Dorothy Rogers Tilly

A preview for readers of First Floor Tarpley: a short but significant article by Reinhardt history professor Ken Wheeler from the Fall, 2015 edition of Reinhardt Magazine, about Reinhardt alumna Dorothy Rogers Tilly. 

One joy of historical research is encountering the fascinating lives of people in other times. While researching a different topic, I serendipitously discovered Dorothy Rogers Tilly, a Reinhardt graduate who became Georgia’s most notable white woman working for racial equality during the 20th century.

Decades before the modern civil rights movement, Dorothy Rogers Tilly, class of 1899, was an anti-lynching activist, leading boycotts and mobilizing churchwomen in campaigns for racial equality and social reform. As a member of President Harry Truman’s civil rights commission, she did important work.

Tilly was one of several Rogers family members at Reinhardt. Her father, Richard, led Reinhardt as president from 1896 to 1901. A Methodist minister, he and his wife, Fannie, moved to Waleska with their many children in tow. One elder daughter, Lois, joined the faculty to teach English language, literature and history. Other Rogers children enrolled as students.

President Rogers also pastored the local Methodist church. In the 1900 census, he indicated his occupation as “preacher.” It tells us something about him that being a college president was subsumed under his ministerial calling.

The Rogers family certainly brought a pastoral outlook with them. Tilly remembered that while growing up, “I saw and heard the troubles of the community, both Negro and white, pour over the doorstep of the parsonage.”

In 1899, Dorothy graduated from Reinhardt with honors at age 16 and went to Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Ga., to complete her baccalaureate degree. Soon she married Milton Tilly, and a year later they had a son, Eben. A difficult pregnancy led doctors to recommend that she bear no more children. As a result, once Eben was beyond his early years, she was a well-educated woman with energy and time on her hands.

She worked for the Women’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Church and in 1918 began running its Children’s Work for North Georgia program. This position carried her into contact with the poor, both black and white, and during the 1930s she expanded her engagement with social causes, joining first the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and later the Association of Souther Women for the Prevention of Lynching – she served as secretary, field reporter, and representative. Still, highly involved with Methodism, Tilly had also moved into civil rights. In the 1940s, she organized Georgia churchwomen in boycotts of businesses owned by Ku Klux Klan members and fought against poll taxes across the South.

Because of work Tilly did in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, she became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt wrote in her memoirs that she admired Tilly’s courage because “I was told that whenever a lynching occurred, she went alone or with a friend, as soon as she heard of it, to investigate the circumstances.” Perhaps a recommendation from Mrs. Roosevelt led to the invitation in 1946 for Tilly to join President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. The committee produced a famous and influential report, “To Secure These Rights,” which called for an immediate end to segregation.

Tilly and her work aroused opposition. The Klan threatened to bomb her home, and she received many harassing calls. Undaunted, she talked back to her callers, repeatedly asking them to identify themselves, but eventually she placed a record player by her telephone stand. When a caller coul dnot be engaged in reasonable conversation she dropped the  needle on a recording of the Lord’s Prayer, which played into the phone’s mouthpiece as she walked away.

In 1949, Tilly founded a new organization in Georgia, one she ran almost single-handedly, called the Fellowship of the Concerned, FOC. The FOC, with thousands of members, launched various initiatives and hosted interracial conferences, foreseeing a future that many people could still scarcely imagine. Anticipating, and then reacting to, the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision that declared public school segregation unconstitutional, the FOC trained women in how to make their white communities ready for integrated schools.

The late 1950s and 1960s brought mass-action protest of a different sort to the fore in the search for racial equality and the civil rights; young activists often had little use for what seemed an older generation’s maternalism. Yet in 1963, the year Tilly turned 80, President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights, and Tilly, ever vigorous, carried on with the FOC almost until her death in 1970.

Overall, the life of Dorothy Rogers Tilly shows how she fused her family background, education and church involvement into a persistent commitment to tackle a massive social problem. Tilly connected Christian social work and social reform of the early twentieth century to the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement. She is a powerful example of the importance of women’s roles in changing social views, and her involvement in Methodist women’s groups was central to her ideas about how to bring dignity to and improve people’s lives. Reinhardt, led by Tilly’s father, clearly had an ethos supportive of that work of Christian uplift; while Tilly was an exceptional person, her life gives us clues about he kind of training and mentality that some Reinhardt graduates of that time carried with them as they left Waleska for the wider world.

For more on Tilly, see chapters on her life in From the Old South to the New (1981), Throwing Off the Cloak of Privilege (2004), and Before Brown (2004), which is reprinted in Politics and Religion in the White South (2005). 

Confederacy, Again

It seems that since my visit to the Museum of the Confederacy, things have gotten a little more difficult for those who look back on the era with fondness. The shooting deaths of nine African-Americans at a Charleston, S.C. church have prompted numerous, vociferous calls to take down the Confederate Battle Flag that files at the State House in Columbia, a sentiment endorsed by Gov. Nikki Haley. That debate is ongoing, but a preference cascade has ensued: Mississippi is again considering whether to remove the Battle Flag from the canton of its state flag, the governor of Alabama ordered the Confederate flags removed from the capitol grounds in Montgomery, and eBay and Amazon have announced that they will no longer deal in Confederate-flag branded merchandise, including that beloved icon of early-80s childhood, the General Lee (from the television show Dukes of Hazzard). Even the dean of the National Cathedral in Washington has called for the removal of two stained glass windows that illustrate the Civil War, because they contain Confederate flags.

