Interviewee: Melerson Guy Dunham
IWY TX 151
Interviewer: Mollie Camp Davis
Date: November 18-21, 1977
Melerson Guy Dunham, of Tylertown, Mississippi, spent fourteen years teaching at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi (previously named Alcorn A&M College). After retiring from Alcorn in 1970, she went on to teach history and act as campus minister at Prentiss Institute, a junior college created in 1907 to aid disadvantaged African-American students. She was 73 at the time of the IWY conference. Dunham published a history of Alcorn A& M College, Centennial History of Alcorn A&M College in 1971. She was president-elect of the Mississippi Women’s Association for Colored Women. Dunham was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Mississippi Minister Industrial College in 1973. She attended the IWY conference as an alternate delegate for the state of Mississippi and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Interview includes discussion of Dunham’s experience working as a domestic servant, a landscaper, and other roles while she was working on her teaching degrees.
Mollie Camp Davis: It’s 2:45 PM, and I have with me Melerson Guy Dunham. And I want her to give her address, and her phone number and her zip code, and to tell a little bit about herself. I’ll ask her some questions.
Melerson Guy Dunham: My name–well, you’ve already told my name—Melerson Guy Dunham. My address is 1305 Louisiana Ave, Tylertown —Tylertown is one word— Mississippi. The zip is 39667, but my mailing address is Post Office Box 59 at Tylertown.
MD: Melerson, there are several questions here that the official historian Caroline Bird wanted to ask. And our sponsor, our coordinator, Dr. Constance Myers has us ask. What is your occupation? You don’t mind saying how old you are —you told me.
MGD: I don’t. I am a retired professor. I’m retired from Alcorn A&M College at Lorman, Mississippi, the oldest land-grant college for negroes in these United States. I’ve been retired since 1970. Presently, I am teaching part-time, history, at Prentiss Institute, Prentiss, Mississippi, which is a junior college for disadvantaged blacks. To be sure, it’s integrated now, but was set up for disadvantaged black boys, back in 1907. I’m enjoying my retirement immensely. I’ve published a book since I’ve retired. I have the manuscript ready for another. There’s a problem of funding right now, and I’m actively engaged in many things.
MD: I know you are. You always have been. I’ve known Melerson for quite some while, and when I saw her here I just knew we had to get her in the National Archives. Would you mind recording, for the daughters and granddaughters, your feelings about this conference and something about your background. But first, your feelings about this conference. Why are you here?
MGD: I’m an alternate from the great state of Mississippi. I’m one of five alternates that were chosen. I was one of the state coordinators We were outvoted by an anti-group, and I was not fortunate enough to be one of the elected delegates, but I am pleased that I am an alternate. And of course, my expenses have been paid by that.
But, honey–I have no words…This is a trite saying, but it’s the truth! I do not have words to describe this meeting. It has simply been superb from the beginning to the end. Even you might say with —we’ve had little flurries now and then, but all in all it’s been a great conference. And I wouldn’t— I do not know anything that I would trade for the experience of seeing people bring in the torch, because I have lived on that. I have one criticism of it, and I’m going to tell the right people of it if the time ever comes. There was one Negro woman there, and she spoke. Her saying has been, to all of us, an inspiration. She closes with these words: “That man over there said he ain’t a woman,” but her final words that she said, “…that man has turned this world upside down, and a woman is going to set it straight.” Her name was Harriet Tubman.
MD: You mean she said that a man said that, and it was Harriet Tubman who said, ‘And ain’t I a woman’–of course, it was–I could have told them that! Melerson, who are you gonna tell this to?
MGD: Whoever’s the right person to, because something should be said about her presence, and at that time, she was a slave. And there are those persons that think that slaves have made no contribution to this America. But honey, to see that session Friday afternoon, that was the greatest thing for me to see three living ex—of course, Rosalyn Carter, my dear friend, I had known when she was in the governor’s chair–when her husband was governor really, and then I had communications with Lady Bird Johnson when she was in the White House. We exchanged letters on various things. And to see this gracious Betty Ford, she grew tons in my inspiration —in my eyesight at that time. They were all three marvelous women I thought. Oh, it was just!… Everything I have heard from that rostrum has just been marvelous! I’m so proud I’m a woman.
MD: I like that, “I’m so proud I’m a woman.” I’m going to write that down for my own knowledge here. Melerson, tell–if you don’t mind–us something about when you worked–many, many years ago–in clubs, anyways, when did you become aware of women’s issues?
