Partial Transcript: This is an interview with Virginia Volker
Segment Synopsis: Dr. Horace Huntley opens up the interview by introducing Ms. Volker.
Keywords: Lawson Community College
Subjects: Birmingham (Ala.); Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Birmingham, Ala.); Civil rights movement; Miles College
Map Coordinates: 33.516200, -86.813870
GPS: Miles College
Map Coordinates: 33.481, -86.9089
Partial Transcript: Where were you born?
Segment Synopsis: Ms. Volker discusses her upbringing and family life as a young child. She also discusses her family's history.
Keywords: Education; Free State of Winston; Homestead Acts; Tenant Farming; Wilson's Raiders
Subjects: Civil War; Jasper (Ala.); Walker County (Ala.); Winston County (Ala.)
Partial Transcript: Do you remember any relationships with Blacks in your childhood?
Segment Synopsis: Ms. Volker comments on race relations in her community as a child.
Subjects: Birmingham (Ala.); Jasper (Ala.); Race relations; Sylacauga (Ala.)
Partial Transcript: You were the oldest of three children and so you were sort of the trailblazer for you two siblings.
Segment Synopsis: Ms. Volker discusses growing up with younger siblings and remembers her early school days in Jasper, Alabama.
Subjects: Christmas; Early childhood education; Hanukkah; Jasper (Ala.)
Partial Transcript: You said you moved from Jasper to Sylacauga. Did your family move?
Segment Synopsis: Ms. Volker discusses becoming aware of social justice issues while in High School.
Keywords: Beta Club; Freedom Fighters; High School; Public Libraries; Supreme Court; United Methodist Church
Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights; Birmingham (Ala.); Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Jasper (Ala.); Methodist Youth Fellowship (U.S.); Montgomery Bus Boycott, Montgomery, Ala., 1955-1956; NAACP Collection (Library of Congress); Sylacauga (Ala.); Walker County (Ala.)
Partial Transcript: How often did you come to Birmingham?
Segment Synopsis: Ms. Volker remembers visiting Birmingham and an experience she had with with the Ku Klux Klan.
Keywords: Klan Parade; Ku Klux Klan
Subjects: Birmingham (Ala.); Birmingham-Southern College; Ku Klux Klan (1915- ); Sylacauga (Ala.)
Partial Transcript: After you then finished high school in 1958, what did you do? Did you go to college?
Segment Synopsis: Ms. Volker relates her experiences while attending college and becoming involved with the Civil Rights Movement.
Keywords: Brotherhood Tea; Dean Healey; First Methodist Church; Integration; Protests; Sit-ins
Subjects: SNCC; Stillman College (Tuscaloosa, Ala.); Tuscaloosa (Ala.); University of Alabama
Partial Transcript: So in 1963?
Segment Synopsis: Ms. Volker discusses her involvement and experiences with the Movement after graduating from the University of Alabama.
Keywords: 6th Avenue Baptist Church; Demonstrations; Paul Greenberg; Protests; Thurgood Methodist Church
Subjects: 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, Birmingham, Ala., 1963; A.G. Gaston Motel (Birmingham, Ala.); Birmingham (Ala.); Civil rights movement; National guard; Pizitz (Department store); U.S. states--Race relations
Partial Transcript: What happens in the life of Virginia Volker after 1963 and '64?
Segment Synopsis: Ms. Volker describes her life in Birmingham after completing graduate school and continuing her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.
Keywords: Annie Crouse; Deenie Drew; Ester Brown; Friendship in Action; Helen Lewis; Pals for American Women; Peggy Fuller; Sally Davis; Unitarian Church
Subjects: Birmingham (Ala.); United States--Race relations
Partial Transcript: Virginia, we've taken about an hour and a half and I certainly appreciate your time. Maybe we need to just do this again some time, but I want to thank you for coming.
Segment Synopsis: Interview is concluded.
Subjects: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Birmingham, Ala.); Oral history interview
HUNTLEY: We are here with Virginia Volker for the Birmingham Civil RightsInstitute's Oral History Project. I am Dr. Horace Huntley. We are at Miles College. Today is June 26, 1996.
Thank you Ms. Volker for taking time out of your schedule to come and sit withus today to talk about your experiences in growing up in Birmingham and how you have related to the Movement. It's a pleasure having you here. Tell me a bit about yourself. What are you doing now?
VOLKER: Thank you, Dr. Huntley. I really appreciate all the work you're doing in00:01:00this arena. Currently I'm a faculty member at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the Biology Department. I teach anatomy, pathophysiology and a number of the health sciences. In addition to that I have been involved in a number of community projects and this summer, as part of my UAB work, I'm also serving as Campus Coordinator for the UAB/Miles College/Lawson Community College/Titusville 2000 Project, which we have a HUD grant that we are operating from.
HUNTLEY: Is it Ms. Volker or Dr. Volker?
VOLKER: How about M-S. Ms. I don't have a doctorate. I have two masters degrees.
HUNTLEY: Well, two masters ought to add up to a doctorate.
VOLKER: Well, I'll be glad to take it if you take the salary with it, but itdoesn't work that way.
HUNTLEY: Where were you born?
VOLKER: I was born in Jasper, Alabama.
HUNTLEY: Were your parents originally from Jasper?
VOLKER: My parents were from the Walker County area, yes.00:02:00
HUNTLEY: Brothers and sisters, how many do you have?
