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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 >>

Transgressing racial boundaries in a segregated hotel

Here, Turner describes the beginnings of her friendship with Adam Clayton Powell when he was working as a preacher at the White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina. She offers an especially illuminating anecdote regarding the visit of his then girlfriend, dancer Isabelle Washington, who came to Durham to perform with her sister Freddie. The performance troupe came to stay and perform at the Washington-Duke Hotel, which was at the time a segregated facility. Nevertheless, the African American performers were allowed to stay there and Turner describes how she and her friend were allowed to visit their hotel room and attend the performance. According to Turner, Durham blacks were not allowed to stay at the hotel and, thus, her invitation to visit was an unusual event. She recalls taking special advantage of the situation and feeling especially amused that she had this opportunity to transgress established racial boundaries. In so doing, she describes one subtle way in which African Americans could challenge established racial hierarchies.

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

Adam was being called to preach at White Rock. Adam was very handsome, and he wore beautiful clothes. He was well trained. So, there was no way under the sun for him not to make an impression on all of the girls in town who saw him, all of the women in town who saw him. And, of course, he went to White Rock to preach. It was in the summertime and he had on a beautiful white suit, which did all things for him. I can't recall how we knew enough, or what contact we had, that made him come to see us. But, he did. So, I'll have to leave it at that. We lived not too far from White Rock Baptist Church. Just a little place out there that the Mutual had turned into an apartment. And Betty and I had this apartment. So Adam came down to see us. And we're in the kitchen fixing a little food and drinks and things. And he sat down there with us and we chatted and had quite a time. He had already seen a girl that he was impressed with, who was related to Professor Pearson who was the principal of the high school here, at that time. Portia Whitted. And he had known her somewhere else, but that was the girl he was primarily interested in here. So, he had no interest in us, nor we in him. But as he sat with us and chatted and talked about Portia and other girls he had met, he told us that his girlfriend was coming to Durham and that he wanted us to be nice to her when she came. Because, she was travelling with a show. There were two sisters, Isabelle Washington and Freddie Washington, and they were travelling with Miller and Lyle. Miller and Lyle were quite outstanding showmen. Lyle was the comedian. Miller's daughter is still in show business. She's a musician, I think. I've forgotten her name. But, at any rate, Miller was a sort of man that Lyle. . .what was it? A straightman. He was a foil for Lyle. They both were outstanding. They were names in the theatre. And we had never seen them, and we were quite excited. At that time big bands were coming to Durham, and playing at warehouses. And if they had people like that, they would have a show.
WALTER WEARE:
Tobacco warehouses?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yes. Big warehouses.
WALTER WEARE:
Can you remember the bands?
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, every one that was ever popular came here at one time or another. I didn't go to many of them. It wasn't one of the places I went to much. Many of the young people in my group. Few of us went. Everybody was permitted there. You could buy the tickets.
WALTER WEARE:
Blacks and whites?
VIOLA TURNER:
Well, if the blacks were bringing the band in, it was their show. The whites could come, but they more or less were spectators. And the only times that I ever went-I went about twice-was as a spectator. I'd go upstairs and look. Most of us would. But, on this occasion, Adam said they were coming and he wanted us to be sure to be nice to Isabelle. Because, apparently they had not made a trip like this, and certainly not to the South before. She sang and her sister Freddie was a dancer, and had a male partner as a dancer. So we assured him when they got here we would show. . . .
WALTER WEARE:
Where were they going to perform?
VIOLA TURNER:
They were performing at this warehouse.
WALTER WEARE:
Any warehouse?
VIOLA TURNER:
In a warehouse, yes.
WALTER WEARE:
There was nothing like an opera house here, or anything like that? An auditorium?
VIOLA TURNER:
