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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 >>

Support from some churchmen for a black activist, but most whites seek to harm him

The Universalist Church welcomed the Robert despite his race, Williams remembers. She remained a Catholic, but welcomed the intellectual atmosphere at Unitarian meetings. The head of the church tried a number of times to get Robert work, Williams recalls, but his efforts failed. White city fathers were determined to punish Robert for his activism by denying him gainful employment, both hurting his family and undermining his masculinity. Black farmers helped the Williams family with gifts of food.

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 the local white—one of the local white people was Ray Shoot was the head of the Unitarian church. And he was—had been in real estate and he was one of the city fathers. But he was a liberal, white liberal. In fact he used to say—I remember hearing him say, "Well, I'm really a socialist by philosophy. But until such time as all of the capitalists give up their money, I'm going to keep my money. I'm going to keep my money to protect myself." [Laughter]
DAVID CECELSKI:
[unclear]
MABEL WILLIAMS:
So we'd laugh about that, you know. But we would visit them on a social basis. And he and Robert would just sit and talk for hours and hours.
DAVID CECELSKI:
That's very unusual.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yeah. It was very unusual in this—
DAVID CECELSKI:
That day.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yeah, for that day. And finally he invited us to become members of the Unitarian church. And before then Robert would go to the Unitarian church. And they invited them—Ray did. Ray Shoot invited him there to speak on two or three occasions. And he'd go and speak. And then he invited him to become a member. Well, then when Robert accepted and decided to join, I never will forget, Ray Shoot told us that there was a judge, Judge Williams. Now everybody in town knew the judge was an alcoholic. But every Monday morning he was sending black men to prison for being drunk. Okay? Judge Williams made the remark according to—it was either Ray or some of the other Unitarians who told us that he said, "He'd be damned if he was going to belong to a church where they had a nigger." So he resigned when they accepted Rob into the Unitarian fellowship. It was not a church. It was a fellowship. But we used to go over there. And we'd have fun around the pool, and sit and talk and have potluck after church services. Well, now Robert was getting involved with the Unitarians. I was getting involved with the Catholics. So Rob also had another great friend who was Father Thomas MacAvoy. He was a Catholic priest who had come to Monroe and established the first Catholic church. Father Thomas A. MacAvoy. And Father Mac was our friend. We were friends with Father Mac until his death. He died after we came back from overseas. But we maintained contact with him all those years. He remained our friend while Robert—. He was a friend of Dr. Perry's who was also Catholic. And he headed up the—. We had segregation in Catholic church at that time. There was our Lady of Lords, which is the Catholic church here now. And I still call it the white Catholic church. And then there was St. Joseph's mission, which was a church that I joined and I took my two boys in. And even though Rob and Father Mac were great friends, he never joined the Catholic Church. Rob didn't. He joined the Unitarian church. And—but the boys and I became Catholic. And not only did I join the church, but I was very active in our little mission. And worked for the mission for a long time. I worked first as doing their rummage sale in the community. And another time we established a day care for working mothers and I took care of kids in the community. St. Joseph's Day Care Center. So all of this was going on almost simultaneously. And I was learning from Father MacAvoy and at a later time Father John Garone came in. He was also a very progressive priest. And—but I was taking part in the Unitarian fellowship and learning a lot there, too. So a whole lot of this was a process of education for me. Dealing with people on an intellectual level that I had never dealt with before. Dealing with ideas that I had never encountered before. Seeing the respect that they had for Robert and his ideas. And the respect that Robert had for them and their ideas and how they exchanged, you know. It was a great university for me.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Yeah, sure. Even better than a real university
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yes, yes. And it also was helpful in dealing with the children and trying to instill some values in them, you know. So—but the Unitarian church, also. That experience started to—. People, when the people found out that Robert was associated with the Unitarian church, that brought on a lot of other kinds of—. Well, you know, we don't want to have anything to do with this nigger, you know. Mr. Shoot tried as best he could to help Robert get established in a good paying job two or three different times. One time he got a really good job. They were going to make him this or they were going to—. Oh, this new factory was moving in because all these factories were moving in from the north. And they were going to make him a dye man in an industry down in—it was outside of Wadesboro, in Anson County somewhere. But, the city fathers got to them and they got rid of Rob in a—. At first they started—. The man who was supposed to teach him was a German. And he was, of course, secretive about his guise and so forth. But he was willing at first to teach Rob. But then when the city fathers got involved, all of a sudden, the only thing Rob could do was empty the garbage. And it kept going like that and Robert kept saying, "Well, when are we going to get into the techniques of the dying and so forth." And they just kept pushing him down and pushing him out further, further and further away. And it turned out that he was driving all that long distance to be a janitor. So that didn't work out. I don't—I don't think we found out about what the city fathers had done until he got his files from the Freedom of Information Act. Then we found out that, you know, they had a lot to do with undermining our economic situation. But we had lots of support from local people. Farmers who would give us corn and stuff out of their gardens.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Black farmers.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Um-hmm, black farmers. We never did have a—we didn't starve to death. People would come and give us, bring us stuff. They'd go shopping and bring stuff to help us out as well. And one thing that I point out to a lot of black women today when I'm talking to them about—the situation we talk about. We talk about the male chauvinism and all that. And—but one of the tools that this system has always used, and they used in Monroe. I can always get a job. They'd always open up and let me work. And I didn't always understand why I could get a job and he couldn't get a job, you know. Or I could get a job and keep it and he couldn't get a job and keep it. I didn't always understand that. I understand the techniques, the tactics now. How that undermines the unity of the family because he's supposed to be the head of the family. The husband's supposed to be the head of the family traditionally to support his family. But it undermines his manhood when he can't do that. It undermines his manhood. So that also creates a lot of problems. Created a lot of problems for us, but not, you know. So the whole time we were here until we got totally involved in civil rights I was able to maintain a job. I worked at the Union Memorial Hospital once that hospital was established. I worked at the turkey plant. Turkey plant. Yeah, I think we got fifty cents an hour, you know. And standing in water all day cleaning turkeys. But it was a job and I was able to maintain that for, at least, for a while when they had turkeys coming in and so forth. So all of that had its impact on what was going on. And Robert—. Seeing all of these things that were happening and wanting to make a difference and make a change.