Lee & Joanne Fisher
Founding Members of the Oneonta-Area NAACP
The offer of a job teaching in nearby Davenport brought Lee to Oneonta, NY from Williamsport, PA in 1964. Joanne joined him after their marriage in 1967. Lee and Jo are founding members of the Oneonta-Area NAACP. They were recently honored by the Otsego County Court with a commissioned portrait that is now hung in the Court’s Annex Building acknowledging thirty years of service and offering alternative contributions to the cause of equity and justice.
On November 2, 2022, Christina Hunt Wood sat down with Lee and Joanne Fisher of Oneonta, NY at the Center for Racial Justice and Inclusive Excellence on the SUNY Oneonta Campus.
Christina Hunt Wood (CHW): So, can you share how you two met and formed this powerful union?
Joanne Fisher (JF): Actually, we’ve known each other our whole lives. We lived in the same town and our families were connected. My grandmother and [Lee’s] mother and grandmother were very good friends. I went to college at Purdue in New Jersey and when I finished with that, I was working in Williamsport and that’s when we started dating.
CHW: Did you know that he was the one right away or did you have to get to know him and eventually realize “this guy’s all right.”
JF: Like I said, we started dating after I graduated and came home...
Lee Fisher (LF): I was doing my student teaching in Williamsport. We went on small, short dates—going out, you know, for ice cream or just talking. Then all of a sudden it became routine.
CHW: It just felt natural?
LF: (laughs) Yes, felt natural.
CHW: So, you’ve been married for a few years now. Is there any advice that you would give newlyweds are folks that need a little guidance in their relationships? I feel like you must know something—I feel like you work together. I mean, from where I’m standing you seem to work well. Of course, I don’t know what your relationship looks like at home…something is working though.
JF: I think we enjoy the same things and I think it helps that the center of our life is God. That is our center.
LF: Yeah, we were brought up in Christian homes. Our community was just fantastic. When you talk about, “it takes a village,” we had a city where if you were someplace you shouldn’t be and another parent saw you, they would either confront you or tell your parents they saw you.
We feel that [being raised in a tight-knit community is] what kept us together. We had a community center with two tremendous people running it—a lady and a man. They had activities for young people–when were in grade school and even in junior and high, if we weren’t playing sports, we were at the Center. And our parents knew were at a safe place.
The Christian home made a big difference for us, and we try to practice those values. I mean we’re not perfect. We make mistakes too but…
CHW: You mean, you’re not perfect [laughs]. Tell me more about growing up in Williamsport.
LF: The city had about 50,000 people and we were pretty much in a designated area in the Black community.
CHW: Pushed into a certain neighborhood?
JF: There were four black churches. They were at the center of the community. When we were all kids, there was a street we all met at after church. I think you carry that kind of relationship with the church and the community with you.
CHW: Could you bring that community-centeredness with you and transpose it to this area?
LF: We were here before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Joanne was working at New York State Electric and Gas and then went to work in the school district. I taught school in Davenport, which is predominantly white. I mean, we had black families—not many—and the EOP program was not at the State University. So, you didn’t see that many people of color.
I did connect with some of the other Black teachers. Now, Doug Jones was an excellent musician and he lived in Otego. He taught at Oneonta High School. Graduated from Hartwick College and was very well-known in the area because he taught music lessons, and voice lessons, and was a great choir director.
CHW: How did it feel to move here and navigate such a different space?
LF: It was interesting. When I interviewed for the teaching job, I did that in Binghamton with the Charlotte Valley School superintendent, Don Haight. When I interviewed there, I did not know where Davenport was. I only knew what Mr. Haight was telling me. When we came here, Joanne was the second Black person on her job, right?
JF: Yeah, in the office…it was different. Very different.
CHW: Yeah, I can’t imagine. Compared to now, when there has been so much progress in ways, were there rules you had to follow to fit into this community?
LF: I think we were very fortunate because, at the school, we had excellent people. I mean, people who didn’t care what color you were.
When I first came to Davenport, they told me, “you have to come to Davenport Center.” So, I was looking for, you know…
CHW: A “center”? With things happening?
