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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 >>

First tasks as head of the Women's Division of the Board of Missions for the Methodist Church

Here, Stevens discusses the work she did as the Superintendent of Christian Social Relations of the Women's Division of the Board of Missions for the Methodist Church, focusing on the transitional work she did in Nashville during the late 1930s, before moving to the headquarters in New York in 1940. In particular, Stevens focuses on her efforts to better race relations in Nashville in addition to her work in organizing a conference that brought together African American and white Methodist women from the North and South. Stevens also addresses the issue of paternalism within the organization.

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:
Could you talk a little bit about the kind of work you did while you were in Nashville? What kind of things you were trying to do?
THELMA STEVENS:
You mean those two years I was in Nashville.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Yes.
THELMA STEVENS:
Well, you see, I was . . . I was responsible for the Christian Social Relations Program of the former Southern Church, and . . .
JACQUELYN HALL:
What did that involve?
THELMA STEVENS:
Well, it involved an emphasis in the field of race relations and in the field of citizenship education, and the field of economic relations and rural community. I guess that's about it. Let's see. Alcohol. That was the other one. Well, my job was to try to work to get guidelines for mailing out suggestions to women in the local organizations across the church, to get them involved in it. That was one type of thing. The other type was . . . the other thing I did was I had a seminar for six weeks at Scarritt, where forty women were brought from all over the Southern Church. And we spent that six weeks seminar period working on the issues in Christian social relations in terms of what type of strategies and program plans ought to be suggested. And, boy, that was an exciting time. We had all kinds of these sorts of people coming in, here, there and yonder. And we had . . . that was really a liberal education for me. I had . . . one phase of the program, I had never done any background work on at all, and that was in the whole economic field. Labor relations and all the aspects of working conditions, what have you. Just the whole gamut of economic issues. And we had resource people come in from labor unions and just a variety of people. I wish I could remember who all they were at the minute, but I can't.
JACQUELYN HALL:
You had . . . Do you have papers and records from your work? During those years?
THELMA STEVENS:
Well, not for those two years. I have some things, but I don't have much for those two years. See, in the first place, I jumped from the community center work into this transition period. And I suppose the two most important things that we did in the two years before I went, to New York were geared specifically toward the transition to the new program. One was this seminar, which was a projection into the future, you see. What is it? Now, are we going to move in 1940 into this new relationship, with a new format for our working plan, everything. Now, how can we utilize it to the best advantage without having a slack? We must speed up the machine instead of making it run down while we're making the transition, you see. That was . . . that dealt with the whole gamut of programs, you see, including race and all the others. And then the other thing that we did that was very exciting, to me at least. We planned a conference, I guess you'd call it, where women from the South could get acquainted with women from the other two denominations involved in Union. And we had it at Paine College in Augusta. There were about sixty of us there. And we had, out of the sixty, there must have been fifteen blacks. And, you see, in the Southern Church we didn't have any blacks And we met at Paine and about fifteen blacks and about fifteen whites . . . about thirty people from the M. E. Church and the Methodist Protestant Church, We were the M. E. Church, South. And there were about thirty of us, which made a total of about sixty. And we were there, oh, I guess about four days, together. And we got acquainted. And for one thing, it helped to bridge a barrier that existed between the white women of the Southern Church and the black women of the Northern Church, you see. Because fortunately or unfortunately, however or who ever's looking at it, the southern women, by and large, in their relationships to black churchwomen, offically, in any capacity, had related to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, called the C.M.E. -"Colored," at that time, Methodist Episcopal Church. And most of our joint efforts, working relationships, had been between the southern . . . M. E. Church, South and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. And what we were now needing to do was to move . . . not to abandon the working relationships with the C. M. E. women, but, from my standpoint, to get a new concept of what those working relationships were. When I came into this job, one of the most evident marks of paternalism that I found when I moved from the community center into the job of the national body, you see, was the working relationship of white southern women in my church with black women in the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What were those relationships like?
THELMA STEVENS:
Well, for instance, the women of the CME Church had leadership schools in various places, and we . . . had leadership schools in various places. And we would . . . we . . . our leadership . . . when I say we, I didn't do that. I wouldn't have done it. I couldn't have done it. It wouldn't have been me. But they encouraged women in various areas adjacent to or within reach of those leadership schools to provide scholarships for women, black women, to go to the leadership schools. And usually they . . . Mrs. Jones would go to her local church, or Mrs. Smith would go to her local church, and say, "Now, Mary, my maid, can take a vacation that week, and if you'll provide the scholarship for her, she can go to that leadership school. Then she can come back and report to us." See? See what I mean. You . . . you provide Mary a vacation trip, and Mary didn't have the kind of background or the kind of competence that would make that leadership school have any meaning for her. Instead of going to the C.M.E. church in the town and saying, "We'd like to make available a scholarship if you have a woman who is . . . whom you would like to have represent you at this leadership school then come back and be of some service to your church when she comes back. And maybe when she does come back she can be of some service to us, too, in our church." But, you see, we didn't work like that, and so women would send Mary and Sally and Julie and Molly and all the others to the leadership schools. And it was good for them. I mean, it was great. But it was the way it was done, you see. And those women that would go would feel under obligation to that white woman for whom she worked, who had made it possible for her to go. That was one aspect of the paternalism. But, you know, there's something intangible about paternalism that I can't describe to you.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Yeah. You know it when you see it.
THELMA STEVENS:
And it's just that we weren't working on a horizontal level, you see.