VOLKER: I have one brother and one sister. They are both younger. I'm the oldest child.
HUNTLEY: Your mother and father, tell me just a bit about their educational background.
VOLKER: It was rather limited as far as formal education. My mother said shewent to school three days. I don't know what the truth is. My father had more education, but they were certainly part of the rural, come to the small town type people in the Walker County area. Walker County is a very depressed area of the state. Or, it was at that time. My parents come from rather modest means. My father, they liked to say, they were land rich, but money poor. In fact, 00:03:00probably his family had homesteaded there under some of the Homestead Acts that came about before the turn of the century. My mother had a similar background although my grandfather on my mother's side was sometimes a miner.
HUNTLEY: Coal miner?
VOLKER: Yes, coal miner. Coal was one of the main industries in Walker County.And he also was at times a tenant farmer. On my fathers side what I know about their background is that part of the family were people who were opposing seceding from the union.
HUNTLEY: In Walker County?
VOLKER: In Walker County. We hear about the Free State of Winston and theefforts that were made in Winston County to try to not join the Union during the Civil War times, but Walker County is essentially next door to Winston County 00:04:00and so there were groups of people in that region, in fact all across north Alabama. And, apparently, some of the slogans in north Alabama around the time that (Inaudible) was building for the Civil War, they were saying that would be a rich man's war, a poor man's fight and very much were opposed joining in with the Confederacy.
Supposedly my father's father or my father's grandfather was involved in "givingaid and comfort" to the Union soldiers. I think it was Wilson's Raiders that came through. I found this out through some genealogical study that they were thought to be sympathizers with the Union and were in fact reimbursed for giving 00:05:00food and whatever else he gave to some of Wilson's Raiders as they came through Walker County. So, I suspect I came from a long line of people that followed their own principals and own values rather than just succumbing to what was going on around them.
HUNTLEY: We are very much aware that only 20 to 25% of Whites in the Southactually owned slaves. So that meant that 80% basically did not. I'm assuming that is what you mean when you talk about this war being a rich man's war.
VOLKER: And a poor man's fight because, well, from what I've read of thathistory is that it was the more affluent, south Alabama people that had slaves. 00:06:00You didn't have the big farms, the big plantations in Walker County. They were coal miners and small farmers. So they had no need for slaves really. At least some historians
I've read portrayed what was happening in Alabama around that time, that therewas actually a fight going on between North Alabama and South Alabama. I don't know if you read much of that.
HUNTLEY: And, that's a continuing struggle.
VOLKER: It certainly is. And, in fact I think nationwide we're sometimes stillfighting the Civil War. At least some of us here in the south.
HUNTLEY: Tell me just a bit about your upbringing. What do you remember aboutyour childhood?
VOLKER: I was reared in Jasper. I lived in the town for awhile. My father was aMethodist minister, kind of a circuit rider. He was also a small businessman. He 00:07:00was a barber. I understand before I was born he had a grocery store. My mother didn't work part of the time and, then part of the time she worked as an LPN, a Licensed Practical Nurse. And, as we got older she worked as a pie baker.
HUNTLEY: A pie baker?
VOLKER: Yes, in local restaurants. She was a pastry cook I think was the titleshe used. So, I had a rather quiet, very conventional childhood in many ways. I went to church a great deal.
HUNTLEY: Well, with your father being a minister.
VOLKER: I went to the Methodist church when the doors were opened and when thedoors were closed also. And my parents also were very insistent that we go to other churches in the community. We also went to churches with our various relatives when we visited with them all over Walker County area. So I know a lot 00:08:00about all of the small town churches. That was part of my socialization and my outreach and being more involved.
HUNTLEY: Do you remember any relationships with Blacks in your childhood?
VOLKER: I do. I do, interestingly enough. I've wondered often why I would be soconscious of race because I felt like a number of my peers were not, but it may be because where I lived within Jasper there was a very clear dividing line.
There was a railroad track and on one side was the White community and on theother side was the Black community. I lived close enough to the Black community, on my side of the railroad track, that I could sit in my front yard and if I really looked and peered closely, I could see some of what was happening across 00:09:00the track, which was in some ways forbidden territory.
But my father had interactions with people in the Black community. He raisedgoats supposedly to have goat milk because he thought that was healthy. And, apparently he had some friends in the Black community that raised goats. So, one of the things we would do, is we would go across the tracks, and sometimes I would get up to go with him to visit and look at goats. If my mother and I went along we obviously interacted with whole families, so I became very aware that there were differences. I think subconsciously I picked up that people behaved differently around the race issue. I was very aware of that at an early age.
HUNTLEY: Did you have Blacks working in your home for your mother and your father?00:10:00
VOLKER: On very rare occasions. We were at a low enough income that we didn'thave that very often. But sometimes there would be Black people come by and help do odd jobs around the house.
HUNTLEY: How old were you at that particular time? I know you lived in Jasperand you would eventually move to Sylacauga?
VOLKER: I did not move to Sylacauga until I was in high school.
HUNTLEY: Did you ever have any Black friends? As I grew up in Birmingham weactually had White friends because they lived on one street and they lived on the other. Was that the same case with you in Jasper?
VOLKER: I really don't recall that. I remember being aware of interactingbriefly with Black children. (Inaudible) and I would go in the Black community 00:11:00with my father. One of the things that I remember is, I guess it was very typical of Black community of the South at that time. But, what I as a child found fascinating was, that people had gold fish ponds in their home. If you didn't live in that area and if you don't know anything about that, you cannot imagine why anybody would just dig out and make a home crafted gold fish pond.
