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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 15, 1979. Interview C-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Elite African American society in Atlanta

In this excerpt, Turner describes her mentor at Morris Brown, Mrs. Thompson. Educated at Temple University and Radcliffe, Mrs. Thompson was an African American originally from Charleston, South Carolina. During her brief tenure at Morris Brown, she encouraged Turner to pursue her education so that she could achieve social mobility. Mrs. Thompson eventually ended up teaching at Fort Valley, Georgia with her husband, a minister. Turner describes Mrs. Thompson as a refined lady who made it to the inner circle of the elite Atlanta black society. Through her relationship with Mrs. Thompson, Turner learned about some of the social graces of this elite black society, which entailed a wife's loyalty and submission to her husband and incorporated a hierarchical status based on skin tone. According to Turner, elite black society in many ways mimicked elite white society's social mores. In this regard, Turner's description here is revealing of several ways in which African Americans strove for mobility via education and social respectability.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 15, 1979. Interview C-0015. 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

WALTER WEARE:
Was the faculty mostly black or white at that time?
VIOLA TURNER:
At Morris Brown, it was all black. However Mrs. Thompson, you would've believed she was white. She was a highly trained woman and she used to say to me, "This is only a stepping-stone for you. You won't stay here too long. I won't stay here too long." And of course, I couldn't understand why. She said, "Well, the first thing, I'm not Methodist. The second thing is, the first time a presiding elder gets somebody who graduates from one of the colleges, they're going to take me out and put them in. And the same thing is going to be true with you. This is a stepping stone and you'll go from here. That's why you've got to get the additional education, so you will be able to move on."
WALTER WEARE:
Do you know where she was from, or where she went?
VIOLA TURNER:
She was a South Carolinian; Charleston, South Carolina. And one of the other regrets of my life is: when you're young, there are so many things you look back on and wish you had done them. I wish I had really kept in touch with her as I should have. Youth will not do it. You'll do it for a little while. Now, I kept in touch with her long enough for her to reach the point that you knew that she was going to have to leave Morris Brown. Because somebody was going to finally be trained to the point that one of the good old presiding elders or ministers were going to be able to do their politics and get them in there. So, she left there and she went to Fort Valley, Georgia, a school there. But while she was there-and incidentally her husband was a minister, who had always given her a good deal of trouble, but she had taken it through the years. And she used to say to me after she got to the place she would talk with me confidentially, "I'll stay and I'll take this sort of thing so long as he never makes a false move about Lula." Now that little girl-I think it was her sister's child, and the mother died in childbirth, and Mrs. Thompson took that baby-was a kid then, I guess, ten or eleven. And she always felt that her husband would probably at some time, make the wrong move towards the child. Evidently he was one of those sort of people from the various experiences she's had. And another little bit on the society in Georgia: she belonged to the elite of Atlanta society. And Atlanta society-the black society-maybe they took the cue from the white. Usually you found that to be true. But they were very sedate people. They had status that was very important. If you made their society you had to have made it for some very specific reason. No doubt hers was that she was a highly trained woman. She was heading up this department and her husband was one of the ministers in the city.
WALTER WEARE:
Where did she go to school?
VIOLA TURNER:
Well, she went to Temple University, and, what is the female attachment to Harvard?
WALTER WEARE:
Radcliffe.
VIOLA TURNER:
Radcliffe. She had gone there and to Temple, those two places. She was quite a lady, golly! But anyhow, she made the society. Now, among the things that you could not do in Atlanta society: you could not leave a husband, no. You could suffer and everybody would rally around and help you to go over it. But these little pecadillos, you had to accept and ignore, because it was not done in the Atlanta society, that you could leave a husband. I knew that simply because she was a member of the society [laughter], and I was very close to her. She used to take me out to her home and I'd stay out there with her. On one occasion I was helping her to entertain the group of very delightful ladies. When she finally got to the point where she could talk to me about these things, that she couldn't have talked to with her own group of people, or wouldn't have, she said that she was trying to stay. And she would. She could take, and would take anything, unless at some place this minister made the wrong move in the family.
WALTER WEARE:
This Atlanta society: was it color as well as position? Was there a correlation between lightness and darkness?
VIOLA TURNER:
Well that, of course, I'm sure was a part of it in the earlier years, and maybe even at that time, because that was in the twenties. Yes, I imagine you did have to be certainly a few shades lighter than black. If you were very talented and your husband or your father or some member of the family had managed to rise above the average level, you probably were accepted. But it always was to your advantage if you were fair, or at least light brown, or you didn't have too much curl in your hair, that sort of thing. All of those things had a great deal to do with status.
WALTER WEARE:
If you were very dark, though, and you had considerable achievements, would the darkness keep you out?
VIOLA TURNER:
I have an idea. . .you see, at that age, I can't really speak with authority. But with feeling and emotion, I can say it very likely would've kept you out. You might even make the edges, the fringe, but to the very inner circle, you probably still were shut out some. Because I lived through enough of that to recognize that it was important.