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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Arthur Raper, January 30, 1974. Interview B-0009-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Character of Jessie Daniel Ames

Raper speaks at length about the character of Jessie Daniel Ames. As Hall, the interviewer, points out, the historical record made it difficult to discern Ames's character in both positive and negative terms. While Raper offers his comments on some of the reasons Ames might "not come out with too attractive a character," he again emphasizes her talent for organizing white women around the cause of lynching prevention. Additionally, in acknowledging the difficulties she faced in balancing her work in activism with her responsibilities as a mother, he alludes to the special challenges public women faced, while simultaneously suggesting that she "exploited" those tensions to her advantage.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Arthur Raper, January 30, 1974. Interview B-0009-2. 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:
This will really get into the basic problem that I have…it's this. I think, I have gone through all of her public papers, I've gone through many of her private family papers and journals and interviewed her daughter and friends of hers and I have a pretty good sense, in a way, of what this woman was like, the complex motives that she had. And yet, this is something that my second reader objects to about my dissertation and I don't think that it's altogether justified. I think it's sort of simple-minded. He wants to know, he says that I am ambivalent about her, sometimes I portray her as a…you know, "do you like her or not?" That's a question he asked me. Whereas I don't think that's really, you know, that's not what I'm trying to say in the end. Either "Yes, I admire her, she's a wonderful person," or "Jesse had all these weaknesses and faults,". I think that people are very complicated and yet I agree with him finally that I have not been able to portray her very clearly. What was she like? Can you give me some sort of, you know, specific ideas…
ARTHUR RAPER:
I will say this. That anybody who portrayed her as I knew her, because that's all I can say, as I knew her…would not come out with too attractive a character.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Is that right?
ARTHUR RAPER:
That's correct. Now, after I talked with you, no, it wasn't you, after I talked with Miss Thrasher, I got to thinking about this. And when I was writing up these Southern notes which I bored you all to death with, but then, you might find them more interesting than you think. I wrote up about six pages on Mrs. Ames in the framework that Miss Thrasher had raised that you was writing your dissertation on. And, "did I know Jesse Daniel Ames?" So, if you don't mind, I'll just…it may be better the way I wrote it than I state it. But, it was along these lines. That, I thought Mrs. Ames did a marvelous job in organizing the women and she did that and she had them coming there, she had them geared right straight to the point, namely that lynchings do not protect Southern white women. And that was a very significant point and that's the one she drove on and she kept her eyes on the real point. Now, she could do that after we had done this tremendous amount of research at Tuskegee Institute and after we had made these first case studies. She could then, with security, take the position they took. It couldn't have been taken until that time without somebody taking pot-shots at it. Well, as it was, nobody, so far as I know…now, you've been through all the materials…nobody took pot-shots at them that these dear, white women didn't know what they were talking about.
JACQUELYN HALL:
A few, small town papers…but, generally…
ARTHUR RAPER:
O.K., O.K. But, generally, it was accepted. And she could do that because of this very solid, careful research that had been done on this thing. O.K., now, she organized these women. They did come to Atlanta, they were subject to responding to telephone calls. She did have about a half a dozen women who were genuinely committed and available and worked on this thing. Not all of them lived in Atlanta. But, there was a core there. Now, she did that and she did it remarkably well.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why was she able to do that so well? Would you say that she was a good administrator, she was a good organizer? The women did like her, I mean, or at least, were very loyal to her and very admiring of her. Why is that?
ARTHUR RAPER:
Well, she could do it because she took this lead that resulted in the organization of these very strong church women's associations. And particularly the Methodist women's association. The core of it was the Methodist women.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But, if she was so aggressive in meetings and tended to offend people, why didn't she offend the women?