But, a lot of people did and I guess it was a kind of art that people in theBlack community engaged in more than the White community as far as having gold fish. So I remember going in the Black community and observing the gold fish and there would be Black children around that I would interact with. There were probably Black children that passed my house that we may have interacted with some, but I don't have a deep recollection of that like you have and like I've 00:12:00heard other people talking about.
HUNTLEY: You were the oldest of three children and so you were sort of the trailblazer for your two siblings. How did that impact upon your growing up, having two younger siblings? Did you have to help around the house?
VOLKER: I did. But I was five years old before my brother was born. So, itreally got ingrained in me that sense of being an only child and I probably had that mentality of being the only child, but also with a brother and sister.
HUNTLEY: What do you remember about your school days and growing up in Jasper?
VOLKER: I loved school. I guess that's why I still work in a school. I really00:13:00enjoyed going to school. I remember my first grade teacher, Miss Hollis. I can't say she taught me to read because my mother had taught me to read before I went to school, but I certainly remember her. I remember it was an all White school. Race was not a particular issue at that time. I don't remember anything about that being discussed in school. There was one race -- there was White folks.
I remember being aware of religious differences in that there were severalJewish children in my class with me throughout my elementary school career and I know that it must have been very difficult for the Jewish children in Jasper 00:14:00because it was a very small community and their parents really worked hard to help their children be included. I remember the parents of one of my Jewish friends always brought goodies to school for Christmas.
And, so we always talk about Christmas and we did talk about Hanukkah, which Ithink was probably unusual for an Alabama small town school in the 1940s. But, I think that has to do with the perseverance and the dedication of some of the Jewish parents had at that time and probably the openness that some of the school teachers had. So I was aware that they were different.
Something was different about them. They didn't celebrate Christmas, but yes,they did celebrate Christmas and we certainly interacted and visited some in each other's homes.
HUNTLEY: You said you moved from Jasper to Sylacauga. Did your family move?00:15:00
VOLKER: My family moved to Sylacauga when I was in high school, which would havebeen in 1954, the Supreme Court decision year. I remember being aware about that time of what was happening in the world around me.
HUNTLEY: You remember being aware of Brown v. The Board of Education?
VOLKER: I was aware of that having taken place.
HUNTLEY: How did that impact upon your environment?
VOLKER: Not at all at that point. I remember hearing a lot of discussion aboutthose Supreme Court judges and how everybody hated them. I think one of the things that probably was a real support and helpful to me in growing up was the ability to go to the library and the fact that my parents always encouraged me to go to the library, took me to the library. The public libraries of that time, 00:16:00and this would have been in Jasper, before I actually moved to Sylacauga, the public libraries did have a lot of the books, the autobiographies of boys and girls who made good. The books did include stories of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver, those kind of classic people, as well the Lucretia Motts and the Elizabeth Cady Stantons and I ended up reading a lot of biography and for whatever hundreds of reasons, I very quickly identified with that group of people and felt a kinship.
HUNTLEY: What group of people are you talking about?
VOLKER: The group of people whose biographies that I would be reading as achild. The freedom fighters, the abolitionists, those groups of people. So, I became aware of struggles around justice issues and the door was not perfect. It 00:17:00probably just had something to do with just being White and Southern. I think there's a White Southern mentality of a kind of complex of somewhere between inferiority and defiance that sort of is in the milieu around us -- that we grew up with in Walker County.
HUNTLEY: You are saying that these individuals who were revolutionaries, youwere sort of attracted to them. At what point in your life do you think that was taking place? Or when did you first realize it?
VOLKER: I think that must have been somewhere between the 5th grade and the 7thand 8th grade. That would have been early 1950s.
HUNTLEY: Was that different than your peers?
HUNTLEY: Did you stand out as a result of that? Were you one of those people who00:18:00was looked at by your peers as being different?
VOLKER: I felt different. I was a child that made good grades and I minded theteacher and I was sometimes called 'the teachers pet' and 'the preacher's kid'.
HUNTLEY: A goody two-shoes?
VOLKER: Goody two-shoes, that was me. I carried my Bible. It didn't particularlybother me. I'm not aware of it bothering me at that point.
HUNTLEY: How did your peers treat you as a result of the way they perceive you?
VOLKER: At that point, I don't recall any problem.
HUNTLEY: Were you involved in extra-curricular activities?
VOLKER: In high school I did. In junior high school, not very much. In fact, if00:19:00they existed, I don't recall them. And, also my family was very private. My family was into protecting me in some respects so they probably encouraged me staying at home reading, rather than being involved with whatever was happening around me. So hence, my link to the world was what I was getting on the news media, on the newspapers and what I was reading.
HUNTLEY: Did that change when you got in high school?
VOLKER: Oh, that changed in high school. I deliberately made an effort to getmore involved to make friends.
HUNTLEY: What were you involved in in high school that sticks out in your mind?
VOLKER: I remember Beta Club.
HUNTLEY: Beta Club was what?
VOLKER: An honor society.
HUNTLEY: Was that math honors?
