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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 >>

History of the Bethlehem Center and its role in the African American community in Augusta

Stevens discusses the history of the Bethlehem Center, a community center for African Americans in Augusta, Georgia. Initially founded by Mary DeBardeleben for the Woman's Missionary Council in 1911, Stevens took the center over in 1928 and ran it through the 1930s. Stevens describes the work she did at the center, paying particular attention to how racial dynamics shaped the progress of the center. In addition, she offers several anecdotes regarding her interactions with the African American community.

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:
When did they begin Community centers?
THELMA STEVENS:
Well, the Bethlehem Center in Augusta is the oldest of the Centers for Negroes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
It is the oldest?
THELMA STEVENS:
Yes. It had its beginning in 1911. The story goes, that in 1910 down in southern Alabama a young woman by the name of Miss Mary DeBardeleben had the idea. (Laughs.)
BOB HALL:
What?
THELMA STEVENS:
Mary is her name. You can spell that, I'm sure. (Chuckles.) D-e-B-a-r-d-e-1-e-b-e-n. DeBardeleben. I think it's a French name. I don't know.
THELMA STEVENS:
De Bardeleben. I don't know what background it is. Anyway, Miss Mary DeBardeleben lived on a big plantation down in southern Alabama. And one day she came in and told her father - maybe her mother too. I don't know that. I just know that . . . she came in and told her parents, maybe, that she was going to Africa as a missionary. That was in 1909 or '10 that she told them. And her father said, "Why are you going to Africa as a missionary when you're needed right here? Look at all the Negro people around in this country that need your help. Why are you going to Africa?" And so she started thinking about it, so she decided she'd work with black . . . with Negro people in this country. And so she told the Woman's Missionary Council, . . . which was the administrative agency in the southern church for Methodist women, that she would like to be appointed to a job to work with black people. It was the first time that any white woman had ever worked . . . either volunteered or been appointed to work with black people. Just was unheard of to send a poor, innocent white girl into a black community. Lawsy me, that was just beyond any comprehension anybody could have. So Miss Mary said to this power structure of this Woman's Missionary Council that she wanted to go and work with black people in a given community. And so they said, "Well, all right. Since Paine College is in Augusta, Georgia this would be a good place to begin a community center. So we'll begin a community center there, and we'll send you." So they sent Miss Mary to Augusta, and she looked . . . she cased the joint. (Laughter.) And finally went down on Campbell Street, which is right in the heart of the Negro business community in Augusta, and found an abandoned beer saloon. And so she opened a kindergarten in this abandoned beer saloon, . . . and began increasing the activities, doing whatever the facilities permitted, until such time - several years, I don't know how long. I don't remember that - until they finally bought a house, a Bethlehem Center home, a house, quite a way from there on Brown Street. And it was a great big old one room thing with two little anterooms in the back. And so the Bethlehem Center was moved into that old place. And then, after Mis Mary left other workers came and worked for for quite a few years in this old house. And then Iwas sent there. So when I came we were in that old barny place.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And you were the only person?
THELMA STEVENS:
No. I was the director of the Center. But there were . . . two black workers, two women black workers on Brown Street when I arrived.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And was that in the same house?
THELMA STEVENS:
In that same old house, yes. And we stayed there a year, until we had . . . became acquainted a little bit with the community and knew more about the population spread and where the needs were greatest. So then we thought they ought to buy a certain piece of property in a different location, nearer the heart of the community. And so they did, and built the buildings, one big two story building and a big gymnasium. And we had a small playground, and a little worker's cottage where the white workers lived. And the Negro workers lived in the upstairs of the big building. My white co-worker, Dorothy Weber (from Lake Charles, Louisiana) and I were told that we could not live in the big building. Negroes and whites living together in those days would not be wise in the minds of people in the city and would destroy our chance to develop a community center. We moved into the little four-room cottage at the corner of the playground, but had our meals with our co-workers in the big building. We faced acres of cotton warehouses! Police patrolled the street in front of the cottage and banged on our door at all hours of the night "to use the phone." We were far more frightened of the police than we were of the drunks who wandered around at night on the playground. In 1930 - 31 "bootleg liquor" was flowing freely — the kind