There was a theatre. The Center Theatre, where, at that time, I don't think they had anything. A little later on, they brought a few things in to the Center Theatre, as shows, and used the stage. But at that time, I don't think they were even doing that at the Center Theatre. And that was the only place. I understand, before I came to Durham, there had been a-I want to say an auditorium, and yet, it seemed to me they called it a 'music hall' or something. But, it was torn down and Washington-Duke Hotel was built in that spot. So that happened before I got here. Washington-Duke was built just about the time I got here. So I don't know what they did there; but probably they did. But, at this time, they were going to these warehouses. Now they have a center that looks just about how the warehouses look, and had the big open down, and the balcony upstairs. But, as I recall, at the time they came, they were showing in one of these warehouses. Well, anyhow. I'm trying to be sure I get that straight. Where we knew they were coming, we made arrangements to have dinner for them. Because we did have a beautiful contact. The woman who ran the North Carolina Mutual's cafeteria was quite, quite good. She was a cateress, really. She did a lot of parties for whites in Durham. So we had gotten her to fix this dinner for us. And then Betty was going with Joe Goodlow, the fellow that she married. So, Joe took us to the show. And we got in touch with Isabelle and Freddie and told them that we were preparing dinner for them. We got in touch with them before the show. Then we went to the show. We were to pick them up there, which we did. We told them we were preparing dinner for them, and did they have anyone they would like to invite. And they wanted to invite Miller and Lyle and Freddie's dancing partner. So we had this dinner for that group. All because of Adam's request. So while they're at our little apartment for dinner, they were all so enthusiastic about it, and Miller and Lyle were the stars of the show. They said, we want you to go to the show with us. And we all said, you know darn well we can't go. He said, if they have a show you can go. So we say, are you kidding. He says, no we're not kidding; if they have a performance tonight, you're going to the show. Well, we were younger and said, well, if you arrange for us to go, we'll be right there; what time do you want us? So we got that all set up. When they got ready to go back to get ready for the show, they said, don't wait until showtime. You just come right on up. Get on the elevator and come to such-and-such a floor. We said O.K. We were always reckless. You know we were resentful of being prohibited from doing things, so it didn't take much to make us reckless. So we went. And when we got there, we just walked into the elevator and said the floor we wanted exactly as if we were expected, you know. Now, I don't remember if we already knew Isabelle's and Freddie's room, or whether the elevator operator knew it. But at any rate, we knew the room. All we told them was what time we were coming, or something. But, at any rate, when we got there, we went straight there, to Freddie's and Isabelle's room. And, of course, being us, we immediately hopped up in the bed. And we said, let's go to the bathroom; we should take a bath. And do everything they would object to your doing is this hotel, you know.
WALTER WEARE:
Which hotel was this?
VIOLA TURNER:
Washington-Duke. The only real hotel we had at that time.
WALTER WEARE:
Freddie and Isabelle were black performers?
VIOLA TURNER:
All of these were black. See, that was always the way of the South. They wanted a show. They not only took them there and put them up, they all had reservations in the hotel. But they were not going to permit any Durham blacks to come to the hotel. I mean, have accommodations there.
WALTER WEARE:
And the show was to be in the hotel?
VIOLA TURNER:
The show was in the hotel. That's where we saw the show. I think I'm correct; I could be off to some extent; this was my first visit there. But I understand, it was either the end of the very large dining, or it was the end of a large ballroom. It was a room upstairs. It was not downstairs where you ordinarily go in to dine. So I'm inclined to think that that was maybe a ballroom. Because it was about the second-floor level or stair-and-a-half level. And it was a long room, all the way across the building. And the audience was over here, and the performers were over here. And they performed like the musicians circled around. Then the people who were performing sat where they were. And they performed out here. And the audience was here. So, when they went in to take their seats and perform, they brought us right in there with them, and ushered us to preferred seats over to the side. So we sat there and we saw the entire show. Nobody raised their head. There was no way for them to think we belonged to the show. Because the performers, Miller and Lyle particularly, who were seeing to the whole thing. Maybe they said something to somebody. I have no idea. But we just had seats over here. And the performers were like here. The musicians behind here. Then they went out there and performed. We sat over here and [clapping] we applauded right with the group. But nobody said one living thing. Nothing was unpleasant about it. They were just as delightful as they could be. But we were tickled to death because we had gone into the rooms. And where we were sure they would not want us to get on their beds, we got into the bed. We went into the bathroom and decided to take a bath. You know, just anything that you could do. Mr.is going to come in here and a Negro has been in his bed. Or a Negro has been in his tub. [laughter] Oh, we had loads of fun. That was the beginning of our friendship with Adam, and my long, long friendship with Adam.