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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 >>

Initial hesitancy to work for the church and helping establish community center in Augusta

Stevens discusses her initial hesitance to work for the Methodist Church after having completed her master's degree at Scarritt College for Christian Workers in the late 1920s. Stevens was concerned that the church was not concerned enough with race relations. When health problems led to the church's initial refusal to employ her, Stevens prepared to become a teacher at the Hampton Institute High School in Virginia. When the church changed its mind about hiring her, however, and offered her a job setting up a community center for African Americans in Augusta, Georgia, she readily accepted.

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:
Why did you not want to go work for the church?
THELMA STEVENS:
What I told you just now. I didn't want to work for the church, because I didn't think the church would give me a chance to do what I wanted to do. See, my experience with the church had been sort of isolated from life. I mean, it had been a sort of . . . well, I hardly know how to say it, but the church was isolated from life. It was a place where you go on Sunday morning and listen to the sermon that didn't mean a thing to you. You'd sing the old gospel hymns and people would shout or people would amen or people would do this or that. But the church didn't give a darn about those kids out there in that black school, that they got three dollars a year for their education, and the white children got from nine to twelve dollars, in that generation. Of course, now, a lot more than that for both of them, and they're on an equal basis now, but they sure weren't then. I mean, moneywise. And, you see, the church wasn't interested in that kind of thing. The church was highly evangelistic, you know. Argued about whether you were going to be immersed or whether you were going to be sprinkled when you got baptized, and, you know, things that were so - for me, at least - irrelevant. What difference does it make whether you were immersed or sprinkled? In my mind, it doesn't make a difference. That's the reason. I mean, I don't know any other reason. And so when I kept corresponding back and forth, I finally got the word that I would have a chance to do some of the things I wanted to do. And so I eventually made up my mind that I would come to Scarritt that fall, and I did. And I got my masters at Scarritt, and about four months before school was out, they gave us all who wanted to go to work the next year physical examinations to see if we were able to go. So my doctor told me that he wouldn't recommend me for anything. He said, "You won't live many years." And so he turned the report into the office down at the Board of Missions, and so Mrs. (J.W.) Downs, who was then the woman in charge . .
THELMA STEVENS:
Mrs. Downs, who was in charge, said how sorry she was. She really was deeply sorry and sympathetic with me. So I said, "All right." So Miss Louise Young sent for me, and said, "Thelma, the church won't have you and you want to work in the field of race relations. I can get you a job." And so she called a friend of hers, who was the principal of Hampton Institute High School, up in Virginia. In those days they had a high school and a college. I don't know whether they do now or not. So she talked to this man, and she said, "I have a student who is interested in teaching in your high school on your campus. Would you like to interview her?" And he said, "We're in desperate need of some teachers. Have her come up. We'll pay her expenses."
JACQUELYN HALL:
Miss Young was a teacher at Scarritt?
THELMA STEVENS:
Yes, Miss Young was a professor at Scarritt from from 1924 until she retired around '58. And she was my very favorite professor. And so we made the arrangements, I got on the train and went to Hampton. Stayed about three days. Was very excited by it. I got the job, and came back. I'd been back one day, and the contract was scheduled to come any day. I had to sign the contract, but they were mailing it to me. And Mrs. Downs called me in. She was the one who told me how sorry she was. She called me and said, "Would you come down to my office?" I said, "Yes." She had a way about her, you know, you didn't tell her no. You just went. She was very bossy. And so I went down to her office, sat down at her desk, and in her abrupt, gruff voice, she said, "Miss Stevens, I hear you got a job." And I said, "Yes, Mrs. Downs. I have a job. I've been to Hampton and I'm going to teach at Hampton next year." And she said, "Well, . . . " she said, "I think the church needs you." And I said, "Well, Mrs. Downs, I thought you told me the church didn't have any place for me." She said, "Well, I've changed my mind. We've got a job for you, and we want you to go in August. And I said, "Where is that?" And she said, "Augusta, Georgia." And said, "We've got $75,000 in reserve. We want you to go and make a study for a year of that whole community, and then recommend to us what kind of new building facilities we need. We're going to put $75,000 into a new building." Now, this was back in '28. And so I can't tell you how I felt, because I wanted . . . by that time, see, I was sick because the church wouldn't have me. I wasn't worried about my health. I was worried because the church wouldn't take me. And then when she said they would, then I said, "But, Mrs. Downs, I promised Hampton." And she said, "Well, have you signed the contract?" And I said, "No." And she said, "Well, why don't you go and send a wire to Mr. and ask him if he would release you." She helped me word a wire. So I sent it to Mr. and explained it to him, and so I got released. And I went to Augusta, Georgia and they built a center for blacks, and I worked there for eleven years until I came on this job (in 1940) and retired from it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And that's what the settlement house . . .
THELMA STEVENS:
Yes, community center, was what we liked to call it. it is the same thing as a settlement house, except I think it's . . . at least, my concept of what we did was not like my concept of what people used to do in settlement houses.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How was it different? What kind of things did you do . . . ?
THELMA STEVENS:
Well, you see, I always thought of settlement houses, the ones I read about and studied about, as more or less a charity operation to a great degree. By charity I mean you had just a bunch of poverty ridden people, for whom you're providing some of the necessities of life and some of the activities that were important. But you didn't have a long term leadership development process. It was not my concept of development, of community development. I'm talking about community development, not just community organization. And to me a community center doesn't have the same connotation in the minds of people in the community, as I thought . . . as I used to think - maybe I didn't understand the settlement houses. I had read a lot about them. But anyway, it was called a community center. It was, I suppose, in a way, most of them were the same things that the settlement houses were, but ours was a little different.