INTERVIEW: GROWING UP WHITE
IN THE SOUTH IN THE 1930s
Like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, the three women in this interview (excerpted from Understanding to Kill a Mockingbird) grew up in the deep South of the 1930s. All three were members of what could be described as prominent souther families. .... The three women discuss many of the issues raised in To Kill a Mockingbird: how they defined a "good family" (so dear to Aunt Alexandra's heart and so baffling to Scout and Jem); poor whites in Alabama and Florida (very like the Cunninghams); their relationship with African-Americans; and the expectations and realities of those who would grow up to be proper southern "belles."
After reading the interviews, consider the questions below.
Interviewer: In historical fictional stories about the South in the time in which we're interested - the 1930s - one hears frequent reference to what were called "good families" or "old families." What is your understanding of that term?
Mary Ann: Gee, I never really thought about it.
Camille: Nobody had very much money. In the Depression years. If your father had a job, you had a good family.
Mary Ann: Yes, if your father was gainfully employed.
Cecil: Yes, if your mother stayed at home and everyone had a maid or two.
Camille: And a cook.
Mary Ann: And a nurse and a yard man.
Cecil: But that did not mean you were a wealthy family.
Mary Ann: Good families were all good church members.
Camille: We considered ourselves a "good" family, but we were land poor. We owned a great deal of land but it wasn't bringing in any income in the thirties. There was just no cash flow. On the other hand, there was not much tax on land.
Mary Ann: That describes our situation as well at that time.
Cecil: I guess I was a city child. Land ownership didn't enter the picture much, though I suppose ours was considered a good family. My father was a lawyer. We had some land in the county that my father went hunting on. But I never thought about land. It just wasn't part of my life.
Camille: I think "good" families were differentiated by a certain accent, too.
Mary Ann: It was the way people talked.
Camille: It was the pronunciation of "I." Didn't say "niiice" and "whiiite," dragging the "I" sound out.
Cecil: I think yours and Mary Ann's background are different from mine, growing up in a larger town.
Interviewer: In that your father was a lawyer, perhaps your experience is much closer to Scout's in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Cecil: That's true. Yes, I think so. My father was of the old school. integrity was the byword. They looked down very much on those who cheated and stole, especially from the poor. And I remember him talking about one well-off family who did just that and became very prominent later. It was an attitude. You never cheated anybody, and especially anybody lesser than you. And you never said a cross word or spoke badly to someone who couldn't speak back to you.
Camille: Yes, I think "good" families had a strong sense of responsibility to the people whose lives they could affect. I know when the Depression came and my family's bank failed, their main concern was to see that other people got their money back even if they lost out themselves.
Mary Ann: This is interesting, I think. I had a grandfather who was on farmed on our land. She couldn't read. And do you know that her great-grandfather was headmaster of an academy before the Civil War?
Cecil: Good gracious!
Mary Ann: Then she came from educated people.
Camille: Yet by the thirties her family was sharecropping on my grandmother's farm.
Interviewer: What happened? Was it the war?
Camille: My husband always said it was the Civil War. They just went back to the dirt. And they had fought in the Civil War even though they never owned slaves. Many of these men died in the Civil War.
There were lots of widows left with absolutely nothing except a houseful of children to rear. And do you know it was the blacks who took care of these poor white families. They cut wood for them and shared with them and looked in on them. I had experience with another class of poor white people in the thirties in that we lived so close to the railroad station. I remember seeing the bums coming up the street from the railroad station. And I remember seeing our backyard filled with these poor men, eating what my grandmother had given them. They never asked for a handout. They would only ask for work - if they could chop wood, for example.
Mary Ann: Our mothers belonged to an organization called the Junior Welfare, a precursor of the Junior League. They helped take care of children whose mothers had to work and helped get food and clothes to the needy. And there was such need.
Cecil: Yes, I always thought it was funny that my mother went to help take care of children whose mothers had to work and left her own child to be taken care of by a nurse!
Interviewer: Were you allowed to play with the children of poor whites?
Cecil: I don't remember any prohibitions about it. It just didn't come up.
