Interviewee: Velma Garrett
IWY SC 594
Interviewer: Kathleen Hanna
Date: June 1977
Velma Garrett was from Saluda, South Carolina and she was unemployed at the time of the interview. She had two young adult children. Garrett connected her employment difficulties with her political activism in the mid-1960s. Garrett attended the IWY Conference with funding from the Welfare Department after she petitioned them for support. Discrimination was a major concern of Garrett’s and she had filed charges in discrimination cases but had little success. She was also interested in the legal status of women. Interview includes discussion of: Garrett’s frustrations in trying to find employment; her discrimination charges and petitions to the governor for help; Garrett’s experience as a voting rights activist in the 1960s; her belief that her admittance to a state psychiatric hospital was politically driven; Garrett’s opinion that smart women are considered threatening and critics dismiss them as “crazy”; and Garrett’s view of herself as an outsider.
Kathleen Hanna: Now, you’re Velma Garrett?
Velma Garrett: That’s right. From Saluda.
KH: You’re from Saluda and you are currently unemployed?
VG: Yes, ma’am.
KH: How did this happen?
VG: I really don’t know. Back in 1964 they say I got involved in politics.
VG: And I just haven’t been able to get employment.
KH: Do you see some connection between your involvement in politics and people’s not hiring you?
VG: Well, that’s the only thing I can imagine it could be. They (unintelligible at 0:38) couldn’t be something else.
KH: Mmhm. What brought you to the conference today?
VG: (Laughter) Well, that’s what I was wondering. The Welfare Department sent me here. So…
VG: I fought with them so long. I couldn’t imagine them sending me to the conference.
VG: So I really appreciate because I had rather wanted to come but I gave up the idea because I realized I couldn’t afford it.
VG: So, (unintelligible at 1:07) asked me to come.
VG: (unintelligible at 1:10) doing here.
KH: Yes. You said a little earlier there were some things you’d really like to say for the record. Something from your own experience or?
VG: Well, I’d been wondering about the law here. Do we really have any law in South Carolina? I’m beginning to feel it’s just all politics.
VG: Because I filed charges of discrimination and they do absolutely nothing about it. It’s just that I’ve been fighting ever since I’ve been here. I wish I could stop fighting and start living.
KH: Yes. What form had your fight taken?
VG: No place. I got a nice letter from the governor. I guess he did look into it and he said it was like I’d been fighting trying to get off the welfare and I hadn’t been able to get off it. So that’s about the nicest thing that had happened to me since (unintelligible at 2:08) at least a consolation. But…
KH: But it didn’t get you off welfare.
VG: No, it didn’t.
KH: Not yet.
VG: But he said he was going to do what he could to try to get jobs and things. So they get all of these jobs, you know, where they have the help to get people back to employment and yet you still end up on unemploy. So I just wonder, do they really carry through? These programs they have to employ people who have been unemployed for a long while.
KH: Mmhm. Have you found any support in groups? Have you met with any other women who have had similar problems?
VG: Yes, (unintelligible at 2:55) they don’t like to get involved. They don’t like to leave their names to anything. Otherwise, they’re talking. Talk directly to them. But when it comes to action (unintelligible at 3:05)
KH: Of course the world has been notably short on people who are willing to step out over the line and it’s really encouraging that there are people like you who will take a stand and who will push.
VG: Well, I was listening to a women’s lib activist. Which was the lady who spoke about the slave lady? When she got to talking, I thought that was me. (Laughter)
KH: Uh-huh. You feel it just as might…
VG: Otherwise, if you might open your mouth and speak out, that’s when you get punished for it. So I was going, “How long am I supposed to be punished?” I came back here in 1964 and I was handcuffed and dragged off and put in the state hospital. And I always referred to the state hospital as being a concentration camp.
KH: Yes, there are others who would agree with you.
VG: Well I think, you know, I don’t think it deals with mental illness. I think it deals with politics. Otherwise, if you get involved in politics or don’t go along with the establishment, well, that’s where you’ll end up it.
KH: Uh-huh. So the message is that you’re crazy if you try to change things.
VG: That’s right.
KH: Or you want these things reformed.
VG: And then they doesn’t want women to be involved in politics.
KH: Yeah, yeah. This is also true.
VG: So it always makes me proud when I see, you know, women speaking up and coming out and saying things. Mrs. Russell, I admire her and I admire Mrs. (unintelligible at 4:55-5:02). Some of these people will accomplish things that you was hoping.
KH: What specifically has been your involvement in politics? What actions and things have you undertaken?
VG: Well, the only thing I did I talked to people as often as I can to try to encourage them to register to vote and vote. And I especially like people to be aware of what’s going on, to read. To vote for the party or the person maybe that you…Everybody says to listen to them when they speak on television or what they say in the newspaper and to vote for them because they all need what that person says they will offer them rather than someone who they tell you to vote for.
