Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, May 28, 1974. Interview G-0029-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Establishing racially progressive outlook early in life

Johnson describes how her racially progressive views were established early in life due largely to her father's belief that African Americans should have equal opportunities. As evidence of her father's effort to challenge discrimination, she offers an anecdote about how her father arranged for her sister and her to tutor the children of his African American employee. According to Johnson, such measures cut against the grain of segregated life in Texas, although she does acknowledge opposing views on race relations, even within her own family.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, May 28, 1974. Interview G-0029-3. 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

What about the prevailing attitude when you were at Burleson and then again later when you were at Baylor, as far as . . . there were no Negroes in the colleges?
GUION JOHNSON:
Oh no, no. I'd like to illustrate one point about how keenly my father felt about giving the Negro an opportunity to participate as a full citizen in the community. He had a very competent Negro janitor in his hardware store in Greenville. And the janitor had two almost white children, although his wife was also what I call a "white Negro." And I think that both of the children had blue eyes, very fair skin and blondish, frizzy hair. And there was no way that they could get any instruction in music which he wanted very much for his children. He talked to my father about it and my father said, "If you would like to send your children to my house, I have one daughter who is taking violin and she will give one or both daughters violin lessons, and then I have another daughter who is taking lessons in speech. I think that it is very important for a good citizen to stand on his own feet and know how to express himself. So, if you would like for them to take speech and violin, I'll be delighted to speak to my daughters and see if they would teach them and I'm sure they will be very happy." He spoke to us, my sister was the violinist and I was the speech major and we were charmed to have these very attractive black children come and we taught them what we knew. And my father said, "Now, you will have your classes in the living room, and you will give them punch and cookies or whatever they want to drink, afterwards. Because I want them to enjoy their work and I want them to feel relaxed. And I want you to treat these children as if they were your brother and sister." One was a boy and one was a girl. So, this went on for months and months, and perhaps years, I don't remember just how long, but it was a situation that we enjoyed and the two Negro children seemed to enjoy it very much. We heard nothing from my mother, who very gradually came to accept my father's position.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
So, it was definitely your father, rather than your mother.
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, although my mother's father, who had been a soldier in the Confederate Army, was also very liberal.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
And he was the one who had left Mississippi?
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, he was the one who left Mississippi.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well, was there any feeling in a town that small, as far as your father's ideas and your grandfather's, was there any . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
If that's true, I was not aware of it. I was not aware of it in Greenville, either. Because the children came very frankly in the front door, and there was no attempt to close the windows so that the neighbors would not know that we were giving these children lessons in violin and speech.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
But no other music teachers in town would open their doors . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
That's true. They wouldn't accept them as pupils.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
What about the school situation at that time?
GUION JOHNSON:
They were segregated, a small, very small school.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
But predominately public . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Oh, yes, public schools. Yes. The children were very grammatical. Unmistakably they were upper class. The father and mother were well trained and the mother became a teacher in the segregated school. All her husband could do was janitorial work, although my father trusted him very much. He waited on the customers; he did more than janitorial work. He actually employed him as a clerk.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Which was a step up.
GUION JOHNSON:
And unheard of. I'm sure that his store was the only one in town that had a Negro clerk. But I was not aware of animus against us because of our attitude.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
I want to talk about that later, but you certainly did feel such pressure later when you and Guy were so active.
GUION JOHNSON:
But only in North Carolina. And Georgia. Not in Texas. When we would go back to visit our relatives, we would hear some repercussions, especially after 1954 and the Court decision. And my mother's cousin-in-law, who was a doctor and who owned one of the two hospitals in Greenville, was very reactionary.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
And was upset? By repercussions, you mean that they would approach you and tell you . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Oh yes, and I remember once that the cousin whom we called Cousin Van came to call when Guy and I had come for a visit, and she began denouncing the Supreme Court decision and speaking in vitriolic terms about the Negro. I knew better than to say anything, just to sit back and listen, but Guy could not tolerate her opinion, and said something in a quiet way, something very mild like, "I'm sorry, I can't agree with you. I think you're wrong." And got up and left the room, whereupon my father followed him and said as he was leaving, "I like that boy Guy." (laughter) My mother was horribly embarassed.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Keeping peace in the family. (laughter)
GUION JOHNSON:
She scolded my father and Guy later, saying, "Now you know Van, you know how reactionary she is. She was a guest in our house and you did not have to insult her."
MARY FREDERICKSON:
The thing that amazes me, though, is that guests can often come in and attack you and you . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
You are supposed to . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
I'm amazed at what people will tell you. (laughter) I mean, really, it's just amazing to me, it always has been. How they will attack your political opinion, but will be quite haughty if you attack theirs. Well, then, when you left home, you left with pretty much a set idea, a pattern that you were going to maintain through to the present?
GUION JOHNSON:
This is true, that "women must be economically independent and must train themselves so that they will be competent to hold down important jobs and get good salaries. And that the Negro is a human being equal in capacity to the white man. He has been held in subjegation and has not been given the opportunity to develop his skills. Given the opportunity to develop his skills, he will show that he is comparable to the white man in native ability and ability to achieve."