A Summer of Discovery
by Eloise Ward Phelps
Sometimes we don’t realize the significance of our actions or the influence of our religious
environment until long afterwards. In 1938 (at the age of 27) I accepted a job teaching the
summer session of the first library science classes at North Carolina College for Negroes (NCCN).
The significance of a white woman teaching at a Negro college during the years of segregationwas not foremost in my mind. My main focus was making some money over the summer for living expenses and to help pay off my college loan.
This opportunity began with a telephone call from the Director of School Libraries in North Carolina, asking me to teach library science courses to be offered for the first time at the college
in Durham (now North Carolina Central University - NCCU). A new state accreditation standard for public school librarian training required the college to provide graduate classes for black teachers, who were not allowed to take courses at segregated white state universities. After brief consideration, I accepted.
I wish I could say my main motivation was to help strengthen the fragile civil rights movement of the time, but the truth is I was broke and needed money to live on until fall. I had received my bachelor’s degree in Library Science from the Women’s College of the University of North
Carolina, Greensboro in 1931, and had been working as a librarian and teacher since then.In 1938, as a high school librarian, I would not be paid through the summer, and the alternative was to go home and donate my time to the family farm (picking strawberries, working in tobacco, and helping with whatever else came along).
Initially I did not consider the depth of the challenge I was facing. I grew up in rural North Carolinaduring enforced segregation. I had never known an educated Negro because I had known only those who worked for us on the farm. My parents, however, were very accepting of everyone, regardless of race. For example, my father refused to join the Ku Klux Klan, even under pressure from neighbors. He also went against the social pressures of the time by giving some Negroes who lived near us a plot of land to build a church.
My father and grandfather had been instrumental in the founding of Red Hill Universalist Church near Clinton, NC, and my family lived by the Universalist principle "The Supreme Worth of Every Human Personality." My mother often sat and visited with the black woman who helped her with the washing and housecleaning, and invited her to eat with us (but she always insisted on eating in the kitchen). However I learned much about racial prejudice from my peers in the segregated one-room school I attended. When I told my family about my summer job in 1938, they accepted my decision without question, although I remember an aunt asking “How can you make yourself do that?”
On the first day of classes, when I boarded the Fayetteville Street bus in Durham, I was the only white person, except the driver. He looked at me in surprise and asked, "Are you sure you are on the right bus?" When I explained where I was going, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “This is the right bus, but I hope you know what you are doing.” As I sat down with trepidation in the first seat, I read the sign in the front of the bus: “White people please load from the front and Negroes from the rear.” At that moment I was not sure of very much except that I knew that sign bothered me. When we reached my destination, the bus driver pointed to the college library and wished me luck as I stepped off the bus.
I entered the classroom 20 minutes before the start of the first class. The students, teachers who had been appointed librarians in their segregated schools, were all there - 23 women and one man. That day was the students’ introduction to library science and my introduction to college-educated African-Americans. I have never seen students work harder or accomplish more in a short period of time. They seemed to be working not just for themselves, but for a greater purpose – the improvement of their schools through broadening the education of the children.
Eventually, students began stopping by my desk to talk, first about assignments, but gradually about their problems and their joys. It was wonderful to begin to feel as if we were truly breaking down communication barriers and sharing our lives.
When I was invited to teach the following summer, I immediately accepted. At the end of the second summer, the college President personally gave me my paycheck and said “The future of the black race is in the hands of people like you, who are willing to break the barriers.” That made a big impression. Those two summers taught me that prejudice is the child of ignorance and I hope I taught half as much as I learned.
From my first day, a young woman on the front row gave me encouragement. Her ability to cover for me if I stammered over a difficult question from another student, and her ever-ready smile made my life easier. A lasting friendship developed with Ann Jenkins, one of my best students. She took classes both summers and we developed a close relationship. After that I saw her periodically on trips to North Carolina to visit my family. She went on to earn a master’s degree in Library Science, and then was on the North Carolina Central University (NCCU) faculty from 1946–1973. I have kept her letters among my souvenirs. When she wrote in 1973 to tell me she had scleroderma with little hope of recovery, I tried to think of ways to cheer her. I sent get-well letters, cards, and flowers. One of my efforts was a poem to try to express my thoughts. Imagine my surprise when I was browsing in The Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, where I now live, and found a book with the title The Black Librarian in the Southeast: Reminiscences, Activities, Challenges (Annette L. Phinazee, ed., 1980). In it were a few pages devoted to the life and memory of Ann Jenkins, and my poem.
She has taught innumerable students, not only how to run their libraries, but how to live their lives
She has also influenced many who were not her students.She has, in fact, taught her teachers, both by example and precept, to open their hearts and love those who may be different.
Her influence will be felt by posterity ad infinitum, that kind of immortality is indeed a gift of God and a gift to God with gratitude for what is and everlasting faith that courage and medicine will win.
My life since 1939 has been immeasurably enriched by those experiences and personal interactions. The Universalist principles which guided my life as a child and young woman in North Carolina have continued to play a major role in my later life in Colorado as a wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, librarian, counselor, and citizen.
Several years after my summers of teaching, I was invited back to NCCU for commencement.
Although I did not see any other white people in the auditorium, I did not feel different. I was very comfortable, and felt a kinship for all of us as librarians working together on an equal basis. In thinking back to the enthusiastic singing of “We Shall Overcome” during that assembly and my summers teaching, I realize that, even though there is a long way to go, there has been progress in school and societal integration. More and more people are realizing that cultural diversity is a strength on which we must continue to build. Perhaps the needed attitude adjustments would proceed more quickly if people truly lived by their religious principles, and if there were more opportunities for people with differences to talk together on an equal basis and realize, as I did in 1938, that there are many more similarities than differences.
This article is exerpted from the book, MY LIFE FROM THE HORSE AND BUGGY TO THE INTERNET, by Eloise Ward Phelps (Ed. by Kathryn Phelps Lovell).