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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Dabney recalls his support of public facility desegregation

Dabney remembers his support of public facility desegregation. Although he endorsed the desegregation of streetcars and public libraries, Dabney hoped to avoid federal interference in state's racial affairs. The desegregation of these public accommodations served as wedges in the wall of southern segregation. Dabney explains that his liberal stance benefited from his free reign as an editor and his southern upbringing.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
P.B. Young of Norfolk was a good friend of mine. He didn't like the Atlanta article at all. I can't remember him specifically writing me about the street car thing, but I suppose he did. Some black columnists praised it, including one in his paper.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Was part of the rationale that a movement of good will in this particular area would enhance the credibility of white leaders in the South to deal with race problems?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, I'm glad that you said that, because I forgot; that was one of the main considerations. It was part of carrying out the idea that Gordon Hancock had expressed, ie., we wanted to keep the capital of the Negro race in the South and said: "If you can show some tangible advance that the northern members of the race can see and feel is important, we in the Sout can control this situation." We felt that there would not be such a sudden and drastic change as occurred later.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Did the favorable general response, the letters to the editor, for example, encourage you to go beyond that stand, or did nothing else happen?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Not at that time. I've always felt strongly that the pace at which you do these things is very important. You can do things now, of course, in Virginia and Richmond that you couldn't even consider doing in 1954. Just taking it step by step, people become accustomed to the idea.
DANIEL JORDAN:
I guess that nothing was done on the proposal for black policemen in black sections of the city. Was that sort of lost in the concentration on the street car question, that proposal?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I'm trying to remember just when we did put those in. They were put in around '46 or '47, at the same time that we desegregated the public library. I was on the library board and there was no suit there, we just decided that we were going to do it and the main opposition came from the librarian, who was from New Hampshire.
DANIEL JORDAN:
And you had a role in that, as a member of the board?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Was there any editorial comment on the desegregation of the library? Did you support it, or did you comment afterwards, or do you remember whether you took any editorial position?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I may have, I know that two chief people on the paper, who were not enthusiastic about the street car thing were in favor of the library desegregation. They were beginning to change—Tennant Bryan and Jack Wise.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Now, John Stewart Bryan took over the paper in 1940, but didn't the Norfolk, Colonel Slover, retain some kind of interest until a little later date? Did he have some type of interest in the '40s?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
He had a minority interest, yes. He later disposed of it.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
That was about 1948, but Wise and Bryan were the . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
They were the managers (John Stewart Bryan died in 1944).
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Did they try to influence you during the street car controversy? I know that you ran several editorials at that time and of course . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, I can tell you exactly what happened. I concluded that we ought to come out for desegregation on street cars and I didn't even go down to see Jack Wise; John Stewart Bryan wasn't in town. I just called Wise on the phone in the building and said, "Jack, I'm going to have an editorial coming out tomorrow in favor of doing away with segregation on street cars." He gasped a minute and said, "What do you want to do that for?" I said, "Well, I think that it's time to come out . . . " He wasn't in favor of it, but he didn't try to stop it.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
What about Mr. Bryan when he came back to town? Did he express displeasure?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
No.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
He didn't try to get you to change your views? How about on the library board? You said that . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
They were in favor of that.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
They indicated this to you, that they supported a move such as this?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Not in advance, but when the library board decided that we were going to do it. I don't recall ever talking to them about it until after it was done.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Do you think that you had a lot more freedom as an editor during this period than they had on the News Leader, because of the circumstances of the acquisition by Mr. Bryan in 1940? Do you think that you had more freedom, do you think that they respected you more, your feelings more, your views more and gave you a freer hand?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, it's hard for me to judge that because Freeman was the News Leader editor and he had been editor since 1915 and was such a great figure in the community and everything else that I felt that he was just doing what he wanted to do and he and Mr. Bryan pretty much agreed on things anyway.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
When did Mr. Freeman leave the News Leader?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
'49.
DANIEL JORDAN:
He died not long afterwards, I believe.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
In '53.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
It seems to me that with the awards, such as the Pulit zer Prize and the SDX awards and so forth, that you were certainly building a reputation as an editor during this period, the late '30s and '40s.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I hope so.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Well, do you think that this reputation helped shield you from some criticism that you might have gotten otherwise, or attempts to influence you?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, it did
DANIEL JORDAN:
And probably in that same vein and we will get into this later, but I know that in several instances, you became an ardent spokesman for some very rich traditions in Virginia history. I am thinking of your Saturday Evening Post article on the first Thanksgiving and your article in the New York Times Magazine that sort of put Jamestown on the map again, and that sort of thing. Do you think that also helped your credibility as an editor? In other words, when you criticized the South, it was as somebody who loved the South and appreciated the South and you weren't an outsider, that people always resent, and that this, not merely protected you, but gave you a sort of stronger shield as an editor?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Perhaps so, I never thought about it that way, but it's possible.