Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Isabella Cannon, Spring 1993. Interview G-0188. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

United Church of Christ and progressive views on integration

Cannon discusses her involvement in the United Church of Christ in Raleigh, North Carolina. Cannon first became involved with this church when she moved to Raleigh with her husband during the 1930s. At that point, she argues that the church was especially progressive on social issues, such as integration, and thus it was often the target of conservative North Carolinian Jesse Helms. Later, when she returned to Raleigh in the 1950s, she notes that it continued to advocate for racial integration, and had hosted such speakers as Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Norman Thomas, and Hubert Humphrey.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Isabella Cannon, Spring 1993. Interview G-0188. 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

What a wounderful beginning for my life here in Raleigh. On the other side of the Capitol, on Hillsborough Street about two blocks away, was the second thing that had a tremendous impact on my life here. Elon College was the college of the Christian denomination, which later became the Congregational Christian, and still later the United Church of Christ. This was a beautiful stone building that has now been replaced by a parking lot. I went there because I had been deeply involved with the denomination and had held many volunteer jobs with the women's organizations and with Sunday School, as well as local and statewide activities. Elon College Church was a moderately conservative church, neither right wing, nor liberal, just a moderate type of church. So now I come to this church in Raleigh, which I had heard about. All our denomination knew about this church, how unusual it was. It was a most tremendous experience to go into that group. The congregation was largely faculty members from N.C. State University. We were also the beginning, the nursery, for the Quakers and for the Unitarians. Neither group was large enough to establish its own church, though later they were able to become independent, and they had a real impact on us. The Open Forum that we had was led by Dean B.F. Brown, who was Dean of the School of Science and Business at N.C. State. Dean Brown was one of the most dynamic, most liberal minded people I have known in all my life. Small, feisty, intellectual, he prodded and pulled us. It was far from being the normal Sunday School group. It was a group that explored every aspect of life-political, humanitarian, economic. We were the earliest ones, insofar as I know, talking about integration in Raleigh. We were such an unusual church, and so visible, that newspapers and radio were always picking us up and commenting on us. Among the radio commentators who gave us a bad time, WRAL's famous commentator, now Senator Jesse Helms, really worked us over. We have tapes of some of his recordings. We were "eggheads," we were "communists," we were really dangerous people. This was my introduction to Raleigh, and it had an immense impact on my life. It opened my mind to what the church could do for people if they truly believed in social action. It was a time of great ferment in social action throughout the nation. As a continuing thing in the church, not immediately but later, we began the famous Institute of Religion, which was started under the leadership of Dr. Allyn Robinson, who is being honored this week with the Frank Porter Graham Award by the American Civil Liberties Union. He came here, a young man, full of idealism, as well as full of practical applications of that idealism. One of his ideas was the Institute of Religion, which continued for twenty-five years. It brought together people from Virginia, from all over North Carolina, who came first for a dinner, followed by a series of classes, then a speaker. The dinner was a remarkable thing and one of the most difficult things for North Carolina and for Raleigh at that time. As Harry Golden had said, "You could have standup receptions with blacks and whites, but you didn't sit down together to eat." We had dinners, we sat down together, black and white. We lost some members because of that, but we attracted people from all over the city, all over the state. This was a real departure, a real leadership thing that we initiated. We had people come to speak like Eleanor Roosevelt. Allyn Robinson was a personal friend of hers, and he was able to bring her here. We brought Norman Thomas, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Hubert Humphrey, Ralph Buncheall distinguished national speakers. I was treasurer and also on the committee that helped to look for, search out these people that were so exciting to bring here. When Martin Luther King, Jr. came, we met at Needham Broughton High School Auditorium, and we had so many people that we had a spill-over meeting in the United Church. He was heavily guarded by police because there was so much anger and excitement about what we were doing. We were not deterred by that. We kept on with what we were doing.