LF: Yeah, like a big place. What it was, was the name of the place was “Davenport Center.” The place that I had to go was to Mr. Haight’s house. This is before GPS, so you’re going by what people are telling you. There was a house that had a big flag—a big pole with a flag on it. So, I say, “gee, I think I’m in the area, but I’ve got to find out.” So that was my first time out of the car in Davenport.
I went up to the house. The door was partially open, the TV was up really loud. So, I had to really knock. I heard the steps coming towards the door and the man opened the door real wide and then he closed it and had his foot where he was going to close it. You could just see him…and he said, “what do you want?” And that was my introduction to Davenport.
When I told him about Don Haight, you know what he did, the door opened up and he said, “oh, you must be the new teacher they’re talking about.” Yeah, that was my introduction, but like I said, we had great people.
JF: When you think of the times and that people accepted you.
LF: I stayed in the house with a lady whose husband passed away and [her house] was right off the school grounds—the first house right off the parking lot. I could walk to school. It was beautiful. She just opened up her house and said we share everything here. I lived there for three years.
And what about your job, [Joanne]?
JF: Oh, at Electric and Gas. That was interesting. Well, the person who was there before me was a lovely Black lady who had to fight in that corporation—at NYSEG. And she paved the way for all of us really. I used to tell any Blacks that got hired, even after me, that they should always go in and thank her. She went through…heck. People were awful to her. I found that out too. I mean I went through the same thing where they tried to make it seem like you didn’t know what you were doing.
CHW: Scrutinizing you for the sake of scrutinizing. Setting you up to fail.
JF: Yeah, you knew you were in that kind of environment…you make it through.
CHW: When you talked about being in a good community, it made me think of my upbringing in Jefferson in the 90s. I understand what you’re saying. People were good to me growing up. Sure, there was lowercase “r” racism, but I was treated like part of the community. I feel like these small towns became more divided and hostile in recent years.
LF: I would say our country has become more hostile due to the stuff that people come across on the internet. People read it. People believe it. Or people don’t believe it.
JF: And people can hide behind what they say.
LF: Davenport has changed a lot. When I first came, there were 63 farms and now I think there are three. Three operative farms. Co-ops bought up a lot of the smaller farms and they went out.
CHW: You said you moved here as the Civil Rights Movement was underway. Did you get involved in activism during that time?
JF: The activism occurred with our kids and in school. We could see things changing and we made sure they knew we were involved in their lives.
LF: In my classroom, the kids knew where I stood on the issues. We always delved into them during Current Events [class]. I’d ask students, “do you think this is fair? Do you think it’s right what’s happening in the country?” The students loved current events.
CHW: I loved Current Events in school too. It was my favorite.
LF: I had a principal who told me, “No one is going to take that course.” You know, my son was up at Albany State at the time, and they had two sections of Current Issues courses that had a hundred and some students in each.
CHW: So, what you’re saying is that the principal was wrong. [LAUGHS]
LF: Yeah, he was wrong.
JF: Plus, at SUNY Oneonta, there were a lot of Afro-American professors during that period.
JF: I mean brilliant people. Charlie James who wrote several books and Stan Morris whose still in Oneonta, and Guy Mahone—I won’t remember them all, but there were quite a few [Black] professors here.
LF: Ralph Watkins, a lot of great people.
CHW: It’s my understanding that now, the colleges struggle to keep professors of color here because the culture can be hostile. So, it sounds like there are fewer now than there were then. When was that?
JF: That was way before the Black List  when those professors were here—they were excellent professors.
LF: We used to go up to the college camp and have get-togethers. It was all of us and our families playing cards, playing softball, and that would be a whole Saturday. We would bring a dish to pass. It was fun. It was just nice because we could connect. We had a community within our community. It was really different.
JF: We were physically spread out, but we had a community. There’s never been a Black neighborhood.
CHW: I’m a member of a group of Black people living throughout the Northern Catskills. We mostly stay connected through a messaging app, but periodically we have get-togethers, which are really fun. But mostly we chat on the app sharing resources and info about our businesses and whatnot.
JF: That’s good. That’s what’s missing here. People keep to themselves, I think.
