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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, July 1, 1974. Interview G-0029-4. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Georgia Conference on Social Welfare

Johnson discusses the work she did with the Georgia Conference on Social Welfare when she came to work for the organization in 1944. Earlier in the interview, Johnson explains how members of the Georgia Conference were divided into two factions in support of public welfare versus private welfare. The group had operated on private welfare, using donated funds; however, by the mid-1940s, public welfare via federal funding was taking a more prominent role within the organization. Here, she talks about how she was given free reign by members of the board to raise funds and get the organization back on its feet and she offers an anecdote regarding her fund raising strategies. The anecdote also offers an opening for Johnson to address the role of race within the Georgia Conference.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, July 1, 1974. Interview G-0029-4. 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

I also affiliated . . . well, let me go back and tell the reason that I think that I had a free hand in working with the Georgia Conference on Social Welfare. I went into the office, which had been closed since the fight in the convention, and the first chore, of course, was to clean the office. I was very fortunate in finding a secretary who had been working in the area of social welfare for years, in Atlanta. So that she knew Atlanta fairly well, especially the social welfare resources. She came to work for me, oh, the second week and together we cleaned the office and I then began to go through the files. I wanted to know what had happened in the past. And I found all this information about the fight. I immediately stopped. I didn't read all the material, and telephoned the Board and said, "I would like to have a meeting.". [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
GUION JOHNSON:
. . . leaders in social welfare, mostly professionals. Mrs. Tilly was the only non-professional member on the Board. And the private welfare people dominated . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Although by this time public welfare people were on there as well?
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes. At least they had the presidency. And I asked Miss Wilson to call a meeting and said, "May I get out the notices?" and "May I telephone the Board members?" Most of them lived in Atlanta, but some were outside. And she agreed, we set the time, called a meeting and I said, "I have been going through the files and I see that there was a controversy. I stopped reading the files because I wanted to hear from you as to the nature of the controversy. I was confused as to the nature of it and I would like for you to tell me what the trouble is." I did not get any information from the Board members. They engaged in a great deal of double talk. And finally they said, "We will support you in anything that you want to do. You will have a free hand to operate this office in the way that you think is most advantageous for the field of social welfare: health and welfare. And we expect you to be objective, we expect you not to take a major step without consulting us first, but we will give you a free hand and we will support you." This satisfied me and I had to learn from others, my friends in Atlanta, what the fight was about. I soon learned, of course, that it was a conflict between private and social welfare. Now, this kind of conflict prevailed throughout the time that I was in Atlanta and probably does exist partly to this day.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
How did the legislature fit into this? Were you involved in getting funds?
GUION JOHNSON:
The legislature was not at all involved.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
It was federal money?
GUION JOHNSON:
Federal money being used for public welfare. The Georgia Conference on Social Welfare was itself a private agency, you see, supported by contributions from the members and by donations from industry. So that one of my chores was to raise the budget, but since I had some past experience in money raising, it was not any great problem to me. I involved the members of the Board in helping.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
But you were going primarily to private agencies to get the money?
GUION JOHNSON:
I wrote to the members and asked the members to pay their membership fees and to make an additional contribution, if they found it possible to do so. And then I telephoned prominent businessmen, like Dick Rich and Hal Dumas of Southern Bell and various liberal-minded businessmen and industrialist, bankers, and went to see them and asked for contributions. Mrs. McGeachin from the big life insurance company (I have forgotten the name of it. It was founded basically for blacks, but it was white owned) gave me the . . . (Next to the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, it was the largest life insurance company in the country which sold life insurance to blacks and) Mrs. McGeachin gave me a thousand dollars the first time I went in to see her and asked for a contribution.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Now, what was her position?
GUION JOHNSON:
She was chairman of the board of the insurance company.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Is she still around?
GUION JOHNSON:
No, she was elderly at that time and I think that she died a year or two afterwards. I picked up the telephone to call Mr. Dumas, who was one of the leaders in shaping politics in Georgia, and I dialed his number and he answered his telephone and I said, "Could I speak to Mr. Dumas?" and he said, "This is Hal Dumas speaking." I said, "What are you doing answering your own telephone? An important person like you ought to have a secretary answering." He said, "Who are you?" I told him who I was and I said, "I want to come to see you. When may I do so?" He said, "Anybody who can talk to me like that can come to see me this minute." So, I went to see him immediately. His office was just around the corner from our office on Pryor Street and we had a wonderful little visit. He knew Bill Prince, * who was the illustrator in Chapel Hill, he had known Bill and Lillian Prince for quite well, and was delighted that we knew so many people here in Chapel Hill [with whom he was acquainted.] * William Meade Prince, the author of The Southern Part of Heaven. And he said, "All right, as long as you are the head of the Georgia Conference on Social Welfare, I will give you five hundred dollars a year." So, I found it extremely easy to raise the funds, because, as he said, "We get a bad reputation outside of Georgia, but all of us are as concerned for the welfare of the little people as you are. The only thing is that I don't want somebody coming after me with a meat cleaver telling me that I have to be tender toward Negroes and labor."
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Now, was the Board interracial, was the membership interracial?
GUION JOHNSON:
The Board was not interracial until '47. I asked that it be permitted to put blacks on the Board. But the membership was interracial and . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
And had been?
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, and had been long before I arrived. Yes. Because the social workers and health people were all rather liberal in Georgia.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
And were they going to liberal organizations as well as . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, yes, they were.