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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 >>

Race relations from a child's perspective near the turn of the twentieth century

Mitchell describes his perception of race relations as a child. According to Mitchell, children in the South grew up in close proximity with African Americans and any racial prejudices white southerners had developed later on in life. In his case, he describes the presence of Willie, an African American maid and nanny, in his everyday life and some friendships with African American children. He recalls that his own parents were quite progressive in terms of their views on race and participated in some interracial organizations, although they did not actively seek to promote similar views in their children. In addition, he offers his view that the racial changes that occurred later in the twentieth century were not necessarily resultant of changing white attitudes but rather they came about at the instigation of African American activists. Either way, he suggests that during his own childhood, such revolutionary change was still long coming.

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

Growing up in the South as you were at the time that you were, how did your parents deal with the issues of race? What did they teach you about racial differences in the South, or did they leave everything open to question or let you decide for yourself what you thought? How did social mores fit in?
The attitude of children toward race was determined quite differently from . . . It had nothing to do with our parents. In Richmond we lived in an old house which is still standing. It was a fine home built in the country by the Haxalls who were flour manufacturers in Richmond. Later on the farm was sold off, and the house and thirteen acres became the property of Richmond College. The whole college was conducted in this large house at first. And then later, as the institution grew, they put up other buildings and homes for the professors and so on. But we happened to live in what had been the original college building. It had two stories and a large basement. It was a large house. And as long as I can remember, we had as cook and monitor and friend Willie, a large Negro woman who at the time she came to us, I would think, was in her late thirties. But she continued with us for a dozenyears. The children, when young, lived largely in the kitchen, and Willie was our friend and provider. Had a severe manner but the kindest of hearts. But she had to be a little brusque with us, I suppose, because we were underfoot all the time. But we went to sleep in Willie's lap, the five of us, (not all at once!) from the time we could remember. And so we knew Negroes familiarly. She would have friends to come and sit with her in the kitchen at night. I remember one little old man that she called "Old Man Sylvester." He lived out in the country a few miles from Richmond, and he used to come by with his team of four little mules. They were not much bigger than burros, but he had this wagon and he was a farmer out near a place called Short Pump. And Old Man Sylvester would come and sit in the kitchen. There were others, women, too. And we always had Negro nurses, maids, and I remember very well being taken by one to see friends of hers over on Clay Street not very far from the college, but sitting in this home, living room with a fire in the winter. And then there was a Negro boy who used to come by and get any ashes that were thrown out, because he would sift these and get what coal was still burnable. He had a little wagon with a box on it and two wheels out in front, and he could collect his ashes. And once he and I made a long walk way over the other side of the railroad tracks over to what became later the Virginia Union University. I remember this beautiful Indian summer afternoon with him. And also, as children in Louisville, we knew the son of a woman who did the washing for the family, a black boy, and he taught us to draw. In the South, you know very well, children grew up together, black and white, familiarly. Any prejudice that developed on the white side (and I don't think much developed on the black side) came later.
You said that the experience that you and your sister and brothers had was different from that of your parents, or had . . .
No, I mean to say that it wasn't any instruction they gave us or anything like that. They didn't say, "You mustn't feel that these people are beneath you or anything." No, the thing never came up, really.
How did they feel themselves?
They were both liberal, notably so, and they understood that the disabilities of the Negroes of the South were due to their history of slavery, of poverty, of ignorance, and that what they needed was opportunity and respect and encouragement and so on. At the same time, even in my father's case, I think the views that have become common since, of equal rights and so on, were not held by him with the intensity that they are nowadays. The organizations with which he was identified which touched on race relations were such as that of the Southern Interracial Committee [Commission on Interracial Cooperation], which became later the Southern Regional Council, of which, incidentally, my youngest brother was the Director for a good many years. They were organizations of whites and blacks that worked together for specific corrections or improvements in the community. They didn't deal with large constitutional matters and so on, but rather with getting better schools or breaking some of the segregation, and the whole program was a gradual one, as they saw it, and was to be participated in by blacks and whites of good will working together. But the constitutional demands, as of the NAACP, for example, later, were not what they contemplated, or what, I think, they would have approved, as a matter of fact. Because they felt that it would take a long time and many adjustments and that it was important to keep peace and to avoid doing damage which it might be hard to repair. They were patient. I recently have had a copy from an old friend - we were roommates at college, Marion A. Wright, whom you may know - an address that he gave to the History Department at Winthrop College in South Carolina. And I read it with a great deal of interest for many reasons, because I know him well and I know something about the scene that he was reviewing of his experience as a public person in South Carolina. But I wrote him that I would disagree with him in his contention - if I understood it - that it was good will and the growth of education and greater prosperity and so on which had ameliorated race conflicts in the South, and that changed attitudes, which had been diligently induced by advocates of improved race relations, had been responsible. Well, I wrote Marion and said I didn't think so, that it wasn't improvement of the southern conscience which had been effective, but the appeal of blacks themselves to the Constitution of the United States that said, "Look, you can't be two-faced about this thing." It was lawsuits and compulsion, not the other, had a lot to do with it. I suppose there might possibly [laughter] have been some kind of revolutionary outbreak if the negroes had insisted and the whites were utterly unprepared to receive it. But look how long it's been since 1954 with the Topeka decision, and my brother, among others, worked for years trying to prepare the South first for that decision and then to get compliance with it afterwards, and we are still lacking it not only in the South but in South Boston. It was a kindly attitude, Mary, not one of justice but of duty. You see? It was your responsibility to be friendly and to entertain hopes of their progress. But you weren't going to see it tomorrow, and anything like a lawsuit would be unfortunate. You didn't appeal to ultimate things.