KH: You know, one of the most effective ways to stop people from brining about change is to label them or to call them names or in some way denigrate them. What labels or names have you been called in this? Why?
VG: Oh mostly talking, but you know, I’ve been labeled as I’m “too smart.” For a woman to be as smart as I am that I have to be crazy. And then, I’m not smart at all. There’s so much in the world of learning. You know, maybe I like to read on what’s going on but I realize that the fact is I’m intelligent in the way as to the things you would like to know. For someone to think of me as smart, you can’t tell though it puts you at a disadvantage because…
KH: Yeah, it is a discount.
VG: Yes, because they’re always looking for you to test you out. You always have to challenge someone.
VG: So instead you’re just rather wish you didn’t know anything.
KH: Yeah, like if one time you didn’t have the answer, that’d be it.
VG: Well, I couldn’t tell them I didn’t. Like anyone can know it’s all in the books. It’s just like, if you want to know everything otherwise it’s written down. It’s on paper. So the important thing is once you learn to read, there’s nothing that you can’t do that you want to do. But it that not everybody gives you a chance.
KH: So you’ve encountered the labels “crazy” and “too smart.” Any other labels or any other accusations?
VG: Mostly that I was involved in politics. But I’m not involved in politics, not that I know of.
KH: Uh-huh. You just want people to vote and to be registered.
VG: Well no, I don’t…anyways, I like to be informed. I like to know what’s happening and I like to participate in things but I, ah, I can’t get involved in these things.
KH: Uh-huh. Have you ever been branded a troublemaker or agitator or any of these kinds of things?
VG: Well, I don’t think so. I haven’t got that. Oh! I’m an outsider. (Laughter)
KH: Oh you’re an outsider! Yes, this is a great label.
VG: I’m an outsider.
VG: But I haven’t been told I have ever been a troublemaker but I used to say I’m an outsider. I came back from Pennsylvania. I lived in Philadelphia for twenty-two years.
KH: Uh-huh and it was all those foreign ideas that, ah, yes.
VG: Yes, right. So that’s the (unintelligible at 8:46). I really would like to find out just what do you have to do to get employment.
VG: I mean, they have all these programs that are supposed to help the unemployed. Supposed to help the head of household and yet I’m all of those things and yet nothing happens. So, how do you go about getting these laws carried out? And it seems like there’s all these observations that they have for helping the poor, it’s just something to give people employment. Really, it’s not something that’s really helping the poor at all, it’s just that the poor are being used.
KH: Right, yes, as a kind of rationale for some other thing. Well, what are you looking for? What are you looking to find in this conference that will help you with your particular struggle?
VG: Well, I’m a woman as they say and I’m the head of my household and I have children, so I was thinking maybe here somewhere you could find where they were looking to really trying to get the laws carried out. So I’m trying to (unintelligible at 10:07) having laws that nobody follows. I don’t see using taxpayers’ money for programs that doesn’t really help the one who is supposed to be helped.
KH: I’m wondering if there are any workshops here on legal, yeah, the “Legal Status of the Homemaker: Married, Divorced, Single, and Widowed.” That ought to be an interesting workshop.
VG: Well, now that you mention legal. There’s one thing I really would like to have is that an attorney for the poor. I don’t mean like for discrimination. I mean like attorney for because I’ve run into so many legal problems that you just need an attorney for everyday things that but they (unintelligible at 10:55) power of attorney money. They say that’s only for discrimination. Well, the way they have it written up there’s no way of proving discrimination any more so really you would need someone for just any kind of problem that you run into but you doesn’t have money. And it would have to be someone that’s disconnected from your community especially in a small town because everyone there is cousin and they don’t like to step on anyone’s toes.
KH: Mmhm, this is true.
VG: So therefore you would need someone that has no connection in the community in the sense that they would be obligated, you know that otherwise where politics can shut them up.
KH: Yeah. Justice is a terribly complicated issue and it seems to become not less complex, but more complex in a small, rural community where everyone knows everyone else face-to-face. Changing these old habits, it’s so difficult.
VG: Well, the young man told me that not too long ago, he said, “The law is what the people says it is.”
VG: So I think I got his message so if the majority in the town decides that they doesn’t want the same person to get employment, well then that becomes the law.
KH: The law, mmhm.
VG: So that was, you know…
KH: And your question is how do you fight that?
VG: Yes, really. But I mean he had a point there. It’s like there’s no fighting that because it’s like there’s something that through South Carolina you have cousins all around so everywhere you go. So, I feel that I’m being blackballed. So it’s very easy to be blackballed because you’ve got family everywhere and the connections. I mean, so I really smile at it instead of… The way that you look at it is, we’re really, you understand, you know, Russia.
