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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Thelma Stevens, February 13, 1972. Interview G-0058. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Witnessing a lynching and determining to work for civil rights

Stevens describes how a group of her students asked her to take them on a field trip, only to discover upon arrival that they had brought her to a lynching. Stevens recalls this as an especially influential moment in her life, noting that it inspired her to do all she could "to bring a little bit of relief from fear and a little human dignity to black people in Mississippi." In addition, she explains the reason for the lynching (noting that it was typical of thousands of others) and discusses her own family's perceptions of race as they related to her own.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Thelma Stevens, February 13, 1972. Interview G-0058. 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

The third year I taught was out in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. And I suppose the event that happened that year was maybe the second most devastating thing that ever happened to me in my growing up days. See, I was still just nineteen years old then, at the end of my third year of teaching. Still hadn't turned twenty. And, of course, I think nineteen year olds in those days were more mature in some ways, and yet knew a lot less, than kids today. But one morning . . . I was teaching high school the third year. And I coached the basketball girls and I taught Latin, Caesar, and all that bunch of junk. Worked my head off. So early on morning, just before time for school to open, some of my basketball girls came dashing over to the teacher's home where all th teachers lived, and called me. Said, "Miss Thelma, we . . . want to go on a little bus trip, but the principal won't let us go unless you go with us." They were all as old as I was, you see, but anyway, I was the teacher. So, I said, "Where are you going?" "Oh, that doesn't matter. Come on and go with us. We just want you to go with us." So I said, "Oh, all right." So I got myself out and got in the bus and went with them about three miles down the road. And suddenly the bus turned down into the hillside. And there were hundreds, literally hundreds, of people on the hillside. And there was a man hanging from a limb. And men standing all around him with guns in their hands, shooting at him. See, they . . . It was a lynching. And you can't conceive it, and I'm not trying to tell you what it was like, but if you can imagine anything any more devastating than that, then you're very good, you're very imaginative. But, anyway, as quickly as I could, I got the bus turned around. I got the man, the driver, to turn the bus around. The girls had jumped out of the bus before we stopped, and then I just went out and just made them . . . you know, I just really just . . .
JACQUELYN HALL:
And had the principal of the school known where they wanted to go?
THELMA STEVENS:
I don't know. To this day I don't know whether he did or not. I think they probably just . . . I don't think he could have, because he wasn't that kind of man. I think they probably went to him and said, "Can we leave the school grounds? Can we get the school bus to take us down to such and such a place?" And he probably said, "Well, it's forty-five minutes before time to begin school. Yes, it's all right with me if you get Miss Thelma to go with you." So there we were. So I made up my mind on that day that if the Lord would let me live long enough, that I would do something to bring a little bit of relief from fear and a little human dignity to black people in Mississippi. And everyplace else I could. But I was still living in Mississippi then, and never had . . . didn't, hadn't dared dream of the fact that I'd ever go any place else, you know. And . . .
JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of relationship or contact with black people had you had before that time, growing up, you know?
THELMA STEVENS:
Very wonderful contacts.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Had you had black people working on your farm where you . . . ?
THELMA STEVENS:
No. We were not that wealthy. We were just ordinary, what you call poor white farmers. But there were neighbors, there were black people living in the community, and a lot of people in those days called them aunts and uncles. And I always worried about that. I said why do we call them aunts and uncles? Why don't you say Mr. and Mrs, you know. I mean, just as a child it always worried me. They were people to me. I don't know how I got that way, 'cause my family certainly didn't feel that way.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Your family didn't feel that way?
THELMA STEVENS:
No.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Including your older sister?
THELMA STEVENS:
Well, my older sister did, after a while. But at first, in the beginning, she didn't. But later she did. See, I didn't know enough. I didn't have enough help, to understand it, in my childhood days, what was going on, see? You see, I think it's good to keep in mind that every individual came out of a different kind of background, to some degree. And yet across the board there was a common base, a common culture pattern, that gave me the feeling . . . I mean, gave you a sense of acceptance, on the part of most people, without questioning the kind of pattern where you lived — — — you lived with the whites. And your friend that you played with out in the back yard, that was black, and lived in a little house that was a little smaller than yours, although not always was this true. There were plenty of white people who lived in little houses too. Ours didn't happen to be, at that minute. It happened to have seven rooms instead of two, but then that wasn't anything to our credit. It just happened to be the case. But there were some people, I'm sure, in that community . . . (Interruption for telephone call.)
