Oral Histories of Racial Integration at Carson-Newman College
Interview with Mary Phipps
Mary Phipps worked at Carson-Newman College for 41 years. Her parents also worked for the college and her niece, Pat Crippins, was the first African-American to graduate from Carson-Newman. Her sister Gladys Clay was the first African-American professor.
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My daddy and mother were working with Dr. Warren. It was not integrated at that time. My father used to travel with the boys when they played and he worked with Dr. Warren. He was a meat cutter and he also took the girls luggage down in a wagon – you know there was a team of mules – to the train station. And I remember my father saying he came back, and this man who was there was real young and he had just come in as a teacher. My daddy was in Swan taking the luggage in and he came back out again and he saw him standing. He thought he was a student and he said, “Well you can help with this luggage.” And he did. He helped daddy carry the luggage in and Dr. Warren came in and he asked him, “What are you doing? You’re a teacher.” You know, and he said, “I’m just helping out, you know.” So, Daddy didn’t have any idea that he was a teacher. He was a little thin man.
But my mother worked in Henderson and she worked for Dr. Warren and Mrs. Warren had three girls that they adopted. They were their nieces. Course mother took care up there and cooked for the president. I had married my husband at 17 years old and I started working up there. My first job was working at [the infirmary], which was a house. It was like a hospital. Worked under Ms. Manley. Its named after her now. Course, I was young and I wore my hair long and plaited. Ms. Manley was a woman who loved Africans. She started them coming to Carson-Newman. And I used to read and see them in National Geographic, which they don’t have it now, where they would have holes in their ears and you know the way they looked, disturbed me to say I looked like them. And one day she said, I’m going to show you the picture of the one I told you that you remind me of. She was simply beautiful. She was way out of the way of me.
So I quit that job – well I didn’t quit they sent me to Burnett Dorm, which was right beside of it, which was not like it is now. It was like a house more. Wasn’t very many girls. I worked there for about six years. And I came from Burnett and went to Butler Dorm. Butler Dorm was considered as upperclassmen. Nobody was there but the juniors and the seniors. And I worked there. They were very good to me because they felt like I was young. They had house mother; she was a girl that was over the dorm. She was the one that if you were out of order, she could make you do things. I worked there for about 4 or 5 years. And the girls would have things for me, you know at Christmas give me things. I was more like a mother that some of them didn’t have that would come to me and talk to me. Some of them didn’t know how to iron and some of them would cry, you know. And I think that they clung to me because I was young. They couldn’t imagine a woman who was young like me working in the dorm. But when I came there, then I moved there to Swan. But when I was working there at Swann, I worked in under Ms. Carter. She was the dean of women: very tough. The girls could not wear shorts. They had to go with their coat on down to the field behind Swann. But when I worked it was that a girl could not be kissing in the dorm. The girl couldn't - wasn’t any dancing in there. If she slipped off and went somewhere else to dance and they found out, she’d be sent home.
And I worked in Henderson there during the time when we would go and clean when the girls left and the beds were made like you could move the bed, they were iron beds. You know, cause you could move them around and we were cleaning that before you got back. And we would open the window sills. There were only nine black women there. No white. We were under nine black women and we had about eight black men. They were so considerate. They were nice. And we worked with them. There were not any white persons.
I remember because my mother was sick and I had to take off a year. Someone else filled my place and Mr. Sexton came and took over the custodians. But I came back, he couldn’t imagine. He thought I was a student. But I was a worker and I got my job back. And I remember us dragging the trash you know then they had this lab and they experiment on pigs. And you know, sometimes girls do little hellish things. They came and put the pig in the trash. When we dump the trash over quite naturally they was froze and some of them wasn’t that they demonstrate on. We dragged the trash to Butler because it was the only one that had a disposer. You know you could drop the trash in there and it burn.
I remember this Mr. Sexton wanting to see Mary Phipps, which was me when I came back. I walked in and he thought I was a student and no I was working and he was floored me being so young there. And I was telling him some of the rules we had when we were there. When I first came there, Ms. Carter had us sign a paper that said we did not smoke, we did not drink. We would not give the girls cigarettes. After we cleaned the dorm we had to sweep from Swann, those that were from Butler would sweep from Butler and meet us. And we’d sweep all the way down to the post office. As the youngest, I guess you’ve heard, I was kind of high-strung. I didn’t care. So, when he met me I said, “Mr. Sexton I think it’s terrible that we have to come here on Sundays. Dr. Fite was the president of Carson-Newman College. He did nothing about it. The one that did stop it was Mr. Sexton. And I said to Mr. Sexton that it’s a shame that the custodial workers have to sweep all the way down, and you’d feel ashamed because people say “Get off the street!” You know people of our race. “You’ve got no business being on the street.” But we did our job. Because a lot of them had to have their job, you know.
