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One of the First Six Black Women Students at Virginia Tech:
Linda Edmonds Turner, Class of 1970
Picture of Linda Edmonds Turner from 1968 Bugle Picture of Linda Edmonds Turner from 1970 Bugle
Linda Edmonds Turner in the 1968 Bugle. Linda Edmonds Turner in the 1970 Bugle.

Name:
Linda Edmonds Turner
Date of Interview:
2 March 1996
Location of Interview:
Women's Center at Virginia Tech, Price House, Blacksburg, Virginia
Interviewer:
Elaine Carter
Transcriber:
Cynthia Hurd

(Tape 1, side a)

Part One

Carter: I have captured quite a great deal, but I just need you to quickly go over it this time.

Home where Linda Edmonds grew up
The home where Linda Edmonds grew up.

Turner: I grew up in Halifax County. I went to the school system there. My family--my mother's side of the family was from a share cropping environment. My father's side of the family owned their property and a lot of relatives and cousins were nearby. We went to church together, we played together, but we all had our own separate little farms. The girls as well as the boys worked the property, and in my family since we only had one boy, everybody worked.

Carter: The girls really got it! So you had equality.

Turner: And there were some things that we weren't allowed to do. In the tobacco fields, we called it pulling tobacco which was really taking the leaves off the stuff. The men did that, and the women would be under a shed, and we would string it or put it on the sticks. Then it had to be put up in the barn, like the high climbing up in the barns, we didn't do that. We didn't pick it out of the fields, but when it came to chopping it in the fields when it was growing, getting the grass and stuff, we were out there doing it. We always had a job, something to do.

My father was one of these people that used to like to get up real early because the day was passing. I could have stood a lot more of time to pass. Until this day I'm not an early bird. But he was also very interactive. We played, and we made games out of things--like we were digging potatoes and who could have the funniest shaped potato, who could have the biggest one, who could find the smallest one, or who could have the one that was shaped more like eggs or something. It challenged you as we did the work, and he would do these games with us, and my mom too but more my dad. We would get little awards for things--like a great award would be a bag of potato chips.

Carter: Anything that was store bought.

Turner: We didn't go into the stores that much. We'd go downtown occasionally, but as little girls we never went inside the country store because my father felt that a lot of the white men who were at the store would make nasty remarks. And they did, particularly as a girl got older, so we didn't go to stores other than when we would go with my grandfather on my mother's side of the family. He had a credit program in this store. He was a sharecropper, and he would take the four of us in there, and he would tell us, "You can have anything you want." My eyes would get as big as plates, and I would get a big soda that was my own because we would usually get one and divide it between the four of us, and a bag of chips. I thought that my grandfather was rich. I thought he owned that store.

As children we were always taught that we were somebody, that you had to excel. I always knew I was going to college, although my mother and father did not go. My father went through the eighth grade, and my mother graduated from high school.

Linda Edmonds' mother
Linda Edmonds' mother.

She wanted desperately to go to college, but her father thought it was a waste of money and would not sign for her to get a loan. He could have borrowed the money, but he just didn't want to go into debt. I can understand him having come through the depression. My mother was kind of the silent force behind my dad saying all of them will go to college. We were four children born in five years, so we were little stair steps. We all did go, we all did finish, and all of us got graduate degrees. It was through their vision, and my mother in fact tended to sell my father on the importance of college. At first I think he thought that if you just worked hard, but then times started to change.

elementary school
Three-room elementary school Linda Edmonds attended for grades 1-7.

When I went to elementary school it was a three-room school, segregated. I did well as did my other brother and sisters, but we were expected to do well. There was more responsibility with me being the oldest girl--I had a brother a year older than me and then the two younger sisters. My father would tell my brother and me, he would say, "You two have to do well. Because if you do well, the younger two will follow you. You're older; you have to set the example." That was such a heavy burden sometimes. At times I was like, "Why do I...?" He would say, "Now you know better than that. You're not supposed to do that." That would just really make me so angry sometimes. I used to wish I were....

Carter: ...the baby.

Turner: Always I was the older one, so in being the oldest girl I had to set the example for the girls. My brother had to set the example not necessarily for me because it was like the two of us together. He never said, "Your brother and then you...," but it was like "you two."

