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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Broadus Mitchell, August 14 and 15, 1977. Interview B-0024. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Parents' roles in the family

Mitchell recalls the relationship of his father and his mother to the family. Mitchell notes that while his father was dedicated to his wife and children and sought to ensure they learned about the world they lived in, his teaching and community responsibilities tended to take priority. According to Mitchell, both of his parents worked to instill within their children a sense of civic responsibility, a sound education, and a healthy inquisitive take on their religious faith. Overall, Mitchell argues that both parents had a strong presence and role in shaping his world views.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Broadus Mitchell, August 14 and 15, 1977. Interview B-0024. 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

MARY FREDERICKSON:
As busy as he was, did he have time to teach his children as well? Did he spend a lot of time with his family? Was his family important to him?
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
Yes, it was. But my father had very few recreations. He didn't have time for recreation much. I remember once he made a kite for us and tried to fly it. It didn't fly, and he had to go back to lunch and left us out on the campus with the kite on the ground and a lot of string to wind up. He was not good with tools. He had no interest in doing things with his hands. He wrote a beautiful hand, but repairs around the house or anything of that sort, simply we didn't possess any tools. And he never thought it was necessary to have a lawn mower sharpened. It fell to our lot to mow the lawn. And in a sense - and I don't want this to sound unkind - his children were sacrificed to his sense of responsibility to the institution where he taught and to the community. He always had a small salary, and there were five of us. We were pinched all the time. We had a position to maintain, and Father and Mother had a position to maintain in the community and so on. And that demanded a certain amount of expenditure. But I think that he was unable to take the view that many would take today that the first responsibility is to your own family, and that they should be brought up in comfort and given every opportunity and so on, and if you do other things outside of your job, that's fine. But Father had kind of a ministerial commitment, which was part of his connection with the church. He and Mother belonged to the First Baptist Church in Richmond, and they went way downtown. It was down in the center of the city across from the City Hall. We lived out on the edge of town at the college campus. And while he used to have family prayers when I was a child and seemed to be religious, I think later in life that meant very little to him. I think it was social values that took the place of individual goodness or devotion or anything of that sort. My mother was less religious than he was, though she was a daughter of a Baptist clergyman.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
That's interesting. How did that come out?
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
My mother was highly intelligent. She had seen a good deal of the world as a daughter of a president of a theological seminary. They had known a lot of people and so on. She had not been to college. In those days girls didn't go to college so much. She went to a private young ladies' seminary.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Where did she go to school?
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
In Louisville. Incidentally, I know pleasantly in New York City Jimmy Flexner, who is well known as a biographer and writer on historical subjects. My mother as a young woman taught his mother in Sunday school. Mrs. Flexner was at that time, I don't know; I've forgotten what her maiden name was. I remember once as a child being in bed with my mother, and she didn't kneel down beside the bed to say her prayers. And I asked her if that wasn't the way you said your prayers, and she said she found that [laughter] it worked just as well in bed if you were chilly. She was sensible about the whole thing, and I don't think any of the supernatural part won through to her at all. I think that she had, though she didn't make a parade of it, a very realistic view of religious legend . . . [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
[I'll give you an example of] Mother's very realistic view. When Theodora, my daughter, came from school one day when she was six, seven, eight, something like that, she said that she had been told (in what connection, I don't know) about the Virgin Birth of Christ. And she was doubtful about it, and my wife said to her, "Well, how do you think Jesus was made?" and Theodora said, "With sperms." [Laughter] Now my mother believed in the sperms rather than in the miracles. She was respectful of other people's attachment to religion, and she knew the Bible well. As a young woman, she had written Sunday school lessons for the blind that were put in Braille, and this required skill because, since Braille is so expensive to produce, anything in the way of a religious lesson had to be not only undenominational but unsectarian So, of course, I suppose she drew largely on the Old Testament. But she knew the Bible thoroughly, just as she knew Shakespeare very well indeed. And I remember once her showing me a list that I'm sure she had made up of some literary puzzles. They were little snippets of verse, and you were to try to say which came from the Bible and which came from Shakespeare, and it was very difficult to tell; they were much alike.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
What was her relationship to her family, to her children?
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
Very loving and imaginative and doing everything possible to develop our understandings. She was never cross with us, and she tried very hard, in spite of being, I think, often strained herself, not to be irritable or to scold. And she didn't. And she tried hard with pictures and books and stories and sending us to as good schools as she could and everything to open the world to us. Father did, too, and he would take us on trips and was eager to show us everything.