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

Upbringing and family values in the Jim Crow South

In this excerpt, Viola Turner describes her family life while she was growing up. Born in Macon, Georgia in 1900, Turner was the only child of teenage parents who had married at the age of 15. Although she didn't know it at the time, Turner says that her parents were always very poor. Her father worked as a cotton sampler during the cotton harvest and then as a waiter in a hotel during the winter months. Later in the interview she describes how her mother also worked as a seamstress and then later as an assistant in a doctor's office. What she remembers most vividly, however, is that her childhood was "lovely" and she emphasizes how much her mother insisted that she must receive an education. Overall, Turner describes her mother a strong, African American woman who despite her young age acted as a stern disciplinarian. In general, this excerpt offers a vivid portrait of a small, African American family struggling to get by (and seemingly succeeding) in the Jim Crow South at the turn of the twentieth century.

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

WALTER WEARE:
Maybe you could tell us a little bit about your family. I remember your father was a cotton sampler, wasn't he?
VIOLA TURNER:
God, you do remember things! Yes, he was. Which I, even yet, don't quite know what that was. I know what I saw him do. My mother was sent to Macon from a very small place-I don't think you'd even call it a town-Clinton, Georgia, to go to school, to live with an older sister. I don't know whether she had been there a year or so or not. However, I do know that my father had come up from Fort Plains, Georgia, a young boy, really. And somewhere along the way they met. He was not in school. At fifteen, at some point in fifteen, let's see am I right? At the age of fifteen they were married. At the age of sixteen I was born. Isn't that something? My grandmother must have been thoroughly disgusted at the whole thing. But, at any rate, they were really two children, so-to-speak, with a daughter. My father was, I suppose, a cotton sampler then. I don't know. But the two things that I knew about him and making a living was that he was a cotton sampler from early spring through the late spring. . .I'm still wrong. From the early fall to the late spring. Then he was a hotel man, a waiter, from the spring through the summer.
WALTER WEARE:
This was in Macon?
VIOLA TURNER:
That's in Macon. That's when I grew up. I knew him then as the hotel man in the summer and the cotton sampler through the fall and winter. And my mother was a very smart little lady. I look and think of her even today, and wonder how she could have been as smart as she evidently was. Evidently it was just born in her. She was aggressive, ambitious, determined, and, probably because she had a child so early, she came to realize how unfortunate it was not to have continued in school. Because, I think she was about the sixth grade when she married my father. But that's all I heard all of my life, as far back as I can remember, "You've got to go to school; you've got to stay in school."
WALTER WEARE:
VIOLA TURNER:
No, my mother. "You've got to be a school teacher." That was all I heard. "Go to school. Stay in school. Be a school teacher." My mother was a sweet, loving man. Nobody had a dearer father than I had. He gave me lots of attention, both of them did. I had a lovely childhood. Poor-I didn't know it, however-but very lovely. But my father, I'm quite sure, he didn't see the point in all that education my mother was talking about. It was O.K. If she wanted me to go to school it was O.K.
WALTER WEARE:
Did you have any brothers or sisters?
VIOLA TURNER:
No brothers, no sisters.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you think he would have felt the same way about a male child?
VIOLA TURNER:
Probably not. Probably he would have had a little different feeling because there was certainly this sort of feeling in the family. But the mother chastized. The father didn't touch. You could speak to the child, but you could not whip the child, not the girl. But if you have any boys, then you can whip them. That was the law in the house, and it seemed to happen because at a very young age-something like three-my mother had stepped out somewhere and she came in just in time to see my father whip me, because I had been making noise outdoors and he was not feeling well, and he was in bed. She got up and came in just in time to see him evidently about to slay me, I don't know what, and the law was laid down then. So I grew up knowing that my father would not strike me, because a man did not strike a girl. But if there was a boy, a brother-that I always hoped I'd have-that dad would whip him.
WALTER WEARE:
Did your mother whip you?
VIOLA TURNER:
Interestingly enough, my mother whipped me just about every day of my life. [laughter] And my father only had to look at me and I didn't give him any trouble at all, knowing full well that he wasn't going to whip me. Only once in my span of living did he almost whip me and I liked to die for it. My mother was not as large as I am. She was always hoping to weight a hundred and ten pounds. Oh boy, that little lady was tough [laughter]. But she whipped me every day of my life about something.