VOLKER: Just in general honors. I was active in the church during my high schoolyears then. The Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF). I remember during that time 00:20:00the winds of change were certainly upon us and issues were discussed in my church. I remember one incident, several interesting discussions around when I was still in high school. The literature that we were receiving from the Methodist headquarters nationally had pictures of Black and White people sitting together.
And there were big controversies about could we use this literature with ouryoung people.
HUNTLEY: It would have an impact upon the way you viewed the world?
VOLKER: That's right. Maybe they were right. It would. It did. But just the factthat it became a controversy and for whatever reason, I immediately thought, 00:21:00"Well, there's nothing wrong with this." My mother is very conservative acting. A very "Don't rock the boat" person. My father said it was okay to state your case and stand up. There side would be "Yes, it would be okay to use the literature." I guess it proved that the predominant group in that church brought to bear that it would prevail because I remember we did use that kind of literature.
HUNTLEY: Was this the Methodist church?
VOLKER: The United Methodist Church -- North Alabama Conference.
HUNTLEY: Why did you move from Jasper to Sylacauga?
VOLKER: By that time my father was not being a minister anymore and it was abetter business opportunity for him. He was a barber.
HUNTLEY: Were there any incidents in high school, not necessarily racial, that00:22:00sort of stand out in your mind, about your experiences in high school? There are any number of things that I can think of that I was involved in during high school days that probably had an impact upon my going in one direction or another. Do you have any of those?
VOLKER: I think probably what was happening nationally was when I was in highschool, Sputnik had come along. There was a big effort to build the space ships. We were beginning to engage in the space race. Sputnik was in '58 when I was a senior. Before that it had been building, so there was a lot of concern that science was important and very much like we are today, that "Gee, our students in the United States are going to get left behind in science if we don't do something." And, I think because I made good grades in science and I made good 00:23:00grades in everything. But because I made good grades in science I got attention.
So I was in science fairs. I got special attention for being the only girl thatwould take physics in a group of all guys. The teacher was a guy but he was really very nice. I think my high school biology teacher, Miss Heaton, I think that had an impact to have a woman as a science person that I interacted with when I was enjoying science and for her to encourage me. I tend to think that was important because if she had not been there, I don't know, I may have still found my way in science, but that was a kind of way of saying, hey, it's okay for women to be in science. It's okay for us to cut open frogs and look at microscopes and do those things that girls really were not supposed to do then. 00:24:00
HUNTLEY: There were a number of racial issues were taking place because, as yousaid Brown v. Board happened in 1954. In 1955 they had the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1956 we had the outlawing of the NAACP in the state and, then the development of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. And, of course, in '56 you had a number of bombings with Shuttlesworth, was that in any way in your awareness?
VOLKER: I think I was aware of it in reading about it, but Sylacauga was 50miles and worlds away from Birmingham. Sylacauga was very much a predominantly White city. There was a Black population but it was almost invisible to me at that point. I didn't even know where the Black schools were, it was that kind of community that I was moving in at that time. I do remember being aware of the 00:25:00bus boycotts and feeling a kinship with that struggle. I remember one of the times riding a bus from Sylacauga to Birmingham and deliberately going to the back of the bus to sit, to show my identification with that.
And some of the older Black people that were sitting in the back, said, "Honey,you go up there and sit." I said, "Oh, no, I'll just sit here, I'm fine." It was
my naivete. But, again it was like I was saying, "Hey, I'm identifying withthis." Although I wasn't saying that and probably because I was young and a female, you could do those things. Whereas I think had I been a guy and did that there might have been a problem. And certainly if it had been the reverse, if a young Black woman had sat down in the front of the bus that would have been a 00:26:00major problem.
HUNTLEY: Did any of the Whites on the bus say anything to you about sitting inthe back?
VOLKER: I don't remember. I think they just ignored it.
HUNTLEY: How often did you come to Birmingham?
VOLKER: Every now and then, but not a tremendous amount of time. But, I doremember doing that on several occasions.
HUNTLEY: Were you alone when you came to Birmingham?
VOLKER: Yes, I would be alone.
HUNTLEY: Why would you come to Birmingham? What would be the occasions for youto come?
VOLKER: I don't know. I think sometimes I came up to look at the schools here. Iremember going to Birmingham Southern a weekend, that kind of thing.
HUNTLEY: After you finished high school, what was it around 1960?
VOLKER: I finished high school in '58.
HUNTLEY: Okay. Things are really heating up.
VOLKER: Yes. But, let me tell you before we finish with the Sylacaugaexperience. I remember that the Klan was very active there. It was Klan territory. My family was far removed from it but I do remember one day, a 00:27:00Saturday afternoon in the summer, there was a Klan parade downtown. I remember stumbling on it. I think my mother was with me and a girl friend. I remember my girl friend and I started throwing rocks and yelling and the Klan parade, calling them cowards or something like that. And, my mother was just freaking out. It was like, "Come on, you're going to get us killed. Let's go. Let's go." And she was pulling us away and getting us home from that incident. I remember her talking about being fearful that they would know who we were and that we would have a cross burned on our house or our house burned down.
HUNTLEY: Was there ever an ...
VOLKER: That never happened. Again, we were White kids. You know your White kids00:28:00could throw some rocks, you know there is some White privilege going on there. If it had been Black kids throwing rocks, that wouldn't have been the same.
HUNTLEY: Were there any reactions from the Klan?
VOLKER: They just sort of looked at us.
HUNTLEY: Were they hooded?
