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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mabel Williams, August 20, 1999. Interview K-0266. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Segregation instills a subservient mind-set

Williams describes the segregated community where she spent her childhood and the mind-set it created. Williams learned from her parents how to maneuver in the white world without upsetting its more privileged residents, avoiding whites when possible and carefully controlling herself when she could not. Williams had to overcome this sense of constant danger and learned subservience, a process she undertook with help from her husband. This passage dramatizes the degree to which segregation terrorized the black community.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mabel Williams, August 20, 1999. Interview K-0266. 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

And if you were visiting a class of young people who wasn't familiar with the story. What would you tell them and where would you begin?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Well, they don't know anything about—
DAVID CECELSKI:
On the way in there yesterday their teacher told them that you and Robert were freedom riders and that they were going to be there to talk about that. But other than that all they've read is Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yes, yes, yes. I think I would start by explaining to them what kind of a society I grew up in. Like I would tell them what I consider the story of Monroe. The fact that when I was—when I was in elementary and high school, the situation was that we had different communities. We had a black community and a white community. And I lived on one side of town and the white people lived on the other side of town. I would tell them at that time that most of my activities were with—the vast majority of my activities were with—in my black community. I had a black minister. I had black schoolmates. And my affiliation, or my association, with whites was just very limited. And the association that I had with whites was that my parents were very protective and they taught us. They tried to teach us to protect ourselves because they were in constant fear that we would run afoul of the law or the white community and get killed.
DAVID CECELSKI:
They didn't really mean—they weren't really worried about you committing crimes?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
No, no, no.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Be a little more specific. What kind of boundaries were they afraid you would cross?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
I was always to say, "Yes, ma'am", "No, ma'am" to white people because at any time they may get angry and maybe slap me because I was being sassy. So I was told. We were in a society where there were rules for white people and rules for black people. And black people had to stay in their place. And our parents tried to teach us a place to stay in to keep us from running into trouble with white people. When we would go into stores in the downtown area passing through the stores, we were always told, "Don't ever have your hands in your pockets." Or, "When you go in the store make sure you're going in there to buy something and have your money in your hand." And even if they—even if they would—some of the people in the stores would say that you did something or give you the wrong change, we were not to argue with them because we could get ourselves into trouble and they didn't want us to get into trouble. So we were taught basically to just stay away from white folks because that's trouble for you. Just stay away from them, you know. And so I would walk to school past the white school. The white school was about four blocks from my house. And I would walk all the way across town to the black school. And I would pass another elementary school on the way that I just walked right passed.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Was that a white elementary school?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
A white elementary school. But it never occurred to me to go there because I knew that that was a white school and that I was not supposed to be there. In our schools we had books. Most of the books that we had in our schools had the names of white children in them. Because what they would do in North Carolina, in Monroe, was when they would get new books for the white schools, they would give us the old books from—. And so, you know, you had to write your name in a book when you got it so that you were responsible for that book for the rest of the year. So very seldom did we ever get a brand new book. We got used books all the time that were—had already been used by the white school. All our teachers were black. And they, too, tried to encourage us to stay in our places so that we didn't get in trouble with the white people both going and coming to school. And so we abided by that because those were the rules that we were accustomed to. But then not all black folks felt like that I found out later.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Felt like—?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Like we had a place and we had to stay in that place. Some black folks like my husband's family, I later learned, were kind of radical. And they didn't think that we were inferior at all. But I don't suppose that my parents thought that we were inferior but they were not about to assert themselves in any way that would make white folks think that they were equal either. But there were other people who said, "Oh well, you know, yeah. We're just as good as anybody." And they didn't—. I suppose they didn't teach the kids on the—the other kids like my husband's family, they didn't teach them that you must be subservient. They never taught them to be subservient. And my parents taught me to be subservient to white folks. But when I met Robert, I found out that not all black folks were subservient—had that attitude of being subservient to white folks. And that was a struggle for me to recognize that I had—that my so-called place was not just a colored place. It was—that I should have—I had as much right to have a place in the world as any other human being. And it was not easy for me to overcome the training that my parents had put into me, you know; and the society that had produced the kind of attitude that I had. Eventually, I did overcome that and I'm happy I did. But it was a hard struggle along the way to do that.
DAVID CECELSKI:
It was something that was based on experience, too. What happened to people that stepped out of their place in Monroe when you were a girl? What were your mama and daddy afraid of? I don't mean as a child. I don't mean—. Moving past the eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve-year old. But what happens to—
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Oh well, there had been lots of incidents that you could—. You know, I'd hear the older people talking about—especially with the boys. The boys were really pressed on not to look at even, look at, white girls because of the—. I heard about lynchings and things like that. I didn't hear of any specific lynchings in Monroe. But just sassy—what they call sassing white folks. I had uncles and aunts who had had run-ins with the police in Monroe, and—because they had sassed police that they—. One of my aunts, I think, one time got slapped when she was standing in a line to go into the movie. She got slapped by a policeman because she had sassed him, you know. So those kinds of things our parents taught us to be—. And my father always kept his pearl handled pistol under his pillow. And we shot that pistol once a year at New Year's. And he'd even let us shoot it at New Year's. And it was my task to make up his bed. And I never—I would wonder why the pistol, you know. But he said there was always this danger that people would come into our home, come after you. That the white folks were going to come in there for some reason that they have found to get you. And so, that pistol was there for the protection of our home.