said, where have you been hiding? She said, “I know you?” I said, no, you don’t know me; I’ve never seen you. I didn’t remember her from that class. Because I wasn’t interested in no girl, I was going for my grades. So she said, “but, you didn’t speak this way in class, what happened to the way you spoke?” I said, in class, I use my telephone voice. So I told her, would you like to go somewhere and eat? She said, “I already ate, why don’t you go eat by yourself?” She gave me a hard time. So whenever I see her on campus, I followed her around.
How long did that go on?
It went on for about four weeks. At the campus there’s a place called the wall. The wall is where all the African American students hang out. And all the African students, people who come from Shinego, Nigeria, South Africa, we don’t hang there. We think there’s a difference between us and them. And in those days, we look at them as not very serious people. If you go to the library then you would rarely see a black person in there. But eventually, I started hanging out at the wall to. And guys would say, “what are you doing there,” and I would say, I’m just hanging with my girlfriend, what’s wrong with you? But we eventually started talking to each other and we found out we had a lot of things in common. So we were best friends first.
How did her family accept you?
Her father was awesome. Her mom keep asking me, what do you want with my daughter?” She was the most difficult person I ever dated because her mom would write me a letter and she would advise her that man are very flimsy, that they never take anything serious. And most of the time when she writes her former boyfriends a letter she would never see them again. But I would reply to her letters, I write like five pages telling her about her letter. She said, “are you sleeping with my daughter?” I said, I don’t know what that means, but if you mean if we are trying to see if we are compatible, well yes.
What memories stand out most from your wedding day?
It was a beautiful wedding. We had about 300 guests and we had a greeting line, where we basically greeted every single person that came to the wedding as they were walking into the reception room. So we didn’t have anybody just wait for us and then start clapping, we greeted every person. In fact as we waited, my cheek was hurting from smiling too much. My family didn’t fly in. I sent them the invitation but they thought it was too expensive. Instead of that we send you the money to give you a new life. It was wonderful because my father-in-law paid for everything. I said what do I do? He said, “just put on a nice tuxedo and show up.” I said, that I can do. It was really nice because I did things the traditional way. Because first of all, the first time I met her parents I was snowed in. So the first time I was meeting my perspective in-laws, I spent three days with them in very close quarters so it was kind of interesting.
Once you received your degrees, did you consider at that time to become a college professor?
I never actually decided to be a college professor. That was not one of my line of jobs. I wanted to be a businessman; I wanted to be an ambassador or a professional soccer player, which soccer didn’t pay that much. I never planned to be a professor.
So how did you become a professor?
(part of the interview Mr. Ume asked to be omitted) I ran into Dr. Marcum at my doctor’s office and he found out I was from Nigeria. His brother went to Nigeria on a Peace Corps program in the 60’s, so we started talking about Nigeria. So he asked me what I was doing, and I told him that I had just come off the PhD program out of Denver University. So he said, “well can you teach African History for us?” And I said well I’m not a historian, I’m more like a political science person. He said, “well why don’t we have lunch tomorrow, I have a friend named Ms. Marcotte who was the Chairperson of the Social Sciences Department at Palo Alto College. So we met for lunch, after lunch she said, let’s see if we can make use of your qualification and she said if I’m not prying too much here. So I showed her my transcript, she was very much impressed with my transcripts, and she hired me on the spot. She said, “why don’t you come and teach part-time, economics for us?” So I came in that summer and I started teaching economics. Never taught before and by the time the summer ended, I thought it was too much fun. That was in 1988. So the next semester they offered me more teaching, as you might well know when you teach part-time, you practically don’t make any money, if you teach part-time, they pay you less than $2,000 per semester. That’s like four months pay, that’s all you make. But if you teach three classes you go from part-time to adjunct so you jump from two thousand to fourteen thousand. So that’s what happened, I went from part-time to adjunct the following semester, then the next semester I was made full-time temporary. But I wasn’t on the tenure track. Because Palo Alto just started, in 1985 and I came in 1988 so the ground was still shaking. And then as things went on I was doing my full time, temporary position and because I wasn’t making enough money I started moonlighting a lot, I taught at St. Mary’s, I would teach at UTSA, and eventually I got my associate professorship before I got tenure. And then when I finally got the tenure, I decided well, I’m not gonna sit around, so I started going for promotions. Going for promotions is not easy, you know you have to show a lot of what you’ve accomplished in the community, your profession, and your writing and in the classroom. So eventual after many years, five years I went for the full professorship. Now I strongly believe that when I came to Palo Alto that I came to the right place. My journey started from being hired on the spot to making full Professorship. I give great thanks to God for all His blessings.
What is the American Dream for you?
