Southern Cultures 8.1 (2002) 104-106
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The Desegregated Heart
A Virginian's Stand in Time of Transition
The Desegregated Heart: A Virginian's Stand in Time of Transition. By Sarah Patton Boyle, with an introduction by Jennifer Ritterhouse . University of Virginia Press, 2001. (originally published by Morrow, 1962) 388 pp. Paper $19.95
In 1950 Sarah Patton Boyle was a typical, perhaps the quintessential, member of Virginia's white elite, convinced that the first families of Virginia, to which she belonged, were composed of the nation's finest and most noble. She was the descendant of English and Scottish nobility, of men who had fought in the American Revolution and served the Confederacy under Stonewall Jackson. She was the daughter of an official in the Episcopal Church and the wife of a faculty member of the University of Virginia. She endured, or believed herself to endure, as all members of her class should, "honorable poverty," the result of defeat in the War Between the States. She was steeped in the myth of the Lost Cause, and firmly convinced that she loved "Negroes"--and that they loved her and all members of her class, because they were the Negroes' best friends. She was, in short, a white southern true believer, but with a twist.
Within less than a decade, this comfortable, cozy, smug world would collapse about Patty Boyle's head. She would become an outcast from her lifelong social circle, transformed into a person viewed with scorn and derision by members of her tribe. She would learn that "their Negroes" did not love her kind, but rather viewed them with contempt. She would learn that members of her society were not brave and bold and true, but cowards caught in a web of conformity. All this occurred because Patty Boyle was a true believer. She actually believed, to the depths of her soul, that her brave, intelligent, superior class would step forward and lead the State of Virginia from the benighted past of segregation to a glorious future of integration, racial justice, and brotherly love. The Patty Boyle of [End Page 104] 1950 strains credulity and makes the Patty Boyle of 1958 inevitable largely because she possessed a spiritual dimension. She held to her Christian faith's best hopes for mankind; her rude awakening came because she expected others in her class to do so as well.
Boyle's work is the story of her fall from grace, beginning with her efforts to assure Gregory Swanson, a young black man who in 1950 entered the University of Virginia School of Law under federal court order, that, as Patty put it, "We Want a Negro at UVA." When her white friends looked upon her efforts with shock and horror, Patty waited for adulation from the "Negroes" she loved--adulation that never came. Undaunted, she appealed to Thomas J. Sellers, editor of Charlottesville's black newspaper, the Tribune, to teach her about race relations and the Negro. One can only imagine Sellers's reaction to Boyle--shock, curiosity, bewilderment, bemusement--but he agreed and began what became a life-long friendship. Under Sellers's tutelage, Boyle campaigned for an integrated Virginia, firing off letters to the editors of Virginia's most prestigious newspapers and national magazines in support of integration, testifying before state legislative groups on the need for accepting integration, speaking to such "moderate" groups as Virginia's Council on Human Relations and various church groups promoting voluntary integration. She watched as her state and her class rejected calls for an integrated society and turned instead to the strategy of "massive resistance" to the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision in the 1954 Brown case, while she became a pariah in her social set.
Her belief in Virginia's "best" utterly crushed, Patty Boyle literally turned to God, and the last part of her book describes her spiritual journey. For Boyle, this is the most important section of the book and the primary reason for writing it. For many readers it is likely to remain...