I’ll never forget it was a Sunday that I was supposed to come to take the trash out. We came on Sunday to take the trash out for the girls. In the morning before we’d go to church, we had to come up and take the trash out on our turn. They had a great big old round thing that you put it in and burn it. Well, I didn’t carry a match. I never smoked. I’ll never forget it, it was under Dr. Fite. He called that morning that the trash had gone all over the campus. That meant disposed things that the girls had in the trash. I and my brother, see my mother was used to being treated like that but we wasn’t. So he said, “Come back or you’re going to be fired.” I said “I’ll be fired.” So I came back that Monday and Ms. Copeland, she’s the house mother in Swann who I was working under, she said, “You’re going to be fired.” I said, “I don’t care.” I said to her, “Get out of my face. Cause I don’t care to be fired. Because I think its outrageous for Dr. Fite to call me back on campus because I don’t smoke. They were putting it on me being the youngest, you know. They wanted me to come back and pick all that trash up. He had to get out and pick some of it up’s what made him mad. So when I got back, my mother was pleading you know. She was there with me. And Mr. Sloan, his son taught school up here, they’re wonderful people. He called me in the office and they wanted to know what had happened and I said that morning I went and it was already trash in there but I didn’t have any match. If I’d had a match… The wind was blowing that day and the way it was made, it blowed the trash out from under that crack. Dr. Fite talked to me a little bit hateful you know, so when I saw that he was talking to me like that I got back with him. I said, “Well, I came to be fired. But before I get fired I will tell that Carson-Newman College had me up here on Sunday, and this is a Christian institution.” And I said, “You’ll wish I’d never been here.” So, I didn’t get fired. It was because I stood up to the president and the president learned to love me on the end.
I have always been a person who stayed at Carson-Newman. I was a person that I – I was a human being no matter what race I was. You had respect for people that, if I worked for you, you should have more respect for me. I think that I was trying to put it, and which I did, that Carson-Newman College was, because it was not integrated, that they could treat us any way for being our color. But the man that came in that I thought was the greatest president, and really I did, I thought the world of Dr. Maddox. I really did. I worked for him for 19 years. I saw Dr. Maddox as true man that he came in, and I worked that many years, and had another woman that came in that was Mrs. Franklin, that caused us to have insurance. See we had no insurance. The custodial workers were almost left out because some of the teachers did not even want us to join them in the Christmas party and this is where Dr. Maddox came in. And I loved that man so about the way he felt. He felt like that we were there working just like anyone else and it would be considered that the faculty and the custodial workers would be eating Christmas dinner together. Now I wanted you to know that he caused that. A lot of things that people didn’t know about him but by me working for him [I know] what kind of man he was.
To me, Dr. Maddox was one of the finest men. He was considerate of me because my husband had a stroke and every morning that I would come by there he would ask me how was my family. And during the time I was working for him, because I worked there at their home, my son had a critical wreck in Alcoa. He had a 50/50 chance to live. Dr. Maddox says, “Go to your son.” By the time I got there Dr. Maddox was already there: went in there with us and prayed over my son. He considered the hard work I did [and made sure] that I never missed a paycheck. Because I had worked and I worked times that I should have been off. You know how you have so many days that you have off and he thought those many days that I had off, I should continue to get my check, you know. And I got my check. Dr. Maddox saw that we had retirement. I had been there for 41 years and they went back for 41 years that I was there til now and I draw retirement.