Well my American journey is almost coming to a head. I did well in America, I got my degrees, got the education that I needed, got a good job, got blessed with that. …(referencing a point he wished to omit earlier) that’s part of the reason God sent me here. I have two wonderful kids, a wonderful wife. I was able to do a lot of things I wanted to do. I built a nice mansion at home (in Nigeria) that we will go retire in, God willing. And I was able to be in a situation where I can take care of my family at home even though they’re working, but a lot of times, the people don’t pay them so I can always go to the Western Union and send them some money and balance their lifestyle. So if God ask me how was the journey, I say very good thank you. So the only thing left now is waiting for those kids to finish college, get them to start their own families, and every now and then I will come see them from Nigeria or they will come see me.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
My kids! Those two boys. I’m very very proud of them.
Because the most very reason God sent me those two wonderful, handsome, and intelligent boys, as a gift. As a gift of life. And I’m also very thankful for my wife, as a life partner, she’s still the love of my life.
What is the one thing you most want people to remember about you? Your legacy?
My legacy is that I’m a giving person. Because I think that giving is an essential part of life. All these people that struggle to make all that money, and when they get it, what do they do with it? They give it all away. I donated 10,000 books to Enugu State University and Technology in Nigeria. That University could acquire only twenty books a year and I had the opportunity to collect the books and I went for it. I wish to be remembered for my affable nature and for my “Chivitas”…public spiritedness, that’s why I give the books to the African University. When I was in the University of Denver they had an exchange program. It was a faculty exchange between University of Denver, University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria. So their professors would come to DU for a year, it was faculty exchange. So one of those conferences, I went and visited a University from my hometown called The University of Technology in Enugu. And I found out that the acquisitions of the library for a whole year in books was twelve books. So what they would do with these books is they would come in and put a hole on the book and chain it down and put them on platforms so that students can come and review them but they can’t walk away with it, and the whole university all they could acquire for the whole year was twelve books. So I said something has to be done about it. So that’s when I started collecting books. I started collecting from my colleagues here. And so I wrote into McGraw-Hill and I said those books that you don’t sell what do you do with them? And they told me that they recycle them and use it for more books. So if someone is willing to take it out of your hands, they said that would be fantastic. So when I went to their warehouse, they gave me those books, I could not believe it. So when I packaged them up, a lot of people helped. Even students were giving me, five dollars, ten dollars, to ship the books. And when I shipped them, homeland security had been an issue at the time. So I had to devote like a couple of days, one day they have to come in and look at the books to make sure we’re not shipping nuclear bombs. But as God would have it, the guy came in and opened the container; he said I can’t do this. He told the boss that what he would like to do is have us pick about 50 boxes randomly, he would check them. And the boss said no, you have to look at every box. Thirty boxes, that’s all I wanted to do and they go on pushing him and the guy quit on them. So they got another person, when the next person made the suggestion they said no problem, go ahead and do it. And when I give that gift, I wasn’t expecting anything back because Nigeria is corrupt. The chancellor of the university, my fear was that he was going to sell them for his own private gains. So I had a lawyer write an agreement that if any of those books comes missing that the university has the responsibility to replace it. When I got there the chancellor refused to sign the agreement so I tell them to load back the container so I said I’m going to go sell them in the open market. He thought I was bluffing. That truck was clean out the gate, you see him running like a crazy person, trying to stop the truck and he signed it. The chancellor thought I had all kinds of money and that’s why he thought I was giving the books away for free, but who does that kind of stuff? So I said look, I’m a professor I don’t have any extraordinary income this money is practically taking food out of my kids mouth to ship this books and you’re not going to play with it. Anyway, those books, they announced it on the radio and on TV and they were showing my picture. Some of the people who know me said, ah, I saw you on TV, how come you didn’t tell us. We didn’t even know you were at home. I said, that’s not what it’s all about. And at home I do this thing called micro banking, where I loan money to all the widowed women, people who are unemployed money and the agreement is that at Christmas, one day before Christmas you return the capital. Whatever you made is your money and we take that capital and give it to someone else. So almost everyone around me I know has something that they’re doing. All the people in my family that claim they don’t have any job, in economic we say unemployment is voluntary, that you don’t have a job because you are selling your skill too high.
Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?
I’m an exemplified knight. I’m a Knight of Columbus, so I’ll be Sir Gabrielle Ume. Many years ago, the Knights of Columbus would not accept African Americans. But when I joined the Knights of Columbus, I quickly rose in the ranks. I was their recorder within the first two years of membership.
