Interviewee: Isabel Rogers
Interviewer: Brian Ward
Date: March 1, 2003
W: This is Brian Ward on March 1, 2003, for the University of Florida Oral History
Program, the Southern Regional Council project. I'm in Richmond, Virginia
talking to Professor Isabel Rogers. Thank you ever so much for sparing some
time to talk to me this morning. Basically, what I would like to do is just start off
by asking you a few background questions, some biographical questions, before
we get your to Richmond in the early 1960s and you work with the Human
Relations Council here. So, if you could tell me where you were born, and where
you were raised and educated we could combine that.
R: I was born in Tallahassee, Florida, so I'm a native Floridian. I grew up in
Tallahassee. I went to college at, what then was, the Florida State College for
Women, graduating there with a major in English literature. Went immediately
after that for two years to the University of Virginia for a Master's in political
science. I have always loved the political process and have been fascinated with
it. My aim was to work with the state department, in diplomatic service. This
was immediately after WWII, and the men were coming back from the war
theaters in Europe, so the State Department [as it] turned out, at the end of my
two years, wasn't interested in hiring women. So, that did not work out. I loved
the study, it was wonderful, I've never lost my fascination for politics. Since the
job openings were not there, I went straight on for two more years for another
Master's degree, at a school in Richmond called the Presbyterian School of
Christian Education. I loved that; it was a wonderful study. I studied theology
and biblical studies [and enjoyed it immensely]. Then, I went from there, to my
first and only other job to what we Presbyterians call campus ministry. [It
involves] working with college students, helping them with their spiritual growth
and that sort of thing. I was there [for] twelve [fine] years.
W: Did you come from an academic family?
R: Yes, my father taught English literature at Florida State for forty-three years. He
did his doctorate at the University of Virginia and went to Tallahassee to teach,
and [he] never taught anywhere else.
W: When you came up from Florida to Virginia for your Master's at the end of WWII,
did you notice a difference in the sort of political climate between Florida and
Virginia? Had you had any interest in civil rights, race relations work?
R: At that time the Virginia government was run by the Harry Byrd political machine.
It was called Democratic, but it was very conservative. Honest government,
good government, they got the job done but they were interested in maintaining
the status quo, racially in particular. It was that Byrd Machine that inspired the
later massive resistance. So, it was a very conservative, good government, but
very, very conservative. Yeah, I was aware of this. My political science studies
had focused on international relations because of what I had hoped to do, but [I
remained interested in] general political science. [So, I was aware of] the climate.
It was conservative politically and socially, and even though it was called
Democratic, it was not like the national Democratic party in its convictions.
W: When did concerns about the nature of the segregated South first become
apparent in your life. Was there anything from your family, or was it personal
R: I have tried to figure it out. My parents, were [certainly] not hard-nosed
conservatives, but they were part of the old South. Both of them were Virginians.
W: Tell me about your mother before we move on.
R: My mother grew up in Charlottesville, the daughter of a lawyer. So, I spent my
summers in Charlottesville as a child and I loved it. She became a loyal
Floridian when they moved down to Tallahassee. She was a woman who had
only two years of college because there were seven children, [but] she was very,
very bright. She met my father when they were both teaching in high school in
Charlottesville, when daddy was working on his PhD at UVA [University of
Virginia]. That is how they met. So, she was very educated, very alert, and very,
very bright, and she contended that she had a lot more sense [than] daddy and
[me with our] Phi Beta Kappas and PhDs. She read extensively, and was
interested in politics. We had [vigorous] family conversations [on the subject].
Back to the segregation business; [my parents] never criticized the system
overtly, but they were wonderful human beings who treated other people as
human beings. I do remember occasionally, for instance, the old pattern in the
deep South [which dictated that] you did not address black people by title Mrs. or
Mr. You called them by their first names. My mother always called them by their
titles, [saying that] we owe them that dignity. So, I grew with people who did not
fight the system but who themselves lived as human beings who were open to,
and who cared about and respected other human beings. I must have absorbed
W: Do you think some of that may have come from your church background?
R: They were stalwart Presbyterians. My guess is that as I grew up a faithful church
member there in Tallahassee at old First Presbyterian Church, I must have
absorbed something that made me become critical of the pattern of segregation.
I can't put my finger on it; I've tried and I've talked to my old friends there in
Tallahassee. We've all agreed that the church taught us that this was wrong,
though the church didn't know it was doing it. Do you see what I mean?
W: It was deeper principles about respect and dignity.
R: And that God loves all people no matter what the color was, we learned this.
There's a little old song we used to sing, Jesus loves all the children of the world,
red and yellow, black and white; they are precious in his sight. We also [sang] a
hymn called, "In Christ There is No East or West, In Him No North or South," one
verse of which goes, "join hands then, brothers of the faith, what e'er your race
may be. Whoever serves my father [as son] is surely kin to me." Now, nobody
said [that] segregation is wrong. I didn't hear that, but I sang hymns like that
[and] something sank in, because most of my peers and I, by the time we were in
college, were committed to changing the pattern in the South. So, by the time I
was in college I was already at work on [the pattern of segregation]..
W: Was there a sense, in perhaps the late 1940s and early 1950s, that you were
part of a community of young, Southern whites who were alarmed about either
the way Jim Crow was operating or the existence of Jim Crow at all? Did you
feel there were two camps within white-racial liberalism? People wanted to make
Jim Crow more equal, more polite, more respectful, and people had already
decided it didn't need to be there at all.
R: By the time I got to my work [with students] in Georgia, it was 1949. In the early
1950s was when the pattern began to break. Things were more bitter, [and] all
of my classmates here [in our school in Richmond] who knew me were afraid
that I would get into trouble. They knew my convictions. I guess I was not a part
of any formal network, but most of [the] peers with whom I had studied were
committed to changing [our society] in one way or another. When I got to
Georgia, I was careful, [seeking first] established relationships with people but on
the campus I was free, and I was able to help those Georgia students raise
questions about [segregation]. The school protected [our freedom in this].
W: Right, tell me about the school.
R: It was a state women's college was a small one, about 1,000 students.
W: What was it called?
R: It was called the Georgia State College for Women. I felt at home because it
was like what Tallahassee had been when I was there. About 1,000 students it
was a warm sort of community; people knew each other [with a] small faculty
who all knew each other [well]. Though I was with the church, I was considered
part of the faculty. Then, I moved to the college staff with responsibility for all the
students who were mostly Georgia Baptists, very conservative.
W: What were you teaching?
R: I was not teaching. Well, I was teaching, but it was informal. I was [kind of] a
chaplain, [and I] realize as I look back [that], the study groups we had and the
committees planning worship services that was [really] teaching. We were
raising questions as we went along. I saw my task as helping these young
people [to think for themselves]. Most of them were from rural areas and small
towns. They [had] never heard any questioning of the segregation pattern, but
[they] were open. As we [worked on] programs, I would raise gentle questions
about what the Christian faith requires. The [students] were ready. They were
open to this, and already the tides were flowing. [In] 1954, the Supreme Court
decision [Brown v. Board of Education], broke it all open. I was [in Georgia] at
W: Where was the school located?
R: Milledgeville, a wonderful little town.
W: Where was it?
R: It's almost central. Macon, Georgia was the nearest large town, and that's
almost in the center of the state, about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta. So, it
was right in the heart of a small town and rural Georgia. It was a wonderful
place. There are lovely old mansions pre-dating the Civil War, but with the
college there was freedom, freedom to think. You had the graciousness of the
old segregated South and hard-nosed conservatives there in my church, but they
already loved me. I had already established relations and they knew where I
stood and they didn't fight me about it.