MGD: Oh I guess I’ve always been aware. And I was a feminist long before the word was popular. I remember I worked like a Turk —whatever that phrase might mean—but I know I was one of the highest trained people in my section of the state. But the problem is it was always to let a man be the principal. And no matter what education a woman had, the man was the principal. In those days, you were rated according to license: first, second, and third grade license. And I have never taught a day on anything but first grade license. But I remember working under a man who didn’t have any license. He was just an emergency teacher. And they paid him much more than they paid me. That made me bitter. Well, maybe for want of a better word, I’m saying ‘bitter’, but I’ve been a feminist —a person for women’s rights—and honey, I was glad to get on the boat–equal rights, ERA—whatever the right term is.
MD: Yes, the Equal Rights Amendment, ERA, I think that’s what they call it for short. You worked in the Mississippi Colored Women’s Club.
MGD: Yes, I’m presently President Elect. I am the author of that history —the Mississippi Women’s Association for Colored Women. We were organized in 1903. The National Association for the Colored Women’s Clubs is the oldest club for Negro women in these United States. It was organized in 1896, in Washington D.C. with Mrs. Mary Church-Terrell as the first president. Mississippi itself organized in 1903. I am President Elect if all goes well, and I’m living, I will ascend to the presidency in October 1978. I have the manuscript ready, and it’s been ready for some time. I’ve had problems getting subscriptions raised. But I hope to have it at the publisher’s, certainly at the beginning of the new year.
MD: That’s beautiful. Melerson, one other thing–you worked for young people. I know so many people that call you ‘Mom’, and I want you to —
MGD: Oh yes! I sent five children through college. Many children, young people, call me ‘Mom’ because when I was at Alcorn I helped many young people, because somebody helped me. And I felt my obligation–not only a moral obligation, but my Christian obligation–to help people. And I sent five children through college.
MD: You’ve never had one of your own, do you?
MGD: No, I’ve never had one. But let me tell you about my children; I’m especially proud of them. One of them is here. She is one of the youngest daughters. She is thirty-two years old. She’s recently earned her doctor’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley. She’s currently associate professor of business education at Jackson State University. One of my daughters teachers English at the Homer Junior College, Lisette Perst, at the Homer Junior College in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I have a daughter who is a dietician in New York City at the Cedars of Lebanon hospital, I believe it’s called. I think I’m correct. Her name is Julia Taylor. She’s a graduate of Alcorn College. I have a son who’s a minister there in New York. He pastors in Harlem at a non-denominational church. His name is George Washington Davis. I have another daughter who pastors, and she has recently completed her work at Garrett. In fact, she completed her work in June. She is pastoring a small C.M.E church, I believe, in East Chicago, Indiana. She, too, is in attendance at this meeting. You know, I must feel proud that I’ve had two daughters at this meeting.
MD: Two daughters at this meeting… Do you feel, Melerson, that southern women are —let me rephrase that: being a southern woman, and being active in the Civil Rights movement with you, though I’m not supposed to probably say that, but we know, and being in a traditional field—academics–which was dominated by men, do you feel that southern women are particularly more determined than… How do you feel about southern women?…
MGD: Not only am I proud I’m a woman, I’m proud I’m a southern woman. It has been said that southern women have been put up on a pedestal, speaking of white women because a black woman has never been on a pedestal, but I’m pleased that I have always been able to make my own way. I sent my own self to school. When I married my husband, I had my own plot. Course it’s true that he’s gone up to heaven, but he helped me build the house. But I made my life without a man.
MD: Do you believe, perhaps, that southern women have a strong sense of independence?
MGD: They have to have because the black woman has always been the bread-winner. She had to. You remember there were times —this was especially true following the Civil War when black men could not get jobs. Well, jobs were thought of then as the farm. That was the only thing we knew. And the women made the crops, while the men went off to the cane farm or something —but somehow we have made it. Of course, work is kind of a dirty word now, but I’m grateful that I learned how to work. So very few people today, Mollie, take pride in work, but honey, I’m proud that I know how to work. I washed, and ironed, and picked cotton. I plowed in the field. And you know, in my first experience as a teacher, back in the late twenties and early thirties, I taught school for twenty-two dollars and fifty cents a month—taught four months a year. And now, ask me how I lived the other eight months? Well, I went to the strawberry farm and picked strawberries, picked cotton, I worked for white people, washed and ironed, and cleaned house, and washed windows, mowed yards and it didn’t hurt me.
MD: No, it didn’t seem to do anything but make you grow more beautiful.
