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Oral History Interview with Thelma Stevens, February 13, 1972. Interview G-0058. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    Thelma Stevens was a lifelong advocate of social justice and spent much of her career working to better race relations for African Americans in the South. She begins the interview with a discussion of her formative years in rural Mississippi. One of her earliest memories was of the inhumane treatment of African American prisoners who worked on a nearby farm. Her childhood was also shaped by limited economic means and a strong sense of social responsibility. Following the death of her parents, Stevens—who was ten at the time—went to live with her older sister. She describes her struggles in school and her career as a teacher following her graduation from high school in 1919. In 1922, Stevens left her job as a teacher to pursue a degree at the State Teachers College (now the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg). While there, Stevens was active in the YWCA. Despite opposition from the college administration, she worked to develop better communication between the college and the community and to alleviate racial tensions and discrimination. After graduating, Stevens continued her education at Scarritt College for Christian Workers. Stevens outlines the history of Scarritt College and describes her own experiences there. Although she was hesitant to work for the Methodist Church, which she feared did not do enough to improve race relations, Stevens ultimately found employment with the Women's Division of the Methodist Church, accepting the position of director of the Bethlehem Center, a community center for African Americans, in Augusta, Georgia. Stevens describes the history of the Bethlehem Center, originally founded in 1911, in great detail and provides vivid anecdotes about her own work there. She describes the center's work in the African American community, which included service activities and leadership development. In addition, she describes how the dictates of Jim Crow segregation sometimes shaped the nature of the center's work. Stevens offers her observations of other social justice organizations and activities of the era. She discusses the relationship of radical politics to social justice movements of the 1930s; the role of women like Jessie Daniel Ames and Dorothy Tilly in organizing southern women; and the purpose of groups like the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and the Fellowship of the Concerned. The interview concludes with a discussion of her promotion to the post of Superintendent of Christian Social Relations of the Women's Missionary Council for the Methodist Episcopal Church. Stevens describes her efforts to promote more interaction between white and black women in the North and the South during her brief interim in Nashville, and she concludes with a brief discussion of her work in New York beginning in 1940. Her work with the Methodist Church continued until her retirement in 1968.

    NOTE: Audio for this interview is not available.

    Excerpts
  • Witnessing African American prisoners as a young child
  • Opportunities for education
  • Witnessing a lynching and determining to work for civil rights
  • Experiences with the YWCA and promoting better race relations at the State Teachers College in Hattiesburg
  • Initial hesitancy to work for the church and helping establish community center in Augusta
  • History of Scarritt College for Christian Workers
  • History of the Bethlehem Center and its role in the African American community in Augusta
  • Major goals of the Bethlehem Center
  • Role in mediating a strike of African American nurses
  • Dorothy Tilly and the Fellowship of the Concerned
  • First tasks as head of the Women's Division of the Board of Missions for the Methodist Church
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Subjects
  • Mississippi--Race relations
  • Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching
  • Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Women's Division
  • 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.