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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 >>

Experiences with the YWCA and promoting better race relations at the State Teachers College in Hattiesburg

Stevens discusses her three years spent at the State Teachers College (now the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg). In particular, Stevens focuses on her involvement with the YWCA and her work towards promoting better race relations on campus and in the community. Of particular interest are her comments regarding the resistance she faced from the administration when trying to build bridges with the African American community of Hattiesburg.

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

JACQUELYN HALL:
And when did you go to college?
THELMA STEVENS:
I went to college in 1922. I finished high school in '19. Went to college in '22. And I stayed through summer school, and I finished in '25. Did four years in three by staying the summers.
BOB HALL:
Where was this? Where did you go?
THELMA STEVENS:
I went to college in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which was then called State Teachers College, because I planned to be a teacher. But it's now called University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg. And then I got a job and I finished college, got a job in a junior college in Perkinston, Mississippi. But one of the things that happened, in my junior year in college, that probably changed my decision, or influenced my decision. The personnel worker of the Board of Missions in the Southern church, at that time, was out on college campuses all over trying to recruit young people for full time work under the offices of the church. Missionary work, they called it in those days. And so she (Oscie Sanders) came to our campus and stayed a week on the campus. And she said, "Thelma, why don't you work for the church?" And I said, "Well, the church doesn't have anything for me. The church wouldn't be interested in anything that I'm interested in, and so I can't work for the church." I said, "I made up my mind a year ago that when I finished college I was going to apply to the national YWCA and get the necessary training to work with students on college campuses, under the auspices of the YWCA." And, see, I had been to conferences of the YWCA. I'd been to training conferences at Blue Ridge, all kinds of places where the whole world opened up.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Tell me something about the kinds of things that the YWCA and the student branch of the YWCA was doing.
THELMA STEVENS:
Well, one of the things they were doing that just hit me right in the eye was alerting us to concern for race relations. And this was when it was almost unheard of. A friend of mine and I - she was president of the YWCA on campus and I was one of the officers in the Y - the president of the college called us in one day. We'd had a series of Wednesday evening discussion sessions. We'd invited some black schoolteachers from the town, from Hattiesburg, to come out and discuss, you know, . . . be a part of our YWCA meeting that evening. And they spoke to us about black people and what their problems were and what their needs were, and we had questions.
BOB HALL:
They were women?
THELMA STEVENS:
Women, yes. Women schoolteachers from the black school there in Hattiesburg. And we had about a hundred of the girls sitting down on the floor in the lobby of one of the dorms. We stayed till . . . oh, well, maybe a couple of hours. And the next day the president called us in to his office. And he said, "Well, I called you two in because I just wanted to tell you something." And he said, "I want you to know that I didn't start this college . . . " He was the founder of the college. "I didn't start this college to train a bunch of Yankee schoolteachers. And if you think you're going to stay on here and build up a climate for training Yankee schoolteachers, well you just got it going wrong." He said, "Don't you ever let another black person . . . " He called them niggers. " . . . come on this campus to meet with the student body." Well, we walked out of there just sick, just literally sick. And, see, in those days you didn't rebel as much as you would today. Because we didn't know how, you see. But what we did, we got a group that wanted to go with us, and we went downtown then. And we had discussion groups in the local schools, or . . . well, we didn't do it but a couple of times, but at least we finished the program that we had set for ourselves. And we'd planned for three discussion groups with the black teachers, and we did it. But it did something for me. I don't know whether it . . . I suppose it did something of the same kind of thing for my friend, but I don't know. It made me realize how hard the whole thing was. And so my college experience taught me a lot. I had some professors, both men and women, who were able to see what the world was going to be like a few years ahead. And they were very sympathetic with what I . . . with the things that some of us were trying to do. And, in fact, some of them were so sympathetic that they got into the same kind of trouble with the president that we got in to. Of course, it was worse on the faculty, because, you know, you could be kicked out without any trouble. We couldn't have been kicked out for that, because that wouldn't have been a shipping offense, I judge, for us. But for a faculty member, to subvert the student body, even in the mid-twenties, was a real issue.