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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 >>

African American social gatherings in Durham, North Carolina

Turner describes social gatherings of the "fabled black middle class" of Durham. According to Turner, most socializing took the form of private social gatherings where participants could dance and listen to music. Parties were often held in celebration of holidays. Turner does not offer specific dates for these gatherings, but does note that she participated during her younger years, likely during the 1920s and 1930s. Her comments reveal ways in which African Americans socialized for purposes of leisure in the Jim Crow South.

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

One of the things people are interested in is this fabled black middle class. If you didn't have all these institutions, opera house, ballets, and so forth, and yet there was the education and the finances, what did people do? What kind of parties and so forth?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yes. I'll tell you. [business getting to the phone]. Primarily it was just parties in the home, and we had some people who were really party-givers. For instance, Mrs. Darnell, whom we all called Patty, Patty Darnell. She was John Merrit's daughter. They had a very lovely, great big home, right up there beyond the site of the old White Rock Baptist Church. I think that address was 506, a five-hundred block on Fayetteville Street. A great big, tall, turretted house. And Patty used to give always a New Year's party. And it was New Year's evening, and it went on into the night and, you know, to welcome in the new year. Everybody, for years, looked forward to that party. Bess was a great party-giver, Bess Whitted. And Bess usually had the Christmas party. And her parties started in the evening—oh, ten or eleven o'clock—and you stayed all night and ended up with breakfast, at her party. Yes, always breakfast. That, again, was one of the events that you looked forward to.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
These aren't dinner parties?
VIOLA TURNER:
No. They're big dancing parties.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
With live music?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yes, with live music. Usually a piano player. Sometimes they'd have a piano player and maybe one or two people with instruments. But always there was some good piano player. Then you danced, in the home, and you were served, you know. Not heavy services, not that kind. Now, those were the parties that you knew were coming up. Everybody expected them, and if they hadn't come up, I think everybody would have been very unhappy.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
These were formal parties where you got all dressed up?
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, yes. Evening gowns, oh, you dressed to go to those special parties, the Christmas and the New Year's parties. In between it was nothing at all for Patty or Miss Bessie to have little parties, maybe with, say, three or four tables of bridge, that many people. And they might have a dinner party, or they may have just a get-together. And, if somebody came to town, and you call around and say, be sure to come up to my house or to your house, we have a guest in town. Then that would start it. They'd get to town and there'd be a siege of parties, one right after the other. Someone in every home here would give a party and invite everybody, and then on down. That sort of thing still happens here a good deal. Really, if Martha was having—that's Patty again, Patty Darnell—if she was having guests in, she might have a series of parties, smaller ones. But the two that I mentioned, the Christmas party and the New Year's party, that included all of your friends, almost. You'd have a large party. And their houses were large enough to hold them. Some would be over in one end of the house and around, just telling jokes and drinking. If you were at Dr. Darnell's you were drinking, and if you weren't drinking it was just that you didn't want to. He always had drinks and he loved to get behind his little bar and mix them you know, for everybody. And there were a couple of rooms where people would be just sitting and running their mouths. There'd be another one where there were the story-tellers. There were always a couple of folks who were the story-tellers, telling jokes. And there'd be a half-dozen people sitting around them. Then over here, somebody's playing the piano, and the folks are dancing. That sort of thing.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Were they mostly Mutual people.
VIOLA TURNER:
No. Just Durham people. There'd be some Mutual people, and also other Durham people. Well, people from the College, professional people, doctors and their wives, dentists and their wives, lawyers and their wives, school teachers and their husbands or wives. Just a general group. Many of the groups have formed: you're all members of the same church; you're members of the same club. There have always been two or three bridge clubs in town and they meet regularly. And they have a party during some season. Or, maybe somebody that you had invited. For instance, I belong to a small bridge club. We started off at one time and we had about thirteen, now we're down to seven—from death, or moving somewhere else. But we invite two or three people always to our bridge club. Same thing's true with other people. Now, after a while, maybe somebody that you've invited several times, or your club has invited them several times, they decide they're going to entertain the entire club, so they entertain all of us there. So, we did a lot of entertaining in the home, all around. Now, years ago, when we were young, Eula, myself, and that group, Betty Goodlow and all of those. There were two buildings up here: the Masonic building and the Royal Knights of King David building. And the top floors were dance halls. Then you would have a band. You'd get various ones, sometimes very good ones, sometimes local. Sometimes if not exactly local, maybe Greensboro, or Raleigh or someplace, where a little group had gotten together and were pretty good. And then you'd have a big dance. We used to do a lot of that. That is not done anymore because they don't have those buildings anymore. That may be one of the reasons, I don't know. `Course all of us finally got sick of it; we were too old for that. But that was one of our forms of entertainment, maybe two or three dances a year. And sometimes they were very pretty, and very unique dances.