W: You didn't get any hassle from the congregation about it? You mentioned the
Brown decision as a watershed, and while there's a degree of fluidity before the
Brown decision that sometimes hardens the conservative alliance.
R: It did increase the bitterness. I've thought about this, and I think the bonds of
affection that I'd established being in their midst, ([it] was twelve years before I
left there) [grew out of my being] a part of things, and they just sort of tolerated
me. I did not meet ugliness. Though, I remember the time [when] we had a little
group, five or six of us white folks, two or three from the college faculty, [plus] the
Rector of the Episcopal Church, and three or four black teachers. [We] met
together in a little study group and [read and] talked about different things in an
effort to bridge the gap. We could not meet in my church. We could not even
meet in the Episcopal Church. We met at the Rector's house; that's the only
place we could meet safely. This went against the mores to have blacks and
whites meeting together on an equal plane. If you were speaking to them, you
could preach to them, but you couldn't meet and share with them as equals.
W: Do you think those informal meetings, even if they were behind close doors...
R: It was a private network, this is what it was. It was going on everywhere, I'm sure
[it was] all over the South. I remember the time we walked out onto the front
porch of Bill Kirkland's house and a police car was circling the block, so that's
what it was like in the 1950s.
W: This pastor, Bill Kirkland, he was white?
R: Bill Kirkland, was rector of the Episcopal church. It was a small town, one
Episcopal, one Presbyterian, one Methodist, one Baptist [church], and he was
the rector of the Episcopal church.
W: How big was the black population in the town?
R: Probably half and half. Georgia was heavily black. My guess is that out of a
town of 10,000 or 12,000, probably half of those were black. Most of them were
poor, of course shut out from [white society]. They voted, some of them, but that
was before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, so they weren't encouraged to vote.
My first year there word got around to some of my colleagues [that] the Ku Klux
Klan was meeting down on the courthouse lawn, right out in public. I had never
experienced this, so [friends and I] went rushing down [to see if] I was almost
sick at my stomach because they were led in prayer by a Baptist minister, not the
Baptist minister but by a Baptist minister. I think I'd never realized how Christian
[the Klan] was supposed to be. I really was deeply affected by that. That
hardened my conviction [that] we have got to change this thing. So I was doing
what I could where I was, in alliance with the folks whom I had found who
thought as I did.
W: When you talk about this sort of loose alliance of like-minded whites...
R: Yes, we just had to find each other and network.
W: If you had to generalize about their backgrounds, would you say they were sort
of higher up the socioeconomic scale?
R: [They were] educated, the whites. The blacks had been educated, but it was an
inferior education. These were schoolteachers who could hardly read when we
would do studies.
W: You were telling me about the meeting you had a Bill Kirkland's house and the
harassment really, or surveillance you were under by the local police.
R: They were harassing us and letting us know that we were watched. They didn't
have the power to do anything. We hadn't done anything to be arrested for, I
don't think. They were just letting us know that they disapproved [of] us and we
[had] better watch what we were doing. We were aware, [of it] and obviously
aware when that was the only place we could meet. You knew it was not really a
safe thing to do, but the five or six of us were deeply committed to this. This was
one way we could begin to scratch away at the pattern and build some bridges
with the black community.
W: Which bits of the black community? You mentioned that they tended to be the
teachers, the professionals...
R: The educated group of pastors [and] teachers. Two of the [whites] were
teachers at the school which the college ran. All of us were probably masters
degrees or more, or an educated rector with a divinity degree. I had two
Master's degrees. My guess is that the resistance to the segregated pattern
came more from the educated class. I don't know whether that's true or not,
historians would have to establish that, but that's my guess.
W: Now, as the 1950s develop and you get the Brown decisions, the first decision,
then the second decision, then you get the Montgomery bus boycott; you've got
the beginnings of mass black activism. You seem to get two competing trends.
One is that resistance by whites who want to hold onto to a segregated society.
R: Yes, and harder and harder, you're getting harder.
W: Right, that increases, but you also get more mobilizing of white liberals as well.
Is that the pattern you saw?
R: More than that. I'm trying to think in Birmingham when the children were killed.
W: That's was 1963.
R: Oh, that was later on. That was a catalyzing factor. TV.
W : That's a little bit later.
R: The nation saw it and was horrified. So, I'm trying to think in the late 1950s. In
the late 1950s, it's a little harder for me, because at that time I was going and
coming to North Carolina where I was working on my doctorate. I would take a
year's leave and then go. I was immersed in my theological studies, very much
aware. In Durham, North Carolina, where Duke University is, is a conservative
town. But the Presbyterian church there where I worshiped was led by a minister
who was very open, very liberal, moderate, not a radical, but he was very clear in
his convictions. I felt very much at home. My guess is that congregation, they
had to be open to him to receive his leadership, so [they were] educated people.
[There were] lots [of] Duke folks.
W: Were you aware of what was going on just down the road in Chapel Hill with the
University of North Carolina, which had a very strong, liberal tradition with Frank
Porter Graham and people like that?
R: Oh, absolutely, yes. A good friend of mine was pastor of the Presbyterian
church there, Charlie Jones. [He was] very, very radical. [He] led that church;
that Presbyterian church in Chapel Hill was one of the most liberal on race
matters. He was sort of one of the saints of this movement. I knew Charlie and I
heard him speak a number of times. I was very, very fond of him, so I was
[quite] connected with what was going on in Chapel Hill and rejoiced in it. Again,
it was a university. It was a university community and a university-type church
where the people were willing to be activists.
W: Just for the record, can you tell us what your doctorate was on?
R: [It was] in theology and ethics. The connection between them is very close I
W: What was your dissertation title?
R: It was on a medieval tradition, the natural law tradition. Well, Anglicans ought to
know about that. I don't know what church your tradition is, but [the natural law
thinking] comes from Thomas Aquinas in the middle ages. I wrote [on this]
natural law, which is the assumption that all people, regardless of faith or lack of
faith, have the same general, moral assumption. So, you don't have to have the
revelation in Christ to know how to run a society, to know how to work for justice
and that sort of thing. I did a Protestant critique of that. I think the [Catholics]
overlooked some things, but I respect the tradition from it. It's a Catholic tradition
and reflected somewhat in the Anglican church.
W: Given your interest in ethics and your actual scholarly training, as well, when you
saw the emergence of people like Martin Luther King and the many others who
were important in the movement who were practicing non-violent, direct action
and had a sort of a mode of operation that seemed steeped in moral values as
well as putting pressure on a political system; was that inspiring to you?
R: Oh, my, yes. As I think about it, King, of course, was inspired by Gandhi, but it
clearly is out of his Christian background. I never was a part of any non-violent
protests. I've always been quite moderate. I've always been a politically-oriented
person trying to work through compromises, through institutions, trying to move
institutions as best you can. I think that's probably the typical Presbyterian
pattern. Martin Luther King was the best of the Baptist tradition, I mean the very
best of the Baptist. Act on your own, go out there. So, I honored it and was
excited and inspired by it, of course. I thought, he's my colleague. I work in a
different way, quietly through these councils and things like that.
W: Do you think for white, liberal southerners in general, the fact that King was
willing to go on to the streets and force the issue was problematic even for those
who would actually identify with the movement.
R: I think he had to do it. I think we compromisers go poking along and do the best
we can, but it takes somebody who is willing to lay his life on the line as a radical
to get the public aware of this. If you work quietly behind the scenes, it would
take 100 years. I think King precipitated things, and I think you have to have the
radical. We moderates have to have the radicals to push us, to keep us from
being too complacent.
W: Presumably, that radicalism has to take a form that is morally acceptable,
otherwise it goes beyond the pale and becomes counter-productive.
