Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edith Mitchell Dabbs, October 4, 1975. Interview G-0022. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Coming to terms with issues of racism and beginning to speak out

Dabbs explains how her husband, James McBride Dabbs, became interested in issues of racial injustice. She begins by describing how he was raised to believe that the race question had been solved by the Civil War and that racial stereotypes of African American inferiority had validity. Despite this indoctrination, Dabbs's husband was also taught to believe that civility and manners towards others were of paramount concern. By the 1940s, Dabbs grew to see legislative efforts to prevent African Americans from registering to vote as a violation of southern codes of civility and he began to speak out publicly about racial injustices. Dabbs's description of her husband's personal evolution in perceiving racism as a social justice to be battled is indicative of how some people began to come to terms with issues of race in the Jim Crow South over the course of the early twentieth century.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edith Mitchell Dabbs, October 4, 1975. Interview G-0022. 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

ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
When did James start becoming aware of his concern about race relations?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Well, he wasn't concerned about that. He grew up, he said, and … he goes through all of that in several of his books, particularly the first one, The Southern Heritage and in I'm Going Home, too. Some of it comes out in there, although he's not discussing that kind of thing. I'm Going Home is a spiritual autobiography and he is much more concerned with what he called the "spiritual oddessy than … [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
… that sort of thing. You asked me when he became aware of that. He didn't actually. When he was growing up, as he said a number of times, there was no race question. He never heard it discussed by people; they assumed that was settled by the war. The Negroes were slaves and then they weren't. That settled it. And, they had their place and we had ours and we were polite to them, they didn't have the advantages we had and they didn't have the things. They didn't have a lot of capabilites that we had, but they were people and you were nice to them. You were never rude to them because they could not talk back, they could not defend themselves, they had to be like children not able to talk back to their parents. You had to consider all of that. Manners were very important to him. He was taught that from the beginning. But he assumed that those things were taken care of and he was very much surprised in later years to find that people were still talking about it, talking about it again. The thing wasn't quite settled, you know. But what got him into the thick of things was the matter of manners. He had minded his own business and never … he had so much to do with his literary career, he had his teaching and his courses and that he was not concerned with political matters, and he would have said with sociological matters, anything except what he was doing. Only with studying, scholarly matters,
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
He taught at Coker College?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Yes and he taught English at Carolina before that. Well, shortly after we came out here, I can't remember the dates, he always remembered them exactly on everything, but anyhow, there was a time when a session of the legislature stayed over time to debate and then vote itself … about all they did that session was to vote itself an increase in salary. Oh, they did that … now wait a minute. No. Maybe I am combining things that weren't supposed to be combined …it seemed to me that that happened at the same session when they did do another thing. They spent the whole time trying to figure out how permanently to disenfranchise the Negroes, keep them completely out of politics and keep them back where they had been in Wade Hampton's day. James watched the papers for several days and then he began to boil and boil because here were these people who were supposed to be, they were the political leaders of the state for better or worse and they were all we had and that was the example that they were setting. Right out loud in the house, in the legislature, with all the news media we had there. They were proclaiming to all of the state, including the Negroes, that they did not intend to consider the Negroes first-class citizens or to give them any chance to become that. James said that you had always been unfair to the Negro without admitting it or realizing it but you had never stood up told about it and said so and flaunted it. This, all of a sudden, was terrible manners. He was just scandalized by it. He sat down and wrote a scorching letter to the State saying what he thought about it and then, the lines were drawn.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
To the Columbia State.
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Yes, the Columbia State.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
Was that in about 1905?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
No, no. That was after we came from Coker, that was in the forties, I guess, because it was after he came out here.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
O.K., I thought that you said the issue was disfranchisement?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Well, it was, but they were trying to keep the Negro—to keep Negroes from voting as much as possible and to keep them out of the Democratic convention. They could not have any places of responsibility and they spent the whole time trying to figure how they could keep the Negroes from voting and what kind of roadblocks they could construct. The poll tax had been one. There were lots of things that they wanted bad enough and that they could think up. They spent their time doing that and telling everybody about it, as though the Negroes who were looking or listening to it like everybody else, seeing them do it, were just furniture, you know, not people who had minds of their own or any feelings. They were afraid that we had lost ground entirely too much and that Negroes were beginning to want to vote rather seriously in some numbers and they couldn't have that, they wanted to do something about it. Of course, James was so brash that about the next year or so, when election year came up, he was something, I don't know what, a delegate from this precinct into the county. And at the county meeting, in preparation for the state convention, he suggested that we elect some black man to be a representative. Well, I was glad to see him get home in one piece because some of them couldn't take that. And he continued to do what they considered outrageous things.