By Rebecca Bridges Watts
Born in Virginia in 1906, Sarah Patton Boyle was raised in a white Southern family, the daughter of an Episcopal priest, and was and taught not to question what she called “the Southern Code.” As Boyle recalled in her memoir The Desegregated Heart, she grew up with people of color working both in her household and on her family’s land. As a young child, she spent much time around these people of color; they were her friends and confidantes. However, once she turned 12 years old she was told “it was no longer ‘proper’ for me to be ‘familiar’ with Negroes. Certain rules of adult conduct must now be observed. It was WRONG to violate these rules.”
Boyle first began to question her lifelong acceptance of racism and segregation in 1950, when Gregory Swanson, an African-American man, was admitted to the University of Virginia School of Law. In true paternalistic fashion, she decided to write to Swanson to “help him” as he made plans to move to Charlottesville, where she lived with her husband, who was on the Virginia faculty. She arranged to interview Swanson for Reader’s Digest, but the profile was not published due to Swanson’s concerns about the tone and character of the article.
Realizing that she needed help with her tone and her point of view, Boyle sought out the editor of the local African-American newspaper, T.J. Sellers. He mentored her for two years, learning more about African Americans’ experiences and perspectives. She quickly became a public voice for integration, speaking at churches throughout the South, organizing letter-writing campaigns, and publishing more than 100 articles on racial integration in just three years. In 1955, she published an article in the Saturday Evening Post, “Southerners Will Like Integration,” that brought national notoriety. A cross was burned by the KKK in front of her home, as she and her young son watched from inside.
Boyle believed that one of the main hurdles to integration was the widespread misconception amongst whites that “I am for integration, but most others are against it.” In her Saturday Evening Post article, Boyle recalled how when she first heard about Swanson’s admission to the university, “I felt a curious mixture of joy and fear. It seemed right that he should come here… But I was afraid others would not receive him well. There’s going to be a lot of trouble, I thought.” As she researched her letters to the editor and articles, Boyle concluded that, “The Southwide conviction that everybody else is prejudiced is like a sodden blanket over each individual’s impulse toward democracy.”
A dominant thread in Boyle’s pro-integration argument was that people can change. Boyle reconnected with the Episcopal faith of her youth through worship and involvement at St. Paul’s in Charlottesville. This spiritual renewal laid the groundwork for what she termed a “conversion” in how she saw herself in relationship to African Americans.
In The Desegregated Heart, Boyle remembers a moment of decision in May 1951: “I knew I must decide, definitely and finally, whether or not I would fight in the Negro’s battle for equality,” describing this as more of a commitment than her initial decision to act in 1950. Making her “decision on a Friday night… and all day Saturday I was sick within. The Southern code muttered in my ear… I no longer believed in it but I could still hear its voice — and I knew others believed.” When she went to her church the next day, the hymn “sounded as though it had been conceived and phrased for me personally at this moment in my life: ‘Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide… for the good or evil side’.” The rector preached that “whenever you choose what seems to you the highest course, you have made the right decision, so you shouldn’t fear that later developments might prove it otherwise.” When Boyle left church that Sunday, her conversion was complete: “I left the church with all my doubts wiped away. … Always I have had with me the thread of comfort that I chose rightly at the crossroads of 1951.”
It is not surprising that Boyle frequently incorporated conversion stories to make her point that people can — and do — change. Speaking at a November 1954 meeting of the NAACP in Gainesville, Georgia, Boyle argued that even the “most prejudiced southerners can be changed.” She often told the story of a local physician who recommended that an ill elderly woman hire a visiting nurse to care for her at her home. The doctor told his elderly patient that, “I can get you a corking good one… but she’s colored and I won’t send her to you unless you agree to address her as ‘Mrs.’ She’s a cultured lady and I won’t have her insulted.” At first the woman turned him down, but as her condition continued to deteriorate, she called the doctor and said she would like to give the nurse a try: “I’ll call that Negro ‘Mrs.’ if you’ll send her.” When her doctor visited next, he asked how the nurse was working out, “You mean Mrs. Bunn?… Why she’s one of the loveliest people I have ever known. I’d like to have her for a friend.”
In 1960, Boyle was invited to join the Episcopal Church’s Committee on Intergroup Relations, described by historian Gardiner Shattuck as being “intended to advise the Department of Christian Social Relations about how to bridge the gap between the church’s lofty social principles and its actual racial practices on the local and national levels.” In 1963, she was honored with an award at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s national meeting. She contributed to the SCLC’s monthly newsletter, participated in the March on Washington in 1963, and joined in the SCLC’s June 1964 demonstration to integrate the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida, alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was proudly jailed for her activism there. As Boyle explained, “People often tell me, ‘I know that segregation is un-Christian, but I simply haven’t the courage to make a stand against it in the South.’ I doubt if any of us has the courage … Jesus and the apostles never stressed courage.”
Rebecca Bridges Watts is curate at St. Thomas Church, College Station, Texas. She was formerly associate professor of Communication and Media Studies at Stetson University in Florida, where her research and teaching focused on public discourse related to race, public memory, and the formation of cultural identity.