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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 >>

Brush with the Klan

Turner briefly describes a situation in which a white woman nearly reported her to the Klan. At the time (likely during the 1920s or 1930s), a white woman had visited the office of North Carolina Mutual and believed that Turner and her co-worker, Eula, had insulted her. Although the situation was assuaged, Turner's comments reveal the kinds of racial tensions that sometimes shaped the experiences of the prominent African American business.

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

How did you get involved with the threat to report to the Klan?
Oh! That was just one of those things with the dear old South. There was a lady that I understand she was one of the more well-to-do families for some time in Durham. They had hit upon hard times. And that had necessitated her to doing some work for a living. What she was doing was collecting bills for one of the companies. Maybe for several of the companies, I don't know. But she came up one day. And Eula—you've heard us talking about Eula—Eula is this friend of mine who's very, very, very fair. There's no way to just say Eula's fair. She's just too white, and with this sort of auburn hair, too straight, too stringy. She has to wash it certainly not later than every week, for it to fluff out. Well, anyhow, Eula and I were in the same office—her desk right at the door of Mr. Avery whom she was working for, and mine was over here, for Mr. Merritt, whose office was next door. And this woman came in, and of course we didn't know the half of the background of who she was, or why she probably had an attitude to start with, with the very idea she was working. And then she had to come into a Negro business and all that sort of thing. So she walks in and she says, ‘Is Jimmy in?’ Well this time we didn't have to put on an act. Didn't anybody know a Jim. And it hadn't even dawned on us who she was talking about. So she was addressing Eula, who was right there. So we asked her the question, ‘Jim?’ Well, she made it worse. She said, ‘Jim Emery!’ Well, now we're really out in left field. Mr. Avery was named John. TAPE 5, SIDE B IS BLANK [END OF TAPE 5, SIDE A] [TAPE 6, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 6, SIDE A]
She thought it was right here. So finally either you or I—I don't know which of us at that time—said, ‘Are you talking about Mr. Avery? Avery?’; And she said, ‘Yes.’ And all of this time she is acting indignant, very impatient. And I'm joining in, asking who she's talking about, and Eula. So when we finally get together that she is talking about Mr. Avery, Eula ushers her in. Well, now, at that point, so far as I know, I was innocent as a new born child. I hadn't done a living thing to the lady, nor had Eula. We were confused on who she wanted, and I don't think either of us acted in such a way that we added to her indignation. But evidently her whole attitude was resentment that she was there at that particular place, doing that particular thing. So that's when she walked out. She walked right up to Eula and she says, ‘What is your name?’ Eula looked up at her and said, ‘Miss Wade’, you know. I'm sitting over in the corner, and I am so sure that the woman is shocked at Eula putting that prefix ‘Miss’ to it, you know, instead of saying, ‘Mary’, or ‘Sally’, or ‘Sue’. When Eula said, ‘Miss Wade’, I said ‘Hmph!’ Just about like that: ‘Hmph!’ That woman wheeled out of that. I guess like the madam in the old days, wheeled out and went to the elevator, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz. Well, really, I didn't do enough of that, loudly enough, for either Eula or I to laugh about it. It was just one of those things, automatic. She asked her, and we felt sure from the way she doing, everything about herself, she was expecting Eula to say, ‘Eula’, or ‘;Mary’, or ‘Sally’. Eula said, ‘Miss Wade’, and I said ‘Hmph!’ So about fifteen or twenty minutes later, Mr. Merritt comes up the stairs and he says, ‘Miss Viola, did you offend a lady that was up here? What did you do to the lady that was up here?’ ‘What lady?’ He said, ‘Miss so-and-so.’ I didn't know who Miss so-and-so is. I said, ‘No. Not that I know anything about.’ He says, `Well when I came in the lobby, she's sitting (at that time we had marble all around there you could sit on; there wasn't any switchboard or anything) there crying. She looked up and saw me and she said, `Oh, Ed!" She was so glad to see him. She said she was just sitting there to get herself together because she was going around to—I believe it was the Lion's Club or something; anyway it was around Chapel Hill Street—to see her uncle, who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, because she had been insulted in that building. So now Mr. Merritt, oh Lord! You talk about somebody who never would offend anybody in the world. He starts, ‘Who in the world insulted you?’ ‘That girl up there in that front office!’ And he said, ‘You mean Miss Wade?’ ‘No! No, no! That other one over there.’ He said, ‘You can't mean Miss Viola, can you?’ ‘She's the one, she's the one, she's the one.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, not Miss Viola.’ See, I had a reputation of being a real sweet thing. ‘Oh no! I know Miss Viola hasn't done anything.’ ‘Yes she did, she laughed at me. I'm glad you came along, Ed, because now I won't do that, but that's exactly what I was going to do. I was just sitting here getting myself together, because I was going around to tell my uncle that I'd been insulted over here. And she was the one who did it!’ So when Ed came up, he came to find out what on earth Miss Viola had done. I told him, well she was right, I sure had snickered at her. But I didn't think I had done enough to offend her. I had no idea she was down there crying or carrying on.