Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Josephine Wilkins, 1972. Interview G-0063. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Education and career goals

Wilkins describes her education, which was both typical and atypical of southern girl's education. As a child, she went to the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens, Georgia, and then she attended the Castle on the Hudson finishing school. Then after attending the University of Georgia—a place where Wilkins argues that there was a great deal of pressure for young women to marry, despite her own refusal to acquiesce to such pressure—Wilkins travelled to New York to study art. During the early 1920s, while in New York, Wilkins began to feel an intensifying desire to do some sort of work that would not only allow her to support herself, but to make a difference. As early in the interview, she describes how her religious upbringing was formative in her perception of her role in the world.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Josephine Wilkins, 1972. Interview G-0063. 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

JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you go to college?
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
My education is very scant, and very individual. [Laughter]
JACQUELYN HALL:
That's the best kind.
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
I went to the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens, Georgia, which was a girls' school. It was organized at the time that they were trying to get public education established in the United States of America. And this was an effort to sort of combat this, and this was to protect the young women, you know.
JACQUELYN HALL:
So they wouldn't have to go into public school?
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
I started there in kindergarten and went right on through. You didn't learn very much. I was in the art room a good part of the time. That was supposed to be junior college, such as it was.
JACQUELYN HALL:
It was supposed to go up through junior college?
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
Supposed to. Then they sent me up to the Castle on the Hudson where you learned how to get up and sit down.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What is that?
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
It was called the Castle on the Hudson, a girls' finishing school. So I went up to be finished. [Laughter] Then I went back to Athens. I really wanted to get back up to New York, though. I was exploring . . . Here I was stuck in this world, caught, and the only way I could get up there that I could fathom was to study art. So I went up one summer with a woman from Athens, several of us, who was an artist. I always was reaching for some way to support myself if I ever found that I had to support myself. That was another thing that was in my mind.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you feel pressured to get married and settle down?
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
No, no, no, although . . . well, anyone in my setting would have to be rather popular over at the University of Georgia, don't you know. [Laughter] The boys would come in these big groups on Sunday, and they would come by the house and stay until another group would come and they'd move on up Lenox Avenue. I remember my brother - he was seven years younger than I - he came in and he said, "Mother, I counted a hundred and I give up." [Laughter]
JACQUELYN HALL:
It sounds like Zelda Fitzgerald's youth.
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
I went up . . . You asked me a question. What was it?
JACQUELYN HALL:
You were talking about you wanted to find some way to support yourself.
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
No, I just thought everybody ought to, you know. This mind was loose, and it was just . . . I enrolled at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts in poster advertising. And one of the first things they had us doing was a bookplate. And we were to do a bookplate. I don't know why, but I hit upon an arrow and I did an arrow which they liked very, very much. And they had me enlarge it on a tremendous thing like this. But after this summer there I wanted to stay on. We had been housed in one of those old brownstones, and of course this woman that I had gone up with was coming back to the university. And somehow or other I found out about something called the "Three Arts Club." I went to the Three Arts Club which was a very inexpensive little thing, really run by the monied ladies of New York. I'm sure if my father had known what the whole thing was about, he wouldn't have liked it. But that's where I was. And I took a course at Columbia University in social science. And I came to know the instructor very well. His lectures were at night. He would come down from his lectures at night and sit in the subway. He went up and I came down. But I just explored around there like nobody's business. What I was trying to do was find some way in which I could use my art for the aims that I felt were worthwhile. And since my mother was a pillar of the Episcopal church I was able to get four of us down at the church mission house one time, collected at lunchtime to tell them how they ought to be using posters in order to do this thing. And I came back. Well one, I reached the conclusion that . . . in the first place I would go to art galleries. And I would see all these women with poodle dogs and these men with spats buying these art works to put in the galleries for somebody to see and so forth. And I didn't feel they needed me to be doing any more pictures. Here were these gorgeous sunsets every night, and no one ever saw them. I should be doing something more! And then the climax on that was [when] Robert made a talk which . . . Well, of course by this time I was down at the Art Students' League. I had left the New York School of Fine Arts (I did two and a half years there) . But Robertsaid that art should not be for any purpose, just art for art's sake. Well, in my state at that time I reached the conclusion that it was almost like a massage on the corner. You could enjoy this thing, you know. But there was a lot of puritan in me, too, and I just felt that it had to be for a purpose. And then, also, another thing that was rooted in the church: there were a number of families, poor families, that we helped in the church - my own family personally. So I was exposed to poverty as I grew up. And I became so curious about what happened to these people after Thanksgiving and after Christmas. And I remember this one very big fat woman who had a lot of children, and she had never even been into Athens. And how this woman lived! You take that whole setting and the feeling that there was something for you to do in the world, and you had to find out what it was - and really wanting to do something!