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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, May 17, 1974. Interview G-0029-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Finding power in women's volunteer groups

Johnson discusses her thoughts on the role of volunteer work to women's progress. Johnson charts her own involvement in women's volunteer organizations, explaining that she first became involved in the PTA in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, during the late 1930s. After working in Atlanta for several years, Johnson returned to Chapel Hill and became involved in numerous women's organizations. Through her associations in women's volunteer groups, Johnson grew to believe that women could achieve power in working together. Thus, she saw volunteer work as a powerful conduit for women's progress.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, May 17, 1974. Interview G-0029-2. 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

MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well, one other thing, and then I'll quit for now. But I wanted to ask you how all the work and the importance that you put on voluntary organizations for women and the strength of these organizations and especially when they are united . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Well, perhaps I should tell you a secret. The reason I went into voluntary work? Now, I have always done a great deal of voluntary work. From the time I was three or four years old, I had helped my mother in Sunday School and from there I went on into other little chores, so it seems to me like all my life, I've done voluntary work. But when I came to Chapel Hill to do graduate work, Guy and I both promised each other that we would concentrate on our studies and not be tempted to get involved in volunteer activities. So, until 1937, I did nothing in community work, stuck to my job of research and my children and my home. But in 1937, I think that I already told you I was elected PTA President. Well, then I did very little volunteer work until we came back from Atlanta and I had had to resign from the history department to go to Atlanta to join Guy. And I naturally wanted to pick up with my work and went to Mr. Connor, who was head of the history department-had been head of the history department and came back as a Craig Professor of Political Science, or government, I believe. I said, "Look, now, I want to pick up where I left. I've talked to Dr. W.W.Pierson the Dean of the Graduate School, and he says that he is afraid that there are no openings, so what about it?" I said, "Every time I leave Chapel Hill, I get a wonderful job. When I come back to Chapel Hill, I get either a part-time job, or nobody wants me to do anything. How about this? You told me when I took my doctorate and went into history from sociology, that you would see to it that I had a good job as long as I wanted to work." He said, "Well, I'll tell you, honey . . . " in his paternalistic way . . . " I'll tell you, honey, I wouldn't want you in that history department now. There is too much bitterness and strife in that department. They are just about to kill each other over there. I wouldn't want you to get involved in that cross-fire." So, he said, "Why don't you just go on and do your own work, you haven't gotten your Racial Ideologies finished, you told me that you wouldn't let Harper and Row publish it in 1940 when it was cleared for publication, go on and finish that and by that time, I think that the situation will have cleared." Then, I went to Bob House, who was Chancellor of the University, and he had been Secretary of the Historical Commission when I started doing my research for Ante-Bellum North Carolina and had been very supportive. So, I said, "Bob, I have an interesting job in Atlanta, but now I want to come back to work here. Benny is at Harvard now". (He finished here at eighteen and went on to do graduate work at Harvard.) and I said, "He did not go on scholarship, and if we had not sold our house in Atlanta at an advantage, we would not be able to send him this one year, but I've got to be able to see him through his graduate work at Harvard. I have to work." And he said, "No, honey" - again paternalistic - "you know what happened in the spring when the board of trustees considered the motion not to let Guy return to the University of North Carolina. There is this small gang of men still on the board of trustees, who are determined to get rid of Guy, and they are working every 1 John and David Clark, B. B. Everett, (John?) Lassiter of Snow Hill, and Robert Satterfield of Roxboro were the leaders. scheme they know, and you are going to have a big job just saving Guy's professorship for him. I want you to go out and work in women's organizations and make friends with the wives of these men who hate Guy, if you do that, you'll solve the situation. And this is the only thing that will save his neck. Now, we were able to save his neck when the matter came up at the spring Board meeting, Cameron Morrison and Josephus Daniels took the floor in his behalf, and the young men who are friends of Guy's kept quiet and didn't say anything in his behalf. And you know why, because they too are afraid of these four or five powerful men who hate the Negro so much and hate anyone who is giving courses on the Negro that they are going to get Guy's neck. So you've got to go out and do this, and you have no choice. You've got to do it." And I immediately was asked to be a chairman of the Federation of Women's Clubs, International Relations Chairman, and I organized the Conference on World Affairs, called in leaders to set that up. I took an office with the state Assocation of University Women and did all. I worked as hard in these organizations as I ever did in my research and did become friends, close friends, with some of the wives, some of them, not all of them, because some of the wives never stirred out of their homes and I had no entree, but so long as I had contact with the wives of two or three of the men . . . and these women would tell me in advance what their husbands were planning.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
So, they were really on your side.
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, I immediately established rapport with them and they would say to me, "Now, you know that we do not approve". This I would not get in the group, but, individually, a woman would say, "I do not approve of what my husband is doing. I've met Guy and I like him and I know he's no Communist. I know that you are no Communist and so I'm going to do everything that I can to help you and let me tell you now that they have employed a detective or." I did not have advance warning about his being called before the Visiting Committee, which was in January or February of '48. Because I hadn't yet established rapport with these women. But that's the reason that I did it. And that's the reason that I haven't yet published the History of Racial Ideologies. I've been so busy. (laughter) Then I found that here was a way for women to work together and achieve power. They need power in order to get laws passed and it's been wonderful to see how women can, by working together, get bills through the legislature. And you get 500 women to write letters or get just one friend to write letters to the legislators, and the men are scared to death. They are terrified.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Afraid of being bombarded with letters . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes. And let a delegation of women go up on the crucial day and just sit in the balcony, and . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Isn't that amazing. That is power.
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, it is power. This became a fun thing for me to see how women could shape laws, change attitudes in their local communities, simply by working together.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
And this was perfectly acceptable work for women to do.
GUION JOHNSON:
Oh yes, volunteer work is woman's role.