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Collection MG-53: Vivian Carter-Mason Interview.
Interviews of the founder and active member of the Women's Council for Interracial Cooperation. Includes audio cassettes and transcripts that document her family history, civil rights in Norfolk, establishment of the Women's Council for Interracial Cooperation, the desegregation crisis in Norfolk, and the experiences of Afro-Americans in Norfolk.


 

Interview II with
VIVIAN CARTER-MASON
 

Old Dominion University
Norfolk, Virginia

Interviewed by
Zelda Silverman
October 19, 1978

Interview I:
March 29, 1978

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

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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

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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

Tape #2

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

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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 to blacks.

Mason: They were just ignored in the connotation of the idea of brotherhood.

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.

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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, too.

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

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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.

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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 the '40s.

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 be changed.

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.

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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 schools envisioned.

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 top.

Silverman: It was such a sad time.

Mason: Yes - and the white students were out of school.

Silverman: A semester or more?

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Mason: They were the "Lost Class."

Silverman: Didn't the schools open in the second semester, close to February?

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 school.

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 securing it.

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 school.

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.

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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.

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Mason: This is progress, in terms of changes that have been made.

Silverman: With only six percent of the people voting, the elections were false.

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.

*NOTE*

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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