When I initially received our course syllabus, and we began to peel back the details of this oral history project, my thoughts, were, that this was going to be somewhat of an overwhelming project. I knew that I desired to complete a project on Immigration however since I am rather new to San Antonio I had a short hurdle in finding someone to interview and with the assistance of Mr. Myers, I was able to interview Mr. Ume, who is from Nigeria. My initial reaction was total excitement because I have never been to Africa and this would be the first oral history project from that region and so, it posed a challenge for me to do a really good job. Upon meeting Mr. Ume, my first impression of him was, here is an extremely intelligent man and I can only imagine what I will learn on a personal level from having the opportunity to sit down and speak with him, and my expectations were greatly met. Some of the most important points I received from this interview happened when the tape recorder was off, and consisted of life lessons that Mr. Ume believes in such as; 99% of work in life is encouragement, people get wealth because of humility, and the best way to live, is to work toward a goal. I especially like Mr. Ume’s desire to impart in others the lessons he has learned and the concern he has to assist others in receiving the same opportunities he has received in regards to education. Because I had not known Mr. Ume before now, everything I learned about him through this interview was new to me. I learned more than anything that Mr. Ume seems to be a very caring, humble, and generous person. He is a go-getter, a dreamer, and a model citizen, as well as a loving father, and husband. Mr. Ume, would be a great mentor to anyone who requests his professional assistance.
My views on immigration have not changed, and I would have to say that is due in part to my experience as a military veteran and being exposed to others who have had to obtain citizenship in the United States, I still find it amazing to see and hear the links people go through to become a citizen of this great country.
Mr. Ume spoke with conviction about those things that meant the most to him and in kindness about those who mean the most to him. Although he is very knowledgeable in many things, I still found it refreshing to see his humor and to be able to discuss his view on certain topics as well as receive successful principles to live by.
In closing Mr. Ume’s memoir, “In life, always use your number six,” is paramount in obtaining success in every area of your life. I had to shorten the memoir since we were only allowed six words, however I still think the meaning is clear. One can not go through life, without using his or her brain, in my own words, we really need to learn to think things through. In his, “use your head.”
My memoir or words to live by, “Desire to influence those around you.” And I believe that is what Mr. Ume has and continues to do. It was a pleasure to conduct this interview.
- October 13, 1954 – Mr. Ume was born in Enugu, Nigeria
- December 1975 – Graduated high school, Christ the King College
- August 28, 1978 – Immigrated to the United States on a United States Educational Visa, and moved to Jackson Tennessee to attend Union University
- Summer of 1979 – Moved to Austin, Texas
- May 1983 – Graduated college with his BBA from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas)
- 1984 – Graduated from St. Mary’s University
- 1985 – Mr. Ume moved to Denver and enrolled in the doctoral program of Political Economy
- November 28, 1987 – Mr. Ume married his wife in San Antonio Texas at Holy Redeemer Church
- November 21, 1991 – Gabriel Obiora Ume II, Mr. Ume’s first child was born
- August 8, 1988 – Mr. Ume began working at Palo Alto College
- January 5, 1999 – Harlon K. Arinze Ume, Mr. Ume’s second child was born
- October 13, 2009 – Interviewed was conducted in Mr. Ume’s office at Palo Alto College, San Antonio Texas (His Birthday)
- One World – Nations Online. Klaus Kästle – Editor, 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.
- The Nigerian Outlook is a African newspaper. The Nigerian Outlook were the newspapers that Mr. Ume’s father delivered to make extra money for his family. Mr. Ume would delivery them as well from time to time as a young boy.
- Akarais a traditional African dish. Akara was the dish Mr. Ume’s mom brought to elementary school. This is a picture of that traditional African dish.
- I-20 United States Student Visa. U.S. Immigration Support, 2008. Web. 2 Dec. 2009. , is an application for a student visa. This was the form, or a similar form, Mr. Ume completed in order to obtain a student visa to attend school in the United States of America.
- Black Sambo Sterling Times Company. Webring, 2001. Web. 2 Dec. 2009., is the story of a little boy chasing a tiger around a tree. The Black Sambo was considered a racist term. This link discusses the tale of the Black Sambo story.
- Knights of Columbus Knights of Columbus. Knights of Columbus, 2003. Web. 2 Dec. 2009. The Knights was formed to render financial aid to members and their families. Mutual aid and assistance are offered to sick, disabled and needy members and their families. Social and intellectual fellowship is promoted among members and their families through educational, charitable, religious, social welfare, war relief and public relief works.The history of the Order shows how the foresight of Father Michael J. McGivney, whose cause for sainthood is being investigated by the Vatican, brought about what has become the world’s foremost Catholic fraternal benefit society. The Order has helped families obtain economic security and stability through its life insurance, annuity and long-term care programs, and has contributed time and energy worldwide to service in communities.
- Photographs and/or documents on this website were provided by Mr. Gabriel Obiora Ume and Renata Summers .