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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, July 22, 1974. Interview B-0007-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Forming an interracial student group in the 1920s

Kester describes the interracial student group he helped to form in 1923. A student at Lynchburg College at the time, Kester had just toured war-torn Europe. Having converted to pacifism during this journey, Kester found parallels between the plight of Eastern European Jews and southern African Americans. He discusses here how the student group—composed of students from Lynchburg, Randolph Macon, and Lynchburg Theological Seminary—struggled to find places for meetings and the reaction of community members to the group. In particular, Kester emphasizes the support of the local YWCA, which he contends was far more progressive than the YMCA.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, July 22, 1974. Interview B-0007-1. 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

JACQUELYN HALL:
So you organized an interracial student group at Lynchburg College.
HOWARD KESTER:
I certainly did.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was that . . .
HOWARD KESTER:
That was the first one in the South.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was that a YMCA?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, it was composed of students of Lynchburg, Randolph Macon, and Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College, which was a Negro institution, and as soon as I came back from Europe, well, when I saw the ghettos in Warsaw and Krakow, particularly Krakow, you know the Jews had to be in by sundown and there was a tremendous chain, larger than a regular 109 chain, clear across the gates, and every Jew had to be inside that before sundown. And when I saw it something turned over inside of me, and I came to feel that - "Well, by golly, this is what we do to Negroes in the South. We put them in restrictive areas, and exploit them in every way that we can think of." And I felt that the time had come for Negro and white students to get together, and I went over to see one of the students . . . no, I spoke, I spoke at the College, and afterwards met a man by the name of Jackson. He was studying for the Ministry just as I was, and I liked him, and trusted him, and vice versa. And we began talking about the formation of a student group, and at first we met over at the Negro college, because in those days it was hard to find a white college that would welcome us, and so . . . Is this what you want?
JACQUELYN HALL:
Yes, I want the story.
HOWARD KESTER:
And then the Negro students said we ought to meet in a mutual place, and
JACQUELYN HALL:
Rather than meeting at the black college?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why was that?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, it was a natural, yet unnatural thing to do. Why not swap around a little bit? So I went to the President of our college, John Hundley and asked him if I could bring the Negroes from the college, Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College, over to our college for a concert, declamations and orations, and debates and this that or the other, you know, and he said, "Yes, go ahead," and I did. Most of the students and the faculty turned out as long as the Negro students were singing, and when they started the declamations, etc. they began to leave, a few of them, and I became un-stuck. I went to the door and I asked one or two of them, a particular fellow by the name of Stone, who said "I'll listen to a nigger sing," excuse the work but that's what he said, "but I ain't going to listen to them talk," and he kept going. Well, then we decided that we ought to find a white place to meet in. We went to the YWCA, central YWCA of Lynchburg and they were gracious and they welcomed us, but Lynchburg was a very conservative town, and it was no time at all until pressure began to be brought against the Directors and the Secretaries of the YWCA, so they had to say - "I'm sorry." They were, but we had to find new quarters.
JACQUELYN HALL:
You went to the YWCA instead of the YMCA?
HOWARD KESTER:
Lord have mercy, yes. You'd never get anything out of the YMCA.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I was just talking to Grace Towns Hamilton . . .
HOWARD KESTER:
I know Grace.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And she told me the same thing.
HOWARD KESTER:
The YWCA was always way ahead of the YMCA.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How do you account for that?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, I think for one thing, they were more adventurous, and saw the agony through which Negroes were passing more quickly and deeply than did the "Y" Secretaries.