Camille: I brought a lot of little children home with me from Stafford School, but I was never allowed to go to their homes. Maybe I was never invited. I did spend one night with the little girl whose father was on the police force. I remember his collection of weapons, including some bloody knives, put a scare into me.
Mary Ann: I don't remember playing with what you call poor white children. I do remember two little girls who lived in town whose family had a very tough time. They lived just behind my father's business and I think they resented my better situation. They threatened to beat me up. I was terrified of them.
Interviewer: As members of prominent families, what was your relationship with black people when you were little girls of Scout Finch's age?
Mary Ann: Your first experience with a black person was with your nurse. And the black people that took care of these little white children instilled in us the most wonderful traits. They stood for everything that was honest and Christian.
Cecil: I remember complaining to my nurse Lessie that a little boy had hit me. And she said, "Well, go hit him back." Part of your character came from your nurses.
Mary Ann: And they were really religious.
Cecil: And you minded your nurse.
Camille: I remember the black sharecroppers who worked for my grandmother. She supported them all year long and paid all their medical bills. Then when the farming was done, they split the proceeds. She got half and they got half, with the understanding that their medical costs would come out of their half. And they trusted her implicitly. I loved to go down to Hale County on settlin'- up day when they were paid because I could spend the day with the little black children. And that's where I learned to love to dance.
Mary Ann: We were incredibly attached to the black people we knew well.
Cecil: But I read somewhere in a book on the South that while the white people felt very attached to the black people back then, the black people didn't feel that way about us.
Mary Ann: Still, we were taught to be respectful of black people.
Camille: Heavens yes. I would have had my mouth washed out with soap so fast if I had ever referred to a black person with any word other than colored!
Cecil: My parents always used the respectful term "colored."
Camille: My main playmates for most of my childhood were black boys. Black families lived on the street behind us and my two best friends came over from there to play football with me. Their names were Josie and Jessie and they were part black, part Indian, and part white. We played football every day. We thought their mother was mean as a snake and we never knew who their father was. Jessie is now president of a black college and Josie owns a highly successful catering business. And I used to pick cotton with a black man and his children.
Cecil: I played with black children, too, but in my own house. I remember when I was a little girl, I begged Mama to let our cook's little girl come play with me. And Mama invited her over and told me not to let her out of the yard because, you know, someone might hurt her feelings.
Mary Ann: I had black playmates, too. I remember a wonderful black girl who played with my sister and me. She was so much fun.
Camille: Still, you never went to the houses of black people as a guest.
Interviewer: Were you proper, dainty little southern girls?
A perfect picture of the proper little girl and the ideal family in the South in the 1930s. photo courtesy of Mary Ann Norton Meredith
Mary Ann: I was very fond of dolls. I was kind of a girl-girl. But I also climbed trees. I remember mother saying one day, "Don't you think you're getting too big to be doing tumble-saults on the floor?" But obviously Camille was the real tomboy.
Camille: I only played with boys. I played tackle football with boys until I was about twelve or thirteen. One day when I was tackled, I got the wind knocked out of me, and I went home and put on a dress and never played football again.
Cecil: I played boys' games too, and my best friend was a boy. We had a club and we initiated new members by feeding them leaves of the elephant-ear plant. We'd give them nose drops with mustard in it. It's a wonder we didn't kill somebody with our initiations.
Camille: I remember hating getting dolls and things for Christmas. I wanted trains and trucks and things that the boys got. We ended up using my dolls to re-enact kidnapping. We'd just throw them out the window.
Cecil: I also played jump-rope and jacks, and I skated.
Camille: I remember stopping everywhere on my way home from school. And mother never had to worry about me.
Interviewer: In To Kill a Mockingbird , Atticus is reprimanded by Aunt Alexandra and Mrs. Dubose for not dressing Scout properly. Do you remember a special dress code for little girls?
Cecil: I don't remember any taboo against little girls wearing trousers, but we were usually dressed in dresses because I remember my mother saying that little girls should always wear pretty because they spent so much time on their heads.
Mary Ann: We definitely weren't allowed to wear pants to school. It was unladylike to be sunburned. But nobody ever bugged me about it.
Camille: Oh, no.
Mary Ann: Never.
