Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Evelyn Schmidt, February 9, 1999. Interview K-0137. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Liberal political beliefs make Schmidt uncomfortable in the South

Schmidt describes herself as "the last of the FDR liberals." Her political beliefs made her feel uncomfortable in the South, where she noticed rigid racial and class boundaries. She was pleased to leave the region after she graduated from Duke Medical School in 1951.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Evelyn Schmidt, February 9, 1999. Interview K-0137. 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

EVELYN SCHMIDT:
Well, actually I went to Duke University, both undergraduate and medical school.
ANN KAPLAN:
OK, OK. So you came right from that age, at eighteen?
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
Sixteen, seventeen, in that area, which is interesting because I'd never been south, and it was my really first experience. I must say I got an excellent education, but I did not go along with the political philosophy of the South. So when I left, I thought, hail and farewell. Thank you for the education, but I'm not coming back. At that time it was still very much a segregated society.
ANN KAPLAN:
So that's what you mean by the political philosophy?
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
Yes. That was not my politics.
ANN KAPLAN:
The politics of race.
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
Right.
ANN KAPLAN:
And how would you characterize your politics at the time and then later?
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
Well, let's put it this way, and I'll characterize it right now. I consider myself the last of the FDR Liberals.
ANN KAPLAN:
[laughter] OK.
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
And I still think some of the things that Franklin Roosevelt said back in the late 20s, early 30s, and in his presidency, we are still trying to do, and that is to provide and make sure that all people have health care, education, and a decent place to live. And he made that statement in 1929 when he said, "No nation can succeed when one-third of the people are ill fed, ill housed, uneducated, and not receiving health care." And although we've made some progress, we still have a ways to go.
ANN KAPLAN:
Let me ask you a quick question sort of as an aside, a tangent. Did you grow up in your household with your parents having that sort of idea there?
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
Yes, yes. I grew up in a very progressive-thinking household, where all people were shown respect and appreciated.
ANN KAPLAN:
So your family had many friends from different backgrounds?
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
That's right, yes. Very much, I realize now. Although as you grow up, you're always disagreeing with your parents about something. [Laughter] I actually say now, because I remember particularly my father. He would prompt me. He would deliberately take the opposite view just to make me think, to defend what viewpoint I had. And like so many teenagers, I really would get so obnoxious. "How can you be so stupid?" And then realized much later in life that it forced me to try to defend what I was saying realistically.
ANN KAPLAN:
And so you felt when you came to the South that the politics in North Carolina were at odds?
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
Exactly. When I came down, I was very interested in going on to graduate school, so no. I had tough courses and so you never really were aware of what was happening until you got into the community or took a bus or something like that. Then you suddenly realize what was really happening, or what wasn't happening. Let's put it that way. And I remember when I was in medical school, my brother was going to Rutgers University at that time, and I remember distinctly he sent me down the local paper and one of his friends, who was a young African-American fellow, was voted president of the senior class at Rutgers. And he writes, "This wouldn't happen where you are." He was always sort of jiving me a little bit about being in the South. I met some very nice people. Now, putting aside the politics, I met some very, very fine people, and really many of my classmates that I became very friendly with were actually from the South. I laughingly said many of them were very good writers, and now I know why so many good writers come from the South. They are very oppressed, right? But basically, again, you sort of have to differentiate how people were raised and what their climate was. Many of them differed very much with the political philosophy of the South, which gave me always hope in the sense that there were young people who did not think it was appropriate. So it was just interesting being able to discuss openly political things that came up. As I said, I just depends on where you were raised, how you were raised, and whether you then develop some independence of thinking. We don't have independence of thinking today in all areas, as you know. So in that sense we still have a long way to go when you look at the issues that are preventing us from providing health, education, decent housing, and choice of what one wants to do.
ANN KAPLAN:
Just from the perspective of researchers who might listen to this, could you put those years when you were at Duke in a particular time? What years were those?
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
I was at Duke from '43 to '51.
ANN KAPLAN:
And when you said things that were happening and things that weren't happening in the climate of the South, the climate of North Carolina--?
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
Getting reference to where we're moving to, basically what you saw was either you were born in the South or Northerners who had migrated down to the South. I laughingly said that the only languages you really heard was English.
ANN KAPLAN:
What did you say?
EVELYN SCHMIDT:
Well, when I came back down again--. But even as a younger person, coming to school for the first time, what you heard was English with different dialects, because not all Southerners have the same dialect, believe me. Depending where they came from, where they were raised, you had great variation even in your Southern dialect, or intonation if you want to call it, rather than dialect.