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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 >>

African Americans struggle to cultivate pride amid a barrage of casual racism

Williams describes some of the daily insults endured by African Americans in segregated Monroe, North Carolina, and her struggle to shed their legacy. She remembers a white family that named its dog with a racist slur, and her trips to the white part of town to buy milk, because the milk man declined to enter the black community. Many African Americans endured these slights for their own safety, but there were some, like one man she remembers, who sought to cultivate a sense of pride.

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

In our community, we had a tight-knit community. And I was perfectly happy to be with my people. And that's why I can understand from some standpoint, you're a product of your own upbringing. And I didn't have any desire to be integrated into another society because I was perfectly happy with my black ministers, my black teachers, my black friends. And I was satisfied there. And I didn't know, or didn't feel the hurt of the limitations that we were on. I could see that my mother was working for pittance. And there are a lot of things that we didn't have.
DAVID CECELSKI:
For one of the richest families in the state.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Right, right. But we were—she made our home life so pleasant, so wonderful, that I wasn't able to see how—the hurt that she was feeling, except that I could hear it in her voice. And I could hear it when they were discussing—-when the adults would be discussing what was going on or what had happened. Let me tell you an incident. She was working for—before she worked for the Belk family she was working for a family—. I remember the name. It was a—his name was Turner Stevens. And he worked for the hardware company. And I heard my mother relate a story that happened at—while she was on the job. She was telling my daddy what happened that day. And she said, "You know today, Mr. Stevens had some of his grandkids visiting. And I was serving dinner and one of the grandkids looked at me and looked at a little dog that Mr. Stevens had. And said to Mr. Stevens while looking at me, 'Uncle Turner, is Nippy's name really Nippy nigger?'" It was a little black dog. And my mother said, "I couldn't help but speak up." And I said, "No. His name is not Nippy nigger. It's Nippy Stevens." And said, the little boy got upset and said, "Uncle Turner, is it really Nippy Stevens?" And she said that Mr. Stevens said to him, "Yes, it is. Now shut-up and eat your dinner." But she said it made her know he was teaching that child hatred of black people. And had—when she was not there they called the dog Nippy nigger rather than Nippy, you know. And so those kinds of things made me know that there was hurt. She was being hurt from the society the way it was going. Well, I had a younger brother who died with tuberculosis at the age of—he was six. No. He was nine and I was six. And while my mother was working for the Stevens, I had been diagnosed as having anemia, being anemic and so we had to have milk every day. Well the milkman did not come to the black community. And so my mother would have milk delivered to the Stevens' house and she would bring it home. And on occasion, on the weekends, I would have to go walk to the Steven's house to pick up the milk and bring it back home, you know. So those kinds of things, you know, the society was just so structured that it was just racist to the core. And there were hurtful things that were happening all the time. And I could hear my father and some of his friends discussing racial incidents, but not necessarily all that was going on. But they were talking about how they would be insulted and how white men on the railroad would talk about black women in front on them and things like that. And that they—there was a lot of things that they just had to swallow in order to keep their jobs. And then they would really be proud when somebody would stand up even if they would have to go to jail and get beaten up. They would be proud of the fact that well at least he, you know, he resisted what was going on. But I don't think that the white society—they didn't look on us as human beings. They just did not feel that we were people who had to be considered. We were just servants and kind of nuisance people in the community, I guess. But going through high school and elementary school, I had teachers who were very dedicated black teachers. And there was one man who was a member of our church. He was a professor. Had a little college started. His name was Baxter Perry. And Mr. Perry was—he was very much a, I guess you would call him a Booker T. Washington type. He wanted us to—he encouraged all of the young black people to excel in education. And he believed in education. And he tried to instill in us a pride in being who we were as black people and the fact that we had a history. And to try to get away from the slave mentality that we had a heritage from, the slavery. And once a year we got to study black history, you know, once a year—Negro History Week at school. And we would learn about Booker T. Washington and people like that. But Dr. Perry would tell us about people like Nat Turner [Laughter] —. And Nat Turner—right—and those people: Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth and people like that. But it was done in a way—. He was always—. The white people call him that crazy Baxter Perry. And some of the black people, too, were afraid to associate with Baxter Perry because he was—he was teaching us about the rebels within our race who would not accept being less than a human being in the society.