I went on to a local high school that had about a thousand kids in it, eight through twelve. There was only one school in the county, again segregated--segregated bussing system, segregated teachers. When they offered the SAT, I couldn't even take it in my high school because they didn't offer it there. It was the first time I ever went to the white high school. It was on a Saturday morning. I remember the teachers that were monitoring the test I was taking. One of them was standing over my shoulders watching what I was writing. Whenever I look at my SAT scores and people say our norms were different from the white norms, I know some of the reason was like this extra pressure of being in a different environment and somebody watching you as though you were, just to me, like something from a zoo--just different.

I graduated the top of my high school class. I always liked fabrics and textiles and stuff; my mother used to sew. That's why I went into home economics, clothing and textiles. I just loved the feel of fabrics. It just happened that I was also very good in math and chemistry. At that time I didn't even know it had a match. But in textiles, most textile products are chemicals. When I came to college, Virginia Tech, I could specialize in that. That's one thing I liked.

Carter: Dropping back just a little bit, I can clearly see the theme of your value system around achievement and the emphasis on education. What did you learn from your family about race relations? How were you taught to handle it?

Turner: I was taught that you are as good as anybody on the face of the earth, but you have to be careful. If you're really good, really really good, you'll get noticed, but you've got to be really really good. Even with that, you won't always get your just dues with white folks. We used to say "white folks." White folks do it this way versus black folks. It was like a reality that discrimination existed, but you couldn't stop because of that. That's what it was like. It is there, do not fool yourself that it's not there. But don't let it keep you from striving. Other than that I was not schooled on anything about race relation.

Carter: The protectiveness though, you mentioned earlier, about how close--the women did not go a lot into public places.

Turner: Right.

Carter: There were lewd remarks from the white men.

Turner: We were protected in that way. We were just denied access by our own parents. Because they knew if something happened, if someone said something to us, what's my dad going to do? So I think that was done to keep things from getting to the next level. To me men are men. Most men in most societies protect their women, and we were protected. Now some black girls were less protected, but in my family I didn't date in high school. I went to the prom, maybe a couple of movies, but I didn't date. Coming to Tech was the first time I was ever really free to date. That was a new experience for me.

With my parents, the protectiveness--I never resented it, that was just the way it was. That was the way it was. I never knew of anyone that got raped. When I was growing up as a girl, you kind of hear about things like such and such a girl got in trouble. That meant she got pregnant. There would be whispers about that child being by a white man. That was more in my grandparents' generation than in mine. I was never close enough to anybody white when I was young to have that interaction, so what I knew I heard.

One memorable thing in my mind, my first memory of white people it was a very negative one. My first memorable thing about white people in my community was when we got vaccinated for school. They went around to the local elementary schools, and there would be a team, I guess, of two or three (doctors, nurses). The parents of the five-year-olds who were going to enter school the next year were told to bring there children over to the local elementary school and get their vaccination shots for polio. My father took me over and...that was another thing, my father did a lot of stuff. My mother would be at home cooking, and he would take us to this and to that, so they shared that. It wasn't just that she looked after the kids. She made me a red, white, and blue striped dress with a white collar. I knew this was a special day. I was going over to this school to get this shot. I knew they were going to stick me, and I was afraid of that.

We went, and we sat in a line, and there were maybe 10 or 15 little kids ahead of me, I was the last one to go. By the time I got there I was petrified, just petrified. I kicked, and I screamed, and they stuffed my mouth with cotton. I remember that. They held me too. And my father--I can still feel being held. One was holding here, and I don't know if it was intentional, this guy just had a wad of that cotton stuff that doctors use, that gauze, he put it over my little mouth, and the other one held me. We get back out in the truck, and daddy said, "Now I know that was pretty bad, but it wasn't so bad. I'm going to give you a surprise." And he took me to the local store, and he went inside, and I sat outside in the truck, and he brought me a grape soda. But I hated that dress. That day on. It's funny, I used to rarely wear a combination of red, white, and blue. Every time I saw those colors, I thought of that dress. Nobody said anything to me. They had these white coats, and the women had on white dresses--the nurses, and I had never seen that before. I was so little, and they looked so big. To me they looked like somebody from another planet because I had not been that close to anybody white before. And never was again really, until...

Carter: ...until Tech.

Turner: Yeah, until Tech.

Carter: Why Tech? How did you learn about Tech, and why did you pick Tech?