Cecil: in those days, blue jeans were really tacky.
Mary Ann: As my husband says, he struggled very hard so as not to have to work in bluejeans.
Cecil: Little girls got dressed up in the afternoons and you went to the park. We usually wore little dresses, except in the summer when you wore sunsuits.
Mary Ann: We were dressed up in the afternoon and taken to town, or we would ride to the end of the trolley line and back.
Camille: You remember our Sunday School dresses? What I hated was when they got a little too small or a little too shabby, they were converted into everyday dresses.
Mary Ann: Most of our dresses were handmade, smocked. We all wanted to look like Shirley Temple.
Cecil: One exception to handmade dresses were what were called Natalie dresses brought down by these people from New York. They would have special showings, and Mama would buy me one or two Natalie dresses, which you would only wear on very special occasions.
Mary Ann: You never went anywhere barefoot.
Cecil: That's quite true. If you saw someone at school barefoot, that was pitiful. The family never appeared around the house half-dressed. And you were always dressed up for dinner. Of course, it was easy when you had someone else serving you dinner.
Interviewer: Was there a special code of behavior for little girls who were expected to grow up to be southern ladies?
Camille: Well, it was alright for boys to fight, but girls weren't supposed to. It was perfectly alright for my brother to fight, but I was not allowed to. Of course, I did it anyway.
Cecil: Yes, we weren't supposed to, but I did beat up a little boy once. I remember his mother called to complain to Mama, and for once Mama stood up for me. I remember her saying, "Well, he started it and he's two years older than she is and she is a girl."
Mary Ann: Normally, little girls didn't resort to violence. I only had one fight.
Cecil: Speech was a biggie, really. There were just certain things you didn't say. You were corrected a lot.
Mary Ann: Correct grammar was extremely important.
Camille: We weren't to talk like the black children we played with.
Mary Ann: I can tell you, cuss words were certainly not prevalent. I never heard them.
Camille: I don't remember Mamma and Daddy ever saying a bad word.
Cecil: There were certain coarse words you hear today that I never heard until I was an adult. You were brought up to be a lady, which meant you were not allowed to be coarse.
Camille: Little girls were never allowed to raise their voices.
Mary Ann: That's an important point. Ladies and gentlemen never raised their voices.
Camille: I was never allowed to say "shut up."
Mary Ann: Mainly what you were taught good manners.
Cecil: And you were never allowed to brag or be sarcastic One word we could never say was "pregnant."
Mary Ann: I knew the word, of course, but I believe I was grown before I ever heard that word spoken aloud. You always said "expecting."
Cecil: There was a certain code of behavior expected on Sundays. We could go down to the beach and get snacks and a coke, but we couldn't drink cokes on Sunday. Many years afterwards I asked my mother why we couldn't drink cokes on Sunday, and she couldn't remember why.
Mary Ann: Of course, we didn't play cards or go to the movies on Sunday.
Interviewer: Movie theaters back then weren't even open on Sundays, were they?
Camille: I think that changed with air-conditioning. People would go to the movies on Sunday to get out of the heat.
Cecil: I don't know that we can say that the three of us were typical of little southern girls.
Mary Ann: It was a carefree time for us. We certainly seemed to live in a kinder, gentler world.
Were they or weren't they typical southern girls raised in a privileged way? Were their experiences so different from Scout's? Were their experiences limited by their perception of how things were meant to be?
If you were look closely at their experiences what attitudes do they display which were shaped by their parents? their nurses? their status in white society? Return to Top
FROM HELEN EKIN STARRETT,
The Charm of Fine Manners
(Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1920)
We must persistently strive against selfishness, ill-temper, irritability, indolence. It is impossible for the self-centered or ill-tempered girl to win love and friends.
One of the greatest blemishes in the character of any young person, especially of any young girl or woman, is forwardness, boldness, pertness. The young girl who acts in such a manner as to attract attention in public; who speaks loudly, and jokes and laughs and tells stories in order to be heard by others than her immediate companions, . . . who expresses opinions on all subjects with forward self-confidence, is rightly regarded by all thoughtful and cultivated people as one of the most disagreeable and obnoxious characters to be met with in society.
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