So when I came there, I seen hard times and I seen good times. Because when I went there, we had four girls in our family. Some of the girls [in the dorms] were wealthy and some of the girls would leave us with you know, nice things: blouses, they didn’t care what they give away you know they would give us things. And I have worn things a lot the girls at Carson-Newman College’s clothes. Shoes and everything. The girls had high respect for me. I treated those girls like they were my own children. And I can say that, I think being in the dorm with girls was the best thing that ever happened to me. I loved every girl, every girl loved me. And since I’ve been away I have – used to get letters. We had a girl named Virginia when I was working in Burnett. She something like the housemother but it was called something else. Everything that you girls did was reported to her. And I’ll never forget, I came in that morning and, I was very about my work and I’d think about being clean when you share, you know, that you all would catch something. So some of the girls didn’t really know me that well and that morning that I came and I had everything cleaned up and worked hard. Seventeen showers is a lot of shower to clean. And some girl had put peanut butter in there. They put it in the bathtub. And I came that morning and one of the girls was – Dr. Ellis’s son married one of the girls, she was so sweet. I said to the girls, “I’m not going to clean it.” That’s just the way I was. “I’m not going to clean it,” I said, told the housemother, which was Virginia (I call her a housemother but she wasn’t because she had a mother over her) that, “If I come and try to help you girls not take any kind of disease, keeping your showers and everything clean, you should have respect for me. I’m not going to clean it. But whoever done it, it better be clean when I get back here on Monday morning.” And it was real funny, Monday morning I came and the tub was clean. And you see, that’s where I built the trust of girls. They had trust in me because they knew I was trying to help them. And they sort of used me like I was just a good friend and a mother.
One girl said to me, “You were better to me than my own mother,” because I would press her clothes, you know, when she would go out. Because she was not used to doing these things. And a lot of things I helped do that they did know. They came to school and they didn’t know and I taught them. I feel like in the 41 years that I stayed there, I can truthfully say that they had high respect for me, and they still do. Even now, that I’m gone. I walk in the dorm or I walk down to get my ticket for something, they remember me. Some of them remember me because they’d say, “Mary, are you going to be good?” or something like that. (laughs) And I’d say, “No!”
But I have seen some girls come in there and be high. I have seen someone from Newport that I just couldn’t do nothing with her. She wasn’t mean to me but she had to drink, she had a problem. But when they caught her it wasn’t that I told on her. They caught her and they sent her away from school. Now they didn’t let you stay at school when they caught you. You know how you can like you can stay and get by with it now, I’m not saying you but I have to use you as the school. But the girls do things on campus now that when I was working there, it did not happen. The rules were rules, and Mrs. Carter carried out the rules. When a girl stepped out of order, she went home. They don’t do that now, because I imagine time is hard. Everything is different.
Even we would swim up here in the old building [Butler-Blanc]. That’s where they had the swimming pool that I used to go there when I was young before I started working. They taught my twin brother, I was a twin, but I was scared of the water. These sisters were really nice, there was two of them, and one was the swimming teacher.
Yes, I am. Now first [the African-American professor], the English teacher that was my sister. My parents were working there and it was not integrated. So she had to go to school at Knoxville College. They were sad because they loved [Carson-Newman], the people loved my mother and my daddy both. But when Pat came, she was the first black that finished Carson-Newman College. Dr. Fite was there and Dr. Sloan. She went on, due to my mother because she stayed with my mother. She got her schooling you know, they let her go to school. She made a fine teacher – well not a teacher but she was more like an advisor. She went in like a counselor in Knoxville. And she did other things that was very smart. Then the next one in our family was named Karen Sheets that finished college in my family. My son run track. He won a scholarship under the football coach [Ken Sparks]. I want to mention his name, one of the finest men to ever come. Really, truly a fine man. He gave him a 4-year scholarship. But the other one was a niece of mine, both of them was a niece of mine. We were very proud that Pat was the first black that went to Carson-Newman College and was very smart, brilliant.
I was very proud and I know my mother and daddy looked down from heaven to know that my sister got that job. And she could come back right now and teach. She is the one that got the ball rolling for you all to have a place to come to study. She was very tough on them. She was tough on the basketball, tennis, all of them. When they come to her class, she was like this, you had to be studying: not throwing spitballs. (laughs). She told me that, said she those had the most the respect for her was the white. They saw there black boy that came over there one day: he had the overall bibs on turned around the other way. She said, “I know you made a mistake this. You get out of my class.” Well, he didn’t move fast enough so they rose from their seats to help him on out of there. But, when he came back to her class she made a believer out of him. Even if you’re in sports, you get hurt: what are you going to live on? You got to study. You got to make those grades so that you can. And they would really hire Gladys back. She was very tough. She was a tough teacher, she’s still teaching. She’s in Florida. She’s a teacher teaching there at the college, a small college.
Gladys was on both sides. She didn’t see color. Which she shouldn’t, because that’s not the way we were raised. She told them just the main flat, if you don’t get your lesson I’m not going to pass you. She has fixed it where a lot of them couldn’t. When she went in there she saw no color. She said, “I’m here to make them all get their lesson. If they don’t I won’t pass them.” She kept a lot of them from not graduating, especially our race. When she did take it, for 17 years she did. We had several black people that did not finish and when I was there I used to see them under the tree playing cards (laughs). But you know, she was the type like that, you know, when she started that program that was saying to them, “You’re going to the tutor. That’s what the tutor’s for.” And she saw that the ones that was smart, tutoring, that they got paid. And you know that helped you all go to school. And when she put this program on.
