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

Initial impressions of Durham and its offerings for African Americans

Turner briefly describes her initial impressions of Durham, North Carolina, when she first arrived in 1924. Having lived in several other thriving southern cities, Turner recalls her initial disappointment in the layout of Durham, noting that there was little to do from the standpoint of public activities. While Turner eventually grew to enjoy Durham and its offerings, she believed a strong tie to the Baptist faith among African Americans in the community largely inhibited the range of social activities deemed acceptable.

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

When you first hit Durham, did you see it as a kind of stifling atmosphere then?
Oh! I was leaving every. . .the first year I was here, I was leaving every month, and then for the next six or seven years, I was leaving every year. I had never lived in a place so small. They had nothing that I'd been accustomed to. Even my home town, Macon, was an old city with wide, lovely streets down the middle of the city, with beautiful stores on both sides. And your pasttime, when I was a child, your mother and father would walk on Sunday evenings to show-window shop, as we called it. Looking in the different store windows. That's when I was growing up as a kid. And that was still the thing that you would do in Little Rock. My boyfriend and I would go downtown in Little Rock and look in the pretty stores and shops, just like you walk on Fifth Avenue. And I get to Durham. They've got two blocks, about two stores. Oh! I didn't think there was any way I could survive in Durham. I didn't like nothing about Durham.
Was there a kind of aura of what E. Franklin Frasier talks about Durham as being different from other cities where there was a middle class, because it had this old, Puritanical middle class. Was he right about that? Could you pick that up?
Well, I didn't then. Probably it was a long time before I did, because all I reacted to was the physical Durham. Nowhere to walk, nothing to see, nothing pretty. The streets were funny and cut up. My whole reaction was purely a physical thing from a certain type of city life. Even Jackson, Mississippi was a pretty, Southern town. I hadn't been anywhere but Southern towns, so that was my idea of beauty. And this was horrible. But I can understand what he's talking about because, you see, the mainstays of this town, black and well into the white group, too—I think I'm correct about that. They were a church-going people. Their religion was stern. In other words, Bess got put out of the Baptist Church, and came to the Methodist Church, I think, because she played cards. I know it was either playing cards or dancing. When I came to Durham she was in the Methodist Church. She died in the Methodist Church. But she had been a staunch Baptist Church member and got put out of there either because of playing cards or dancing. Mr. Spaulding would have died if any of us had danced in the building on Paris Street—any of those sort of things. That was just a way of life. All of the outstanding men, the older ones, like Mr. Avery, Mr. Spaulding, Mr. John Merritt, Dr. Moore, they were all good church men. They were the mainstays of their church—of the White Rock and St. Joseph's Church. Now, except for Mr. Avery, bless his heart. I never knew a thing about him. And when I say ‘know’, I don't know anything about any of these men, this is a story. But he's the only one of them that didn't seem to enjoy everything else about life. Like a little drinking and girls and corn liquor, and all that sort of thing. But no dancing and no cards, no nothing. So that was a way of life. And anybody who removed from that, they were the ones that were living in sin [laughter] . And these rascals were having all sorts of love affairs, from what I've heard. When I got here, there was, ‘See that over there? That's so-and-so's daughter.’ ‘;Gee! She looks just like so-and-so.’ ‘Well, her father's so-and-so.’ That's the kind of thing they were doing. That's what a lot of church folks seem to be engaged in. That sort of living. And yet, they're strict on the young people about dancing and playing cards and things like that.