R: The difference between the King group and us more moderate people was not a
matter of goals sought but avenues to it, the methods to proceed to it. I was
quite sure it takes all kinds. I would welcome anybody working for that goal.
Whatever path they took, they were my colleagues. So, in that sense, that's a
natural-law thing. I mean I didn't care if they were pagans or atheists or
anything. They didn't have to be Christian for me to work with them, just so they
perceived the injustice of segregation and were willing to work against it.
W: Now you've had this sort of to-ing and fro-ing, Georgia to North Carolina, when
do you end up coming to Richmond?
R: 1961, and I hadn't planned on a teaching career. I had assumed I could just stay
in that informal work with students all my life. I hadn't aimed at classroom
teaching, but the call came as I was finishing my class work in 1960. They called
me to come back [to Richmond to teach]. I was getting my PhD and my
predecessor in the teaching field of ethics was having to resign [to go to another]
work. I had been her student, she had been my great hero, my mentor, and
[when] they called me to come back [to teach, I was thrilled, but] I was committed
to going back to Milledgeville and I wanted to, so [the PSCE forks] said, we'll
wait. So, a couple years later, it was 1961, after [one last year in] Milledgeville, I
came on up here to teach, and [I] taught here until 1998. It's right up here on
this next block. I keep pointing to it, that's the school.
W: What was your first teaching appointment? What was your class...
R: Oh, courses?
R: I taught the history of theology, great theologians like Thomas Aquinas and
others. At that time, [I] taught some courses in biblical studies, The Corinthian
Letters because that has a lot of ethics to it, and I taught individual ethics and I
taught all the social ethics courses. See, social ethics was my natural field as
you can guess. It was a pretty broad teaching field, small faculty, not more than
a dozen people.
W: What were the students like?
R: They were preparing mostly to do lay leadership in the church. We didn't train
preachers, they were trained across the street at the Union Seminary, a sister
institution just across Brook Road. We worked together, but our specialty was
people who would do educational leadership in local churches. We have that
pattern in the Presbyterian churches, church educators in local churches to guide
the Christian nurturing. Our [students], then, were not taking Hebrew and Greek
as the preachers had to do, but we were very rigorous in theological and biblical
studies. There were varying abilities. We had some really bright ones and we
had some we had to struggle with, but wonderful kids. Our aim was to try to
develop folks who could think for themselves and help other people think for
themselves, not just to lay on them some kind of party line but to enable people
to think for themselves. That's the way we functioned in classes, not to lay it on
them but to get them to confront things and think it out and make their own
W: Now, was the ongoing racial struggle part and parcel of classroom discussion or
was that left out?
R: It always came into my social ethics courses of course, and in others, too. It
would be an illustration. My colleagues, of course, were all generally committed
to change. Some were more active than others.
W: Was the student body entirely white, at that time?
R: No, there were maybe one or two black students. Also, we would have African
nationals, or people from India [who] would be dark skinned, but predominantly it
was white, predominantly Southern. Although we had a few students from other
parts of the country, this school served mostly what was, at that time, the old-
southern Presbyterian church. It was limited to the Southeast.
W: Right, okay. You said that when you got to Richmond, obviously, you immersed
[yourself] in your first teaching and all of that sort of stuff, but you became very
quickly involved in this civil rights, human relations work that was going on.
Describe the situation in Richmond, if you would, when you got there.
R: We were just beginning to test and try to poke at the pattern. Before I came, I'd
heard stories about this. In the late 1950s the dean of our school and the
secretary to the president, a young woman who had been a classmate of mine,
joined a group. Couples would go to restaurants and a white couple would team
up with a black couple, you know, that pattern. They would go to restaurants to
open those restaurants, and they never were arrested, [though] they were
sneered at and scorned. There was activism in our campus community, [it] had
already been going on when I came here. We did more of that after I became
active in the Human Relations Council.
W: Do you remember your first meetings with the Human Relations Council, who
introduced you to that organization, or did they come looking for recruits?
R: The woman who was the secretary to the president is a good friend of mine.
W: What was her name?
R: Virginia Paine, and she's still here. She'll be here at my house tonight. I bet
she's the one who took me to the meeting, because she was already secretary of
the group or something like that.
W: Again, what sort of folks were there? Were there educated, professional whites
R: Mostly professional and predominantly white, perhaps three to two. Black
people [were] teachers in public schools, faculty from Virginia Union University
down the road [all] predominantly black. I hadn't thought about it. It's the
professionals who lived the battle, not the rich business people and not the
poorer people. We had [the] freedom. Very shortly, I had tenure on the faculty
and they couldn't fire me. Besides, the president was a leader [in these
W: What was the name of the president when you arrived?
R: Charles E.S. Kraemer, I'll give you one illustration [of his stance]. I don't know
when the poor-people's march was, I'm getting into the 1960s.
R: Well, let me tell you about this. They were marching up to Washington [and
Richmond], was going to be the last stop, over night. They asked various
churches and maybe other schools, if they could camp out on the campuses.
They were refused [and then] they came to Charlie Kraemer. He said, "I must
talk to the chairman of our board of trustees." That man said, "We can't afford to
do it, Charlie, we'll lose our contributions, we'll lose our good supporters." [Dr.
Kraemer] said, "We can't afford not to do it, we're Christians." That really moves
me greatly. So, they came, I don't know how many hundreds of them, camped
out on our campus, stayed in our dormitories, our faculty members made up
beds and cleaned up after they left. People from the neighborhood brought
food. The board chairman had said, "Oh, the neighborhood will turn on you,"
[but] they supported it. Charlie Kraemer stood firm. He was the president until
1974, so, of course, our school was [wide] open. Now, there was no coercion.
He didn't force people to share his views, but I think most all of us in the faculty
W: What about other white professionals, especially, educators, as you came into
contact with through the Richmond Council on Human Relations. Other schools
like VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] or University of Richmond, do you
think they had the same latitude to follow their instincts if their instincts were
good or to speak publicly?
R: That's interesting. Ed Peoples was one of them, and you can ask him about this.
The system of tenure is a protection, generally, but there are ways schools can
get around this I'm sure, if they really want to. I don't know what VCU was like in
those days. I just can't answer that. I don't know what their [position was]. They
didn't seem limited in any way, they didn't seem to be afraid.
W: I guess it's almost a self-selecting group though, the ones who come to the
meetings have made a decision that come what may they're going to go to the
R: I think that's probably true. I just can't remember clearly enough who the people
R: There were some. I remember one dear old man who ran a restaurant down on
the east part of the city on Main Street, Wally Bless. He may still keep be living
or he may have died lately, I don't know. There were some merchants, some
commercial people, but my guess is, it was mostly professionals and mostly
people in education, because that's where the freedom was.
W: The name of Wally Bless has been mentioned several times in interviews I've
doing as someone who, in a way, the mere fact that everyone remembers him,
makes me think he was very unusual, that he stood out from his peers as an
entrepreneur and businessman. He obviously had a role to play. What were the
particular targets of the movement in Richmond? Was it segregated public
accommodation? Was there difficulty with black voting rights?
R: Education mostly, because of the segregated pattern. I don't know when the
Prince Edward [Coiunty] schools [closed], I can't remember the years but it had
to be after 1954...
W: The closing is in 1959 through 1964.