VOLKER: Yes. They just sort of chalked it up to children's pranks. They didn'tunderstand the depth of our feelings about that.
HUNTLEY: Now that you mention it, I can remember my aunt lived in Columbus,Georgia so we would always go 280. And in the Sylacauga area, on several occasions the Klan was stopping cars, asking for donations. But, I remember when we got to them they didn't ask us for anything, they just let us through. I remember that because I remember coming across the mountain and through the 00:29:00(Inaudible). So, that's interesting that you actually saw the Klan and you were incensed by what they represented so you reacted to that. After you then finished high school in 1958, what did you do? Did you go to college.VOLKER: I went to college at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.
HUNTLEY: Now, this is in the heat of things as well.
VOLKER: What I basically remember around the civil rights issues in college wereduring my junior and senior year was having my own group of friends that believed like I believed. That we thought the Civil Rights Movement was the way to go and we were beginning to feel left out in Tuscaloosa. We were reading about college students in other places making their protests and expressing 00:30:00themselves and here we were sitting in dull old Tuscaloosa, Alabama on the university campus.
Somehow by the time I was beginning my senior year, some member of my group hada contact with Stillman College, which was the small, private Black college in Tuscaloosa. We ended up somehow arranging for several of us to go from the university campus to Stillman campus. We met and we called it a brotherhood tea. By that time we were aware that there were brotherhood Sundays and brotherhood teas. That's was what people of good will in churches tried to do then. If anybody knows what a brotherhood tea is, it's when Black and White people can 00:31:00stand in a room and they drink their tea and the world didn't fall apart because they were in the same room doing something social together. And, that sounds silly today, but...
HUNTLEY: But those kinds of meetings were illegal at the time.
VOLKER: They were illegal and it was a very high anxiety type of event forpeople to do. Certainly for White people, probably for the Black people. In fact, I remember one of my classmates, back to Sylacauga, one of my classmates was a minister's son in Sylacauga and somewhere around that time, they had a brotherhood Sunday tea at the First Methodist Church in Sylacauga and after that there was a cross burned in front of the church.
HUNTLEY: It was suggested that you went from the University of Alabama toStillman, did you ever have students from Stillman to come to the University of Alabama?
VOLKER: Didn't do that. We didn't do that. We were prudent, pragmatic or coward,00:32:00whichever way you want to talk about. But, we ended up a group about a dozen or 15 of us from the University of Alabama campus that we knew each other and we felt strongly that we should be doing our share to promote Civil Rights. We started meeting with some people at Stillman and I'm not sure how that group of students got pulled together, but we interacted enough that we became friends with some people.
HUNTLEY: And this was always on Stillman campus?
VOLKER: On Stillman campus. We talked about coming over to the University ofAlabama campus, but always the decision was made - no.
HUNTLEY: In 1960 demonstrations were going on all over the South with the sit-in00:33:00struggle. Of course starting in North Carolina and, then coming into South Carolina and Georgia. Was there an effort in Tuscaloosa?
VOLKER: We did that. I know there was more happening than what I was involvedin, but our small group of college students of Stillman and University, we decided that we wanted to do some sit-ins at churches. I remember that we planned several and I remember one I participated in we participated in the Westminster Center, probably it was like the students for Presbyterian. Or it may have been the Presbyterian Church. It was somewhere nearby our campus. We carefully planned our agenda, how we were going to have some Black students to show up and, if they got in, we would see what was going to happen. And, then we were going to come and be their support with these students from the University campus. And, interestingly enough at that particular church, the Westminster 00:34:00campus, they seated the Black students.
HUNTLEY: What year was this?
VOLKER: It must have been '61. And, so we, as the White students in there, well,we were coming in, so we didn't know anything else to do but go down and sit beside them. So, obviously we were all together. And, I remember afterward some elders of the church came out. Some were obviously University faculty. They actually spoke and were pleasant. So it was like no contest, no problem. We were both pleased and somewhat shocked at that reception. If it had been another kind or reception heavens knows what we would have done, because we really were not in contact with any national organization at that time. 00:35:00
As we continued to meet we did, somehow somebody in the group had contact with aSNCC person. Several of us went to a SNCC conference in Atlanta. It must have been in '61 or '62. I found that very interesting. I still have some of the literature from that conference and actually know some of those people from that conference now.
HUNTLEY: Well, that's really the beginning of SNCC. It was organized in 1960.
VOLKER: Yes, it was a very young organization then.
HUNTLEY: And this is at the point where young, White college students werecoming down from the North to get involved with SNCC, particularly in Mississippi. Was there a SNCC organization in Tuscaloosa?
VOLKER: No. Not to my knowledge. But some of the people with SNCC at thatAtlanta conference was just very pleased that they had some Alabama students 00:36:00there. Apparently we were rarities.
HUNTLEY: What did you do after that?
VOLKER: We continued to have our meetings, always on Stillman campus. We had afew socials. We talked about what all should be done. A lot of talk. A lot of building some friendships with each other. A lot of long night phone conversations. We always said it was a source of excitement if guys from Stillman could call the dorm, disguise their voice and ask to speak to one of the White girls in the dorm without anybody recognizing that he was Black. And, I guess, vice versa, we would call to their dorms.
Toward the end of my senior year, most of us were juniors, seniors, and some00:37:00graduate students, someone got wind of what we were doing and called our activities to the attention to the University of Alabama authorities. The women on our side got called in by the Dean of Women and the men got called in by the Dean of Men.
