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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Baker's experiences at Shaw

Baker went to Shaw for nine years, completing both her high school and college education at the same institution. While there, she found a few issues that prompted her to defy the administration's authority.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. 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

In fact, I was in boarding school about nine years.
SUE THRASHER:
This was Shaw.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. And the reason for the nine years was that I was accepted in the first year of high school, but my mother, who did not have a very high opinion of some of the teachers, especially in terms of the use of language, under whom I had gone, opted to have me take a year at Monroe High School. At that stage, Shaw had what was called the Sub-B Class. I think it had been preserved to provide practice teaching for the teachers, which, of course, was basically what they were turning out, especially the women. Those who went to school went to school so they could go back and make somebody else go to school. And so that's why the nine years: four years of high school, four years in college, and a year at .
SUE THRASHER:
How old were you when you went away to Shaw?
ELLA BAKER:
I guess I was about fourteen. I was in my teens. And stayed there till I finished. Left there and came up this way.
SUE THRASHER:
Was almost the whole student body at that point boarding students?
ELLA BAKER:
The larger percentage were boarding students. There were students, though, from the city, because there was a black community there. But you had two colleges. You had the Baptist, which was the Shaw University, and then St. Augustine, which was Episcopalian. And they both are still there. Many of the city students divided according to their denominations.
SUE THRASHER:
What Baptist denomination was Shaw?
ELLA BAKER:
I guess it was Northern Baptist. It was founded by…. Now you've got me a little bit.
SUE THRASHER:
There's American Baptist, and there are various Baptist sects kind of….
ELLA BAKER:
No, the school no doubt was established by the Northern Baptist so-and-so.
SUE THRASHER:
Was the faculty all black at that point?
ELLA BAKER:
No. When I first went there, the faculty was mixed with the President being white and a number of the teachers white. When I left there, the President, who was different from the one whom I found there, was still white, was glad to get rid of me, I understand.
SUE THRASHER:
Why was that?
ELLA BAKER:
I didn't break rules, but I challenged rules. And I didn't have sense enough not to do the speaking, even to groups that were older than I.
SUE THRASHER:
The story of the silk stockings?
ELLA BAKER:
[Laughter] Where did you get that one from?
SUE THRASHER:
It's in Mindy's .
ELLA BAKER:
It's strange about that. My cousin who lives over in New Jersey, she and her husband, just about four years ago, were down near Fort Bragg (I think he has family down that way) and ran across the wife of a doctor who is there who was in school there at the time. And she told her about this story. I didn't have any silk stockings, but I felt it was their right to wear their stockings if they wanted to. These women were not only my seniors in terms of physical maturity, I suppose, but they were about to finish college and the like. But they didn't dare do the talking. And they tell me the Dean fainted, but after she came to, then she sent for me and . And she said something to the effect that if she didn't think I was ashamed, she would have dismissed me from school. I think she had a hard time during that.
SUE THRASHER:
Were there other incidents at the school where you sort of challenged the authority?
ELLA BAKER:
Little things. The President that I left there was the last of the whites, I believe. We raised questions about different kinds of things, and one thing in particular, I think, that irked him was that he would do the kind of thing that many students resented. When northern whites would come, they'd want you to sing spirituals. I had a strong voice. As far as music, I might slip and slide, but I had a strong voice, and I recall them asking me if I'd lead something. It couldn't have been "Go Down, Moses;" I don't know what it was. But I said, "No, Mr. President."