MGD: (Laughter)I used to work, get out of work, and go to summer school. I’d get out of school at the end of February, the first of March and then, by the time the last of July rolled around I’d have enough money to go to summer school–by some hook or crook–and attend school. I sent myself, I mean. And I studied for my master’s degree, working during the summer. Of course, when I went down to the college to teach, the situation was different. I taught eleven months, and I didn’t earn a doctorate, but I worked toward it. I have some thirty-five or forty-hours toward a doctorate degree, which I will never obtain. But I know a school that was kind enough to give me an honorary doctorate, and I would less than (unintelligible at 12:59) if I didn’t —Dr. Dunham
MD: Tell where your degree from is from…
MGD: The Mississippi Ministerial and Industrial College —a Baptist school at West Point, Mississippi. They gave me an honorary doctorate in nineteen hundred and seventy-three.
MD: 1973…Now, Melerson, you said you were at Hampton…you passed through Charlotte, or towards Greensboro—now tell about that…
MGD: A glorious experience —I’m a member of the Ministers of Blacks in Higher Education. Since I didn’t tell you this a moment ago, but I’m campus minister for the United Methodist Church for the Prentiss Institute.
MD: So the accusation that they’re no church people at this conference —
MGD: To hell with them! Oh! (Laughter)Yes!… No! Because I’m director of —and that couldn’t be said anyway, because the chaplain of Yale University is here, a very dear friend of mine, Donna Schiefer, and she’s very much a woman. They’re scattered throughout here. Peggy Bennett is here from United Methodist Church in New York City. She works with the division of global ministers. There are many religious people here. How anybody could say that would not be telling the truth. Oh! I don’t see how! Oh rumors! Rumors! Just like we heard that there would be eighteen thousand people out there last night to keep us from getting in. We were afraid to go out. (Laughter)
MD: I heard a rumor in my hotel or motel that the Klan was there, and I wonder if that was done to frighten southern people, who really still are afraid of the Klan.
MGD: I’m afraid of the Klan. I’m just as afraid of the Klan—I’m afraid of anything that I don’t know. But honey, I was ready for them last night. I had my walking shoes, and I was just going to stay with them.
But honey, back to this Hampton deal. I told the Ministers of Higher Education is an organization among people who work on campuses whether you’re a campus minister or not—as long as you’re black and have religious influence. That’s what I had at Prentiss. I was honored as being campus minister of the year, 1976. I think that came about because I have the first listening room. My annunciation may not be perfect, but the listening room at the Prentiss Institute Campus. We’re equipped with religious books. We’ve got a record player, and we just think we’re doing fine. And I think that’s why I was given this honor, besides I was just —when I was at Alcorn College for fourteen years, I was chairman of religious life activities, and then of course, I got no pay. Nowadays, they give me a salary. I get fifty dollars a month for this! (Laughter)
MD: You get a fabulous salary (Laughter) —fifty dollars a month (unintelligible at 16:00 ) But you would have done it anyway.
MGD: Enjoyed it! Enjoyed it! Enjoyed it…enjoyed it immensely. I enjoy everything.
MD: Now, tell me how you feel —do you feel that these young women, and all of us here, all the delegates, etcetera—all these people we’re watching right now–do you think they’ll take this message back home and try to help others?
MGD: The United States will be different after this meeting. I’m not saying that the ERA seems—there is a feeling, I don’t know how we get it, that the only purpose of this meeting is the ERA, which is not true. But I’m not saying that we’ll run off, and Congress will pass, and the states will ratify. The United States will be different about women’s issues after this meeting. I would hope all of them for the good, but there will be some changes.
MD: There will be some changes. These women seem determined. You’ve been a beautiful role model. You have been for Mississippi as a founder/author/educator/mother—you adopted children–you continue to work, and have these honorary degrees at your age. How do you feel about?–
MGD: –Being seventy-three? (Laughter) Honey, I feel fine at being seventy-three. I have arthritis to be sure. But my doctor was kind enough to give me a prescription. I went to Washington last week for the National Council of Negro Women, and he gave me a prescription that he said would keep through both of these meetings, so I haven’t had any real problems with my arthritis since then.
MD: Good. Is there anything you want to add? Is there something you’d like for the National Archives to know about you? Perhaps your work organizing southern women?
MGD: Oh, I’ve organized more clubs than any woman in my section of the state. That is not true all over Mississippi, but in the extreme southern part of the state where I live I have organized more clubs. I have clubs of young women. I have clubs of old women. And I’m constantly working now. I’ve very pleased that the Lord has given me health and strength to do this.
And Mollie, I’m pleased that you selected me to say what I’ve said. And I hope it will be an inspiration to some of the young people.
MD: Thank you so much, Melerson Guy Dunham.
End of Interview