HUNTLEY: What was the gender make up of the two groups?
VOLKER: Probably a few more women than men. I remember Dean Healey was the deanand she proceeded to tell us how she really understood our desires to be involved in what we were doing, but that it was not safe and the University had to watch out for our safety. They were afraid we were going to get hurt by the Klan and I'm sure that's really how they were feeling. They really wanted us to 00:38:00stop doing that and that the University was going to integrate soon, but they didn't want any problems until the University did integrate. They asked us to not go.
HUNTLEY: Did you stop?
VOLKER: They did the threat of "You know, all of you have such good records, itwould be a pity, since you're so close to graduation." They didn't say they would throw us out, but it was the threat of and we were really scared. So all of us on our side of the campus said we would not do it anymore, that we understood. What we did was to proceed to be more covert.
HUNTLEY: Did the telephone calls continue?
VOLKER: We tried to make them less frequent, but we still did it and we stillvisited. I remember I guess it was about the last week of school, we decided to be more open. We just very boldly went out and, didn't do our little circuitous 00:39:00routes to get there.
HUNTLEY: Did any of those relationships last after school?
VOLKER: Yes, I maintained contact with some of the people until even the past decade.
HUNTLEY: So you were finishing undergraduate school in '62?
HUNTLEY: So in 1963?
VOLKER: Then I was in Birmingham.
HUNTLEY: So you here during the demonstrations of '63?
VOLKER: '63 was a very momentous year.
HUNTLEY: Where did you live?
VOLKER: I lived on the Southside. I lived sometimes in the dorm, which is nowwhere the Radisson Hotel is. And, then sometimes I lived in an apartment building on 17th and 10th South, in an apartment building, which is now Ronald 00:40:00McDonald House. It did not look as nice as it does now. But, I was in graduate school in the medical school. I was studying human anatomy then. Far removed from what was happening in Birmingham at the time, but everybody was discussing what was happening with the Civil Rights Movement. Only there were other terms for it then in the White community.
HUNTLEY: What were those terms?
VOLKER: Let's see, what were there. "All this Nigger business." "All thisoutside agitation." "Communist Plot." Those kinds of real derogatory terms.
HUNTLEY: Was that the general feeling of people that you were associated with atthe time?
VOLKER: That was the feeling of some people. There were some people that weremore thoughtful. There were some people that greatly "empathized with the Negro" 00:41:00at that time, but they just weren't ready for all these changes. They needed 20 more years. They were going to set race relations back 20 years was what was being said. I remember some of my professors saying that. It burst my bubble. I thought when I was in graduate school I was going to find people that were super intelligent and agreed with everything that I agreed with. It didn't work that way.
There was a lot of discussion. I often found myself on the opposite side of thediscussion and being very outspoken. I remember knowing about the marches downtown. I know one time I was downtown and I was around where the 5 & 10 cent stores were, Woolworth's probably. They were coming out and I said, "Oh, no, I'm 00:42:00going to be in the middle of this."
I really wanted to go join and feeling very torn between, "Well, gee I ought togo and be part of this sit-in or march or whatever was happening." But, then, "I can't do that I'll get thrown out of school. I can't do that I'll get my head bashed in. I can't do this, I don't know these people." You know I was feeling really torn. And, finally I thought I just better leave or I'm going to go and join in and I didn't know what was going to happen to me. I remember feeling very torn and really identifying with what they were doing, but not knowing how to interact at that point.
HUNTLEY: You didn't have that support group?
VOLKER: I didn't have my support group. I didn't have my few friends inBirmingham. But, as my year went on, I did find a few people that felt more like I did and ended up being involved with a group of young people that were meeting 00:43:00at Thurgood Methodist Church.
HUNTLEY: This is in '63?
VOLKER: This is in '63.
HUNTLEY: During the demonstrations or after the demonstrations?
VOLKER: I think it would have been during the demonstration time. Yes, it wouldhave been '63 and '64.
HUNTLEY: The demonstrations that are known worldwide would have happened inApril and May of '63. Now, there were continuing demonstrations, but these were the biggies. Were you meeting at Thurgood at that time?
VOLKER: We did meet at Thurgood. That may have been more into May and June, alittle bit later. And I remember from that we did do a few minor sit-ins. They weren't the massive things.
VOLKER: Downtown. I don't know how much we were really linked in with anygreater movement but we felt passionate. I remember we went to a Pizitz. One of 00:44:00the department stores had a counter and we decided to integrate and go. We paired up Black/White, Black/White and we sort of went in and monopolized the stools and they just simply closed the counter down. They didn't call the police to us or anything. So, when they didn't call the police and didn't do anything, after a while it gets to be a waiting game, so we left.
HUNTLEY: Were you served?
VOLKER: No. They just simply closed the counter, said, "We're not serving." Theyleft. But they wouldn't be confrontive, other than just they weren't going to serve. "We're closed." "It's passed our opening hours." Even though we knew it was not.
I continued to be involved and got more acquainted with a group of people herein Birmingham. Among those was a number of people around the Unitarian Church. I 00:45:00remember once incident that was really chilling to me was -- this would have been in the summer of '63. It probably would have been after some of the meetings at Thurgood or that same group of people. Some of us had also been down to the Gaston Motel. I didn't have a car. This was when graduate students were really poor and some friends were bringing me home.
There were several of us, Black and White, male and female.
