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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Being labeled a Communist limits an activist's effectiveness

Robertson's civil rights movement did not reap many benefits, she remembers, and she chose to minimize her role in the integration push because she feared that as someone suspected of Communist sympathies, her participation might damage the movement. She goes on to describe the effects of her activism, which resulted in a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robertson was not intimidated.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. 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:
It was sort of a major, mostly white, liberal organization in the South in the twenties and thirties, and it was replaced by the Southern Regional Council. But rest rooms for black women was the issue that they worked on?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. We never got anything.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Starting in the twenties.
MARY ROBERTSON:
All we ever got out of it was a free book on the life and times of whoever-it-is Belk. [Laughter] I remember somebody had written an in-house biography of the founder of the Belk stores.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And they gave you a copy of the book?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, they gave us a copy of the book.
JACQUELYN HALL:
[Laughter]
MARY ROBERTSON:
They didn't open the rest room, but they gave us a copy of the book. And then it wasn't too much longer after that that the Supreme Court ruling initiated. And I was mildly involved on the periphery of the integration of eating places. At that time I didn't take an active role, certainly not a leadership role, because to have done so with the stigma of having been a "communist" or whatever it happened to be would have been detrimental to the success of the movement. But I was involved in the periphery of that .
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were you red-baited?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Oh, my God, yes. [Laughter] Was there any other way? Oh, yes, sure.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What form did that take?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Whatever happened to be available. I was subpoenaed before the House Unamerican Activities Committee when they met in Charlotte. That was the most overt. But you used to be melodramatic around this town to be in a car with blacks after dark, and we used to get stopped. Nobody ever did anything, but they would stop us. "Where are you going?" "What are you doing?" "What you black boys got those white girls in there for?" But other than that and a certain amount of just general social ostracism and that kind of thing… But I was subpoenaed.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you feel about that? Was that painful at the time?
MARY ROBERTSON:
No. There were two aspects of it that were painful. It didn't bother me--I was just immature enough to get a big kick out of it--but I was concerned lest the stigma should rub off on my child, who was only eight or nine years old at that time. And my husband took it rather seriously. It was a situation where he didn't feel that he could say that he didn't like it, but he didn't. I mean it was an uncomfortable feeling for him. But as far as I was concerned, it didn't bother me. I had certainly several people and times that "Why don't you come to New York?" "Why don't you get away from this situation?" sort of thing. And I not only didn't want to, but I didn't feel the need to. I stayed here it all. And even though I got my picture and my name on the front page and all that, I still stayed here.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When did that happen? Why was your picture in the paper?
MARY ROBERTSON:
When I was subpoenaed. The Charlotte Observer referred to me as "an attractive young housewife," and I've never been treated that well by anybody. [Laughter]
JACQUELYN HALL:
I'm surprised they didn't tell what you had on.
MARY ROBERTSON:
They did. Dressed up.