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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Elizabeth Pearsall, May 25, 1988. Interview C-0056. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Need for honest discussions between the races

Pearsall recalls the huge impact an interracial religious meeting had on her future relations with African Americans. At this meeting, Pearsall discusses how well-respected African Americans expressed their frustrations with Jim Crow conditions, which increased her awareness of the blatantly hurtful consequences of racism. She learned that whites' frankness with blacks creates an atmosphere of trust between the races.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Elizabeth Pearsall, May 25, 1988. Interview C-0056. 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

ELIZABETH PEARSALL:
...We had a minister, a mission church here, at a branch church (Episcopal), his name was Will Spong, and he was avant garde. He's still in our national church and is controversial on other issues. He's making a lot of people mad because, oh, has all these ideas. But anyway, he did a lot of good things. One of the things he did was to have interracial meetings, and he got some people from Chapel Hill, four people—they were all white—to come down here and have a panel. It was in the paper. Everybody was invited, both races. So Tom and I went. You've never heard of the name Kemp Battle, I suppose. Well, Kemp and Maude, they were the two people [who also went]. Early in my married life, I didn't know the word "role model." If I had known it, I would have used it. I thought Miss Maude—we called her Maude—Kemp because there were two Maude Battles, "Miss Maude Kemp is the woman I want to be like." And apparently Tom, by himself, might have said that about Kemp because they were older than we were, ten years or more. But we saw a lot of them because we thought alike and then they were fun to be with. So that night the four of us went over to this panel meeting, and we were the only four whites there except the minister and the people from Chapel Hill. It was not widely attended. I guess there were thirty-five blacks, laborers and everything. So we went two nights. It was to last three nights, and the third night Tom and Kemp had to go to a vestry meeting so Maude and I went alone. That was the night they asked for questions to be written. The questions were read and they were, oh, terrible, so pathetic. I had been on the hospital board here for a long time. I didn't know anything about how to run a hospital. But I had sense enough to know not to talk unless I felt like I couldn't not talk. But every time anything came up about the blacks I spoke up because at that time we had a rather nice brick hospital, and we had a little one story cottage in the back for blacks or colored people as they were called. It was not adequate. My sisters and I had given some money to help that. That didn't do much. They were still there in that same place. Anyway, so one of the questions that came up that night was from a doctor. And he said, "I'd like to know why it is that when I take my patients to the hospital, I cannot prescribe a pill or anything else." His participation ended at the door. Well, we batted that around. And I felt so terrible because I was on that board. But that question was not directed to me so I didn't say anything. Then a man said, he was in work clothes, "I'd like to ask why…" You passed a lake up here. City Lake we called it, and it was dug with ERA money. And this man said, "I'd like to ask a question." Said, "My peoples dug that lake, and my mother-in-law loves to fish more than anything in the world. How come she can't go down to it, sit down there and hold a fishing pole?" If you didn't feel like a worm. But anyway, then a woman, she was a nicely dressed lady, said, "I pay my bills promptly. I have a charge account in the best department store here. Why is it that when I give my charge, the girl will ask me, I say, ‘Mrs. George Anderson.’ And she will ask me what my given name is. She wants to write Mary Anderson instead of Mrs. Anderson." Well then, we just felt all this in our souls. But then, there was a black undertaker there. He's well known by blacks and whites. His name is Chauncey Stokes. He's an educated man. But I had never really seen Chauncey 'until that night. He and his wife were there. So when the meeting was about to close, Chauncey Stokes rose to his feet, and Miss Maude recognized him and said to me in a whisper, "This is Chauncey Stokes." He said, "I'd like to address a question to Mrs. Pearsall." You can imagine what happened to Mrs. Pearsall. He said… Well, I'll have to start by going back. By that time we had some Howard Johnson franchises, and we had been thinking about integrating them. We had really wanted to for a long time. We knew it wasn't fair. It didn't make any sense really when you eat their food in your home, and you know, wouldn't let them come there. So Tom had been working on the waitresses out there, at the local Howard Johnson's, but their husbands had all said that they would make their wives quit before they would serve blacks. But anyway, it worried Tom and me a lot. It nearly killed me one night when I was out there, a bus load of soldiers came by and the whites came in and ate and had to take boxes out to the blacks. I was standing there at the cash register and didn't say anything. The hostess is an older woman. She was trying privately to indoctrinate those waitresses and their husbands. But one of the waitresses was there where I was, and I said, "How did that make you feel? They're going off to risk their lives for us and yet they can't come in." And this woman, the waitress, said, "It makes me feel pretty bad." Anyway, we had not yet worked it out. So Chauncey Stokes is addressing Mrs. Pearsall. He said, "I'd like to know why it is, my wife and I travel extensively up and down the eastern seaboard, and why is it when we get to Chester, Virginia, we can no longer go in a Howard Johnson's restaurant, from then on, Rocky Mount, Durham, Lumberton, and Fayetteville." Well, my heart was racing. But I said, I had never used the word "Mister" to a black person in my life. God put it in my mouth really. I said, "Mr. Stokes, I'm glad you asked that question. That situation has been on my husband's heart and mine for a long time, and we're working towards changing it. You will have to remember, Mr. Stokes," I said, "the waitresses are in an economic strata where there exists the greatest racial prejudice. That's because they're competing for the same jobs." And I said, "The husbands of the waitresses have threatened to make their wives quit. But we have an ally there in the hostess. She teaches a Bible class of young adults out at Oakdale Church." And I said, "I think she is going to be able to change things, and I think before very long, you'll see a change." Well, that was all that was said. So when I came on home and Tom came in from the meeting, I didn't know whether I'd gotten Tom in trouble or what. So when he came in, I was very busy brushing my teeth. [Laughter] And he said, "How did the meeting go?" I said, "Very well." And then he said, "Did they ask any questions?" "A few." "What did they ask?" Well, then I had to come clean. I told him what Chauncey Stokes asked me. He said, "Well, what did you answer?" And I told him, and he said, "Well, that was all right. You told the truth. You can't improve on that." So the next afternoon my doorbell rang. I have to say, I always tell our ministers, the new ones, you don't have to come see me unless I send for you because there are so many people who need to be visited and so many people who are sensitive about not being visited, that I'm not going to be sensitive. If I get sick, I will certainly call you. So don't bother about me. But that afternoon the door bell rang, and it was our minister. He'd been here about four years. So I said, "Well, what brings you. Come in." When he got in, he said, "I want to tell you. I had a visit this morning from Chauncey Stokes. And he said, ‘Mr. Smythe, I want to tell you that last night one of your parishioners came clean. It is the first time in my life that I have had the feeling that a white person was being completely honest with me.’" And he said, "I just want to congratulate you." That was a simple episode but one of those little pebbles in the pond—Tom's theory of things evolving. So it wasn't that Tom just had that feeling for the committee on integration that just ran a span of two years. It was before; it was after. It was just a philosophy of ours.