CHW: There do seem to be people of color, more than in the past, but it is spread out, isn’t it? And there’s not necessarily a lot of connection happening.
JF: Even the Black businesses. They don’t even connect, which is very sad.
LF: It’s something that we’re working on through the NAACP. We’re constantly aware of the social problems that might occur in the area, so we want to be connected to Black business owners. We want to keep them informed and provide resources.
CHW: In your opinion, what are the most significant contributions the NAACP has made to the community since its formation in 1993?
JF: First, people know where to go when there’s a problem with civil rights, but also, when you look at the makeup of our organization, it’s mixed and predominantly white. That [multiracial cooperation] makes quite a difference. But I think that we’re here and people know what we’re about is important.
CHW: I was just reading about the honor that was bestowed upon you in the Daily Star—the Otsego County Court’s recognition of your work for justice over the past 30+ years. Congratulations! It was interesting what Judge Burns said about feeling scrutinized when you first began attending courtroom hearings but realizing that you were part of the team that wanted to ensure justice.
LF: Judge Burns would call us into his chamber and the officer would come down and say, “the judge would like to see you two in his chamber.” We would go in, and he’d tell us about what the case entails, that it’s strictly confidential, and what could happen.
JF: Plus, he’s always been inclusive and is the one who started trying to get more diversity in the jury.
LF: He’s been working on that for a long time. It’s very hard. How do you get a list of all of the Black people in the community without someone doing the “Black List” again? You just can’t. That’s one thing we’ve been trying to do–to get a community of color more involved.
CHW: So, the honor includes a portrait of you two hung in the courthouse, correct?
LF: It’s a photograph that was unveiled and will be hung in the Supreme Court Annex, which is right on Main Street by the Courthouse in Cooperstown.
CHW: Well, that’s pretty cool.
LF: You know, we’re not into all that. There were people that said, “wow that should be in the paper.” But that’s not what we’re all about.
JF: It’s the NAACP community who are involved in it too. It’s not just us.
CHW: I noticed you gave a shout-out to George and Regina Betts.
LF: Yeah, they were powerful. George trained me and told me what things to do or not regarding legal redress.
JF: Regina was the same.
CHW: She was a powerhouse.
LF: You know, when we started the NAACP in 1993, we started at the church—St. James. That’s where we met and had a huge crowd.
JF: It was Grace Jones, the Vice President at SUNY Oneonta who started it.
CHW: I love that she's named Grace Jones and I want her to be the model musician, Grace Jones. But I know that she's not. That would have been really weird if she was also the vice president of SUNY Oneonta and had that cool angled hair and all.
CHW: This work that you're doing can often be thankless. We take one step forward and two steps back. And I've seen you in action during really frustrating times and yet you are composed. You are the voice of reason and are steadfast and focused. But when you go home at night, do you let it out? Do you get so frustrated you scream? And what does it take to recenter yourself to keep going?
JF: Absolutely. It is frustrating. I get more frustrated than Lee. Lee’s a little calmer. I get very frustrated with parents that aren’t coming forth. And I think that the world is not going right now. I’ve been reading Professor Soren’s book, “Driving While Black” and it is frustrating—I read it and then put it down.
CHW: And yell a little bit (laughs)
JF: Yeah, absolutely. It’s good you can do that at home, so when you do go out you have a little more reasoning. I definitely have to go to scripture to recenter also.
LF: Sometimes we just need to get away. We’ll go visit our daughter’s place in Charlottesville, VA or go down to our son’s in Delaware, just to get away. You have to take breaks because you know you’re going to have to stay in the fight. You have to when you know people rely on you.
A lot of people don’t want to go talk with school superintendents, for example. So, I need to be ready. We’ve been in just about every school in Delaware County. We find that the administrators are just not doing what they’re supposed to do. There are small groups of kids of color and they’re having all kinds of problems in these schools—the name-calling and the way they’re treated. And you know, those superintendents and administrators need to stand up and say, “this will not be tolerated.”
Now, you know about Michelle Osterhoudt ? She’s the new Superintendent at Margaretville.
CHW: Yeah, that’s really amazing. Margaretville has a fairly large Latinx population, right?
