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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Elizabeth Brown, June 17, 2005. Interview U-0019. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Regional differences in opinion on desegregation

Brown says that her upbringing in Kentucky gave her a more moderate view of desegregation than she might have acquired in Birmingham. While she recalls segregation and bigotry in Kentucky, when she arrived in Birmingham, she encountered a different atmosphere.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Elizabeth Brown, June 17, 2005. Interview U-0019. 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

KIMBERLY HILL:
We're going to start by talking about your growing up years and how you became a teacher and how you came to Birmingham.
ELIZABETH BROWN:
Well, I grew up in Kentucky, and I think being in Kentucky I was a little more moderate regarding integration and desegregation than I would've been if I had been born down here. The other thing that I grew up in a Catholic school, going to a Catholic school, grade school and high school, and many of the sisters that were, that taught me were from Massachusetts even though it was a Kentucky order. So they would have had different ideas that they would maybe come across in the classroom. They didn't deliberately preach that segregation was wrong or anything, but they were very careful to give us a positive view of it. The church that I went to always had people of African American descent in it. Now sometimes they didn't go to our schools because I got the idea they were sort of rural people, and sometimes they had a difficulty with transportation, and at the time it was really also against the law. Probably against the law of the churches too but we never knew about it and accepted it. They always had a couple of pews in the back said something like colored only, and the priest would regularly have to tell the white people to stop sitting there because in all Catholic churches the last two or three pews were the most favorite ones. They would have to sit outside their pews. But I guess I was always aware of those kinds of things. So it wasn't that big of a deal to me. It's sort of odd. My father seemed by today's standards to be very bigoted but his two best friends were, one was a kid that he grew up with and would come back and see him regularly, and the thing I most remember about him is big, black man. Daddy was about five-six, five, not much bigger than that. I was taller than he when I grew up, and this man it seemed to me like six-two or six-three and really big like he could be a professional tackle in my eyes. I'd hear Daddy say there's old Theoto, and he would come and visit with him any time he came back to Kentucky. So we could see the affection between them, and I also began to realize when I was an adult that Daddy would make all these racist statements to get a rise out of us as kids. Like one time he said, "Yeah, Theoto thinks he's as good as any white person." My older sister said, "Well, isn't he?" He talked for a few minutes and he said, "Actually he's better than most white people." But we began realizing he was saying all these statements that were just to make us upset because he was a big tease in that way. But so, he really didn't like integration. To me it was sort of funny in some ways because in Kentucky we lived on the Ohio River, and the Ohio River was totally integrated. The people standing on the bank fishing and off the dam, they would stand off the dam. I don't remember how that worked, but they could fish there. They were totally integrated, and then they would separate and go their own ways. But when I came down here, it was very different atmosphere. But at John Carroll again I don't know why, but most of the faculty was not that prejudiced. I'm sure some of them were but even before integration, and so they were, you would never hear someone use a racial slur or anything like that. Some of us were just absolutely very much on the, we would consider the raving liberal side of what they would consider that. So I think I mentioned earlier that one of my friends came back to school a couple of years after she had left, and one of the teachers it was right before the integration. She was amazed in the faculty room how we were making fun of George Wallace and all his campaign, throwing the gauntlet down. We would exaggerate his "Segregation Now. Segregation Forever." We would all those phrases that he would just say we were making fun of and laughing about, and she told us later she said, "I was glad to come to Carroll because you, you don't realize it, but you all are raving idiots, not idiots, but raving liberals. You just don't know how liberal you all are." I said, "Really. You mean the other schools don't do that." She said, "No. They're just all against it and all that." But-
KIMBERLY HILL:
Do you think people thought you were idiots too?
ELIZABETH BROWN:
Probably. I don't think they really did. No one cared about us except the Catholics probably were, I didn't hear too many sermons about it but I did hear a couple in the church that he sort of edged on it about people not treating other people [right]. Everybody knew who he was talking about, not treating other people like they should and so on. Many of the priests down here were Irish. They weren't getting enough native vocations and about half of the diocese, diocese and priests were Irish. So they had a whole different aspect and mind frame than perhaps some of the people did. Well, when integration was coming, the first year that the public schools integrated we had already met our maximum population. For some reason, I can't remember exactly why, but a thousand was the maximum that the school could hold, and if you had 1001, the accrediting societies would make you add more restrooms and more water fountains and more this and more that. So we were right at 998, and the next year, the public schools had a really difficult time integrating at that time. Kids were walking out and striking and all this foolishness going on. The next year we did integrate with four students, and I'm sure they were chosen to be success-. I think they interviewed them and sort of prepared them for whatever and made sure they were the kind of student that would be a success at Carroll to make sure that there wasn't any reason for any of the white kids to complain or their parents to complain. There were two boys and two girls.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Was that in terms of academic success?
ELIZABETH BROWN:
I think probably academic and refined and social and whatever. I'm not sure of the categories. I do remember, sort of remember someone saying they told them that they could go to any function, of course as a student, but they asked if they went to a dance not to try to dance with the white kids.