R: They closed the schools rather than desegregate, and that was for four or five
years. I think that was the severest [situation and] it had been the [Supreme
Court] decision that had begun to break things open. So, my guess [is] that that
was our focus. We were also concerned about the churches. Of course, many
of us were church people and we wanted to work quietly to try to bring black
people into predominantly white churches, simply because we thought that was
closer to what the church ought to be. This friend [of mine], Virginia Paine,
joined in sometime in the 1960s this local Presbytery, that's our local governing
body like a Diocese. [They] established an intentionally integrated church, which
also Presbyterian. It's still in existence and my friend Virginia Payne has been a
member of that, all this time. That was her way of expressing her convictions
and doing what her mouth was saying in a way. That was what area we worked
W: Did you meet any resistance in those sorts of efforts of trying to produce
R: Oh yes, I remember when I was program chair of the Human Relations Council
and I had arranged for us to have one of our meetings at the Ginter Park
Presbyterian Church, right in this neighborhood. We [had] arranged to meet in
their fellowship hall, [but] the pastor called me and blessed me out. I was not
one of his parishioners at this time, and he used very harsh language [saying]
that I hadn't consulted him and he would not allow Human Relations Council to
meet in those facilities. I can't remember the outcome of that, although I think
we were able to go ahead. But he just laid me out in no uncertain terms, and
with very unseemly language for a Presbyterian pastor.
W: Well, tell me a little bit more about your actual work with the council and your
ascent to the presidency, how that worked out.
R: Well, about my second year, they asked me (and probably, it was the vice-
president) to plan the programs. I was happy to do that. So, I remember working
with people. We had some good programs. We met monthly and we also set up
a pattern of small discussion groups meeting in people's homes. We had five or
six groups, and about eight or ten or twelve people would meet and talk about
issues. I don't remember particular issues. We probably had some document to
study or something, or if something had happened in Richmond, we talked about
what we could do. It was the network pattern of bringing like-minded people
together to talk quietly about how we could open up the pattern.
W: These meetings were always integrated?
R: Oh yes, because the council was. They were always integrated, that was our
work. That just in a sense expanded the monthly membership meetings to more
concrete levels where they would agree to help each other work on specific
situations. I remember that very clearly, and how thrilled I was. That meant
there were probably sixty or seventy people who worked in those little groups
working at different places where they had influence.
W: Then, you would come together for these sort of more...
R: We would hear from them at the monthly meetings, the things that had come up.
W: What was the relationship between the Richmond Council on Human Relations
and the bigger, Virginia [Council], the state organization?
R: I never was very clear on that. Happy Lee was sort of the guiding spirit in the
Richmond Council, so I guess we were just intimately connected with the Virginia
Council. I suppose they had state meetings. I don't think I ever went. I was the
newcomer on the faculty and I had to work like a dog, and I doubt that I went
around to state things.
W: Tell me a little bit about Happy Lee, who seems to loom large in the collective
memories of the people.
R: Well, that's a perfect name for a happy-go-lucky [guy]. He was loose, tall, well
you've met him. He was gangly and [had] a wonderful [sense of] humor. He
could laugh, which is, of course, the way to help people to bring change not to be
so serious about it but get them laughing. That breaks down people's defenses.
He was the ideal person, I felt, to lead our program. He certainly wasn't a
flaming radical who took himself seriously, but he led us in the pattern that was
comfortable for me, which was this network, working wherever we could, poking
at this and poking at that. That seemed to be his pattern. It's just that he spent
full time at it. He was able to inspire us volunteers and to make us know that, not
only were we doing something worthwhile, (we knew that) but that we were
probably having some impact. I think he was able to help us to keep at it, and
not to get discouraged. That is the kind of person he was.
W: Were there any other individuals? I guess we're in the early to mid-1960s, now.
Were there any other individuals that you remember working with in the
Richmond Council on Human Relations who loomed large, who seemed to be
players in this?
R: That's funny I really don't. I remember Bob and Colette Habenicht, we met in
their house. They lived a couple blocks away. But, you know, I don't have a
memory [of it]. There was a teacher at Virginia Union who lived down on Brook
Road, a philosophy teacher, I think he was active in it. I don't remember his
name, Johnson or something. I don't remember. I can see all the faces,
particularly black teachers; the names just don't come to me.
W: Right, was there a lady called Hilda Warden?
R: Oh yes, and Hilda I think was also in a Presbyterian church. I thought she was
a Presbyterian. Hilda and I worked [together], she helped me with the program.
Thank you, thank you. Yeah, Hilda. Is she still around?
R: It's people like that I'd have loved to have seen Wednesday night, because
names have escaped me. Hilda, again, very quiet. I guess she was a teacher, I
don't know. She worked hard with an organization that's still in existence,
working with prisoners.
W: The Offender Aid and Restoration.
R: Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR), and she was a ringleader with that, but also
in the Human Relations Council. [She was] very consistent, very quiet, very
steady and very firm in her convictions, and again, an educated person giving us
W: That OAR program really sort of kicks off late 1960s and early 1970s. The
architect of that in some ways, was a man from Charlottesville called Jay Worrell.
Does that name ring a bell?
R: Yes, I remember the name, but I don't...
W: He would have been in the Charlottesville but he was certainly...
R: I remember the name, yeah. It's just a figure. I never ran across him.
W: His wife was a player, Carolyn Warrel, as well, in the organization.
R: Those names are not unfamiliar, but I simply didn't know them, I think.
W: One of the things that's became apparent the more I dig into what was going on
here and statewide is the importance of women in the movement and in these
sorts of initiatives. If you had to make a call on the ratio of men to women
involved in the Human Relations Councils, did you sense that women were more
R: Yeah, I bet it was two to one. I don't want to be prejudiced, but women tend to
be more liberal than men. Partly, in that era, where men were in business, they
had more at stake. They couldn't risk antagonizing customers by being too
liberal. Women have been freer.
W: You mean white women, really.
R: Yeah, white women have been more liberal. I've never thought this out, but
women are socialized to be aware of individual human pain [and] suffering.
Society has always taught women to be nurturers, to care about individual
people, more than men. It's not men's fault, but I think those kinds of things
would help to shape women into the kind of folks who would be at work earlier
than men at this kind of thing, though there were outstanding men, no question
about it. Some of my best colleagues [were men], but that's my guess about it. I
would say two to one and that might be conservative, there may be more than
W: One of the phrases that I keep hearing from people I've been talking to is that in
the midst of oppression and potential danger, there was a real sort of bonding, a
sense of family, among those people who were active. Would you like to
comment on that?
R: Oh, yes. Hilda Warden and I, I had forgotten her name, but we were good
friends and we shared a great deal. If you go back to my Milledgeville
experience with that group at Bill Kinkland's, you had to bond together to support
each other because you might be in danger. Yes, here, there was no danger
that I was ever aware of, but there was scorn and condemnation from the more
conservative. You have to support each other to buoy each other up against
that, and to remind ourselves that we're doing the right thing despite public
opinion; despite the Byrd Machine, we must do this.
W: Who else within the Richmond scene would you say were the antagonists of the
movement. You talked about the Byrd Machine. What about the local press?
[James J.] Kilpatrick and people like that?
R: Kilpatrick was very conservative. That was the Richmond News Leader. I
wouldn't read the thing. He supported all of the [resistance]. The Richmond
Times [Dispatch] was edited by Douglas Southall Freeman [Civil War historian].
[It] was a very different pattern. I think he was about ending his career just as I
was coming back, but when I was student here he was a liberal leader. The
Times Dispatch led us in thinking openly about all sorts of controversial issues. I
can't remember whether Freeman was still editor of the Times Dispatch when I
got here [in 1961]. I did observe that between the time I had been a student
here and had read the Times Dispatch and the time I came back, things had
become more conservative. So, they must have changed editors. The
newspapers did not help in working for change. They were roadblocks, they
supported the Byrd Machine. Can I think of another name that's really very, very
important, and it may have been he that got me into the [Council]. A
Presbyterian leader, Aubrey Brown, have you run across that name?
W: Yes, I have.
