Listen to Interview
Silverman: Thursday, October 19. Session with Vivian Carter Mason. Vivian, what do you feel was your own personal contribution to
the civil rights movement here in Norfolk? What was the beginning of the civil rights movement here in Norfolk?
Mason: If you want to cover the span of time in the '60s, the late '60s,
I think the turmoil that characterized the civil rights movement in
many parts of the country was not as strong or visible here in Norfolk
as in other sections. Norfolk is an extremely conservative city and its minorities,
as well as its white people, are more inclined to that stance than
any other. However, the young people who felt the brunt of the deprivation
that they experienced gave impetus to the movement and some of the
older people who had been in civil rights activities all their life
caught up with this particular group and stimulated older people
to action in terms of civil rights. First, one had to interpret what
civil rights were.
Silverman: You are speaking of civil rights in the '60s, but actually,
if we think of the post-World War II period, what was the situation
here in Norfolk for the black people? What was the intercourse between
the blacks and the whites? What was the stituation here just after World War I when ... I'm sorry World War II?
Mason: The placid atmosphere that has been a characterization of
Norfolk was prevalent, but the black soldiers coming back began to
express themselves, in terms of dissatisfaction with what was going
on--the segregation on the common carriers and buses, the inability
to get jobs, and the reluctance to continue to accept this second-class
citizen. This was felt in a number of ways. The idea of voting came
about through such people as Victor Ashe and others who saw in the
voting resource a way to secure rights that had not been visible prior
to this time. I was involved in this voting business. I went to a
large meeting at St. John's Church, where the citizens were talking
about running someone for the City Council. There was considerable
discussion about the candidates. Tom Young was one of those who thought
he would also like to serve in that capacity. I lost out the selection
because, as one man said, "They will never put a black woman in before
a white woman
has had the chance to serve." A group of intrepid women thought that
women should run for City Council and because of certain activities
that had taken place, they asked me to stand for the Council race.
The people, however, felt that it would be almost presumptuous for
a black woman to attempt to run for City Council since a black man
had never run. It was just imperative that they have someone in there
who didn't have the handicap of being a woman. We worked very hard,
but, as you know, that was a failure. It wasn't until twenty years
later that Joe Jordan ran for Council and was successful.
Silverman: Well, of course, the whole voting system had changed
in the meantime.
Mason: That's right and the poll tax had been eliminated.
Silverman: There was only about 6% of the population voting.
Mason: The black population was singularly in a progressive stage,
at that time. The NAACP was carrying out a voters' project and a great
number of black people, in spite of their handicap, registered for
voting. Their numbers, of course, could not compare with the numbers
that the majority group could amass. Long weeks, months, and years
of education and training prepared the black people for political
activity. I must also mention that the atmosphere changed, too. You'll
recall the New Interracial Council came into being in the '40s. While
the Council was not an activist group in terms of political activity,
it was an activist group in terms of ideas and the hope of changing
people's minds by letting them see and hear the truth.
Silverman: Tell us something about the Women's Council for Interracial
Cooperation because it was unique. It was the only interracial encounter
in this community, but I understand that it was also the only interracial
group in the entire southern United States. How did the group get started?
How did it happen here in Norfolk that we had a group?
Mason: I had been in New York for a number of years with the Department
of Welfare and I had attained one of the highest positions ever held
by a black person. I was the head of the Social Service set-up in
the Welfare Department in New York City. I had a railroad accident
which incapacitated me. I returned to Norfolk, where my husband was
in business, and decided that while I was a convalescent, I might
as well do something to improve conditions. I looked around and I
saw things happening that were highly undesirable. I looked around
and saw that there was no group of black and white people who came
together on a regular basis to try to
understand what the problems affecting black people were and to do
something about them. I saw all the little, personal kinds of inhibitions
that make people feel inferior and different. For an example, a black
woman couldn't try on a hat in many of the department stores. To try
on a dress, she had to go into a hidden closet and try it on so that
the other customers would not see that a black person was trying on
a dress that they might want to try on. It was so ridiculous! Restaurants
and the theatre were closed to blacks also.
