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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Vivion Lenon Brewer, October 15, 1976. Interview G-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Acknowledging southern racial codes

Brewer failed to recognize the racial customs of the South until she left Washington, D.C., as a married woman. An illness caused her to exchange intimacies with her black female nursemaid, which allowed Brewer to place a personal face to her black servants. Upon her return to Arkansas, Brewer began to take notice of the illiteracy of black tenants and other southern racial practices.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Vivion Lenon Brewer, October 15, 1976. Interview G-0012. 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 JACOWAY:
I wondered if you could say, first of all, what do you think were the factors in your background that prepared you to step forward and play a leadership role at the time of the Little Rock crisis?
VIVION LENON BREWER:
From the standpoint of leadership or interest? From the standpoint of interest, I'm sure it was the development of my concern for the black people. This had started in Washington, because there was the beginning of a critical time there. 1 But when we came back here, I was so impressed by the poverty and the illiteracy particularly, that I felt all of a sudden as though I'd walked into a new world, because I had grown up here, and I can well remember riding through the country with my father when he would come to look at property and thinking that all the Negroes looked so happy. 1 Mr. and Mrs. Brewer were living in Washington while Mr. Brewer was a legislative aide to his uncle, Senator Joe T. Robinson of Arkansas. And I think that this is the way that most of us grew up in the South, and I had never had any personal contact except with the ones in my own home. I think I told this in the manuscript 2. 2 Mrs. Brewer has written the story of the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools; the unpublished manuscript, entitled The Embattled Ladies of Little Rock, has been deposited with her papers in the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. I had played with a little Negro girl more than with a white child, but when she went to school and I went to school nothing dawned on me that there was any difference.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
What had happened to you in Washington to cause you to take a second look?
VIVION LENON BREWER:
Here?
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
Yes.
VIVION LENON BREWER:
Well, I had a long time of illness when I was in Washington, and I became very, very close to a Negro woman who came into my home. She had all kinds of problems, and I think, for the first time, I became very aware of what they faced and the things that happened to them and how they reacted. Her son married a white girl, and she went through the most dreadful trauma over this. It awakened me to the fact that the Negro has his problems, you see, and I began to be much more aware of the racial problem.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
Did you interact with her as a friend?
VIVION LENON BREWER:
Oh, yes.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
So that was probably the first time.
VIVION LENON BREWER:
Yes, she became a very close friend. She was with us for ten years, I guess. She stayed with me all day, so often just the two of us alone, and we became very close. And then when Joe and I moved back here, we had this . . . You may have noticed the little house.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
Yes.
VIVION LENON BREWER:
Well it, in the beginning, during the 1920's and 1930's, was the caretaker's house when the larger house was used only for summer recreational purposes, but it had been vacant for some time. When we decided to make this our permanent home, we had to have help in planting and clearing and all sorts of ways. We had a series of couples who lived there, all of them off of the plantations, 2a and it horrified me that none of them could read or write. 2a The Brewers owned 5 acres in the area made up of very large plantations.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
And you had never been aware of anything like that before.
VIVION LENON BREWER:
Never. And so I began to be interested in the Negro schools and what was happening in them. And I began to go into their homes and see how they lived, and I was simply appalled. And the closest home to us has now been destroyed. But a black man lived there, and he used to come up to see us ever so often, and he would always stand on the porch away from the kitchen door and say, "I know how to treat white people. I was taught how to treat white people." And he wouldn't come in.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
Oh.
VIVION LENON BREWER:
And all of these things together, you see, made me very, very aware of the racial problem.