Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 15, 1979. Interview C-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A segregated community in the South

This excerpt offers a nuanced view of Jim Crow segregation in one southern community. Here, Turner offers a vivid portrait of Macon, Georgia in the early twentieth century. As a child, Turner explains that she was largely unaware of racial segregation. In remembering how the city was set up residentially and professionally during these years, Turner describes a community that was segregated, but not necessarily along sharply divided racial lines. This, along with what she believes to have been her parent's conscious effort to protect her, Turner says she "never knew [she] was being Jim Crowed" until much later in life.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 15, 1979. Interview C-0015. 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

you mentioned a while ago that young people wouldn't believe today the things about race relations?
I don't think so. You, know I thought of this often, trying to pinpoint when I really became aware of the fact that I wasn't acceptable everywhere.again, when I say, my mother was a smart lady. I guess there were a whole lot of smart mothers, and fathers, too. I really can't pinpoint when I knew there was a distinction made, that I was being discriminated against. I had to be quite aware up in my teens. Because, O.K., here how I lived: a little street called, Tatenall, a trestle with a cross over the street with the railroad going between Atlanta and Macon, central of Georgia. Very tall, and Tatenall began with that trestle and came up the street about a good half-block-maybe it would be a short block-to chestnut street. Then Tatenall went up another block, and that was the end of Tatenall Street. It ended up there in what they called Tatenall Square. And when you passed the Square you were at Mercy University. Now this street, Chestnut, went all the way up and all the way down. Now, I lived, when I can first remember, in a little house here on Tatenall. And then we moved to the corner house. So I lived all my life on Tatenall. I had been on the corner of Tatenall and Chestnut. Up on this corner of Tatenall and Chestnut, whites lived. Across the street my school teacher, that I thoughtpassed every year, her family, the Johnsons, they lived on this corner, and that corner, opposite them, whites. Now up that block and all the way down this short block were blacks. Now, on the rest of that block to the corner, whites; and on this side, where we lived, all the way up there except one house, whites. I don't know whether that one in the center was always 'tenented', I guess you would say, by blacks, I don't know. But we had a fire, and when our house was being repaired, we moved up to that little house. So that meant we lived in the middle of that block until this house was repaired. Now, there were white families and white children here, black families and black children. Now, all of the children met out here and they played up and down that street, all but we. Most of the children were boys, and my mother said that little girls shouldn't play with little boys, so I didn't get to go out there and play. But the little boys, white and black, they played. And the only playmate I had in the neighborhood, that was near my age, was a little boy that lived next door this way. His mother was a teacher at the school where I was attending, and his father was a tailor. And we used to could play together. She used to let me, because they were very strict about who he could play with. So we became playmates to some extent. But now, most whites there, would just as likely be over talking to my mother, or my mother would be over there talking to them. I don't mean they went in and sat down to visit, either way. But they'd sit on the porch or meet out in the middle of the street and have conversation. You never thought a thing about it. I didn't ever think about them as white people, or black people. They was just people and "Hello, Mrs. so-and-so; hello, Mrs. so-and-so", and you went your way. So I didn't get it there. Now, I go to the AMA school and you have black teachers and you have white teachers, and we are right downtown, right straight through downtown. Now, downtown, you get here and you go a block this way, and there are a black tailor shop, two black drugstores, and an undertaking establishment. These are things I can remember. There may have been other things. But interspaced in between there, there was a big white bakery-I do remember that-and a black church right over here. Then you go a block down here and here's the city hall, where everybody goes for their concerts in the spring, blacks and whites. Then you go one more block, I think it's a whole block, or a half-block or something like that, and you're right at the biggest street, main street in Macon, Cherry Street, where everything runs up and down there. So now, you have got blacks and whites in between here. Now, I pointed one church over here. Now you turn, what they call Cotton Avenue, and there is the big Methodist Church, and on this side there is a big Baptist Church, and then you go up the street and there's a street that runs this way, whites live on there, and the street that runs this way, white schools. Then, of course, you make a turn here and there's Ballard over here, the Congregational Church in the same property. And on the hill, across the street, is a dorm because in the earlier days AMA had a dorm for kids who came in from the country and had to live in. So there was a dorm there. You see, you're all intertwined there. Now, we have black theatre. And when I get to the point where I can go to the picture show, all I've ever heard is the Douglas Theatre. And you are not like you are today. You only got to go to the theatre once in a while. Your Mama didn't let you go every week, or three times a week. You went once. And all you're doing is looking forward to going to the theatre. So, I must have passed white theatres and never even thought about them. I'm too busy getting to the Douglas Theatre, you know. So, I don't realize that I can't go in this theatre over here. `cause I'm going over here to this one. And they're all white down there, near enough to each other that you don't ever get out of the path. And you don't realize, until way late, something focuses. I know when I really learned that I wasn't being treated properly [laughter]. Well, all through that period, O.K., and this is interesting. I've been intending to go back and try and find out, because there's something I should know, and I don't know it. I didn't know I should know it until recent years. The opera house in Macon is a historic building, and it has some history that I wish I knew what's it's all about. But my father took me to that opera house, everything that was worthwhile to see. I saw Ben Hur there when I was a kid. Oh, yes. We got a lot of horses on the stage. All sorts of things. I saw Black Patty. I don't know if you ever heard of Black Patty. Great singer, there. All sorts of things. My father took me because my mother would be sick this time, you know, to go to something like that. And I went to the Jim Crow section and never knew I was being Jim Crowed. They were smart people. Now, I always thought I had to go up them steps and go to that top. `Cause the seats up there were very nice and everything; it wasn't shabby when you got up. It was the fact that you had to from here to here to here to here to get there. As a kid, who thought anything about climbing steps? Now, the next thing about it, when your father told you, you couldn't afford, I thought it was a matter of money. The reason I was up there. I had no idea that I couldn't go downstairs. I didn't even question it. You didn't have radio, you didn't have T.V. So, you didn't question many of the things your parents told you. And when my mother said, "We're scraping up the money for you to go see so-and-so", why, I thought I was getting the great treat of my life, and never questioned anything about why I was going up all those steps to get there.
Were they consciously protecting you?
Oh, I'm sure they did. I'm sure all of the parents probably were doing the same thing. Because if they didn't, children being children, we would have talked about it, if we'd known about it. I don't remember talking about it anytime when I was a kid: why I can't go to see so-and-so, why can't you do so-and-so. I had no idea.