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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 17, 1979. Interview C-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Interstate train travel and racial discrimination

Turner discusses what train travel was like for an African American in the early twentieth century. In offering two anecdotes regarding discrimination in interstate travel (both describing incidents from travel in the North), Turner sheds light on the nuanced practices of racism during the 1930s. (She identifies one incident as having taken place in 1936; the other incident likely occurred around the same time.) In addition, Turner describes how she reacted to discriminatory treatment, highlighting ways in which African Americans could subtly challenge discrimination.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 17, 1979. Interview C-0016. 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

You ran into all sorts of things. I've had a few unpleasant experiences, too.
WALTER WEARE:
In connection with traveling?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yes. Well, two that stand out in my mind at this moment. The first time I went to Chicago, I had gotten accommodations from here with no real problem. By this time, it wasn't any great problem to get accommodations. I don't think you could always walk right up to the ticket window and get them, depending on who's waiting on you and that sort of thing. But if you called, and you knew somebody back there, as I did now: I knew Mr. Bobbitt real well, from Mr. Merritt's knowing him. And sometimes I'd call. Well, at any rate, I had accommodations. I had no problem there. But when I got to Cincinnati? I don't remember, but overnight. The next morning, I got ready to go to breakfast and I get up and I get washed up and I go on back to the dining car. And this is the only time this ever happened to me and I don't think I ever felt anything any more keener than I did this. When I got to the door of the dining room, the first person who saw me—I don't know if he was the white man who was in charge of the whole dining car; I don't know what his position was—he looked, and he saw me standing there, and he just on away, like he didn't see me. I really didn't think too much about that. I didn't recall having seen a white person in that particular, what looked as if he may have been sort of , or something like that. So I didn't think much of that. So I stood. About this time the dining car porter passes the white man going back, when he goes this way. And when he looked up and saw me, the expression on his face was something that I will never forget. [laughter] He looked at me as if he were saying, "What on earth are you doing here?" It was one of those sort of [expression], and then followed quickly with, "What on earth will I be able to do with you?" Well, I am floored. Because I have travelled enough now, that I have never run into that sort of . . .and never with a Negro porter. Usually when you run into one of them, they always look as though they're saying, "Thank God, at last you've been able to get decent accommodations." And you'd have the hardest time trying to even give them a tip. Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, on that same trip, the man who was the porter on the train, if he dusted me once, he dusted me up and down, all over. Just little things, like, "Oh, I'm so glad to see you. Are you having a nice trip?" Just little, you know. I got off and he had been so nice to me, I decide I'm going to be r-e-a-l sporty, you know. Never did know exactly how I was supposed to tip, you know. But I'm going to give him a nice tip. So I folded up a paper dollar—that was some money for me. That was the World Fair time, Chicago World Fair.
WALTER WEARE:
1936?
VIOLA TURNER:
That's a long time ago. Usually what a dollar was with me, a quarter was my speed. But for this man, I folded this up, so it wouldn't show so much; I'm just going to slip it to him. With the last brush-down, my little suit he brushed down. "Oh no, dear. Oh, no, no, no. It's been a pleasure having you on here. No." I said, "But you've been so. . ." "Oh, no, no, no." He just folded my little money back. "No, dear. It's been a pleasure having you on here. It makes me very happy to see you here. And I hope you enjoy your trip all the way." He did more for me than that, later, however, but I had no idea. Now, going back to this waiter, who looked like he wished there were same way he could have just waved me completely into oblivion, or somewhere. So I just stood. Of course by this time, I have fought discrimination so many times and so many ways, that I could've just froze and stay and look at anything and anybody, you know, just look. So I'm just standing, looking at him. So he stood there, and then finally he gave me a sign, and he led me over to a table where, with all due respects to the lady—and I apologize a thousand times for this, anytime I think of it, because I could be so wrong—but she looked like the most hardened prostitute. You know that vision you can get about a hardened woman who has had all the hard knocks? Well, that's what she looked like. Painted to the gills. Hard lines under here. Dyed hair. He set me there. The only thing I can think of that he figured: he looked at her and said, "Well, you should be willing to accept anything from anybody", and he set me down. So that's the way I set down at a table.