Out of the Mouths of Babes: Prejudice or Hope?

07 February 2017

History

 

Please note that quotations have been taken directly from the original documents, and terminology that may be deemed offensive today has been preserved for historic accuracy to that particular document.

Whilst the census data and Institute speeches available in Race Relations in America offer the opportunity to study the top-level experiences of non-white Americans, the true significance of segregation can be felt in records such as the studies carried out by the Race Relations Department fieldworkers. Parent and pupil interviews, forming part of the Chattanooga desegregation survey, have the ability to inform, shock and inspire in equal measures.

In 1960 fieldworkers visited the families of children whose schools were due to be desegregated, both African American and white. The responses reveal family life in Tennessee, attitudes to education, life goals, beliefs and values. Each was also asked for comments on the "racial situation", including access to recreational facilities, sit-in demonstrations and school desegregation.

Extract from a pupil interview. Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.Extract from a pupil interview. Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

It is interesting to explore the influence of parents on their children in the spread of prejudice. One parent stated that "this old world is going to hell and will have a war if it is integrated", and their child repeated this phrase almost word for word in his own interview. Another child commented that "most parents have turned young people against the Negroes rather than teenagers themselves", whilst some thought that parents should keep out of the discussion and let children sort it out amongst themselves. Some had been taught to accept the situation, with one child agreeing to the question "Do your parents say that you can’t do some things you want to do because you are a Negro?" and adding, "Yes, and it’s easy to see because you can find out that the Negro is not free".

Several children were in favour of the improved opportunities that desegregated schools would offer; some were pragmatic, saying that they wouldn’t choose it, but they wanted to continue their education regardless; whilst others announced that they would start fights, quit or insist on being moved to a private school. One African American child stated rather poignantly that "integration is a good idea. We should have the same privileges as other children. I think they should start in the lower grades first. When children get older they can hate more".

Extract from a pupil interview. Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.Extract from a pupil interview. Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

White parents tended to be adamant that segregation should be maintained – one declared that he would move the family back to Alabama if necessary – or recommended gradual integration: "a colored person on the school board, opening the lunch-counters, and token integration in the first grade would solve the immediate problem of segregation".

Housing and living conditions were frequently commented on, indicating cleanliness, household chores, and whether the children had time or space to study. Overcrowding was common, with one boy noted as sharing a room and a bed with three of his brothers. The educational history of the parents was also recorded, for example "Mrs Johnson did not go as far in school as she wanted to. She assert[ed] that with a family of 13 it was impossible to make it".

School children in a Baltimore classroom. Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.School children in a Baltimore classroom. Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Interviewers also included observations of the family, giving the responses more personality. One child made a particular impression on the fieldworker: "I have not yet encountered an interviewee yet so jolly and so amusing and so apparently light-hearted. She answered the questions most intelligently and most seriously", whilst another "regarded TV and found a great deal more pleasure there watching Pop Eye than he did trying to attempt to answer my questions".

These interviews allow researchers to interrogate the opinions voiced by members of both communities, revealing fears about employment, poverty, housing, increased African American voting, and intermarriage. Society’s prejudices are reflected in the unconscious words of the younger generation, offering a stark reminder of how easily discrimination can be perpetuated – out of the mouths of babes, indeed.

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About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew. Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting projects, from the First World War to American History, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, and Race Relations in America - very different but fascinating projects! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I have really enjoyed putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our resources.