Turner: When I was in high school I always thought I was going to go to Hampton. My high school home ec teacher told me that she had gotten a letter from Virginia Tech, and the College of Home Economics said they were doing some sort of competition in the spring of our junior year where girls across the state--I think we filled out an application or wrote an essay on something or other--would be invited to Tech for a two- or three-day program, and she wanted me to apply. I was the top student in my class at that time, and I loved home ec, and she was very gung-ho at it and stuff. I did it because she asked me to, and so she had another teacher friend that was going to be here with a student also that was going to apply. She couldn't take me herself for those three days, so she asked my mother if she could drive me. So my mother asked my aunt to ride along with her, so both of them drove me up here my junior year of high school in the spring. I remember the drive vividly because the dogwood blossoms were coming out, and this was kind of a long trip for me. This was like two hours that was being done for me, for my hometown. We drove here, and also I was staying overnight in a hotel.

Carter: Now where did you stay?

Turner: There was a hotel right in downtown Blacksburg. The Motor Inn or something like that.

Carter: So at that time the hotels were integrated?

Turner: I stayed with this teacher and this other girl. I vaguely remember the other girl but not much. My mother and aunt were driving here and they dropped me off. We met this lady at the hotel, this other teacher. And then they showed us where the campus was. We drove over here, and we looked at the program, and it said that the next day I would have to attend a tea. Well, to my mother and my aunt Iretha that meant that I needed a hat. So they hustled me off to downtown Blacksburg where I got a hat at Roses Department Store. You know those little kind of like mesh hats. Little white pillbox hat. So I had this hat, and I had my little gloves on.

They left after they deposited me with this teacher, and when the tea came about I was the only person sitting there with this little hat. The white people didn't wear hats to tea. But to my mother and aunt, a tea you needed a hat and gloves.

Well I applied to the program. I thought that the campus was so pretty. The building looked like castles, fairy castles, little fairyland. I could just see the princess riding around on the horses. It was so green and lush. I was treated very nicely the two or three day I was here. Then I went back home, and I applied here formally. I didn't get the scholarship or whatever it was by the way. I applied to go to school. I was accepted. I did get a full scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation and whatever else it was back then. And so that's how I ended up coming here. I had no notion of going to any white institution period.

My parents, although they hadn't gone to college did not say, "Well you have to go to this school or that school." You went to college. We got to choose. But that meant Hampton or Virginia State or Howard. My brother went to Howard by the way. It was from the pool of black colleges. I did not know the difference between a Harvard or a Ferrum College. They were all white. Totally different worlds. The rankings of Virginia Tech versus UVA, I learned that once I got here, what state schools were versus private. That's how I got here. My mom and dad drove me when I first came in the fall of 1966 as a freshman.

Carter: Despite the years, I was doing this in the late forties, and it's so similar. The whole experience of going to school. All right now we're at Tech, and you're here with your roommate and into this place. What was it like when you first got here? What were your first impressions of being a student here?

Turner: My first impressions. I have to back up a little bit. I was the only black student in my high school going to a white university then. Everybody else was going to a black school. So all of the staff and faculty in my high school knew that Linda was going to Tech. When I finished the spring term, got the degree from high school, the diploma, that summer all the tension just started to build. I was saying, "My God, now it's really going to happen." I started to really get afraid that I couldn't make it. Not so much that I didn't think that I had it, this was a totally different environment, maybe I'm not as good as I think I am. I remember sitting on our front porch with my dad and I said, "Dad, you know I'm really getting nervous about this. What if I go up there and I just fail flat on my face?" He said to me, "Well if you go up there and fail flat on your face at least you went up there and got one semester free! How many people can say that they even ever won a scholarship?" So he never said to me, "You won't fail. If it happens, I know you will try." That wasn't even a discussion. He knew I would give it my best. But if for some reason it did not work out I didn't need to feel bad about having tried, and if I failed it was not going to be a disappointment. I dare any of them to say anything to you because you're the one that has to sweat it. He didn't say those words, but that was the tone. "If you go up there," he said, "just let any of them say anything because you got that much free. Yes, you did baby." I can see him now sitting there.

So that gave me a reassurance that if things didn't go right, I could always go home. But I wanted to succeed desperately, desperately to do well. I'd always been an achiever. When I got here I knew Fredi was going to be a black girl. At first I didn't because she described herself as tawny in the letter she wrote me. She said, "I'm from Roanoke, Virginia, and I have a tawny complexion." I remember my mom and us ran to the dictionary, "What's tawny!?"

I said well that means she's got to be black because nobody white would admit they were browner. That was a description of lighter brown. I think we may have talked by phone once before I got here, and I don't remember if she got there first or I got there first. I do remember it was a rainy week. Mom and Dad left me. Fred came, and we got together very shortly afterward.

