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

Major goals of the Bethlehem Center

Stevens describes the major goals of the Bethlehem Center in Augusta, Georgia. According to Stevens, the Center was intent upon providing service activities for the community, promoting leadership development among local churches, and to provide Paine College students with experience in community development. In describing these goals, Stevens offers several anecdotes about the type of work she and the other Center employees did in the community and discusses how they were received by both white and black citizens of Augusta.

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

As I recall, and as we planned all of us together, black and white, planned our goals at that center, we had a three-pronged goal, a three-pronged program, and an awful lot of things fed into all three of them. One was service activities for the community itself, you see. The kinds that I've been talking about. Two, was leadership development related to the local churches, and we did all kinds of things, not just the ministers coming to learn to make sermons. But we worked with local church groups and they . . . local church groups met there for all kinds of things. And we had a good rapport with the church groups. As I said at the beginning, most of them were Baptist, practically all were Baptist. Even the Catholic church worked . . . we worked well together. The Catholic church had a fairly small constituency, but they had a boy scout group, and their boy scout group at the Catholic church came over. We had boy scouts from all the groups, used our place as a big central place where they'd come fairly frequently and do things together. And the Catholic priest would come over . . . every now and then. Every now and then, and we'd have discussions about what the community needed, see. It was a good . . . it was a good thing in the community, the Center. It was a part of the community life. Now, that was one phase of it. The community service activities, of whatever kind we happened to be needing, that seemed to be needed. And the second was leadership development in the churches, of the church groups. And the . . .
Did you have a sense of success in developing leadership?
You can't measure success. Well, I didn't worry about success. The thing that seemed evident was that there was a changing climate in relationships with the local churches to the Center. And if you needed . . . if the Center needed some men to do something, if we needed the creek cleaned out, out at the campsite so that the kids could swim better, before the camp season opened, you had men just ready and running to go, you see. And if you needed a place to take the kids on a picnic . . . you know, this sounds as if it's not a hard thing to do, but you take, in those days, if you want to take a hundred and fifty or two hundred or three hundred black children on a picnic somewhere, you want to get a half a dozen trucks to take them. First thing you have to do is to see if you can find a half a dozen trucks. If you've got some men working around who operate trucks and they say, "Oh, I'll bring my truck," that's good, you know. And then if you've got somebody else to say, "Miss Stevens, I know where there's a place where they'd just love to have these kids come. I'll speak to them about it." They speak to them about it and come back and say, "Mr. so-and-so's got a big pasture with a swimming place in it, and he's got a big pasture with a baseball . . . room for a baseball field where the kids can play baseball, and he says he'd love to have you come." So we take the kids to the place they can go, and in those days there were very few places where black children could go. Ours was the only gymnasium in Georgia for black children, in those days. And high school kids from all over Georgia . . . in the basketball season, would rent our gym for their games. And college . . . black college teams from South Carolina and one or two in Georgia, one or two. Paine was one, but they didn't have a gym then. And there was another black college down in south Georgia. So, it was . . . it was a very much used facility. Oh, I wanted to tell you the third thing that was our purpose, was to provide an opportunity for young people who were students at Paine College to get experience in community development programs and in community activity. So we had as many as sixty-five students working at the Center, and sometimes we'd have as many as seventy-five or eighty that worked there. We had . . . we would work with them on various kind of programs. Some of them would just supervise the playground. Some of them would work with children in sewing classes. Some of them in the kitchen with the diet, you know, helping them to know how to cook and this kind of thing. And some of them would work with the older groups, and some of them would work in the gymnasium with physical education classes for girls or boys or what have you. And then we'd take . . . I'd take them in my car and we'd go out to hethe rural center two or three afternoons a week, and work with the groups, you see. So the students at Paine College worked with us at the Center, and we got to know the students and they got to know the program at the Center. And it was really great. I mean, it was a lot of fun to see those young people take an interest in that kind of a community, because . . . a lot of them would go back to their own home communities that were no different, so that means . . . They could use their local churches at home, where they didn't have a community center, they could make a community center at their local churches. See, this was the kind of thing . . . one of the kinds of things we kept working at. And this is one of the kinds of things we tried to do with some of the local churches in Augusta. Because, you see, our center wasn't big enough to minister to the needs of as many children as wanted to come, as many young people as wanted to come. And then it was an interracial experience for a lot of the people in Augusta, that they never had at any other point. We had Goodwill Programs at certain seasons of the year, usually at Christmastime and then again in May. In those days, we observed Goodwill Days on the eighteenth of May. And we would plan some sort of goodwill experience that involved both black and white children together, you see. And it was . . . and it wasn't a paternalistic kind of togetherness. It was good hard work they had to do, but they had to do it together, you see. Oh, I don't know. It was a great life.
What about your relationship with the white local government and the white churches, and white people in Augusta? At first, you were completely in isolation . . . ?
Well, yes. We were completely isolated as persons, at first. But we were . . . we went to church, and we were asked to teach classes in the church school and that kind of thing. But after the first two or three years, we became a real part of the total community, both white and black, you see. We . . . there were some things we did . . . of course, most of our time we spent in the black community because that was our job. I mean, that was part of our life, the biggest part of our life was in that particular community.