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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gwendolyn Matthews, December 9, 1999. Interview K-0654. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Pressure to cross boundaries and importance of family support

Matthews describes the overwhelming pressure she faced to help pioneer boundary crossing in the integration process. Again, as elsewhere in the interview, she stresses the inhospitable environment, this time focusing on the lack of support from teachers at Cary High School. The passage concludes with Matthews explaining that although the experience was largely negative, she learned that she could get through anything. Additionally, she emphasizes the importance of family support during the integration process. Had she not had a supportive environment at home, Matthews believes she would have left high school feeling very angry and would have joined more militant branches of the civil rights movement.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Gwendolyn Matthews, December 9, 1999. Interview K-0654. 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 so the good thing about it was, as I said, nobody ever touched us, no one physically. Were we spit on, yes, nobody wanted to share a locker. Spit at, I should not say we were spit on because I think that would have been something different. Spit at, but not spit on. And so, it was not the best two years of my life. If I could have done something else, I think I would have done it, but I could not. And it really was… We knew we were setting a precedent and so we did not, we were just cautioned by many men from NAACP as well as from my father and the community, not to do anything that would make it difficult for those who came behind us. And so that was an awful lot of pressure, I mean an awful lot of… You know, we were what, sixteen years old, fifteen, sixteen years old at the time and we'd left friends, we almost felt… I think that if Brenda and I had not had each other, it would have been a much more difficult time for us. But we had each other so we could, you know, that was something. But also we knew that we could go home and home was a good place to go, because then we would get the comforting and we would be allowed to cry. And I don't know if Brenda cried as much as I did, but I did some crying, I really did. Because it was just very, very difficult. We had been honor roll students, it became very difficult to keep our grades, to make good grades. I will not say that… I don't mean it that way. I'm just saying that it was very difficult to get good grades.
Do you think the teachers were harder on you? That they graded you more harshly?
I do, I do. One teacher was Mrs. Crook, who was not, and I'm calling out her name only because she was… I felt very comfortable around her. I don't remember which one was actually… I did not have her as a teacher. I think because her husband was a minister, because I had him when I was at Meredith, I also went to Meredith. And so I had him as my religion teacher at Meredith, and I think maybe that was some of her… She did not go out of her way, I don't mean it that way, but she certainly made sure that we were comfortable if we were ever around her. So Mrs. Crook I specifically remember. To be honest with you, I do not remember any of my other teacher's names. I just remember Mrs. Crook because she was very kind toward us and so we appreciated that. So she was a very kind lady, as I said. I'm sure it had to be difficult for her even, maybe. I don't know what her peers thought of her, or maybe they just expected her to do it because she was a minister's wife, who knows. But she was very kind. So the turmoil was simply that very few people talked with us. Very few people asked us any questions or wanted to know anything about us. And I say that in light of leaving the environment of a Cary High and eventually going to a Meredith because I didn't go to college, to Meredith right away. But when I went to Meredith there were lots of questions, such as do you tan? Why is your hair like that, because one day I could wear it in an Afro and the next day I could wear it straight because we pressed it. And they had all kinds of questions of me, but at Cary High no one asked, wanting to know anything about us. And I think that was really because of youth, you know, peer pressure and things of that nature. Those were very difficult years. I think I've touched on just about everything, the most difficult times. What did I learn from the experience? I learned that I could do anything. That I could go through anything. I don't know when I have had a period of my life… My mother's no longer living, but even going through her death let me know I could get through it because it was very difficult. I was out of the state when she died and so I was not, I was very sad about that. But I knew I could go through anything, having gone through that. I also found, or learned, people have often asked me… Very few people, by the way, know this about me. I choose not to talk about it, not because I'm embarrassed or because it's too painful, it's just a part of my life. Should someone find out, for instance one of the Sociology teachers found out quite by accident and asked me to speak at her class, and I did. And so, what I learned about myself was that I could go through anything, but I also learned that no every White person is a bad person. I have friends who went through other circumstances, such as at Ligon High School who are just angry people about what happened and the fact that Ligon is no longer a high school. And just all kinds of feelings that they have going through. I believe I came through with not so much anger because of my parents. I really, really do. And not that their parents taught them anything. I just believe that because of my mother's faith and belief and she prayed for me a lot and prayed with me a lot, I just think her belief that I could get through this with God's help is what got me through it. Even though I, at the time, was not a Christian. But just her willingness to let me come home and cry in her arms, just her willingness to say, but it's going to be all right. And her honesty in saying, "Gwen, not all White people are like that and you have to remember that." And her constantly saying that, at least three times a week, you know, helped me not to be so angry and to be so bitter. And I really do believe that, because I think otherwise the experience was so difficult that I think I could have come out and been a Black Panther. And I think that's what prevented me from being so angry and so bitter, and feeling what an unfair situation to go through and how dare people spit at me, and what do you mean you don't like me because of the color of my skin. I still don't understand that. I simply don't understand that. But I'm not bitter about the experience.