LF: Yes, something like 30%. But they have incidents like on the soccer field because of who they are as a school. They have kids calling them names and boy, Michelle steps right in there…to see the difference in what Michelle did at her school with her leadership group—the teachers and the Board got right on it. When you go to some of these other schools there are no plans. They ask the NAACP to come and help and then take no action.
CHW: I’m tired just listening to this.
JF: Yeah, that’s the other thing, you get tired.
CHW: I think there’s a little bit of “covering of asses” by calling the NAACP in. Then they can say they did something while doing nothing.
JF: Yes. That’s exactly right.
CHW: I don’t want to take up much more of your time, but I’m curious. When I invited you to participate in an interview and you generously said “yes,” you suggested we meet here at the Center for Racial Justice and Inclusive Excellence on the SUNY Oneonta Campus. What is the significance of this place for you?
LF: We have a new professor here, Dr. Howard Ashford. What he wants to do is be connected with the NAACP, but he also wants the NAACP to be connected to the SUNY community. Downstairs there is a mural about the history of the Black List painted on all of the walls. We were here when all of that was happening, so we are a resource for things that were going on.
At the time, I was an assistant basketball coach, and our players came in and they were up all night dealing with this. They had school and games all week, and they were tired.
CHW: We don’t always recognize the emotional toll this nonsense takes on people.
LF: After the Black List incident happened, people were trying to forget it. It’s like people saying, “why are you bringing up racism?”
CHW: Institutions are still trying to erase it. A few years ago, I was going to offer a screening of the film “Brothers of the Black List” at a library in Delaware County. The librarian was okay with it, but there was a Board member who was in tears that we would drag her friend, an officer involved in the incident, and his troop’s honor through the mud. The Board refused the programming in deference to her fragility. All because they don’t want to think about what they did wrong.
LF: They say, “the less we speak about it, the more it’ll be forgotten.” That’s what they are trying to push for. Schools cannot bring up diversity, equity, and inclusion. Teachers are being fired if they get taught teaching it. It’s horrible.
CHW: One last question—what do you think is the best feature of living in this area and what is the most difficult?
JF: People ask me how I could live in this area. I guess it’s because people were welcoming when I got here. It was a very comfortable place to be.
LF: We weren’t involved in the real crux of the community. Our community was the church and the school—the teachers and their families.
We ran into the problems when we were trying to purchase a home in Oneonta. We were trying to make the down payment and the [sellers] lived in Massachusetts or one of the New England states. Then the real estate person said, “well, you know that they are a couple of color.” They took the house off the market. That was a good thing for us.
JF: It wasn’t where we were supposed to be.
CHW: Were you looking in Davenport too?
JF: At the time, I don’t think I could have lived in Davenport because the houses were way too far apart. I was coming from the city. With neighbors not there? I don’t think so.
CHW: Too quiet!
LF: Joanne’s mother said, “Lee, where are you taking my daughter?!” I said, “there’s nothing up there but cows and pastures.”
CHW: So, the best part is being able to fit into the community.
JF: And where we lived was the best neighborhood.
LF: We were on Ivy Court. When our daughter was born, she was the 5th girl in our neighborhood. There were 17 boys on that block. We all just congregated and would picnic together. We did a lot of things together.
JF: Our neighborhood right now is great too. We just take care of one another.
 On Sept. 4, 1992, a woman in Oneonta, NY, reported an attack and attempted rape by a man she described as having a dark complexion and a cut on his hand. As part of their investigation, police requested, and a SUNY Oneonta administrator provided, the names and residences of the college's Black male students. Police used this list to track down the students, questioning them and demanding to see their hands. In addition, Black men, and at least one Black woman, in the City of Oneonta were questioned. The perpetrator was never found. The incident led to a class-action lawsuit and a significant court case, bringing national media attention to Oneonta and provoking outrage about the issue of racism in law enforcement. The court case prompted changes to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) policies, creating a lasting impact on higher education nationwide.
 Michelle Osterhoudt is the Vice President of the Oneonta-Area NAACP and was recently appointed as Superintendent of Margaretville Central School District in Delaware County, NY.