Silverman: And the library, the YWCA, and the park [were closed].
Mason: All of those things were a combination of circumstances
that caused me to feel that this didn't have to be and there must
surely be, in this great city, some people who resented these indignities
as much as I did. I began to talk around to find a group that was
in existence, but that was useless. There was no such group, either
among the men or the women. That started the idea that women had,
perhaps, more compassion than men did and on that basis, we might
get some people together who could effectively eradicate some of the
ills that Norfolk and the South were possessed with. I started, in
October or November of 1942, calling people whom I thought might be
interested. Now, you may ask, where did I get the names of these people,
especially the whites? Sometimes, it was someone who had written a
letter to the editor and I could tell from the letter and the contents
that this was a person who feels that these injustices are wrong and
ought to be righted. There were other persons whom were recommended.
END OF TAPE
Mason: Segregated meetings were a rule in Norfolk, but the women
resisted the idea of having an advocate of freedom and speech before
an audience where black people were separated from white people. The
group decided that they would have a meeting in a public school, that the
meeting would not be segregated, and that all of the members would make
sure that this was understood so that no problems would arise at the
meeting. The meeting was held and it was strange. Although all public
meetings had been on a segregated basis, people flooded to that auditorium
as though they had always been used to sitting in a mixed audience.
Not a single incident occurred. The audience was enthusiastic and
responded to Helen Gohagen's ideas and her experiences with understanding and apparent approval of the course of action that she advocated.
Silverman: Was this a city-wide--admitted men and women--.
Mason: Yes - it was a city-wide public meeting. It had been
announced in the newspapers and cards had been sent out to many people.
The place was filled and Helen Gohagen gave an inspired and challenging address
on what our responsibilities are in making sure that we are all subjected
to the same kind of treatment.
Silverman: What was the group that sponsored this?
Mason: The Women's Interracial Council. Yes, it was the first
time that a public meeting had been advocated, at which people were
not segregated. It had been common place for people to be segregated
and there were instances where the churches attempted to have something, say "brotherhood,"
and asked black people to sit in the back.
Silverman: I know they did. In fact, at that time, [it was] the
National Conference for Christians and Jews and this happened many years
later. This had nothing to do with blacks. The brotherhood didn't extend
Mason: They were just ignored in the connotation of the idea of
Silverman: Was it held in a white school or a black school?
Mason: It was held in Norview High School. No - it was at Blair
Junior High School. It was a beautiful meeting because it seemed to
mark the beginning of a greater understanding of acceptance of black
and white people as citizens of the community. The Interracial Council
made a study of the housing conditions under which black people lived.
I'll never forget the meeting where the report was given. They went
back from a tour of White Avenue, Wide Street, and several other terrible
slum areas. Some of the women cried because, as they said, "I didn't
know that anyone lived like this in the city of Norfolk." They didn't
know that there were people in Norfolk living in rooms that had dirt
floors that were covered over with makeshift boards and newspapers, perhaps
a rug, perhaps not. They didn't know that one outdoor privy was utilized
by eight or ten families. They didn't know that water, for bathing
and cooking purposes, was pumped from out of the backyard and was
utilized by several families. They were so indignant when they saw
these conditions. They became so upset that the immediate cry was
"What shall we do?" and "What can we do?" The Housing Authority was
then coming into being and the group offered their services to explore
and investigate the areas where it was thought the slums would be
eradicated. Perhaps fifteen or twenty women comprised a group of investigators
who went from door to door, family to family and se cured a vivid
description of housing conditions, family income, the composition
of the family, and so forth. This was the material that was used by
the Housing Authority, which predicated their great plan for building
up projects and the eradication of certain areas.
Then, there were no black policemen in the city of Norfolk. One or
two had applied and had served in not quite a full policeman's capacity.
