By February 6, 2020 Read More →

Interview: Sterling Fountain

By Tasha Wilson

I should not be doing a simple article/interview on the history of the family lineage that Mrs. Sterling Fountain has here in Modesto, California. Instead, I should be writing a book about her life! Better yet, I should be drafting a movie script! Surely, her story would follow-up with an Oscar Award-winning film.

I have had the privilege of knowing Mrs. Fountain since I was a child. Still, I had no idea about her beautifully rich African-American family history. She began sharing it with me, during an easy and laid back Friday afternoon conversation, held at Modesto’s King Kennedy Center, (where she serves, as a member of the board).

For me to give you a full picture of why an interview with Mrs. Sterling Fountain is important to have for the history of Modesto, and why her genealogy is so relevant for the African-American youth in our community, I must start from the beginning. So get comfortable, and allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Sterling Fountain. Here, you will learn how Modesto, California came to be a precious piece of the heart and soul that lies within her.

ModestoView: How did your family first settle here?

Sterling Fountain: My grandmother, Mrs. Willa Mae Williams, came here initially from Ventura. The family she worked for was related to the owners of the JC Penny Company and when they were asked to transfer to the Modesto JC Penny Company location, my grandmother came too. My father didn’t come at first, but arrived in 1936, at the age of 15.

MV: What obstacles did African-Americans face during the early days in Modesto?

SF: There were quite a few that I can recall. It was sometimes made difficult for blacks to better themselves here. In 1955/1956, the city was expanding and the freeway would soon be going through the area where my grandmother’s house was located on 6th and K Street. Due to the upcoming construction of the freeway, her family received a settlement. The settlement enabled them to purchase about four acres of land where they would soon have contractor’s build them a new home – from the ground up! Sadly though, (as a black buyer), in order for her to view the property, she had to see it at night. There was no way for her to view it in daylight because the neighbors would not have been able to accept the shock of seeing the first black family having the possibility of living on their street. Well, when it finally came to the move-in date, the neighbors thought my grandmother and her family were the help! When they found out that she was actually the homeowner, the whole street got together and financially offered her the amount she paid to purchase the home – in order for her family NOT to move in. She refused the offer!

MV: Wow! It sounds as though your grandmother was business minded even back then! She turned what was meant to be an obstacle, into a major milestone! What other milestones did your family make after getting their feet planted here?

SF: Very often, there were a lot of fun things that black people couldn’t do in this city back then. My grandmother made sure that black families had a place to go. At the time, black people were forbidden to stay in hotels, so my grandmother made sure she kept one room in her home open for black families who were passing through, and she always made sure there was a pot of food too!

MV: I know that for me, it is very heartwarming and enjoyable to hear these stories about your grandmother. I love the fact that you have similar qualities in your personality that your grandmother instilled within you. Can you tell me more about the milestones your grandmother achieved here in Modesto?

SF: Yes. In the 50’s, there were many places that we were not allowed to enter. There was even a roller rink and a public pool that were closed to us. But my grandmother changed all of that! She decided to build a pool in her back yard! Kids would come and swim for 10 cents, a nickel, a penny, or for free – (if they couldn’t afford it). My grandmother just wanted to make sure everyone felt loved and included.

MV: That helps me understand where your kindness comes from even further! Do you think Modesto is thriving now, compared to the way it was back then?

SF: Yes, I think Modesto keeps getting better and the unity we have within the African-American community is what keeps us strong!

MV: Thank you for sharing about your family and my final question is our Modesto View Magazine signature question. I am always required to ask it at the end of every interview. This question comes from the editor himself, Mr. Chris Murphy: Beatles or Rolling Stones?

SF: What? Neither! And please, tell Chris to instead include four choices in the future. For example; Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles OR Beatles or Rolling Stones.

On a personal level, I would like to end this article with a story about Mrs. Fountain’s first name. The beautiful name “Sterling” is not a common one, and the way her name came about is yet another beautiful story. You see, prior to her birth, her mother had given birth to two other children. Both children were born with disabilities. On her day of birth, the doctors were looking her over and informed her parents that their new bundle of joy was completely healthy. Her parents repeatedly asked, “Are you sure? Is she really okay?” They would have loved her just the same, but naturally, they were anxious and concerned. After her father had calmed with his questions, the doctor turned to him and said, “Yes. She is perfect. She is Sterling!” That is how she got her name.

The dictionary defines the word this way: ‘Sterling: (of a person or their work, efforts, or qualities) excellent or valuable, conforming to the highest standard.’ The story behind Mrs. Fountain’s name means so much to her heart and she tries to live her life matching that definition. Everything she does is “sterling” and for that, she is one of the most highly respected and loved people in Modesto’s African-American community and she 100% lives up to her name. We thank you, we honor your life, and we love you STERLING FOUNTAIN, we really do!

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About the Author:

Tasha is a true "Multipotentialite" in every sense of the word! Not only is she a freelance writer, but she also sings, acts, attends MJC full-time, pursuing her degree in Human Services, while single-handedly raising two teenagers, a son, Giovanni (16), and a daughter, Aciemarie (14). Find her on both Facebook and LinkedIn here: www.facebook.com/tasha.smiles.daily, www.linkedin.com/in/tashaalwayssmiles.