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Letter to Peggy from Ellen

Dear Peggy:
… All whites who read [James] Baldwin ask, “Is he right? Do they really hate us?” I have never before talked to a Negro about his feelings towards whites. A wonderful Negro man from Detroit named Joe Harrison told me here at Oxford, “I always feel much more comfortable with Negroes than with whites. But I can become good friends with white people.”

And one SNCC worker – Frank Smith – said, “I grew up hating all white folks. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I learned that there could be good whites – and even now I sometimes wonder.”

So there is this great reluctance and distrust, born of generations of oppression and slavery… It seems that if more whites understood this – especially white liberals – race relations might be a lot less strained.

I have also discovered a lot about my own feelings about race. I grew up in an upper middle-class Westchester home, where my parents were good liberals, but I never knew any Negroes except the woman who cooked and cleaned for us. I loved her very much and she, me… We all called her “Sarah” while she called me “Ellen” and my parents “Mr. and Mrs.”

Consequently, although my parents told me that Negroes were just as good as whites – I must have seen them in the role of servants. Once, my mother tells me, when I was little, we were driving along a road near our house and passed a Negro woman waiting for a bus. “There’s somebody’s maid,” I said.

To arrive in Ohio, when there were 60 or 70 Negro kids my age – all close friends and rather cliquish at first – was a frightening experience. It was not that I looked down on them at all – quite the contrary: I was awed by them. For the first few days, I mostly hung around with the kids from Harvard. I sat with them at meals or in meetings, walking by the groups of Negro kids who also sat together at the table or under a tree on the grass… But as the week wore on, things began to change.



Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 6-7. Permission granted by Zephyr Press.

Other license (see note)
Date / time
Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland
Zephyr Press
Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers
Date published

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Letter to Peggy from Ellen." (Viewed on January 19, 2018) <>.


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