ARTHUR RAPER:
Well, she was able to do what she wanted. They were doing what they…she was doing what they wanted her to do.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Uh-huh. But her personal style was not…
ARTHUR RAPER:
She sensed this thing and she got in front of it, there was a followship there and she got in front of it. She created it to some extent, but it was already created. It was there in the women's missionary societies, in some of the studies they'd had, some of the speaker's they'd had, some of the goals they had set. And it…
JACQUELYN HALL:
This general analysis and the anti-lynching sentiment had already been developed by the research and by the…
ARTHUR RAPER:
It was being developed, you see. We had already published the initial finidings, "Impeach Judge Lynch" by the way, and there had been quite a few press releases, it had been carried pretty widely on the general situation. And then here was a place now, where the women could do their thing and Mrs. Ames was a "women-do-their-thing" person. And that was the kind of person she was. And she did it marvelously. O.K., now that's number one. Number two: she did the second thing and she did it superbly, so far as I know. And I had a chance to see it fairly close range. And that was in her dealing with Lulu, the daughter. Mrs. Ames told me one morning with tears in her eyes, she said, "Now, I've got to leave this off," or something-else-something-else, "because Lulu needs me." She said, "You know, something happened to me some years ago…" these were not her words, but this was the essence of it… "and it's indelibly in my make-up. Lulu was very, very sick and nearly died and they thought she was going to die one day. Lulu thought maybe she was going to die. And the next morning, when she was past it (whatever it was may have been pneumonia, I don't know what) then Lulu looked at her mother," Mrs. Ames says very searchingly, and says, "Mama, don't you wish I had died last night?" And she says, "No, dear. I'm glad you lived." O.K., now, so far as I know, her attitude towards Lulu and her concern about Lulu and her help with Lulu, was somehow or another geared back to this time when Lulu put her on the mark.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Uh-huh. When did that happen, that incident?
ARTHUR RAPER:
I don't know if it was…
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was she talking about something that was way far in the past? When Lulu was a tiny child, or…?
ARTHUR RAPER:
Well, no, no…
JACQUELYN HALL:
Something that was happening right then?
ARTHUR RAPER:
No, it wasn't then, but it was when Lulu was big enough to talk and big enough to realize that she was a tremendous…
JACQUELYN HALL:
Burden…
ARTHUR RAPER:
…strain and burden to her mother. "Don't you wish I had just died last night?" Well, perhaps Mrs. Ames had wondered or thought that, I don't know what, we all are human. But when add it to the child, confronted her as it were, she literally had to say yes and do yes, because Lulu, she was a smart kid, she would very readily say, "Well Mother, I thought you said you wanted, you were glad I lived.:" O.K., but she did that insofar as I know, and I know that she did it well, and it wasn't easy. Because she had these committments and these ideas and she wanted to stay in the leadership in this position and she did, but then there was this other thing that she also needed to do and she needed to do it right because her child had asked her, "Don't you wish I had died?"
JACQUELYN HALL:
Well, how did that personal burden, strain, affect her work, her public work and her public personality?
ARTHUR RAPER:
May have increased it, may have made it better.
JACQUELYN HALL:
May have made it better?
ARTHUR RAPER:
May have. Because all those women knew that she had Lulu. And in spite of having Lulu, she did this and most of them, I think, would identify with her as having this load, and even then, why, she was doing this, well, "let's cooperate with her, let's help her. If this is the way she wants to do it, why, let's do it that way. Let's don't put any unnecessary strain…" I don't know.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you think she…
ARTHUR RAPER:
I'm just rationalizing, reasoning here, but I don't see why it wouldn't work that way. I think it did work that way.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you think she at all…
ARTHUR RAPER:
As a matter of fact, I think that she exploited it a little bit.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Exploited it a little bit.
ARTHUR RAPER:
I think maybe she did. It certainly would have been in that direction instead of the other direction.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did she talk a lot about it?
ARTHUR RAPER:
No, she didn't talk much about it, but she knew she had told me this story. And she didn't need to talk very much about it. We'd already talked about the basic problem…
JACQUELYN HALL:
Right, right.
ARTHUR RAPER:
And she knew that she and Lulu had faced the basic proposition.