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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 >>

Challenging Jim Crow segregation and perceptions of race

In this excerpt, Turner relays two vivid anecdotes regarding how she and her friend, Eula, who was fair-skinned and could easily "pass" for white, challenged some of the restrictions of Jim Crow segregation in the South. First, Turner describes an episode in which she and Eula attended a movie at the whites-only movie theatre in Durham; and, second, she tells a story about how she and Eula fooled the butcher into thinking that Viola (clearly African American) was harassing a "white woman" (Eula). According to Turner, she and Eula had great fun challenging Jim Crow race relations by subverting public conceptions of race based on skin tone.

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:
Tell me that story, though, about you and Eula when you went to the all-white theatre.
VIOLA TURNER:
Well, there was something there that we wanted to see. Again, I don't recall what it was. So, we got togetherand either one of us must have said they'd like to see so-and-so. And, of course, the other said, we should see it. I don't know whether Eula said come on let's go, or I said come on let's go. Very likely I said come on let's go. She may have been a little reluctant. Any rate, we agreed we were going. So, I called her up and arranged to see her. Dressed up, not overly dressed, but put on, probably a little dress. And when we got right up, just before we got to the ticket office, I said, "Let me buy the tickets, and we'll see what happens."
WALTER WEARE:
Eula Perry? She could pass for white.
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh gosh, yes. She's whiter than any white person you know even. I tell her all the time, "You're so white, honest to goodness, you're sickening." And it's a fact [laughter]. She's white-white. You never saw any whiter. So it's really disgraceful that anyone ever permitted her to stay in the Negro race [laughter]. So Eula's standing right close by and I'm right up there. I say, "Two please." The lady puts out two tickets and I put the money up there. She may not even have looked up. If she did she'd no more than did that. So she didn't see anything that prohibited her from giving me the tickets. So we took the tickets and we went in. Well, when we got into the theatre, there was where you could go right upstairs. It was a narrow little theatre. I don't know whether we had any thought that maybe that would be the better thing to do or not. We recognized-at least Eula must have-that we were testing. We didn't know what was going to happen, you know. But any rate, we went up. And when you got up there, the little balcony couldn't have been any wider than this room. And not very many seats. Maybe six, eight, or ten rows. So we just sat down. Well, now, in all the theatres I've ever been in, I don't recall ever seeing light stay on during the picture. But up in that little balcony, these little lights up here stayed on right straight through the picture. Now, whether or not there was anything unique or unusual about that-it could have been that I was unique or unusual in that position. But any rate I said to Eula, "When are they going to turn those lights off?" And so she would say, "I don't know." Well it didn't matter so much because we were sitting back like this. But, now, on both sides of us, were whites. I think maybe I was the only one there. Except Eula, and maybe somebody like Eula. But, being me, there's no way under the sun, that I could stay in any one position the whole movie, or anything else, you know. So, in a little while, we're looking at the movie and I'm up here. And then I'd look over there and I'd see you sitting over here, and you over here. And your hands would be out. I was sitting on my hands all through that movie, because I could never remember to keep them out of my lap. And so when we did finally get out of there, I said to Eula, "Never again! I will never go again!" She really didn't realize quite what I was going through. A couple of times as I moved a hand, I'd punch her say, like this, and move. But at any rate, when we got out of there I said, "Well, this is one I won't try again." aaaaa: You were afraid that your hands would give you away?
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, they wouldn't've given me away.The light came right down on your hands and here they are. Now, any way I put them out there, they're going to be brown and any other hand out there was going to be pink or real fair, or something. [laughter] So, I really did not enjoy much of that movie and didn't get much of a kick out of what I thought was such a swell stunt. I didn't do that one again. Everywhere else I went I had some legal rights to it and could fight about it. I didn't have no right up there, and knew it.
WALTER WEARE:
But you and she had a good time, though, with Jim Crow, and race relations?
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, yes. We had marvelous times. We really did in more people.
WALTER WEARE:
What was that story about the butcher shop? Wasn't that with Eula?
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, yes. All of these would be with Eula. Because even my other friends who were fair, none were so fair as Eula. And although Durham, even today, I would wager you I could walk somewhere with Eula and somebody would take a second look. But it wouldn't be the same. Up until very recently. I'd say up until the sixties, there was no place that I went with Eula that at least two or three people, somewhere along the way, looked. And you'd see not only that questioned look. But it used to be where you'd see a resenting sort of thing. 'What is she doing, walking along?' Because nine out of ten times, either we might we walking with arms locked, you know, or we would be having so much fun. We always had so much to talk about. So we'd just startle people. They couldn't understand this white woman walking along with this black woman like that. So, of course, we were very much aware of that. And Eula and I had lived together so much that we could think so much alike that we knew exactly what the other one was going to say, ofttimes. And always we knew what the other one was going to do. And if you did something, you'd know exactly what I was expected to do. I expected you to do, when you saw me do this, you know. We didn't even have to talk about it. We would get into a situation where we knew we were worrying somebody. We really gave them a headache. We'd put on an act. We could've collected money for it some way, could we? The butcher shop one: do you want me to repeat that to you? O.K. This was during the period when you were having difficulty getting all of the meats and things that you wanted. And this time Eula and I were not together. I walked in to a store, and Eula was standing at a meat counter in the store. And I saw her from a distance. And the counter was one of those counters where they used to put the glass up, and you could not reach over the counter, but you could look through. It'd be just about chin-level, something like that. And, of course, the salesman was in the back. So I walked sort of carefully so that Eula wouldn't spy me from a distance. Because I really wanted to walk up on her and surprise her. And I was successful. I walked right up to her and was right by her, and she didn't realize who it is. She just knows somebody has come up. So when I get there, instead of doing what any person would have done, you know, I got right up there and started to push her like this. Now, the white salesman over here, he sees this black woman crowding this white woman, see? Well, Eula let me crowd her a little while because she isn't looking for any problems and she doesn't think that this is a problem coming up. So now I crowd her just enough where she turns and looks. Well, when she turns and looks she recognizes who it is and she immediately goes into her act. She looks and when she looks, kind of pulls back and looks, kind of sour. And that was all I needed. [Motions as if she is pushing and crowding Eula] I'm looking to see what's over there in the counter, too. I can't see. Crowd the counter. I walk back around and try to look over here. Each time I get a little harder on her. I'm not saying a durn thing. So she, like a nice, refined, white lady that is afraid of a beligerent black, backs off, you know, shies a little bit. She slides and I go right with her. We go almost all up that counter. And this poor man is dying. He looks. He says 'I don't believe what I see.' And then he says, 'But I do!' And then suddenly he realizes, not only does he see it, but he's got to do something about this. He cannot stand back there and let this Negro woman do this white woman like that. But he's got to go down and come, you know? So when he finally reaches the termination, that he simply has to do something about it, and he stops and comes around there. Well, Eula and I are well up this way to the counter. So by the time he comes and gets down here, he still has a good distance to go. So we keep the performance going, 'til he gets almost to us. We say, "Ha, ha, ha, ha!" and just embrace. [laughter] And the poor man just stares. He just stands there. What can he do? Of course if he wanted to do anything, he probably right there wanted to kill Eula. But he stands there until he gets himself together and goes back around his counter. And then we walk away together. But I know we used to get things like that done `most any old time. Maybe not quite that good. That was one of our best! But it really was. Because we nearly ruined that poor man. I would love to have heard him when he got home.