There was an attorney with us, I believe it was Paul Greenberg was with us atthat time. He was one of those outside agitators as they were always called. Whoever owned the car was being the taxi and taking us all home. I was brought home to 17th Street South and as we were almost in front of my apartment, the 00:46:00police stopped us and wanted to know what we were doing. We just said, "Well, we've been to a meeting and we're going home." First we were very tactful. We all had to get out of the car and, then the police really began to harass us. I felt what was interesting, it was very similar or certainly it reminded me of one of the scenes in Mississippi Burning, where people were stopped by the police.
HUNTLEY: So was this both Blacks and Whites in the car?
VOLKER: Blacks and Whites in the car.
HUNTLEY: Black men and White women?
VOLKER: There were Black men and White women and White men and Black women.
This was before the days you wore seat belts so there was probably a lot of usin the car.
HUNTLEY: Were there any incidents as a result of that?00:47:00
VOLKER: ...and so the policeman told the Black guys, "You know better than to behanging around with these White folks. They're going to get you in trouble." There were several policemen and one of the policemen told the White guy that was the attorney with us, Paul, "You even smell like a Nigger, what are you doing here." And, to me, he started harassing me. I guess they were implying I had sex with some Black guy. And it was like, "What do you want, a Nigger baby? Is that why you are hanging around with these folks?" I was being a really wise 00:48:00guy at that time and I said, "Well, if I had a baby, it wouldn't matter what color it was."
So, then he started bristling and he said, "Your daddy know you're here. "So Iproceeded to tell him my father was a minister and my father approved of Black and White people as the way Jesus wanted us to live, in an integrated society." And I could just see this policeman's face was getting red because all these were White policemen. They were just getting redder in the face. It was even practically glowing in the dark. I could just feel him getting ready. He put his hand on his side like he was going to pull his gun or his billy club. And I thought, "I am going to get my head bashed in. We're all going to get hurt if I don't stop my wise cracks."
And, so I said, "Officer, we've been to a meeting, it was about church and I'mgoing in this house right here because this is where I live." And I took off. 00:49:00
They didn't try to stop me and told the guys and the other women in the car "andgo on about your business" and followed them to the next stop where they let some people off and, then did not harass them anymore. I guess in the meantime they had asked to see everybody's IDs. So we all had fears that we were either going to lose our jobs or get thrown out of school.
But, nothing happened from that but it really made me aware of how stronglypeople felt and how, when the authority does not protect you in expressing these basic freedoms of interaction, that it's really scary and it's really wrong. And, so that's one of the things I remember that really made an imprint. And the more I encountered those kinds of incidences, the more I was determined to express myself because my view was just as important as anybody else's, was my attitude. 00:50:00
HUNTLEY: You mentioned something about the A. G. Gaston Motel. Did you go therewith that group?
VOLKER: As I recollect we had probably gone there after a meeting at Thurgoodbecause A. G. Gaston was about the only place in town that you could go and just socialize after a meeting if you were Black and White. I think to people hearing this after the 60s -- to think about just people being Black and White in a room as leaders. They think what's the big deal about that. But that was really something.
HUNTLEY: It was a revolutionary act.
VOLKER: It was a revolutionary act. That's a good way to put it. And I remembera number of times going from groups where we were Black and White together, all kinds of people would take it upon themselves to just suddenly begin following 00:51:00you. I remember one time, this would have been later in '63, maybe even in '64.
HUNTLEY: You said, "all kinds of people", what do you mean?
VOLKER: I mean, it's just like you would be riding down the street and a groupof guys in new cars...
HUNTLEY: Whites or Blacks?
VOLKER: White. Or rag tag old cars. They decided they were going to follow us tosee what we were doing. And, I remember several times being with groups and we were out running people. One time we even got a group to follow us into the police station. Of course, the police were not much help. But we thought, "Well, if we drive into the police station here, maybe they'll go away." And, they did.
HUNTLEY: In August of '63 the March of Washington took place.00:52:00
VOLKER: I didn't go. I had a test the next week and I felt I had to stay andstudy. I did not realize, I think I was still too young to realize the importance of the march. I had a number of friends that were going.
HUNTLEY: A number of White friends?
VOLKER: White and Black friends. And, I remember some of my friends brought meliterature from Washington from that event that I still treasure. But, I remember watching it a great deal on TV and saying if there's ever other -- marches since then, when I really feel they're important, and if I can get my finances together, I go. But, I did not go to that one, simply because I was young and did not understand how important it was and I had a test on Monday.
HUNTLEY: Well, what did you actually feel about that march? Afterwards you saidyou were not mature enough to really understand what was happening -- the 00:53:00magnitude of it. But, I'm sure as you watched it on TV.
VOLKER: As I watched it on TV, it really came home.
HUNTLEY: Did you think that this was a pivotal point in the history of racerelations in the country?
VOLKER: I didn't understand that then, but in retrospect it certainly was. Iremember just being very aware of being very supportive of it, having friends that were going. I do remember going on from '63, the church bombing, which took place then in September. I was still in graduate school and I remember I was home visiting with my family in Sylacauga.
HUNTLEY: The morning of the bombing?
