Out for a neighborhood walk a while back, I stopped to read a plaque in front of a house. The plaque is part of a Civil Rights Project in St. Augustine, Florida called the Accord Freedom Trail whose mission is “Remembering, Recognizing, and Honoring all those who risked their lives to attain civil rights for all and celebrating St. Augustine’s pivotal role in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” This sign identifies the then residents of the house, Reverend Roscoe and Flora Halyard, and commends their commitment to the struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act.
And there is another name on this plaque that piqued my interest: Sarah Patton Boyle.
Born in Virginia in 1906, Sarah Patton Boyle was 44, a middle-aged white Southern woman, when she stepped up to fight for what she knew in her heart was right: racial integration. Boyle’s involvement is detailed in her autobiographical book The Desegregated Heart: a Virginian’s stand in time of transition, published in 1962.
Elizabeth Ellis Miller, scholar with the University of Maryland, explains that Boyle’s book is considered a “spiritual memoir [which] operated as a mode of rhetorical activism in the black freedom movement”(295).
Reading The Desegregated Heart is a humbling experience. It’s often said that mistakes are opportunities to learn and Boyle lived this truism to the fullest.
When Boyle’s suppressed belief in equal rights and integration bubbled to the surface, she needed a way to communicate, a way that would work for the movement and cease backfiring on her. The spiritual memoir became her most potent tool, a bestseller upon its release.
Boyle begins by describing her upbringing in Virginia which included an exaggerated Southern legacy and hired Black help. Boyle was indoctrinated with the strict Southern code designed to keep Blacks in their place, a segregated and inferior place.
“All this emphasis on background inevitably bred in me a loathsome sense of social superiority. But it also gave me a feeling of roots reaching far back – and far forward – into history. I was taught to think of myself as part of the very backbone of Virginia, which was the backbone of the South, which was the backbone of the nation, which was the backbone of the world”(5).
Boyle admits that she came to absorb the notion of absolute segregation:
“My thoughts became saturated with the assumption that Negroes belonged to a lower order of man than we. Loving them – after my father’s fashion at first, and then after my mother’s – I quickly learned not to judge them by our standards, but by a segregated, separate standard. I can’t remember, for instance, when I first began saying that certain Negroes had “nice homes,” meaning nice by “their standards,” certainly not by ours. Later, when I wanted to join the human race as equal, not as a superior member of it, this double standard of values for everything was far more difficult to break down than my outer habits of segregated behavior – and probably also created more resentment among cultivated, keen-sighted Negroes”(14).
In Chapter 3: The Southern Code, Boyle relays that when she turned 12, she was informed that “her relations with Negroes now must be formal:”
“A dreadful training period followed during which I was watched and rebuked if I forgot any of the many taboos which suddenly came into being. It was similar to the training little girls of long ago endured while being converted from tomboys into “little ladies.” But mine was even more unnatural and destructive. It called for repression not only of what was happiest in the years just passed, but also of much of what was natural and dear in my human contacts as well.
“All that had been best in my life was branded WRONG. It was RIGHT to do what I dimly sensed was contrary to the laws of love and loyalty – to set a wall between myself and friends, to meet overtures with formality – these things were RIGHT.
“It was proper – indeed, it was Southern – to be friendly and chatty with all Negroes, provided you watched the emotional balance and instantly withdrew into a more formal attitude if a note of equality crept in. There were many rules to help ones balance on this tightrope, some given verbally, some by implication”(22-23).
Never comfortable with this code, it cracked when Boyle found herself in full support of Gregory Swanson, an African-American who filed suit to be admitted into the law school at the University of Virginia in 1950.
“Then without warning which most white Southerners could recognize, a tidal wave rose titan-high in the South’s calm bay of the status quo. It reached me in July 1950, when my husband- by then associate professor in the recently merged Departments of Speech and Drama – brought home news that a young Negro lawyer had opened suit for admission to our law school”(Boyle 49).
As Miller states in her article, “Boyle underwent the first conversion of her adult life: to civil rights activity”(296).
For the next 5 years, Boyle “spoke and wrote in favor of integration at nearly every opportunity, publishing more than one hundred articles on the subject of integration and delivering dozens of speeches” (qtd. in Miller 296).
It was evident from the start that Boyle had stepped into territory she knew nothing about. Not only were many of her articles and speeches failing to convince her audiences, but they were stirring up hostility among those she imagined would be easy to sway.
Boyle recognized she needed help and sought it from an African-American journalist Thomas Jerome “TJ” Sellers, at the time editor of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune.
“I appealed to Mr. Sellers to teach me the facts which had been omitted from my education, to help me bridge my chasm of segregation and knock down my segregation walls. Whether I would take up the banner of brotherhood again I wasn’t sure but I was impelled at least to seek to understand.
“Characteristically, he replied, “All right – provided you approach the assignment as an objective student of sociology, not as a white woman slumming!”
“Indignant that he thought the stipulation necessary (though it undoubtedly was), I agreed, and for many months visited his office weekly for instruction”(102).
