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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 >>

Segregation and service jobs for African Americans

Mitchell continues his discussion from an earlier excerpted note about his perception of race relations while growing up in Richmond, Virginia, around the turn of the twentieth century. He explains that all of the African Americans he had contact with worked in service kinds of jobs, such as maids, janitors, and barbers. He also talks about segregation within his community. Here, he again emphasizes the fact that his parents were racially progressive for their time, though he argues they would have been surprised at the amount of racial change that had occurred by the 1970s.

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:
But within your home you were able to develop and maintain very close relationships with black people?
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
Not with black people generally, but with the blacks who worked in our home. There was a cook and a maid all the time. But I didn't know any Negroes except those who worked on the college campus, and those I knew well. One was a remarkable man called Chris who was, to tell you the truth, he was the librarian. He was supposed to be the man who took care of the library as a sort of a janitor, but the librarian . . . I don't want anybody to misunderstand me on this. [Laughter] He was not trained as a librarian. He was the Treasurer of the College, who was also Librarian, and actually, if you wanted a book, which was the purpose of going to the library [laughter] , Chris got it for you. But he also lit the lamps on the college campus on winter evenings, and I used to go around with him with his ladder. I liked him very much indeed. He was a friendly man, and he used an expression often - I used to ply him with questions, you know - that you have heard, maybe: "Larrows to catch meddlers." Did you ever hear that?
MARY FREDERICKSON:
No.
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
Well, that was his answer if you asked him so-and-so. "Larrows to catch meddlers." Another was John Johnson, a man of a very different type. A large, very black man who was in charge of the main building of the College as a janitor. He was a surly man, usually chasing us out of some place where we had no right to be. But I remember him and knew him well for years. Much later I went back to see our old house, and John Johnson was living in the basement. I guess he was sort of retired from the College at that time. Oh, there were others that we knew around the College, but there were no black students. Of course there were no black members of the faculty. I went to protracted meetings in the summer in Madison County, Virginia. The blacks had a church near, of course, in what was called Zion Town. In many southern communities then, and I suppose now, there's a nearby place where the Negroes have settled which has a disparaging name like Egypt or Zion Town. Well, I don't know why Zion should be disparaging, but . . . They had a church there. But we went, I'm afraid, to see something curious and emotional. I went to one or two Negro weddings when I was a child, I remember. But we never knew black professional people in our home. Father and Mother did, and they were friendly with a Dr. and Mrs. King. He taught in the black Virginia Union University, which was over on the wrong side of the tracks. And also President and Mrs. Hoveyof that institution they knew, and they would be in our home and Mother and Father in theirs. But it didn't enter into our . . . These were white people teaching in a black college. And also I knew about the existence of Hartshorn College, a smaller institution near the Virginia Union University, a college for women. It passed out of existence some years later, but I remember that. But we didn't know any black preachers or dentists or doctors or lawyers. There weren't any to speak of. There were black preachers, oh, yes, and some of them very talented, but your closest contact with a semi-professional black man was with a barber. The barbershops were manned by Negroes, and I say "manned" beccause there was no such thing at that time as a beauty parlor. These little barber shops. Women didn't have beauty treatments, or they . . . I don't know. Maybe those who could afford ladies' maids got treatments that way. I remember a visit from Ray Stannard Baker to our home to interview Father, because Mr. Baker (who lived at that time, I guess, in New York; afterwards in Amherst) was writing a series of articles on the color line in the South. And it was a line then. I speak of the fact that we didn't have very much money when we were growing up. One winter, to economize, instead of operating the furnace in this great old house, we burned a Latrobe stove, which was a kind of a little furnace that fitted into a fireplace, a little bit like a Franklin stove. And it heated the room above with a flue that went up, so we had only that. When Mr. Baker came to see my father it was right after breakfast, and the kids had dressed in this room where there was the Latrobe stove. And Father was very embarrassed - he was a very proper person in his dress and in his deportment and everything - because our nightgowns or pajamas or whatever were in little piles around the floor, because this was the warm room in the house. I don't think Mr. Baker minded. Anyway, Father was one that he wanted to consult on this, and this indicated that his views on community problems were very much respected in Richmond. He was prominent in these ways. But I'm sure that my mother and father, while they would not disapprove of the developments that have taken place since in race relations, would be astonished by them. I'll put it that way.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Were your mother and father sort of at the same place as far as their views on race relations? Did they hold the same ideas about race relations?
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
Father more liberal than Mother, I think. He knew more about it. He knew more about the means of improvement, about the potentialities in the situation, than Mother did, because she wasn't active in those circles quite as much, though she was always responsive to needs of the community.