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Oral History Interview with Vivion Lenon Brewer, October 15, 1976. Interview G-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    Vivion Lenon Brewer grew up in an affluent white family, unaware of the plight of blacks in Little Rock, Arkansas. During her later tenure in Washington, D.C., she became very ill. While recovering, she drew close to a fellow employee—a black woman from whom she gained new insights about the destructive impact of racism and segregation in the United States. When she moved back to Arkansas, Brewer sought to reduce the poverty and illiteracy that plagued blacks in the South. In 1957, Governor Orval Faubus chose to close Little Rock public schools rather than integrate them. Brewer, along with several other prominent local women, including Adolphine Terry and Velma Powell, organized the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC). The group initially proposed a mission to alleviate racial tensions between blacks and whites. However, in order to garner the support of other prominent and forceful local Arkansas women, the WEC founders reconfigured the original mission to one centered on reopening the public schools. The women, unlike men, were unharmed by the Faubus machine's economic intimidation tactics; they were able to engage in effective and dedicated strategies to open the public schools. While the WEC experienced remarkable success, Brewer does recall some difficult realities the group had to address. She explains the purposeful omission of black women from the Committee, in order to permit the WEC activists and the larger white community to gradually accept racial integration. Many frustrated white segregationists viewed WEC members as disregarding their racial heritage. Brewer describes the palpable fear the women activists regularly felt. After the WEC disbanded in the early 1960s, Brewer continued her activism by organizing educational programs for black children in the low-income Scott community of Little Rock. She concludes the interview with an assessment of contemporary race relations in Little Rock.
    Excerpts
  • Acknowledging southern racial codes
  • Even at integrated Smith College, blacks and whites do not mix socially
  • Challenging traditional southern gender roles
  • WEC emerges out of the Little Rock desegregation crisis
  • WEC members concentrate on reopening public schools, changing its initial mission
  • Women's work with WEC resulted in life-long activism
  • Resentment of organized religion grows with the hypocrisy of home church
  • Adolphine Terry's effective leadership characteristics
  • WEC's strategy to appeal to Arkansas men
  • WEC members face opposition from their husbands
  • WEC founders maintain their goal of desegregating public schools
  • WEC activists experience heightened tensions from pro-segregationists
  • Public memory depends upon age and the current sociopolitical climate
  • Unlike men, women had the freedom to focus on reopening public schools
  • Brewer's creation of early educational programs for black children in Little Rock
  • Doubts that lasting interracial social relationships will persist
  • Isolation of poverty inhibits local awareness
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Subjects
  • Arkansas--Race relations
  • School integration--Arkansas
  • Women civil rights workers--Arkansas
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.