Boyle relays many of the valuable lessons her mentor TJ Sellers graciously taught her.
“I became aware of the difference, which reaches into every corner of one’s life, between being a member of the exclusive group and a member of the excluded group in a segregated society”(107).
Although learning and becoming more empowered, Boyle’s campaign “failed due to an overly simplistic view of both racism and reform”(Miller 298).
She labeled racism a bogeyman: “Its power lies entirely in our own belief in it”(153) and believed many Southerners like her would readily see the light and support integration.
“A pattern which made sense to me had now clearly emerged. The majority of educated Southerners were ready to throw off the yoke of injustice to Negroes whenever it was called to their attention. Most of those who weren’t ready would become so, I thought, if given the facts”(56).
Boyle’s naivete came back to bite her most brutally after the publication of her article in the February 1955 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, entitled Southerners Will Like Integration. The article’s conclusion read:
“I do not claim that the whole story of Southern racial prejudice is a myth, but I do stoutly maintain that it is vastly exaggerated in our own minds, as well as in those of outsiders. A few emotional individuals bellow threats and hatred, a few sensation lovers join them in the din, and the large majority, composed of good-willed but easygoing, peace-loving citizens, cower back mistakenly assuming that there is nothing they can do about it because their ‘number is so small.’
“Our chief need, I think, is for the realization that if we believe in justice and equality for all, we are not only on the side of right but also on the side of the majority, and that we shall suffer no loneliness in our community if we stand up to be counted for what we believe”(Post 27).
A few praised the article, but she endured the silent treatment from people she’d known for a long time, received hundreds of belligerent, threatening letters, and was the subject of harsh editorials and articles in newspapers across the country, some discrediting her personally. Few came to her defense, especially as the resistance to school desegregation heated up in Virginia and across the South.
Then on August 29, 1956, a cross was set ablaze on her front lawn:
“There it stood below, six feet tall and not a slipper’s toss from the house, the flames stretching eastward in the light breeze like banners of evil. The soft hiss and crackle was a fitting voice for live malice, and the odor of burning oil-soaked rags a fitting miasma of human moral degradation. Little blasts of dry, scorching air, made soulless by unholy heat, beat at my face. Here was an expression of hate which shocked four senses with the forceful thrust of evil”(253).
Refusing to be intimidated, Boyle woke the only other person home at the time, her 13-year-old son, and said:
“Look! They’re burning a cross for Mother. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“He peered out, cried “Yes!” and dashed for his camera”(254).
Although growing in ways she never imagined at the outset of her activism, there came the point when Boyle was forced to reckon with her disillusionment; she even became suicidal.
“I didn’t quite wish I had not begun this bleak journey. I was in the desert because I had believed in something better than my experience demonstrated. The goodness I had imagined was worthier than the facts which had confronted me. My lot was cast with the best. I could not regret it.
“Moreover, my discovery of the realities of human character was somehow related to goodness, even though what I had discovered was not good. My disillusionment itself was not a part of evil, of futility. It was in the category of progress. Perhaps the desert I was crossing symbolized progress from a dream goodness to real goodness”(298).
One can hope.
Despite the backlash, Boyle renegotiated her faith, placing more in God than in her fellow humans, and continued her involvement in the fight. She was a longtime member of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was “appointed to the Virginia Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights”( https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Boyle_Sarah_Patton_1906-1994). Boyle also participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.
Returning to the Accord plaque in my neighborhood, it explains how Sarah Patton Boyle joined a demonstration against hotel segregation at the Monson Motor Lodge in downtown St. Augustine in 1964, where she was arrested and made to spend time in the St. Johns County Jail. “I regard my arrest as an honorary degree in the struggle to implement the principles in which I so deeply believe,” wrote Boyle.
In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lists Boyle as one of the few white activists who chose to act in that pivotal time:
“I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some—such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Anne Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle—have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.”
American historian Anne Firor Scott concludes her review of Boyle’s book just after its 1962 publication with:
“However one may gasp at naïveté, or wonder about particular insensitivities, one can only admire Mrs. Boyle’s courage and wish her Godspeed”(425).
Boyle’s seems the brand of courage still needed today to combat the continued “disease of segregation.”
Sarah Patton Boyle was a #Nasty Woman Writer and Activist.
© Maria Dintino 2020
Boyle, Sarah Patton. The Desegregated Heart. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1962.
Boyle, Sarah Patton. “Southerners Will Like Integration.” The Saturday Evening Post. Feb 1955.
Miller, Elizabeth Ellis. “Reframing Rhetorical Failure: Confession and Conversion in Sarah Patton Boyle’s Desegregated Heart.” Rhetoric Review. Vol 35. No 4, pp 294-307, 2016.
Scott, Anne Firor. “Reviewed Work(s): The Desegregate Heart: A Virginian’s Stand in Time of Transition by Sarah Patton Boyle.” The Journal of Southern History. Vol 29, No 3, August 1963.