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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William and Josephine Clement, June 19, 1986. Interview C-0031. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Race relations in Atlanta during the 1920s and 1930s

Josephine Clement discusses race relations in Atlanta, Georgia, while she was growing up, primarily during the 1920s and 1930s. Clement describes how her parents always stressed the importance of confidence and set examples for their daughters in terms of challenging racial boundaries of segregation. In particular, Clement describes how her father's activities sometimes brought him into conflict with organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and how it led him to embrace radical politics for a time.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William and Josephine Clement, June 19, 1986. Interview C-0031. 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

WALTER WEARE:
Maybe we could capture more of Spelman, Atlanta, the myth and reality of early Atlanta.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
Well, I had a happy childhood. Unlike some things you read, and as I have thought back on it and looked at it, I think the reason was because we were so severely segregated. We were really protected from some of the more traumatic experiences that some other people had. They had a large community of black people in Atlanta. It has always had a good, strong black community. And later, of course, as you got older, you ran into some of this. My father's philosophy was that you never accepted segregation unless you absolutely had to. That meant you didn't go to theaters, you didn't go places for amusement because there was no pleasure to go in the back door there. If you had to go on the streetcar to go to school that was worth the sacrifice. And he fought segregation for integration at every turn. I can remember when he decided that he was not going in the side door of the terminal station anymore.
WALTER WEARE:
This was the bus terminal?
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
No, it was the train terminal. And he drove up to the front door in his Cadillac and his driver, and got out and walked in the front door. I don't know, what year do you think that was?
WILLIAM CLEMENT:
I don't know, probably in the fifties. I can remember it, all right.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
But everybody was horror-stricken, and all the black porters came to greet him and to take his bags, and he strolled through and went on back and nobody touched him.
WALTER WEARE:
This would have been, do you think, before World War II, that early, or would it have been . . .
WILLIAM CLEMENT:
It was in the forties.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
Gosh, it probably was or late thirties, somewhere in there.
WILLIAM CLEMENT:
Mattiwilda - remember, she was on her trip back and he alerted Chief Jenkins.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
He had a good relationship with . . . As Grand Master Mason, he had a rule that each Master Mason must be a registered voter, also. This posed a problem for people in rural Georgia trying to get registered. And so they would appeal to the grand lodge and my father and a big lawyer from Atlanta, the best lawyer they could employ, would go to these little places. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes they were not. Trying to help people get registered. Sometimes they were chased out by the Ku Klux Klan. Sometimes the Ku Klux Klan would come to Atlanta looking for him. But he had a good relationship with the sheriff of Fulton County, who told him never to open his door to anybody because they would have to serve a warrant through him, they could not serve it directly. And this saved him, I think.
WALTER WEARE:
How do you account for that relationship?
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
There have always been some good white people.
WALTER WEARE:
Not usually the sheriff.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
Really! [laughter]
WILLIAM CLEMENT:
Chief Jenkins was the chief of police.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
I thought he was the sheriff of Fulton County.
WILLIAM CLEMENT:
I think it was Chief Jenkins.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
But Atlanta has been an unusual place. It's been forward, progressive. But my father continued that through the thirties and forties, voter registration. There in about - when did they form the Atlanta Voters League, that was before we married and went to Atlanta - the late thirties?
WILLIAM CLEMENT:
The late thirties, because it was going very strong in 1940-41.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
There were about four hundred registered black voters in Atlanta and my father and attorney Austin Walden, who was a Republican (my father was a Democrat). Let me say this: my father was a Republican all his life, as most black people were, to pay their debt of gratitude to the Republican party. He became dissatisfied with it, and in searching for something better, he moved to the Socialist party with Norman Thomas.
WALTER WEARE:
What year would that have been, do you know?
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
It was before Franklin Roosevelt, so that probably was back in the twenties. Roosevelt came in the thirties, so probably in the twenties. I think he said he voted for Norman Thomas twice. Seeking something that would help people, would better them. There was not the connotation that you have today with socialism. When Roosevelt came to office in 1932, he became enamored of him and began to campaign for him, changed his registration to Democrat. He was able to meet Franklin D. Roosevelt through his personal valet, who was a Mason.