In other words, they were not aarresting white people for crimes for which black people would have been arrested. We had a campaign that lasted
for over a year, in terms of inducing minority people to apply to
become policemen. The program was successful, in that more blacks
applied than had ever applied previously. We had placards all over
the black section posted on telephone poles, in the church's lobby,
and the minister spoke about it. We placed them in many places where
black males visited, in the hopes that they would be induced to apply
to take the examination for policemen. Of course some did, but we
didn't have the onrush that we had hoped. The platina of injection
was so deep in so many of the people, as was the hatred that many
black people did not want to become policemen because they thought
that they would be classified in the same way that white policemen
were classified, as enemies of the black people. This is one of the
reasons why it was difficult to get capable black men to apply. They
just rejected the idea of being part of a group alleged to persecute
black people. There was an analogy there that they couldn't overcome.
It has only been in the last ten years that there has been more blacks
applying than any time before. This is part of
the atmosphere in which people live and how it reflects upon their
employment and ambitions. There was one little thing that was very
interesting, but this was about the schools and, at that time, the
schools were segregated. The School Committee visited the school to
find out, not only what was going on in the white schools and the
black schools, the discrepancies that some of us had heard about in
the schools. For an example, in the white schools, those learning
to be secretaries had the newest models of electric typewriters. In
the Booker T. Washington High School, they were using manual typewriters
of doubtful vintage. They were learning, just the same, or trying
to. Some of the old typewriters were sent from the white schools to
the black schools. This is one of the reasons why May 17, 1954 struck such a chord in the hearts of black people. The black people knew the differences that were
going on in the school system.
Silverman: Well, the wage level for the teachers was different,
Mason: That was much earlier when that happened. But, they knew
that was one of the great differences. They began to learn of the
interior differences that were existing and they hadn't even known
about many of them. The black teachers were deprived of supplies and
books, which were, in many instances, cast-offs of the white schools.
Not that learning changes that much, except perhaps in the sciences,
social sciences, and physical sciences, but this was part of the great
pattern of discrimination. It wasn't just that the black students
were over on this side of town and the white students on the other
side, but the actual learning process was
differentiated so that the blacks were weakened in their efforts
to become well educated. They were deprived of the tools that the
white students had. This is one of the things that I think is fostered
in black people -- they know what the past was like; they don't have
to experiment and they don't have to conjecture what the past has
been. They know that when we had separate schools in the city, we
had separate financial obligations and separate tools of learning.
There was a difference in salaries until after the court case that
equalized the salaries. Anyway, they knew that the white schools had
all the advantages and the black schools had a building and many devoted
teachers. Then, we had the business of jobs, doomed in a very ominous
fashion. For an example, there were no black people employed at City
Hall, not a single, solitary one, unless they were sweeping floors
or cleaning the toilets. There were no clerks, accountants, nor supervisors.
There were no people doing the regular kind of work that people are
doing now in City Hall. The stores, although it was 50-50 between
blacks and whites, had the blacks that they employed run elevators,
or mop, scrub, and clean. There were no clerks, no typists, no supervisors,
no buyers, no anything except for the customers who came and spent
their money. This was the background of the differences in the city.
The buses were segregated. Black people automatically went to the
back. They didn't have to be instructed; they automatically knew to
go to the back of the bus because this had been the habit and tradition
of the activities. One day, four or five businessmen called together
five black people whom they termed "leaders" to discuss the conditions
existing for the blacks and tried to find out what could be done immediately
to alleviate conditions. There was a rumble from Norfolk College that
the students were fed up and they were going to try a march on Norfolk's
downtown area, and probably what had happened in many other cities
would happen here. The stores would suffer great damage. The race
relations would be put back fifty or one hundred years. Of course,
that was just a laugh because there weren't any race relations, except
hostility, and it couldn't be put much further back than it already
was. That was a sort or gratuitous reason for calling the group together.
Anyhow, we met together and the question was asked, "What do black
people want?" A couple of men, I must say, were pretty clear. A couple
of the white people were also pretty clear. They thought that this
discrimination that had been going on for decades had reached its
zenith and now the eradication of many of the items of segregation
ought to prevail. They were told, with considerable clarity, what
the things were that were not only disturbing, but wrenching "like
segregation on common carriers, the refusal to be served at a restaurant,
and the habit that clerks had of seeing two customers - one black
and one white - and invariably waiting on the white person first.
This was not even a subtle kind of an insult, just stupid and dumb.
