Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 17, 1979. Interview C-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Registering to vote with the help of African American community leaders

Turner describes her experience in registering to vote in Durham, North Carolina sometime around 1924, shortly after she had arrived to work at North Carolina Mutual. According to Turner, it was customary for African American community leaders to help people register to vote. For Turner and other North Carolina Mutual employees, C.C. "Poppa" Spaulding accompanied aspiring voters as they registered. Turner recalls her own experience and how one of her co-workers was denied because she failed to pass a required literacy test. Turner's anecdote reveals the limits African Americans faced in achieving their right to vote and the persistence of community leaders to ensure suffrage for citizens.

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

Speaking of that, this is maybe something that'd interest you. Mr. Spaulding took me the first time that I was able to register, or was registered. I don't know if I ever knew anything about registration before. Mr. Spaulding would take some of us from the office down to the courthouse to register. And the day that he took me down—there were about three or four of us that went down.
WALTER WEARE:
All Mutual people?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yes. I would presume that was being done by other leaders—doing the same thing. But I don't know. Because that was all very new to me then. I knew nothing about registration. I knew you were supposed to vote, and that you ought to definitely be voting, but I had not come up with that you had to be registered, or anything of the kind.
WALTER WEARE:
Had your parents voted in Georgia, do you think?
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh I'm sure my parents hadn't. I feel very sure they had not. Because, as I told you, the first time that I knew anything about it, I was at Morris Brown and my mother's dead. I was at Morris Brown when Harry Pace, and Ben Davis and those men came to the school and started indoctrinating us, really informing us, I say indoctrinating, but that's a good word, too, I guess. Any rate, up until then, no, I don't know if I've ever heard the word, ‘vote’, meaning something pertaining to me. I guess maybe I'd heard the word because I read very early and read anything and everything that could be written. If it were anywhere within my sight I read it. So I may have seen the word, but it had no significance to me until I got to Morris Brown.
WALTER WEARE:
Mr. Spaulding, then, would take new employees?
VIOLA TURNER:
No. He was taking old employees. Because, you see, at that time, that was the beginning of registration here. Very few people, blacks, had been registered.
WALTER WEARE:
This is the nineteen-twenties?
VIOLA TURNER:
Well, I got here in '24, so it must have been probably the first year I was here. Because he was taking just three or four at a time down. They had probably been battling it out, arguing it out, how it was going to be done, but he and some of the leaders must have been putting up quite a fight, saying, "It's got to be done." So, they worked out the way it's going to be done. So, they're going to take a few at a time down there. And only somebody like Mr. Spaulding probably could get you registered. I wouldn't doubt it. All of it that's true. I imagine that if I walked down there to be registered, I never would have gotten registered. Listen, this, to me, is the priceless part of that. We walked down there. There sits a man with his book, and then his bible. I believe it was a bible; I might be wrong. But any rate: a book. So he hands you that to read. That's no sweat. I read what he said, what is there. So he gives me the privilege. He writes my name down, address, and whatever else goes with it. Next girl comes up. He gives it to her. She reads, and he says to her. "That's not correct." I think that was about the third. I think two of us got by before we questioned him. But any rate, when he questioned her, he tells her the word she's mispronounced. And, would you believe it? You would never know; you'd never recognize that word. So he reads the sentence and you'd never heard such reading in your life. For somebody sitting up there telling you you can't read. Well I [laughter] , I just stood there looking. Mr. Spaulding didn't make any display of his temper, which he had plenty of, and would, on occasion. But he did say, "Well, when can she come back to register?" And that rascal told him, "When she could read what he gave her to read," or something like that. She did go back and she did get registered later. Mr. Spaulding saw to that. But I would like is for anyone else to have been present to hear that man read, and hear the word that he called her on, hear what he called it. We snickered all the way back to the building, as soon as we got out of his office. Because it tickled us to death. Of course, you know, we were laughing but we were indignant—mad as we could be. The idea! And, of course, the girl was embarrassed in there. But when she got on the outside and when we got through with her, she was just ready to go back and do it again. Now, that's how you got registered here in Durham at that time. Somebody that they knew they couldn't say no to, that had some pull somewhere, took you down personally.