R: A towering figure. [He] edited an independent [magazine] called the Presbyterian
Outlook. That magazine led the Presbyterian church in defying segregation. He
was a great liberal leader and he minced no words. He must have been in the
Council. He was a great inspiration to all of us, very quiet, very clear, a
marvelous thinker; he would have been [in the Council], I'm sure.
W: Brown actually has propertized to the Southern Regional Council. He's much
more interested as well in the state-wide organization, as well. His papers are at
the Virginia Historical Society.
R: My Sunday school class is called the Aubrey Brown Peace Forum. We study
social issues in the light of the Christian faith and he's the one who got it going.
He was in that neighborhood church.
W: While we're on names here, I want to through one more name at you...
[End of side Al]
W: [Howard Carwile]. .maverick, fringe figure who comes across the screen every
now and again.
R: Yes, and I think that was my impression of him, that he was too radical for me.
He stirred anger, unnecessarily. I've always been one wanting to work to move
people along, to get them all to go along. He antagonized people and probably, I
felt, sometimes set back the cause. Most of the people I worked with were quite
moderate. The Human Relations Council, I think, was [made up primarily of]
these moderates. Anyway, he was outside of the pattern of the way we worked.
W: Yes, he was pretty inflammatory. I listened to songs on the radio.
R: Yes, inflammatory, that's the thing. We felt like he'd do more harm than good.
We didn't reject all, and certainly honored King, who worked in a different
pattern; but Carlwile inflamed people and increased the opposition. That's my
impression of him. I didn't know him...
W: So, he was counterproductive.
R: Counterproductive, right.
W: You mentioned earlier the enormously moving impact of the Birmingham
demonstrations, so, I was wondering if we could move away from Richmond to
think about how the movement was a southern-wide movement by this time and
events like those in Birmingham in 1963, worked. Tell me how those sorts of
images on the TV screens, news broadcasts and in the newspapers and news
magazines, how they played out for people like yourself.
R: [I felt] great grief to see that "Bull" Connor in Birmingham [police commissioner]
and the way he reacted to things. [I was] grieved, greatly, of course, and the bus
boycott and the way [the blacks] were treated there, of course. It was
embarrassing to me as a southerner that this is the way my contemporaries were
acting. It [renewed] my commitment to bring change where I was so that we
wouldn't have that kind of thing here. I think what I was starting to say was that
my observation, in retrospect, is that [the] Birmingham business and "Bull"
Connor turning fire hoses on those people [was displayed on] television, by that
time, was all over the country. It was that image that I think solidified the national
conscience against the southern pattern and drove the southern conservatives
into, almost, a corner. They were the minority, now. They were the majority in
the South for a long time, but all of a sudden, nationwide, they were a minority.
That made us rejoice. This gave support to what we'd been working for all the
time. I saw [the Birmingham event] as a terrible thing, but in retrospect I realize,
given the reality of television, it was good.
R: I could make a theological point but I won't. [Laughing.]
W: One of the things that the events in 1963 do is, that they finally make the
Kennedy administration make a formal commitment to civil rights legislation. Of
course, John Kennedy ends up being killed at the end of the year and Lyndon
Johnson picks up the battle, and, in fact, makes a much more firm, far-reaching
commitment to civil rights legislation than John Kennedy ever did.
R: All the political scientists say he built on the Kennedy [assassination]. He rode
on the Kennedy heritage and the affection for Kennedy.
W: I was just thinking that if you think about southern liberals and their dilemma, one
of their dilemmas is they come with all this baggage about federal intervention.
Federal legislation is not the way to proceed. Even whites of good will, part of
what they're trying to do is to resolve the situation in-house.
R: That's good. Yeah, that's true. I certainly welcomed it. I thought we're doing our
best, but things are changing. This paper is still against us, the Byrd Machine is
still against us, and the federal government was the only hope. Of course,
particularly I had seen that the 1954 school decision was what began to break
things up in Georgia. I had seen that happen. I thought schools were basic, of
course. That was preceded by a whole series of Supreme Court decisions about
higher education, colleges and universities. They had already been broken
open, but it was the public schools, where our little children go to school, that's
where the resistance was. When [segregation] had to go, then I could see that
as a very good thing. We needed the federal government to break things open
by force, by law, and knock people's heads together.
W: Do you think you were typical in those views among the people who were in the
Human Relations Council with you, or were there still people who were genuinely
committed to change but who were far more tentative or wary about having
mandated, federally-enforced change?
R: I'm not aware of it. I don't remember it. It may have been there and they may
have said it in meetings; I just have no memory of that. Of course, the other
thing is that my colleagues at the national level in my church also were all
committed to this. It was a very liberal leadership in the Presbyterian church.
So, all of those people were ready to have all the help they could get. It was my
judgement, as I look back, that Johnson bringing about the Voting Rights Act
was the turning point. When those blacks in Mississippi began to vote after all
those years, they began to bring change, politically. Mississippi was the worst.
That was the last bastion of segregation, and the bitterest. I've seen films of that
struggle to vote and the murders and that sort of thing. I think the 1954 decision,
and others too, but then the 1965 Congress...
W: The Voting Rights Act.
R: I think that that was a result of Birmingham. I think that the nation's conscience
had so changed, and other events...
W: Selma [Alabama] is the one who has just been brought...
R: That's right, all of those. [People had] seen this on television, they'd seen
brutality, and I think the national conscience expressed itself through the
Congress and brought about the Voting Rights Act. Of course, that began to
change the whole political landscape. No longer could you have the white
courthouse gang in charge; the blacks threw them out. I mean they didn't throw
them out, but they began to have impact through the vote. Those political
machines tried everything they could. They tried coercion. The Ku Klux Klan
tried to coerce, but ultimately, the vote prevailed and they began to get blacks
into political office and then, things began to change.
W: One of the scenarios you've been presenting and other people present, is how
important the Human Relations Council was in giving you a sense of confidence
and a sense of solidarity.
R: Yes, solidarity.
W: There's a sense that you weren't alone and that you were speaking to people of
like minds and that you were with the tide of progress and change. One of the
criticisms, however, that's leveled to those organizations sometimes is that you
spent a lot of time, it sounds very ad hominem but it's not really meant it to be,
but you spent a lot of time preaching to the converted.
R: Exactly, oh, certainly. We did what we could, but it took the force of law to bring
the change. We were trying to percolate; we were trying to infiltrate, but that
would have taken a century. The Supreme Court could do it overnight. I'm a
Democrat, so, I have no resistance to the federal intervention of that kind. You
have to work it every way you can, I think. I think that you have to work
informally. You have to have networks of people trying to change. It's better to
change hearts than to force people to do what they don't want to do. It's better
to do it that way and you ought to try to do it that way, but that's not going to
change a whole society. I think you have to combine that with the use of
W: I would like to get back to this changing hearts and changing attitudes, the need
to do that. How did the Human Relations Council try to reach out beyond their
own circle to try to convince people who were wavering? You're not going to
touch the Klansmen and the Citizen's Council people, but there's a vast middle
ground of whites who know it's the law of the land and they probably sense that
Jim Crow really wasn't Democratic system--who are perhaps up for grabs, if you
like, from groups like yourselves. How did you try to reach out to them, or was
that not really the forte of these councils?
R: Again, I think in an informal way [we were] trying to get more and more people
into the council, for one thing for them to be exposed to this. [We sent] letters to
the newspaper trying to present a reasonable case for this kind of thing, for
giving these black people the vote and that sort of thing. I don't remember
anything very spectacular, but [we were] always wanting to affect more people
than just the group that were already active. People came and went, of course,
but we kept on adding more people who were those folks who were open to be
persuaded, the kind of people you're talking about. We did programs in
churches thinking there ought to be people of good will there and we asked for
the chance to do programs at Wednesday night suppers and things like that.