That week was so packed with things. We had to go to the gym and register. Everywhere there was a line, lines of people. People watched you all the time. You could be standing somewhere, and somebody was always watching you. It was like being in a glass cage. Somebody was always watching you, always watching you. You kind of got used to it after a while, but you were always on the stage. A lot of the students just kind of looked at you. They didn't say anything. You could hear them kind of whispering to each other sometimes. The girls in the dorm were cautious. I soon found out there were Chicky and Jackie down in Eggleston, and Chiquita and Linda. I think Fredi probably found out first because she was real busy and into everything. We got to know each other fairly soon. Fredi and I just mixed right in at Hillcrest. We did whatever the other girls did.

Hillcrest party
Hillcrest Dorm--front row, from left, LaVerne "Fredi" Hairston, Linda Edmonds' first college roommate; Brenda Kibler; Diana Blevins. Second row, Jennifer Minogue with hands on Brenda Kibler's shoulders. Linda Edmonds later roomed with Jennifer's sister, Lucy Minogue.

There were little committees. There were pajama parties. We'd go; they might not have wanted us to, but we were there. We never considered ourselves uninvited. Anything that was in that dorm...

Carter: You entitled yourselves?

Turner: We entitled ourselves. We had a really nice dorm mother, Mrs. Reynolds. She was real sweet and southern and very hospitable to us. Some of the girls parents eyes got as big as saucers when they saw us. My parents would bring my stuff in, you could see them stop dead in their tracks. Sometimes when the kids would come back from breaks and the parents would bring them in, somebody would ask, "Well where do I get paper towels?" They thought Fred and I were the hired help. They thought we were cleaning the rooms, and we would just happen to be walking down the hall, and we'd say, "Well no, we go to school here." Some of the students--when their parents got here--they kind of acted like they didn't know you. When their parents were gone, they didn't bother you, and they would talk, but then you had your little circle of friends, your buddies.

A lot of the girls I remember were from New Jersey. I believe New Jersey had a reciprocal agreement or something with Virginia Tech at the time. One girl majoring in Home Ec that was from my hometown, from the white high school. I used to have to make her talk. Make her talk. I wasn't a very aggressive sort of person. I was determined, but not aggressive. I didn't have the much more open Fredi personality or the Chicky personality. That's their style, and I envied them for that ability--they were more cosmopolitan that I was. I remember I would ask this white girl from my hometown, we'd be in classes, "In your high school did you do this or that?" And she'd go, "Oh..." She didn't want to talk to me, but as the years went by, she would talk more, but it was like she was always judging whether she should do it or not.

There were some of the girls that were just truly friendly all the time; some just ignored you totally. Most of them just kind of ignored you. You were invisible in a way. The boys saw you. They looked, and they didn't look. There wasn't to me this direct confrontation. It was kind of like you were there. A lot of them didn't approve of integration just because of their background. Immediately it was like this has to be done. It was almost like well if we don't do this, they're going to be marching and burning like they're doing down in Mississippi and stuff. So that's how I felt. It had to be done. That the people in the administration were going to say, "We're going to have this happen smoothly."

Cooks
The cooks at Hillcrest, March 1967.

There was a black staff that cooked for Hillcrest. One of the guys was named Charlie. There were three or four of them. I can still see their faces. We'd go through that line. They treated Fredi and me just like queens. You could just see the pride in their faces. They would do little things like after a while they knew the certain dishes that I liked and Fredi liked, and if they started to run low on those things they would put it in little bowls over to the side, and when we came through...sometimes they would just run low on a certain thing, they always had a lot of food. But they would make a big to-do about it saying, "We just ran out!" When you say, "I want this, this and this," the next thing you know on your tray there would be this little bowl of cherry pie. I'd say, "Charlie." He'd just wave you on, and sometimes I'd see them outside the dorm, and they would say, "We're just so proud of you. Just so proud of you. Just get your lessons, and don't let these folks bother you." They would say, "Get your lessons! Get your lessons! Study hard. We know it's probably hard, but you guys are the first!" But when they were with us, with the other girls, they didn't like fall out all over us.

Carter: They waited until you were alone.

Turner: They waited until we were alone. Then we'd have our little conversations. We were so young, and they were mature men in their thirties, which seemed real old to me then. But they were never disrespectful, always almost fatherly-like to us. I remember one saying to Fredi, "Now Fredi, you better be careful, don't you be runnin'. You're goin' to fall and break your neck!" It was just good to see those black faces.

I was here a week, and then I started to get homesick. It was rainin', it was just raining. That week it rained and rained and rained. I missed...

(End Tape 1, side a)


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