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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, May 11, 1990. Interview A-0356. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Eleanor Roosevelt reacts to segregation

In this excerpt, Simkins remembers attending a meeting in strictly segregated Birmingham, Alambama, which Eleanor Roosevelt also attended. Roosevelt dramatized her opposition to segregation by measuring the distance between the black and white sections of the meeting site and sitting precisely between them.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, May 11, 1990. Interview A-0356. 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

JOHN EGERTON:
Ms. Roosevelt came to both of those meetings. She was in Birmingham in 1938 and then she came up to Chattanooga in 1940.
MODJESKA SIM KINS:
I'll tell you about something that happened inaudible last year. You know about Birmingham, the strict separation of races and their law, I don't know whether it was the law of Alabama, it certainly was something in the city council. Negroes and whites were not to meet in the same place unless there was a physical barrier.
JOHN EGERTON:
Right, separated, had to sit separately.
MODJESKA SIM KINS:
Yes, they had to have a barrier between them. That's the way Anne Braden got the title for her book.
JOHN EGERTON:
The Wall Between, yes.
MODJESKA SIM KINS:
It was suppose to be a natural barrier.
JOHN EGERTON:
Yes.
MODJESKA SIM KINS:
We went to that courthouse, have you even been to the courthouse in Birmingham? It's not like our courthouse here, our courthouse. . . . This is the courthouse floor in Birmingham, now here's the center and on each side of this great big inaudible , now in Columbia, we have a big center and a plank on each side. Now in Birmingham, it's absolutely divided in half. When Ms. Roosevelt got there and they told her, evidently somebody whispered to her, I met Ms. Roosevelt, I was in close proximity to her once or twice, she looked like a person who would just say something knowing it was going to be kind of funny or kind of picking on something. Somebody told Ms. Roosevelt about that division, that physical barrier. So when she went in, and Seymore told me, she went in and went directly to the black section. I don't know whether she got to sit down or anything but she went in that direction. They got her from there and told her she would have to sit on the other side. She moved over there and they got her on down and out of the way from where she was going inaudible . We were kind of together out in front of the inaudible building and she said bring me a chair. That's just the way she talked—bring me a chair. Now bring me a ruler.
JOHN EGERTON:
A ruler.
MODJESKA SIM KINS:
They brought her the yardstick. She said, "Now measure from that chair to this chair." And they did that not knowing where she was coming from. She said, "Now find the mark half way between us, and put an x." which they did. "Now bring me a chair." And she told them to set it so the middle of the chair was over that x. I was telling the crowd about it so and I said Mrs. Roosevelt sat in that chair over that x with one of her hands on one side of that x and one of hands on the other. That's the way she sat the whole meeting. Yes, she did.