That's [our] major outreach to folks who were not in our program but who might
be open to hear what we were concerned about. I think that's the main thing we
W: I'm sure these generalizations are tricky to make, but if you have to sort out a
hierarchy of the churches that were the most amenable and those who were the
most resistant to this, how would you order them?
R: Catholics were freest. I was not as aware in those days of the diocese and the
bishop. Nowadays, the bishop is a very liberal bishop and the diocese we count
on to help us on all sorts of things. I think by and large, when the bishop said,
You all [must] desegregate. They had to do it. They didn't have to persuade
everybody, they could just say to do it. The Episcopalians also, with rectors,
were able to have the support of a bishop; as opposed to Baptists, where each
congregation makes its own choices. So, I would think the Catholics and the
Episcopalians, perhaps, had a lot of freedom. Presbyterians already were
moving in this direction. We had a lot of strong leadership, Aubrey Brown and
others, in this community. Of course the Presbyterian Outlookwas located here.
We had here, at that time, the old Presbyterian Board of Christian Education,
which worked in the same field that my school did. We worked together. They
produced all of our church literature and that literature was very liberal. So, I
think the Presbyterian top leadership, if not all the people in the congregations,
would have been, [among] the three or four church traditions, that were most
helpful in this. The least [helpful] would be the Baptists. Each congregation
could throw out the pastor if he said the wrong thing. [For] Presbyterians, the
freedom we have, [is that] our pastors have the support and protection of our
presbytery. They are members of the presbytery. The congregation can't fire
them without the agreement of the presbytery; that's like tenure. It's like
teachers who have some protection and can say things that are unpopular. I
think Catholics, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians were probably the leaders;
Baptists were the least. There were some mavericks. Theodore Adams was the
pastor of the First Baptist Church. He was not a radical but very moderately
raising questions about some of these things. He was a great statesman, I
thought. First Baptist Church has been very different, and a church out in The
Windsor Farms area [Grace Baptist] has been very liberal, too. By and large, the
Baptist churches were the most resistant to change. That's where more of the
people of the less educated were. The more educated gravitated to the
Presbyterian [and] Episcopalian, not the Catholics necessarily, but the Episcopal
and Presbyterian. All the way along, you've forced me to see the leaders in this
have been the educated people.
W: The other model that's emerged from the way we've been talking is that in the
church denominations that have actually a strict hierarchy, called bureaucratic,
structure; if the leadership is right and committed, then the rank and file [will
move] forward being they're told to. It's a bit like federal government.
R: That's right, that's right.
W: Ultimately, federal government says you do this means you [are compelled to go
R: Well, they may not go along with it, but they can't throw out the leader, as easily.
I think that's true. So, that's the way I would see it. Then, of course, the
churches like the Pentecostals and folks like that tend to be blue collar, and so,
they would be more segregationist. That's just the way it was, sociologically.
W: They would be more susceptible to sort of the rabble-rousing of Kilpatrick at
R: Also, [they would be] more susceptible to economic competition from black
people who might have been at the blue-collar level. We, white professors, there
weren't that many black professors competing for our positions. Economics
plays a large role in things, so, I would think that would be sort of the hierarchy of
the way things worked in churches.
W: I want you to take us through sort of the mid 1960s towards the late 1960s once
the statutory victories have been won (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting
Rights Act of 1965). In a sense, Jim Crow is dead on the books.
R: Yeah, on the books.
W: In the real world, of course, it's not that simple. What was the place of the
Human Relations Councils as we move towards what became known as the
Black Power era, a [time] more fraught [with tension], in many ways the late
1960s. How did white liberals see their role and how did their interactions with
African Americans change during the late 1960s?
R: I'm sitting here trying to think when the Human Relations Council, sort of faded
out. It's not in existence, now, I don't think, is it?
W: It would have been the early 1970s.
R: Early 1970s?
W: Yeah, I mean with Vern Byrd/Smith is in place in 1970, 1972, and before her, I
guess, there was...
R: Happy had left before that.
R: He had gone down to North Carolina to our great grief. I just don't have any
clear memories. Whether this means is that I was not as active in it, I don't
know. [When] you get to 1968 and Martin Luther King's assassination, the white
pastor of that All Souls Presbyterian Church there, an intentionally integrated
church, joined with black leaders in working in the black community to try to keep
peace. [He] became very much involved as a leader and then, ultimately, went
on to be a member of city council because he had established his leadership and
had a lot of black support. When city council was beginning to be more and
more black and blacks had more power, he was one of those who was brought
W: Remind me of his name, again.
R: Jim Carpenter.
W: Jim Carpenter.
R: [He was] a Presbyterian pastor [who] left there to go [as a] missionary in Central
America, somewhere. I remember that leadership, but I don't think the Human
Relations Council was doing much, once the pattern legally had been broken
open. As you're saying, it must have been still in existence, but I don't have any
sharp memories of anything we were [doing].
W: Do you think that might tell us anything about the agenda or the limitations of
the white liberals who had been part of the council from the 1950s to the end of
the statutory Jim Crow. There were certain limits on their vision of what needed
to be done and how far they should be supported.
R: I think that's a very interesting question. I guess my sense of it is, that probably
we felt like now the battle has been won. The government has moved in to help
us and we don't have to work as hard, now. The fact probably was that we
needed to work harder and harder, but that's just my suspicion. I'm very hazy on
that period. I don't remember much about it but I might have suggested that we
were able to work hard and give our time and energy as long as it seemed like
there was a fight to be fought, but once we felt like the battle was won .
Probably, it was not true of me, but probably, a lot of white liberals were offended
by the Black Power movement. They didn't appreciate the whites. They didn't
thank them for all this that they had done. I never felt that myself, but I think that
was probably true. [They thought] now the blacks are taking over.
W: Do you think that tells us something about a certain element of paternalism?
R: Oh, absolutely. I remember in my school when they established the School of
Theology at Virginia Union University, the black school, they had their offices and
classes in our school building right up there on this next block. Their dean had
his office right down the hall from me. Miles reminded me of why you had to
have black separatism. He was saying when you have integrated groups, the
whites always want to be the chairman. That's a paternalistic sort of thing. He
said, We've got to meet separately. We have to have our own groups where we
can be in charge and we can learn to run things.
W: Who is this who was telling you this?
R: His name was Miles Jones. He was a wonderful, wonderful scholar, I think
probably biblical scholar. He did a Master's at my school and I taught him. I had
him in class and then he became my colleague when he was dean of the School
of Theology. [He was] wonderful, very, very gracious and a wonderful colleague.
He taught me a great deal that I think was very, very true so that we had moved
by that time in society. The Black Power movement was moving toward black
separatism and then we couldn't do anything. We had no further role to play, we
white liberals. Does that make any sense?
W: It does, it does.
R: Now, they're doing it. [laughing]
W: At some level, you could argue that you're victims of your own success.
R: Yes, that's right.
W: African Americans feel empowered and they [are] responsible.
R: Which they ought to have done.
W: ... for far more of their own decision making.
R: But there was white liberal resentment, I'm sure. Some of my buddies, I can
remember, fussed about this saying, we've done all this for them and they don't
care about [us]. [They] didn't recognize what Miles taught me, was true. I think
that may be a reality.
W: Might another element be that the nature of white southern liberalism in the
1950s and 1960s is built around legalistic, constitutional safeguards of citizens
rights and a sort of moralistic commitment to that?
W: But what needs to happen after the mid 1960s, once statutory quality is secured,
is a far more fundamental rejigging of the American socioeconomic system. It's
far more about economics, about genuine equality of opportunity, which might
require far more radical solutions than white liberals could ever really see.
R: We were just not radicals, that's all there was to it. That was not our pattern.