She used to say when she first went there, you know a lot of people thought that Pat had a hard time with the students by being the first black student. She didn’t. I think with us being there, her mother, her grandmother we worked there. You know, everyone knew us. And the teachers knew us. She said she didn’t have any hard time at all with them. She said loved every one of the teachers. And she got acquainted with some of students. Most people thought that she was going to have – that they were going to do more to her. I think the students – and I’m not saying it because she’s my niece and the other neither – I think because of our name, that helped them. Our name spread at Carson-Newman. But some have been there that they say name calling and everything, I think some of them was that when they were there, they didn’t want the white girls to go with the black boys.
And I think that’s where it started because Karen didn’t go with anybody mixed race. Neither one of those girls did. Pat or either Karen. So that makes a difference. The girls, the white girls was crazy about those boys. But why it start, when they started integrated where the football players was playing and they were going with the white girls and quite naturally that stirred it up. A lot of that stirred it up because a some of them fell in love with the girls, you know. So the pretty girls went with the black boys up there. They, you know, you can’t tell any of your children what to do. I used to hear, when I was back in the dorms that I knew that happened. One man, a white man, was just furious with his daughter. But you know, when he talked to me he could not see. He thought that whites should stay to themselves and black should stay to themselves. I didn’t get him straight but what I told him, “What are you going to do? Come to class with your children and see that they don’t do these things?”
When you’re integrated, ya’lls time was different than mine. I had white friends but we never thought about dating each other. When we was taught it was true, you didn’t do that. But when I had my children, I want you to understand that I don’t know where any of them had. One of them has married a white boy. I want you to know one of them has married a native. She’s a native mix. Good looking children. When he first married her, I sort of say, “Why? Couldn’t you find your own race?” And looked at me and he said, “Mother, why do you say that?” My children. The situation I said, “You hush, you’re going to lose your children.” I don’t lose my children. I cannot tell my children what to do. He married a white girl that truly I love like she’s mine. I learned to love her because it was me. It wasn’t her. It was all about her and him. Parents don’t realize that if you marry a black boy, it’s not about your mother and daddy. Its about who you love and who you want to start a life with and who you want to have children with. So I learned better.
And that’s what it was on the campus. A lot of the people that I used to work for, I used to go to the back door, understand? But they still treated me alright. I wasn't treated bad but you went to the back door and you said yes ma’am and no ma’am. You don’t say that anymore. All that’s gone and it’ll never be that way again. I just said that if my children do marry in a mixed-marriage, it’ll be to somebody that you’ll be proud to bring home to your parents. That’s all you can say. But that’s when the trouble started is when the white girls started liking the black boys. To tell you the truth, its powerful there. [If] they’re not dating, they’re good friends. And a lot of people see wrong way. I can see you being around one and accuse you of going around but probably won’t. Its just you being friends to him. Old people like me, course I don’t do it anymore because I think I’ve been happen with my kids and my children, but we got to see it you’re all’s way. That’s the way I feel about it. We should leave it alone. And integrate the school together, I see when I march around the campus. They’re together just hitting each other. When my children started school [it was different], when I started it was all black. My children graduated with some. I’ve seen them drink out of the same cup. Eat the same apple. That’s the way they were raised up and so I left it alone. My children have just as many, and grandchildren because my children are grown now. My grandchildren they go and stay all night with them, they didn’t do that when I was there. They didn’t do that [before]. Time has changed and I’m glad it has changed because this Man above is what I believe in and he did not separate race. Ain’t nowhere in the bible where it says black should stay with black, white should stay with white. It’s nowhere you see it because I think, when we get up there, I can just imagine. There won’t be any color. And wherever you’ve got anybody up there, you’re going to see them in a place, in a spiritual way where they will not see color. Because he is, God is a spiritual god.
And you know, when you see the mixed race, I’ve seen people – I saw a women the other day who had a mixed race and I didn’t know it in Dandridge. I said, “Well who is this little girl? Is it somebody you’re keeping?” And she looked at me! She said, “No this is my grandchild.” She was simply beautiful. She was a beautiful child. And they’re proud of those children. And you see the white are going over, getting these children. Movie stars are getting mixed race. These – you – the young generation today I like better than when I was coming. I’m going to tell you, I do. I like them better. Cause ya’ll don’t see no color. You don’t see no color and I think that seeing ya’ll on campus, many of you in the way it kind of makes me proud some of them. I’ve never seen misconduct out of you all marching back and forth to your classes and you’re all together. Quite naturally some of them hits on each other or do something like that. That’s just you all. That’s the young generation, you’ve been brought up to. And to me um, of the 41 years I stayed there I thought when’s it going to make it better and the white man made it better for us.