VG: Because to me South Carolina, I mean, not South Carolina I wouldn’t say. I would say Saluda. All because when I moved back here I didn’t know anything about Communists but everything that you read and heard about, well, that’s what that town seemed to be like. If you was an outsider, otherwise everything was in common for the peoples that was living there. So when you came in as an outsider, well, they didn’t have any law. I don’t know, it’s everything they want us to believe about Russia.
Well, I couldn’t see the difference and yet I was born there, finished high school there, went to college in South Carolina and everything for a while until the war started. I couldn’t believe align the home that I was born and raised in and everything. But before I moved back here my doctor said, I had two small boys, he says, “You’re going to take your children back to the South?” I said yes. He says, “You ought to be put in jail for that, to take them back to where those ignorant peoples are.” I said, “How dare you say that! I was born there and raised there.” So he says, “Well, you are an exception. Purely an exception.” And I couldn’t believe it and here I ended up later in the state hospital. So, I think if they had a jail they would’ve put me in jail but they didn’t have one. So I always thought about that and I honestly until the day, I really can’t understand it. I wish someone would be kind enough to explain to me what I’m guilty of so then I would know more or less what I’m fighting over, what it is because I really don’t understand it.
KH: I think that would be a great value of this conference if we could all come away with a greater awareness of what it is we are fighting so that we don’t end up fighting ourselves or each other or some projected “enemy.” It really doesn’t seem to me that we’re fighting any of those things. But that we are fighting a set of conventions, a set of unspoken rules and regulations that are so difficult to bring up into awareness.
VG: So I decided to retire and stay home and, like I said, you can only participate in society if you have money to buy your way in.
KH: This is true.
VG: So I don’t have the money to buy myself into society so I decided the cheapest was to live was home. You don’t have the expense of buying clothes to go out to the churches and all the rest of the things. You just go out to the things that concern you. That relate to your problem especially.
KH: Do you think that this is part of a strategy? If we keep her unemployed, if we keep her from having access to any resources, she’s less of a problem? She’s less of a threat?
VG: Well, when I first moved back here, one lady said to me (unintelligible 16:17) about an hour ago. She said some, “They’re not going to give you a job paying $40/week because you know too much what to do with your money.” So just the idea that you know what to do with your money, they will keep you unemployed. So, I mean, that’s sad.
KH: It is, it is. It’s tragic.
VG: (Laughter) I am not. I mean, the more I see peoples live or see peoples do, are not with a little bit of things, the prouder I am of them. So when you see someone with a lot of money and does nothing with it then you, you say, you put them lower than the poor because they have all the money but do absolutely nothing with it. So, if you see someone with nothing and they accomplish great things, well, that’s what to me creates a great person.
KH: Yeah, yeah.
VG: You admire them and that helped me to get the cool encouragement that you can.
KH: Well, I really hope that your decision to move back into the home is not giving up or surrendering.
VG: Oh, I have no plans of giving up. I’m just existing. I mean, you could say, I’m sitting back for a little while because I think others will come out and fight. You know to say when I was out there, well, they let you do the fighting. So now they know that will help get some other women encouragement and yesterday I was listening and they are speaking out more. So I think it helps. I often sit down and ask the Lord if this is his will and if that’s his will, let his will be done. Done because I do think whatever little bit in speaking up or whatever little bit you do or try to say if it’s hard I always do try to put it in his hands. It really does make you feel better because I really relates to him. I feel like, when I look at it, I am accomplishing what I want but it requires a lot of struggle and a lot of suffering.
KH: It does.
VG: And it is to say you can’t go back and redo the damage that has been done but to say I’m not interested in the past. I want the future to be better. Because the Lord has really answered my prayers. I pray to him all the time to help me to get my children grown and the baby will be eighteen September the second and that really, I have accomplished that much. I survived.
KH: Well, there’s a saying that suffering polishes us and if that’s true than you are certainly becoming a diamond.
VG: (Laughter) Well, I would hope so!
KH: A highly polished one.
VG: But I feel I hope when get through polishing me I want that (unintelligible at 19:10)
KH: Oh, you will. Well, I thank you very much Mrs. Garrett and this is really going to, as each woman contributes to our oral recorded history, it enriches it just that much more. And we’re really glad that you came and said what you thought and made your statement.
VG: I’m sorry I hadn’t thought about it before you came here, you know.
KH: I’m very glad. It was beautiful.
VG: I just, made up a little speech before you got here.
KH: No, it was fine just the way it was. Thank you so much.
VG: Thank you.
End of Interview