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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edith Mitchell Dabbs, October 4, 1975. Interview G-0022. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The United Church Women and efforts to integrate

Dabbs discusses in greater detail the primary reason why the United Church Women were seen as a liberal group in the South. According to Dabbs, it was the United Church Women's determination to integrate their organization that was so controversial. Here, she describes how the United Church Women formed a branch in South Carolina, the role of different denominations within the organization, and their efforts to integrate the group. Her comments on integration are of particular interest to researchers because she offers an overview of the process as it unfolded over several years.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edith Mitchell Dabbs, October 4, 1975. Interview G-0022. 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 BURNS:
I really don't have a clear understanding of what the United Church Women was all about and why that was so scandalous in Sumter.
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
It was scandalous because it was liberal. Of course, it is liberal in the first place to try to work … we found out in the United Church Women, I learned fairly early that it is more difficult … you think that it is difficult to get blacks and whites to work together, well, I don't know if you could even imagine now in 1975 what it was like.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
Well, were you trying to do that?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Yes, yes, that was very bad. But even harder than that, than getting white women to be willing to have Negroes come into their membership on equal footing, it was difficult to get Methodists and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians and Disciples and what have you to work together.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
Baptists?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Well, now the Baptists have never been strong in the United Church Women because they can never represent their home church. The Baptists are autonomous in every individual church and they have trouble doing things through representation because nobody represents a very large group. Individual Baptist women, however, have been some of the most faithful members and workers that we have had. In such cases, they have been on their own, not representing their women's groups. They had to be women with some conviction and some stability of their own to do it. But then you had to get other people to work with them and that was really hard in getting the races to do things together. We had a time in this state, after I had been on the board for a couple of years, we got to work … well, as soon as I started working with the United Church Women, we started working on the United Church Women here, trying to have a South Carolina one. I finally did write up that whole experience because we wanted to get a history of the whole movement in the state. I don't know what has happened to it all. I got my part together, what I remembered, but the others … it was supposed to go into a little book, but it has never come out. I don't know what happened. Anyway, United Church Women in South Carolina started with four women rocking in the sunshine on a front porch in Sumter one day. Little old Miss Reid, who was up in her seventies.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
Miss Reid?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Miss Rebecca Reid was the leading spirit here in Sumter. She was a cousin of Dorothy McLeod and inordinately proud of Dorothy. She loved her and would do anything to help Dorothy and her ambitions for the women of the church. And she Well, Miss Reid had several of us come to her house and talk about this, her house being where she boarded. She had a room upstairs. Miss Reid and I and Susie DuRant, who agreed to be the president and a cousin of Dorothy McLeod's, Lucille Shaw, sat out there and talked and rocked and talked. We decided to invite several people we knew of who might possibly be interested in such an organization, to come meet with us in Columbia, since Columbia was so central to most of the state— about a couple of weeks after that. Well, we did and by that time, we got ten people to come and we decided at that meeting that we would organize and we did. We had a president. Susie agreed to be president and I think that Lucille Shaw, Dorothy's cousin, agreed to be secretary … I'm not certain. I've got all of this written down somewhere. Then we needed somebody to be responsible for leadership training, to begin to get things organized and know how this thing was done and learn to set up. We needed a good public relations person to not just do publicity but for public relations, to sell the idea to church women across denominational lines, the idea that they should work together to do some of these things that women always like to do and the churches depend on them to do and they could be so much better if they would put their heads together and all the effort together. Such as taking the walls away from the asylums, I mean, the chains and iron bars outside, that kind of thing. I just happened to think of that, that is a very minor thing, but that type of thing, developing half-way houses. Things that are not theological at all and women can do better if we all get together and push. Well, I was the sucker who got rooked into the public relations and it was fair because after all by that time, I had had a chance to find out what they were thinking and how they were going at these things on a national level and I should have paid back some effort, for all that. So, we got to work on it and Susie was president, I think, for two years She was a very capable denominational worker and she liked the idea of working with other denominations, but she really wasn't strong enough physically for any demanding work. (She was older than I am.) So, Susie resigned and I took over her job and it was during that time that I learned a lot of things and was able to put into practice a lot of things that I suppose I had slowly learned. How to handle in South Carolina, where nobody ever had interracial meetings, not only to get black and white church women together, but to make them eat together. About half a dozen of us sat down and sweated that out. We laid our plans and no army general ever planned a strategy more carefully and it paid off. We decided that no matter whether we had ten people or fewer, we were going to have an annual meeting in Columbia of all the people, just individuals around the state that we knew about and slowly build up a solid, reliable, list of Protestant women who wanted to get together and talk over these possibilities. We would have a meeting and those individual members would make up the state group of United Church Women, that we would get together once a year and boast each other's courage and make plans and so on. The first year, we just met, all morning and we went out and got lunch and then we met in the afternoon. Susie was president that second year. So, then the next year when I was president I said, "Let's not do that anymore, we've done that and now that is finished. Let's try the next step." So, the ladies of that church where we met and we had a hard time trying to find a place in Columbia every year who would let us meet. Some church.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
With black women?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Yes. It was never in the sanctuary … I mean, for some years it was not in the sanctuary, it was not in the sanctuary at all but in an educational building or something. Now, the black churches would always have us, but I said, "No, that's not the point. They are already willing to have us. We need to have a white church. We are not going to condescend and be put up on the front seat of a Negro church. We go in together and we sit scattered about in a white church. So, we managed to do it, but the ladies of the hostess church made coffee and sandwiches and that first year, somebody sat at the coffee table and poured the coffee and we came up like you would do at a reception and got a little plate and napkins with some sandwiches and your cup of coffee. You walked about and talked to your friends or if you didn't have friends, you tried to make some. You were polite to everybody and if anybody looked lonesome, you went over and talked to them. The next year after that, we had little card tables and you could sit where you pleased. There were plenty of card tables, more than the members had to have and if you wanted to go and sit at a table all by yourself with your best friend and not associate with anybody, you really could. But, you were sitting down in the same room with all these strange people you had never eaten with before. And for black and white, it was a brand new experience. It was really exciting to watch these people learn. Not two people in the whole room had ever done it before, had ever eaten in the same room with white or black, whichever they were not. Finally, the third year, we had one big long table where everybody sat down and ate together, they served their plates at the same place, sat down together, ate together and they have ever since. We never do, you can imagine, have a very big crowd still.