That was not our cause in that sense. In the long view, we did our part. Don't
you think that's true? We helped to raise consciousness all over, everywhere.
We helped to prepare the way. We couldn't do the job, but in a sense we were
the advance troops who did what we could in our time with a little bit of risk and
then the black leaders had to take the real risks, like Martin Luther King did and
Miles Jones did. Miles, by the way, went on to become chair of the Richmond
School Board and was very much respected [there]. He was a wonderful
educator. [He's] not living now and I miss him. He was a great leader. A lot of
people liked that. He was not wildly radical. He was not a black-power person,
but he was convinced that integration was not the answer at that point, I mean
integration as we had come to it, by that point.
W: Are there some transformations in Richmond that you saw really as coming out
of the efforts that you and others had made that were national and regional
changes, sort of the emergence of people like Henry Marsh and black political
power in the city? How did that pan out and how did white liberals feel about
R: We rejoiced in it. I don't remember when Richmond adopted the so called Ward
System for electing city council folks, but that was deliberate; that was intentional
to empower the black people so that in the black neighborhood, they could elect
their own people. Dates elude me about this. It's been a long time, but we
supported that, at least those of us who were politically realistic. I'd studied
political science I knew how it worked, these folks have got to have power.
Economic power is what had run things, but now, if you could empower these
black people through votes then they could begin to take over. When that was
brought about, and many of us supported that and campaigned for it on the
grounds that it was fair and just. That's where people like Henry Marsh begin to
emerge because they could be elected to city council and then ultimately to the
state legislature and the general assembly. Ultimately, we could have our
neighbor Doug Wilder become governor. He was the first black governor. He
lives out here just a few blocks away. I've lost my train of thought.
W: I was just asking about the white liberal response to growing black political
R: I would bet, it was mixed. I'm sure it was mixed because I know people who
jumped on me for my support of this, but all the folks that I was close to were
supportive and active. Aubrey Brown and people like that were very supportive
of this kind of thing.
W: I guess in the late 1960s and early 1970s one of the most incendiary issues, not
just in Richmond but throughout the South and even in Boston, was busing as a
means to integrate the schools.
R: That's right.
W: Do you remember if the council had a position on that?
R: I don't remember Richmond ever facing that. They may have done that but
maybe I had my head in the sand. I have no memory.
W: It certainly wasn't sort of a flash point like it was in Charlotte, for example?
R: No, no, no, or in Memphis and places like that. The fact that I have no memory
means it must not have been a very sharp issue for us to face, that we had to
take sides on. I just don't remember.
W: That seems to be a recurring pattern in the story of the Civil Rights movement in
Richmond. There were obviously tensions in moment of great crisis, but in the
grand scheme of things there was never an explosion into sort of violence that
you saw in other places. How do you explain that? How do you attribute that?
R: My guess is good black leadership and white leadership, people like Jim
Carpenter. There could have been an explosion after Martin Luther King. There
were explosions in other cities, riots.
[Interruption of phone call]
R: This is a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, just one of the network of liberal
leaders among the Presbyterians. I think in the 1950s...
W: His name was?
R: His name was Willy Thompson.
W: Willy Thompson.
R: I think in Rockingham, North Carolina. Willy is now a pastor out in Farmville at
Hampton Sydney Church where the Prince Edward County business was. He's
carrying on his liberal witness out there. But in North Carolina he was very
outspoken about race matters, so, the Ku Klux Klan came and set up a cross
and set it on fire. They said, "we're going to get your wife and family." Willy said,
"you don't dare do that." He was most courageous and she was, too. Anyway,
they came out and set up the cross and set it on fire. Mary took the children out
[in the yard] and they roasted marshmallows. That's who was on the phone.
Isn't that a wonderful story?
W: An act of defiance? [Laughing.]
R: Absolutely. The Klan just slunk away [laughing]. There were individual
Presbyterian pastors all over the place, not just Charlie Jones in Chapel Hill, who
were doing this kind of thing, just courageously standing where they thought the
Christian gospel led them to stand. Burn your crosses; we'll roast marshmallows
W: We were talking about the Black Power era and the growing black political
presence, the way in which some white liberals undoubtedly felt sort of
redundant to an extent in the late 1960s and 1970s.
R: But you asked me about the emergence of black political leaders in Richmond,
W: Yes, and people like Marsh and William Ferguson Reed who I think was...
R: He was a dentist, I think.
R: He was on the Council.
R: I worked with him on the Council. He was a gentle, very gentle, wonderful man.
I remember I was very fond of him. I remember going to meetings [with him].
W: As you're talking of things further south, did you know Curtis Harris in Hopewell?
R: No, not well. I knew of him. We had him speak at the Human Relations Council
from time to time, so, I knew him as a speaker but I never knew him personally.
W: He ended up becoming the executive director of the Virginia Council
R: That's right, and he's one of the stalwarts, long term, in the movement in this
W: I guess in Petersburg, Wyatt T. Walker would have been a player.
R: Yeah, that's right. He was a partner with King, wasn't he?
W: Right, he was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
R: He was one of the aides, that's right. But I'm thinking about the emergence of
those black leaders and it was [the ward] system that produced them. It was as
they began to get elected to the city council and learn the ropes [that] they
emerged as leaders in the city, [and they] sometimes moved on to the general
assembly as Marsh did. Marsh has become an elder statesmen, sort of, in the
community. I can't pinpoint particular people. It was just a general thing. It was
a gradual emergence. Almost immediately, blacks got a majority on the city
council and that began to change the balance of power. The city had been run
by the white business establishment, the mainstream bankers and big business,
and of course, the economic power ran things. There's a club I can't think of, the
Commonwealth Club or something ... I can't think what that is, but the elite
leaders settled the affairs of the state at their meetings. This broke the back of
that, when your city council is dominated by black people. Marsh may have
been the first black mayor. Since that time there has almost always been a
majority of blacks and that's made all the difference. So, the white establishment
finally had to knuckle down and learn to work with, now, the black establishment.
The two big department stores were not quite in this circuit. They were Jewish.
W: The Thalheimers?
R: The Thalheimer stores, they were Jewish. Miller and Rhoads [Richmond Dept.
Store] may not have been.
W: What was the other one called?
R: Miller and Rhoads, those were the two standard shopping places downtown
when downtown was viable. Thalheimers was Jewish and they were leaders in
the community in a different sort of direction. They weren't part of that white,
Anglo-Saxon, economic establishment.
W: Did they take part in Human Relations Council work? Were they supportive of
the movement in any way? There were sit-ins at Thalheimers to desegregate it.
R: That's right, at their restaurant. I have no memory of any.
W: What about other members of the Jewish community in Richmond, because
when we were having our checklist we missed out on them?
R: Yes, I'm sure there were some. I don't have a particular memory, but I'm sure
they would have been in our little group. Our little group was about twenty-five or
thirty, maybe. I bet there were five or six who would have been Jewish. The
other church group who would have been very active were the Unitarians.
They're always very liberal theologically and socially. There were some very
stalwart workers and leaders in the Council who were Unitarians, I should have
thought about them. They're perfectly free, nobody tells them what to do.
W: I want to sort of bring things to a conclusion now, but before I do, we mentioned
the Poor People's campaign and the Poor People's March coming through
Richmond after King's death. Of course, King had been working on it prior to his
death. Was that in some ways sort of a last hurrah, do you think, for the
R: Of a peaceful protest?
W: Yeah, in the sense of something that white liberals in Richmond could say, yes,
that's something we approve of and we want to somehow be supportive of as it
R: Probably most white liberals did support it. Dr. Charles Kraemer was a white
liberal. But people in the neighborhood, this is very interesting, they're not
necessarily white liberals. The [Northside] would be a conservative area
probably, like most of Richmond, but they're humanitarians and their conscience
is what tells them [that if] you leave those people out there they're going to be
hungry. Some of these Richmond conservatives are very humane people.