You just wondered about the mentality of people who could automatically
put their racial prejudices ahead of the store owner's interest, but
it was done. They told us of the employment problems in the city.
They pointed out the areas where no black people were employed. The
store owners were told that there were to be no black people employed
in the stores, except to scrub floors. You have a college here that
is putting out good numbers of black students each year. When are
they going to go to work? How are they going to make a living? They
are here - the sons and daughters of citizens who have been here for
years. Many of them are hard-working people with menial jobs who,
however, want their children to have a better life than they had.
What are these people going to do? They look around here and see that
Germans are coming in here and getting jobs. People who were our enemies
yesterday have a better opportunity that they have ever had. They
are getting sick of it. They are fed up with it and want to change
it. The group was quite astonished, I think, at the frankness and
the force of the demands. They said that there was no reason for conditions,
as described, to exist. They would immediately make every effort to
change the situation. They called the group back together in about
three or four days and announced that all theatres would be open to
black people, as would the restaurants, and the department stores
would serve as an example. One of the department store owners said
that he called his staff together and told them that a policy had
been instituted, whereby all persons coming into the restaurants and
the stores were to receive the same, identical treatment. He did not
want to hear of any exceptions and if there were any employees dissatisfied
with this prospect of treating everyone the same, they could give
him their resignation. He waited for a day and not one, single person
objected to the new regulations to prevail in that store. There is
sort of an absurdity about this because it seemed to have happened
overnight that these policies changed.
Silverman: What was the date of this?
Mason: It was in the '60s.
Silverman: This was a long way away from the Women's Council in
Mason: That's right, but it was an example of how quickly conditions
can be changed if the people who own the enterprises want them to
Silverman: But, there had been a lot of digging in those walls.
They were ready to come down. We had been digging in them for twenty-odd
years and they were rotting. With the Supreme Court's decision the schools
had been integrated and this was the last stand.
Mason: No - the schools hadn't been integrated at that time. They
didn't get integrated until about '71, when they began to integrate
the students. The teachers had already been integrated. The changes
went on with very little, noticeable changes in attitudes. People,
I'm sure, did not like it. A great many people didn't like it. They
didn't want to sit beside black people on the buses or in the restaurants.
They recoiled at the idea of trying on a dress that a black woman
had tried on. All of these things, of course, dug into the layers
of prejudice, with which they had been fed and nourished. Although
the outward change was there, the inward change wasn't. That was still
as deep, as biting, and as real as it had ever been. This is the reason
why many people could not bear the thought of their children being
in association with black children, on the intimate level that the
Silverman: What were the dates of the schools closing in Norfolk?
Mason: They closed in '58 and it was '59 when they opened. They
began to gradually institute integration.
Silverman: They had already integrated the staff.
Mason: Yes - that had already been done.
Silverman: That was done pretty soon after the decision.
Mason: Right. The schools closed in '58.
Silverman: Why did they close?
Mason: Because the state legislature decreed that the schools could not be integrated
and they should not follow the May 17th decision.
Silverman: Massive Resistance.
Mason: That's right - that was the stance of Massive Resistance.
The local school authorities obeyed and the schools were closed. There
were seventeen students involved who brought the suit. We opened a
school, under the auspices of the NAACP, for those seventeen students.
It was held at First Baptist Church and we had teachers who were responsible
for the learning process of these students. We said, quite openly
and frankly, that [they] can't go to school and be behind these other
students. They must be not only equal, but they must surpass them
in subject matter. They were told that if they have to give up such
things as recreation and playing to study, they must to come out on
Silverman: It was such a sad time.
Mason: Yes - and the white students were out of school.
Silverman: A semester or more?
Mason: They were the "Lost Class."
Silverman: Didn't the schools open in the second semester, close
Mason: Yes - I remember that bright, sunny day when I went to
the schools. Not that I wasn't afraid, I was afraid. But, no one knew
it, but myself and God because I thought something terrible could
happen. Just one little thing could trigger a catastrophe and that
musn't be. Students had all been trained before they went there about
what they were to do. They had to restrain themselves. If anything
happened, they were to be men and women, but they were not to participate
in any manner.