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Was she a white woman?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yes, she was white. But she looked like life had dealt her every raw deal in the world, and she was fighting it to death. Painted and dyed, and everything. But, you know, that's why I say everytime I think of her, or think of that experience, in the back of my mind, I'm offering apologies. Because she was the nicest thing that ever happened to me in an unpleasant situation. She didn't look shocked. She didn't look like anything had happened. She just looked up from what she was having and said, "Good morning. I hope you're having a pleasant trip." And I said, "Thank you", and sat down. I ordered toast, orange juice, coffee. I couldn't eat the toast. I sipped about one sip of the orange juice and about half of the cup of coffee. I was filled right up to here. I don't know how that man destroyed me, but he destroyed me! I guess the first thing: I didn't expect it from one of my own. And then the expression on his face: "What in the world are you doing here? How dare you come here on my car!" But she was just as pleasant as she could be, and she tried her best to make me feel comfortable, evidently. Because, you know, she was just as pleasant, but normally; she didn't seem to be acting unnatural. But just a nice person. And I tried my best to respond. But all the time, within me, I'm apologizing to her: oh, I am so sorry to have judged you to be what you look like you are. But I always believed that that's what he read there, when he put me with this woman. But she really saved my day for me. I would have loved to have helped her look a little different [laughter] if I could have, as I thought about her. So, that was, I guess, really the worst experience I ever had. But the nearest to that was coming down from New York. I had gone over to see relatives in Plainfield. And instead of taking my train out of New York, I picked it up in Newark, which is just about ten minutes out of New York. And in that short time, some smart aleck conductor or the porter had put a white man in my reserved seat. See, I wasn't pulling out of New York, and they had put him there. Probably came in with no extra space, or something, I don't know, but he was in my seat. I didn't recognize it for that. Didn't think about it. Because, what was happening: if you're riding backwards, you're in the upper, I think that's the way it was. And if you're riding forward, you're in the lower. Well, at any rate, we were sitting opposite each other. So one of us was in the upper and the other was in the lower. But the lower was my reservation, and however we were seated, he was seated in mine. I don't know whether I was seated in his, or seated in somebody else's. But I was aware of the fact that I was not in the right seat. But I didn't say anything. Then, after some little time, I made some comment, probably to the ticket agent when he came in, or something. But whatever was said at the time, I didn't get any satisfaction. But I didn't get enough of an objection to think that I had any problem. So I went along with it while thinking I didn't have any problem at all. After all, there was nothing so serious about this. It was pretty early in the afternoon. So, I don't know what happened that did give me some apprehension, but there was something wrong. And it was something that was not about to get corrected. And it may have been the attitude of the passenger, I don't remember that part now. But what I do remember is my solution to the problem. So I waited. It seems to me we had gotten into Delaware, but we hadn't been riding too long. Maybe an hour. So I called the porter. I said, "I'd like to lie down, so please make down my bed right away." [laughter] And that's when the commotion started. They started making explanations to me, you know, about the time they made them down, when you got further into Delaware, when you did this and when you did that. And I just kept being adamant, "I don't feel too well; I want to lie down; and I'd like to get it done right away." And I didn't ever give an inch. I just kept on. So finally they worked it out. I don't know what the heck they did. There was a lot of, you know, coming back and forth, and couldn't do it and couldn't do it, and I kept holding my point. "I'll have to see someone, because I must lie down. And I insist on doing it right away. I hate to make a commotion about it, but I have my reservation, and you know I have a reservation. So what are you going to do about it?" I just kept throwing the thing back in their laps. I wasn't as brave as I was acting. I was scared to death [laughter] . They were bigger than I was; I didn't know what they would do. But finally they made down my bed and they made my friend, who evidently was planning to sit there and hold my seat; he wasn't planning to move. They had to make some other arrangements.
WALTER WEARE:
They moved him on out?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yes. They moved him somewhere. They made my bed and he wasn't there.
WALTER WEARE:
You had travelled, though, in the deep South, where there wasn't railroad service, and you'd have to be overnight and look for accommodations. That's a whole different world, isn't it?
VIOLA TURNER:
Well, I would guess so. But I didn't ever have that experience, I don't think.