W: It's almost like noblesse oblige [French expression defined as the obligation of
nobility or high rank].
R: Exactly, exactly, so, they rallied. I was not here at the time. It was in the
summer, and I was in Britain, studying. I think I was at Oxford that summer, and
I was so mad I had missed it. But I think that says something about Virginia
conservatives, they're not vicious. They have not been vicious, not like
Mississippi conservatives. Normally, they wouldn't belong to the Ku Klux Klan.
They would do it in different ways. They would maintain their patterns through
economic power, probably.
W: It's obviously the political power that came from the economic power.
R: Yeah, but I think that's very telling as I think about it. They may not have
approved and they might not have wanted to break down segregation, but
they're willing to rally for people in need no matter who they were. I bet it [was]
sort of like my parents. They would never had fought at the barricades, but they
would never have turned their backs on people in need, whatever the color.
W: As your involvement in movement activities escalated really, were your parents
aware of it? Were they still living while you were doing this?
R: Yeah, I remember one time when I was at home [on] vacation and my mother
asked me to speak at her [monthly] women's circle meetings. They studied the
Bible and they would have speakers and [such]. She wanted me to speak in her
circle about Negro work in the Presbyterian church, that was a Southern church
at that time. I remember there were probably fifteen women. I did that and I
divided it in two parts. I remember I talked about here's the work we're doing,
now we have a department of Negro Work separate from the other work, and
here's what's going on. We had a separate synod. We had fifteen synods [and]
a separate [synod] covering the whole church that was black, so that they could
be independent. They were free to have their own church. That may have still
been there at that time, but I talked about all of that [at the meeting]. Then I
said, but on the other hand what would happen if we changed all that and
brought blacks totally into the full life of our church. I talked about those
possibilities. Well, I bet my mother was embarrassed, but that probably gave her
a clue as to where I was, and she never would have condemned it. [My parents]
affirmed my freedom, certainly. Mother may have been pained by this, but she
was also sympathetic. She was very humane and I imagine she would have
been worried lest I get in trouble, but I don't think she would have been harshly
condemning to it. I know my Daddy was very gentle. He was a humanist,
believed in human beings. Neither one of them would have been bitter or ugly
about it. They would [simply] have worried about me..
W: They wouldn't have disowned you for this?
R: No, far from it, far from it. Those early days probably clued them in, as to where
W: Alright, let's wrap this up and ask you to do the impossible, which is to provide
some sort of concluding characterization of the sort of work that the Human
Relations Council in Richmond did and the contribution you think it made
towards the securing of statutory equality in Richmond.
R: We've said this a number of times, this was a mixed group of people, black and
white, who shared a very moderate approach to changing society but who were
devoted to changing society and to breaking down the barriers of segregation.
[They were people] who were committed to doing it by persuading people in un-
radical ways and never usually getting violent. [They were a group that was]
faithfully working to try to bring change because they believed they were working
for justice. As I said earlier, I think they helped to prepare the ground where the
seed of radical change could be sown. I think probably all these people doing
things like what Charlie Kraemer did provided a witness to these neighbors and
to everybody. [People needed] to be exposed to a different possibility from what
they were getting from the Richmond News Leader, from the white business
establishment. Here are some civilized people who see it differently; maybe, we
ought to think about it. Now, that's my guess as to what we did. We didn't bring
about any great social change, but we may have prepared a way for it and made
it less radical, less violent, when it came. That's my guess.
W: Thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.
R: You're a good historian. You've helped me to remember this history and it's
been very interesting because those were hard times and there was a lot of
discouragement. As I look back, though, I see the movement of all that was
going on and I rejoice in all the people I had to work with.
SRC 16 Summary
March 1, 2003
Isabel Rogers begins by giving her personal family history and educational background (page 1).
She talks about the differences she saw in the political climates of Florida and Virginia that she
noticed when she went from Florida to Virginia for her master's (pages 1-2). She talks about
where her concern for the segregated South originated, including the influence of her Virginian
parents, her church background, and the deeper principles of respect and dignity (page 2). She
talks about her role as part of a movement against segregation while in college, and then while
she worked with students at Georgia State College for Women (page 3). She talks about the
environment of the school and the challenges she presented to students to get them thinking
about what the Christian faith requires (page 3). She discusses the Brown v. Board of Education
decision, which desegregated schools, and the effect it had on the small community that she lived
and worked in (pages 4-5). She talks about the loose alliance of like-minded whites and blacks
that met at the Episcopal rector's house, their surveillance by local police, and their efforts to
build bridges with the black community (pages 5-6).
Ms. Rogers talks about the development of mass black activism and the mobilization of white
liberals in the 1950s (page 6). She tells how during much of this time she was working on her
doctorate in theology and ethics at Duke University, and her support of the movement by the
Presbyterian church in Chapel Hill (pages 6-7). She talks about the inspiration of Martin Luther
King as a radical that pushed the moderates to stay active, and about the different methods the
two groups employed to reach their goals (pages 7-8).
Ms. Rogers tells how she got into her teaching career in 1961 at Richmond, the classes that she
taught, the student makeup (page 8-9). She talks about the situation in Richmond as just
beginning to try to change the segregation pattern (page 9). She talks about her introduction to
the Human Relations Council and the constituency of the group (page 10). She tells a story about
Charle E.S. Kraemer, the president when she began working at Richmond, during the poor-
people's march in 1968 as an illustration of his stance on segregation (page 10). She talks about
the other white professionals she came into contact with through the Richmond Council on
Human Relations, specifically mentioning a restaurant owner named Wally Bless (page 11). She
talks about the closing of the Prince Edward County schools that chose to close rather than to
desegregate from 1959-1964 (page 11).
She talks about her friend, Virginia Paine, that helped to establish an intentionally integrated
Presbyterian church, and the resistance that she met with those types of efforts (page 12). She
talks about her work with the council and her ascent to the presidency, as well as some key
people she worked with on the Richmond Council on Human Relations (page 12-14). One of
those she mentions is Hilda Warden, who worked with the Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR)
organization that kicked off in the late 1960s and early 1970s (page 14). She talks about women
being more involved in the Human Relations Councils because they were more free and more
liberal, and the causes behind these tendencies (page 14-15).
Ms. Rogers talks about the sense of family within those who were active, some important
activists, and the antagonists of the movement that they jointly faced (page 15-16). She talks
about her feelings as the movement became a southern-wide movement and how events in
Birmingham in 1963 renewed her commitment to bring about change (pages 16-17). They talk
about the effect of the Kennedy assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson's commitment to civil rights
legislation, and the need for government intervention (page 17-119).
Ms. Rogers talks about trying to reach out to those not involved in the council who might be
open to the council's concerns (page 19). She then sets out a hierarchy of which churches were
the most amenable, and those that put up the most resistance to desegregation (pages 19-20).
Next she talks about the interactions between African-Americans and white liberals during the
laet 1960s during the Black Power era (pages 21-24). She talks about Richmond never being a
place of violence and attributes it to good black and white leadership (page 24). She tells a story
about a liberal Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina who defied the Ku Klux Klan (page 25).
She talks about emergence of black political leaders in Richmond, as well as some other leaders
within the Human Relations Councils (pages 25-27).
Ms. Rogers talks about the Poor People's March and the white liberal support as it came through
Richmond (page 27-28). She talks about her parent's awareness of her movement activities and
their affirmation of her freedom (page 28-29). She ends the interview by characterizing the work
of the Human Relations Council and the contribution it made in securing statutory equality in
Richmond (page 29).