Silverman: Actually, when the schools opened, there were no instances,
that we heard of. Were there really any?
Mason: There were no instances - none.
Silverman: Well, I think that the kids were so glad to go back to
Mason: They were very glad. That is one time that young people
were glad to get back in school. While there was a great deal of curiosity
and some giggling and laughing in corners, the atmosphere, as a whole,
was one of dignity. The students went in as proud, young people. They
knew what they wanted and they were not going to be prevented from
Silverman: What happened behind the scenes there?
Mason: I must refresh my memory and my notes. I recall a group
of two or three white parents who brought suit against the state,
on behalf of their children who had been deprived of an education.
That was one thing that the state was obligated to do - educate its
students. That went to the courts and the decision was made swiftly
that the schools were to be re-opened and students were to come back.
Silverman: But, of course, there was tremendous community pressure,
too, because it was bad for business.
Mason: Oh yes.
Silverman: Didn't the government threaten to move the installations
away if the schools stayed closed? That's all they had because people
didn't want to come to Norfolk if they couldn't put their children in
Mason: A lot of things went on behind the scenes. I think that
really the most powerful force was, as you said, the business community. They were reconciled to the fact that the schools had to be integrated.
The majority was very unhappy with the prospect of integration and
are still unhappy.
Silverman: So, it was just these seventeen children then? That was
the initial desegregation of the schools?
Mason: Yes - that was the initial desegregation and then the integration
began right after that, in small amounts.
Silverman: When did they start the busing to integrate?
Mason: The busing was in '71.
Silverman: Is that considered a successful move?
Mason: I think, for the essence of a unitary school system, it
has to be considered successful. A unitary school system means that
there is one school for everyone. I think the problem of busing has
been so terribly aggravated and it reflects so clearly the dislike
and disdain of many of the majority people for black children and
for association with them that they have, as a consequence, moved
out of the city, where busing has prevailed. They have moved into
places where everybody is bused, but not bused for the reason of eliminating
segregation. Seventy-eight percent of the children in this country
were bused to go to school before the great advent of busing, in relation
to segregated schools. Busing was all-over. Children couldn't go to
school unless they were bused. In our neighbor city of Virginia Beach,
I'm told that ninety percent of the children are bused to school,
so that can't be the reason. That, because of busing, people moved
out of Norfolk and took their children. That can't be the reason.
This is the superficial reason that is given. It isn't the truth because
the truth is that they didn't want their children to be in contact
with black children. This is obvious and I think, as one of our great
philosophers said, that it will take a hundred years before the situation
really changes. I'm sorry, but I'm not that optimistic.
Silverman: You don't think it will change in a hundred years?
Mason: Oh no.
Silverman: But, it's changed so much in the twenty years that you've
been talking about.
Mason: It hasn't really changed.
Silverman: Oh yes it has.
Mason: It's superficially changed. I'm talking about the busing
and the going to school together.
Silverman: I talk to my children about the way Norfolk used to be
when you had no black friends or didn't know blacks, except for servants,
and when there was no place where you and a black friend could go for
lunch. The churches wouldn't even let you in. There was a time when
black students couldn't get into any of the universities, except for
the black ones.
Mason: This is progress, in terms of changes that have been made.
Silverman: With only six percent of the people voting, the elections
Mason: Of course they were. And sometimes, you wonder if they
still are. There are essentials that necessitate change in the mental
attitude and the beliefs that people have. That has not changed, to
a great extent. All these things that you're talking about have been
forced on people.
Silverman: But, they accept it. The kids don't expect things.
Mason: They haven't seen the discrimination. They weren't exposed
to it or brought up with it. Therefore, their attitude has to be different.
But, these people who have a belief in their rightness, in terms of
the association of blacks and whites, haven't changed.
Silverman: But, they'll die. So, it will change.
In addition to the March 29, 1978
and October 19, 1978 interviews, two more
interviews were conducted. The March 24, 1978 tape is nearly inaudible.
The May 8, 1978 interview is audible and will be transcribed. Listen here:
See also "Vivian
Carter Mason: Civil Rights Activist and Educator"
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