JACQUELYN HALL:
There were some people . . .
THELMA STEVENS:
I'm sure there were some people in that community who felt differently about it. But I can remember years later, oh, long years later, maybe ten, fifteen years ago, I was driving through that county where I grew up and where my sister grew up, with my sister in the car with me. And I said, "Big Sister . . . " I always called her Big Sister. I said, "Big Sister, why does this countryside look so devastated?" And she said, "Well, I don't know whether you know what I'm saying or not, but I think the Bible is proving true here." She said, "The sins of the fathers are going to be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. After a short silence, she said "Thelma, you are too young to remember what happened back then. This Montgomery County was shot through with violence and cruelty practiced against the Negroes. So many people - white people, descendants of those awful years are the victims, too, weighed down with the sins of the past. Breaking out of such behaviour patterns is so hard." My sister had gone away to study. She had taught school for many years and was one of the greatest persons around. She supported me in the things I believed in and wanted to do, even when she was not sure what I was doing.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Had she gone off to college before you did?
THELMA STEVENS:
We didn't have high schools in Mississippi in those days — at least not very many. We had what were called agricultural high schools in my day, thirty years later. But in her day we had none. But she went to Highland Home Academy, in Alabama, not very far from Montgomery. There's no such place any more as far as I know. And she had that training above what we would call elementary school education I suppose. Anyway, she had that kind of experience, away from home training. And she . . . I suppose it would have been the equivalent of a high school education, in the long run. I really don't know for sure. It might have been more than that. It might have been a junior college type of thing. I don't know. But there was nothing accredited about it. But she did teach school. Oh, I think she taught school 36 or 37 years of her life, even while she was a preacher's wife. Because the preacher, her husband, was a Methodist minister, and they had three children, I was living with them, and my brother-in-law's mother was living with them. That meant there were seven of us. Yes, that makes seven, doesn't it? There were seven of us in the family. And he got five hundred dollars a year. So, you see, life . . . you learn a lot. Maybe that's the way to say it. You learn a lot about life when you've lived through circumstances that are as fraught with . . . well, maybe . . . uncertainty is not the word, because I never really had any uncertainty about things. I always felt fairly sure of what I could do. I . . . well, she always had courage, you know, and we did . . . we didn't realize we were poor. I mean by that, we just didn't realize it. . . . I'm sure she knew more about it. See, I didn't have to worry about the budget, and she did. But it was a good life. I had a lot of things to be grateful for. Even when I was in high school, I had some good teachers, who meant a lot to me. And, I don't know, in college, oh, it was great. I had people that meant so much to me. Helped me do so much. I mean, helped mme understand so much.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When the lynching took place, would you have known anything about it, even though it was only three miles away . . . ?
THELMA STEVENS:
The afternoon before, late the afternoon before, somebody - I don't know now, I don't remember now who it was,- had come by the teacherage and had called the principal out. It was his house, their house, you see, that was the teacherage. The other teachers just had rooms rented in the house. And they called him out and said a little girl, that was maybe going home from school that afternoon, went on a trail through the woods. And when she got home she told her father that a black man, or surely a black "boy", you know, a black "boy" had followed her on the trail. That is, he had walked behind her, some distance behind her. He might not have been following her. After all, he didn't molest her, didn't touch her, and didn't say anything to her. Well, the father got all upset. That's what happened. I found that out later. But this was the tale that was going the night before. So what happened was that the father alerted all the men in the community, so they got a big posse out in the woods, and they finally found the so-called follower, the "boy", who had followed this little girl. And they just took him out the next morning, out on the hillside by the woods, hanged him to a limb and shot him to death. I mean, it was just as simple as that. That's the kind of lynching that happened thousands of times, I'm sure. The courts, and the justice of a trial, just didn't work.