that drove people crazy. We were both very young and the strain of constant anxiety was too great. Finally, when a drunk tried to get in our bedroom window, we knew we had to move. The Negro community advised Dorothy and me to move for the community's safety as well as our own. If we had been molested in any way, mob violence against Negroes would have broken loose. So we moved into an apartment upstairs in the residence of Mrs. Verdery, one of our Bethleham Center Board members. We had our Negro friends and some of the activity groupd come to our apartment as often as busy schedules permitted. We would (Portions of pages 46 and 47 have been omitted by Thelma Stevens. This is her revised version.) have the kids come over for some of the things they'd like to do, have a party for them. So, in one way, we broke the ice. It was something unheard of, you see, that we would bring our Negro friends to our home!
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did that family react to what . . .
THELMA STEVENS:
Perfectly all right. Anything we wanted to do, they were just as happy about it as they could be. They wouldn't have done it themselves, but that was our business. So they were very . . . we were very free to do what we pleased about it, and . . .
JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of things did you do in the Center?
THELMA STEVENS:
Well, we had the usual activities. And I say the usual ones. We had kindergarten. We had two sessions of kindergarten every day because we had so many children. We had maybe about a hundred children in kindergarten and, of course, you couldn't have that many in one session. So we had kindergarten. And we had . . . for a long time we had a day nursery. And then we had various groups for women, for young mothers. We had clinics. We had clubs for younger boys, older boys. We had a big athletic program in the gymnasium. We had a playground. Then we had a lot of . . . we had Saturday morning . . . all days, well, mostly Saturday, we had what we called Bible School. It was really . . . it was when the kids would come and we'd have stories and we'd have just a good time together for a half a day, you see. And one of the things, among the many things, we had clubs for older women, clubs for various types of younger mothers with help in child care, and diet and . . . we had a big kitchen. We had some home ec groups, you know. It was just a miscellaneous community service center, you see, of one kind and another. Of course, we had a big visitation program. And I had a class that met three nights a week of ministers, of black ministers in the community. All of them were Baptist. We had only one . . . we had only two Methodist churches in the black community. And there were seventy-nine Baptist churches. So I had . . . oh, about six or eight. Not very many. About six or eight ministers who came three nights a week. And we worked on sermon outlines and Bible study sessions of one kind or another. Bible study geared to sermon making. I said I did not know how to make sermons, but I probably knew a little bit more than they did because most of them could hardly read. And they'd had no training whatsoever. And so, in that way I got an entree into churches, their churches, you see. And the kids that went to their Sunday Schools then just came in droves to the Center, you know, where they'd have the kinds of opportunities they'd never have in their local churches. I . . . we said, from the very beginning, when we began trying to set our programs . . . We did a lot of other things. We did . . . For instance, we had an Interracial Advisory Board that met once a month and where you had women and men from the community itself, of the black community, and then you had women - I don't think . . . we had many one or two men - but mostly the white women from other communities from the white churches, you see. We had two Jewish women. We had two Catholic women. And the others were . . . well, I think we had one Baptist. But we had . . . most of the others were Methodist. And they came and really we . . . we had the board meetings so planned that that group of black and white that had never met together or been together in their lives before, had to work on problems together, you see, when they met. We had a camp. We eventually bought forty acres of land out about thirty miles from town, and worked . . . provided a camp for the kids. And we used the camp for the community too, after we built a very nice building and had a deep well and had running water and all that sort of thing out there. It was in the WPA and NYA days, you know. A group of young men were paid by the WPA program, and I'd get up every morning about four thirty, and take four of these young men and then one of the neighbors of Bethlehem Center would take his car and another four of theyoung men. This good neighbor was Mr. Frank Gardner, who supervised the job. Those young men cut a road down to the creek, and then made a swimming pool in the creek, and so we took the kids out to camp. And then we got a community center set up for the rural community. This was in the heart of the Tobacco Road country of Georgia, and we had . . . oh, just dozens and dozens of families, black families, that lived in that general area, you see. So we got some health clinics, some home ec classes, and some sewing classes and other activities going.