You gotta look at it both ways honey. I always look at it this a-way. Black people don’t look at it that way but I know my daddy told me, he said a white man taught him how to read. The white man bought the black man out of the time. If they even knowed that they hid some of the black people in under their houses and things like that. Keep them from getting killed. Its mean on all sides of the races. I will not say being here in Jefferson City, I can say with tears in my eyes, I have some of the sweetest white people here in Jefferson City. I can’t say none of them has ever, I have never been mistreated by none of them. That’s from the bottom of my heart. Because when we were young we would come up on the campus, even though it was not integrated. Y’all had the, maybe your mother and daddy has been there, maybe they can tell you. They had a dumbwaiter in Swann, to put the food on. And we would be on there because we were little. And I remember going up, sitting on that thing. And I remember eating. I remember the girls taking to classes. And I remember being in the swimming pool with them. I can’t ever say we were ever mistreated. I can’t say that.
Our name, Sheets, has stood very well at Carson-Newman. And you can go back in Dr. Turner’s book, look at the Sheets family. And you can look up some things my mother. The history there is at the college. You can ask for it to get it and read things about us and what my father did and how he was treated. And a place where they cooked and it was all black maids that cooked the food. Maybe somebody in your family finished Carson-Newman and they had the very best cooked. Because you see those black cooks really could cook food.
And you see, I saw all of that. And even down to that, the students had more respect for them than the teachers did. You all have always been the centerpiece of the college. I cannot fail any of the white students that ever come there because they learned, you know it don’t take much for young people to learn to love anybody. Cause they see no color. And some of them that’s parents that taught them they didn’t associate with blacks, those are the ones that went with the black boys. You know, I’m just telling it how it is and its true. Now that you’re in under a good president, and I that he was. I have only met him twice. I met his wife because I belong to Les Amis. I met her twice. I liked her. I’m invited to everything including me yet I’m out. Ya’ll’s activities, anything. I come. I get a letter from Carson-Newman College. I understand that he’s a minister. Dr. Maddox was a minister. So I think that, I don’t know how ya’ll are getting along. I know things have changed. I worked at the house that then sold out there on the hill. Dr. Maddox lived out in that house. You all bought the building that a doctor used to own. Used to be a plantation there. It’s a little house out there. I worked up there for the doctor.
And another thing you should know, the townspeople had a lot to do. They would have their annual tea every year there in Swann and I used to come to help serve it. I did all the, you know, all finger food like strawberries and all that. It was just beautiful and I would come and do that. They would go in the beautiful gowns, you know how the gowns were the pretty ball gowns some of them would have. I wish I could took some pictures of some of the things they did. See, they used to do that at Carson-Newman College. See they would help Carson-Newman College, which they have because every building you have such as the new library, there was all houses the whole street up. I guess people have told you. I used to go help in those houses. Carson-Newman would have us go help in those houses of these old people so when they would die they would give their house to Carson-Newman. All that was nothing but streets. It was all houses from there up to where you’re going to Swann. I remember all that.
When we came there, when I walked up on the campus and saw that the ones that worked: the custodial workers. We were called custodial workers. You can’t call us that now. They called us custodial workers. We wore uniforms. It was funny that they wore anything they wanted to, shorts or whatever. I could see the difference from when it was nine black women had to go through with irons and uniforms. You know, that’s why the girls looked up at us. Because the uniforms and the way we came to work and worked. The way you saw most of them was white. Almost no black. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t hire them, it was just that the young generation where I was had got an education and they were not going to come in and do custodial work.
So when I came in, I’m glad I did because it made the girls have more respect for me. They do look for me. They want to know if Mary Phipps is still here. Some of them lives in Jefferson City and I see some of them, I don’t care where I’m at, or if I’m in the store, they see me they’ll come running. Because I said all I can remember of when I was working there. Some of them just laugh when I say, I was somewhere and somebody was talking. They say, “There’s Mary Phipps down there.” I guess it was out at the restaurant like you’re going to the dam, its very pretty out there. “Mary Phipps pretty much knows about Carson-Newman.”