VOLKER: Yes. Where we first heard about it, we were at a family outing. We werein a car driving around, it was one of those gray September days in Sylacauga. 00:54:00This news flash came over the car radio about it and I was just aghast and thought, "This is horrible." My parents were just like, "Oh, yes, it's bad." But I was the one that was really reacting emotionally. I ended up coming back to Birmingham that night. My parents were fearful about things were really bad and maybe we shouldn't go. I told them, "I'll be fine. I'm going back." And I rode the bus back into Birmingham. A friend picked me up at the bus station downtown. I remember it was a really eerie feeling. The streets were almost deserted.
HUNTLEY: That was unusual for Birmingham?
VOLKER: That was very unusual at that point. There were a lot of military. TheNational Guard had already been called out by late evening. One of the things that I remember, of course it was on everybody's mind, but one of the things 00:55:00that really touched me was how some people that I had argued with all the time about the importance of the Civil Rights Movement and they were taking opposite views.
Some of those people -- my fellow graduate students -- came up to me and theyapologized to me for the church bombing. And their feeling was, "Well, maybe you're right. Things have gone too far. This was not right. I'm sorry this happened, Virginia." It's like "Why are you telling me?" In retrospect, I realize you learn in church you learn about the importance of sacrifice and changing people's behavior. Of course people who study in group psychology talk about that a great deal, but it really clicked in there somewhere that in many ways that was one of the sacrifices and a major sacrifice that helped turn this 00:56:00country around.
HUNTLEY: That's interesting that you would say that your friends came to you andin effect apologized to you for the bombing. That meant that in their minds that you were the symbol for that issue or for Black people.
VOLKER: I probably was for them because I was one of the few people around --there were other people around the university like me that were very outspoken, but I guess I was the one that some of these people knew. I know that the funeral for either one or several of the little Black girls was held in 6th Avenue Baptist Church when it was really on 6th Avenue South and I remember being at that and just standing outside with a mob of people and I remember there were several university people there. Mostly some faculty that was there. 00:57:00
HUNTLEY: What happens in the life of Virginia Volker after 1963 and '64? Youhave gone through graduate school. You're more mature. Do you remain in Birmingham?
VOLKER: I stayed in Birmingham. I ended up getting married and getting involvedwith the Unitarian Church, which was one of the few churches in the White community that was taking a stand for Civil Rights.
HUNTLEY: What kind of activities were you involved in with the Unitarian Churchin relationship to race?
VOLKER: One of the things from that group I got connected with was a group ofwomen called Friendship in Action, which is another interesting story in and of 00:58:00itself. I think that was really significant for me in that I had people like Deenie Drew and Sally Davis, Helen Lewis. Those are just some names that come to the forefront. Some of the White women were Annie Crouse, Peggy Fuller and some other women who are no longer with us. But, Friendship in Action, a lot of that, in retrospect, it was an establishment group, but it was more of a middle class, liberal community group of people.
HUNTLEY: What did you do?
VOLKER: We said we wanted to be friends and learn to cross racial barriers on apersonal level. Putting the term 'action' in our name meant that we wanted to do more than just talk, that we wanted to make things change in society around us. 00:59:00If I remember correctly, one of the projects that we got involved with, along with the Unitarian Church and a few others, was to have one of the first day care program that was integrated. We helped spearhead that. A lot of it though, it was simply by us talking and the things that we were involved in the community, taking a stand for improved relationships between people.
Out of that grew another, more formal organization called Pals for AmericanWomen. It was started by Ester Brown in Topeka, Kansas, who had been part of the effort to bring about the '54 Supreme Court decision. These two groups were very much a middle class women's response to what was happening. We will do things 01:00:00where we are, with women, with children to try to make a good difference in the world. And, Pals for American Women was like, the belief was that if we could get people to hear from their hearts, that that's what will change people.
So, we got together our speeches, so to speak and we said we would go as a group-- a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which was called WASP, and a Black woman, usually a Jewish woman and a Catholic woman -- We would go and we would go to various organizations and talk about the impact of bad race relations on our family and ourselves as a way of trying to persuade people to do otherwise and to be more for civil rights and to be more tolerant.
That organization survived for about five years and I hope had some good impact.01:01:00I think it did on the people. I occasionally meet people who remember some of their programs. We also had a woman who was Japanese-American, who had been in a concentration camp in the Arizona desert when she was young. So, it was a very powerful group for a while. We had some powerful stories that we felt could touch people's hearts and make a big difference. That was very much a women's response and involvement.
HUNTLEY: Virginia, we've taken about an hour and a half and I certainlyappreciate your time. Maybe we need to just do this again some time, but I want to thank you for coming.
VOLKER: Maybe we can talk about some other things.
VOLKER: I've tried to pick out some highlights and some things that people canidentify with more. I think one of the things I really learned from the Civil 01:02:00Rights Movement. Well, first of all I just feel very fortunate that I was born in a time and a place where this was happening. I feel very privileged to have been in Birmingham during that momentous year of '63 and I think it taught me the power of people, that people can make a difference, that we're not powerless pawns totally. One of the things I learned that only one person can only do one person's part, but if groups of people work together smart, we can make a big difference. And, I also learned some things about the power of non-violence and trying to reach people's hearts instead of just their heads or, of course, their bodies.
Learning that and knowing that and practicing it is more difficult though.
HUNTLEY: In an exciting place at an exciting time.
VOLKER: It really was. I was fortunate.01:03:00
HUNTLEY: Thank you, Virginia.
VOLKER: But, it was also sad.
HUNTLEY: Sure. I appreciate your time.
VOLKER: Thank you.