I’m no fan of the Confederacy, but I have to say that this all seems a bit much. What does a shooting in Charleston have to do with a flag on display two hours away in Columbia? (I guess, since all hopes for gun control in the wake of previous shooting massacres were dashed, the SPLC has decided that this is a safer bet? Never let a crisis go to waste!) And how is it coherent to ban computer games set in the Civil War while giving a pass to Communist, jihadist, and Nazi themed paraphernalia, still for sale on Amazon and eBay?

I think some context might be in order. In South Carolina, the Confederate Battle Flag used to fly from the State House. Following protests, the flag was moved to a Confederate memorial on the grounds of the State House. That was the compromise between Confederate heritage groups that wanted it to remain, and people who wanted it removed entirely. It is the sort of compromise endorsed by John Coski, whose book I have mentioned:

If even a vocal minority of vocal flag loyalists regards the flag not merely as a memorial to Confederate dead but as a living testament to the power of anti-federal ideology or the symbol of a still-living Confederacy, it is difficult to defend the flag as a neutral, apolitical symbol that everyone should learn to respect.

Confederate heritage groups should be free to use the flag in their functions, including Memorial Day observances, parades, and ceremonies commemorating important anniversaries… But instead of urging everyone to keep it flying everywhere, flag advocates should censure any use of the flag that is not unambiguously memorial or historical in nature. Those who truly regard the battle flag as a sacred war memorial for Confederate ancestors should oppose its use on T-shirts, baseball caps, and other popular culture items that trivialize its meaning… Similarly, flag defenders should seek to remove battle flags displayed on state flags or in any sovereignty context, since this use blurs the distinction between the flag as a memorial and the flag as a symbol of sovereignty….

Flag critics in turn must be more tolerant of the flag’s presence as a war memorial and historical symbol…. Elected officials, community leaders, and intellectuals must cease encouraging the untenable belief that there is an inherent American right not to be offended. Flag critics must (for practical as well as ethical reasons) become more willing to distinguish between a KKK rally and a [Confederate] Memorial Day parade.

Alas, the spirit of compromise has abandoned us this past week. Opponents claim that it is an American swastika, tainted for all time by its use by anti-Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and -60s. This is an ironic fate: according to Coski, in the late nineteenth century, former Confederates argued that the Battle Flag was an apolitical symbol, unlike any of the three national flags adopted by the CSA (that is, the so-called Stars and Bars, the Stainless Banner, and the Blood-Stained Banner, the latter two of which do feature the Battle Flag on the canton). The Battle Flag alone was alleged to be suitable for the remembrance of soldiers’ spilt blood. But its use in the twentieth century means that it is now more political than the national flags – or at least the first national flag, the Stars and Bars, which does not feature the Battle Flag at all, and was found to be suitable as the basis for the current flag of Georgia (2003).

But I would still draw a distinction between the Battle Flag and the anti-Civil Rights flag. In vexillology, proportions matter. That is, the Battle Flag was square (and often, as on the SC grounds, had a white border). The Southern Cross, as commonly flown in the twentieth century, was rectangular. Thus, I would say that on the grounds of the SC state house at least, it should have a place, as a part of the Confederate memorial (although I would be in favor of changing Mississippi’s flag).

Of course, you could make the case that there should be no Confederate memorials either, but I don’t think that’s a good road to go down. As someone said, where will that end? Lots of memorialized American leaders did unsavory things. Will monuments to Andrew Jackson (expeller of the Cherokee), Thomas Jefferson (slaveowner), Woodrow Wilson (segregator of Washington DC) and even Abraham Lincoln (executor of 38 Sioux in the Dakota War) be removed as well? Instead, my general preference is to live and let live. In a democracy, you have to share the country with people you don’t like, and the same right they have to celebrate their heritage is the same right you have to celebrate yours – even on the grounds of the capitol. Let us not forget that there is a large, beautiful, and meaningful monument to South Carolina’s African-American heritage on the east side of the SC State House – and I would be in favor of adding as many more monuments as will fit. And if flags are at issue, why not fly the Pan-African flag, a horizontal tricolor of red, black and green? I’ve always thought that more use should be made of this.

Phi Alpha Theta

It is with great pleasure that the Reinhardt history program announces that three worthy students have been inducted into the Reinhardt chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the honor society for students of history.

From left to right: Dr. J. Good, Daniel Carpenter, Zach McElveen, Kaitlyn Gibson. Photo: Lauren Thomas.

The ceremony took place yesterday in the Glass House. The new initiates received their certificates, honor cords, and roses, and learned the meaning of esoteric symbolism of the Phi Alpha Theta insigne (seen on the banner). Current members Alex Bryant and Brandi Allen and alumni members Barbara Stamey and Caitlan Sumner were also in attendance.

Patrick Zander, assistant professor of history at Georgia Gwinnett College (and formerly of Reinhardt) was our guest speaker.

Photo: Lauren Thomas. 

He delivered a very interesting talk entitled “TWA, African Development, and Breaking the Color Line in 1950s Kansas City (1946-1954).” This paper dealt with how Trans World Airlines was commissioned to set up a national airline in Ethiopia, and how a TWA executive (Zander’s own grandfather) forced Eddy’s Restaurant to serve visiting Ethiopian executives, in defiance of the conventional segregation of the time. Mr. Eddy himself was in a bit of a quandary: he did not want to risk alienating the biggest corporation in town (nor to court the wrath the Eisenhower administration), but he also did not want to risk a walkout by all his other white customers. His solution: he had the band play a drum roll and the MC announce the presence of “our honored guests, the Ethiopian cabinet!” It worked, and although not particularly momentous, the incident did represent a small victory for desegregation in 1950s Kansas City.

Congratulations again to our new inductees!

The next Phi Alpha Theta event will be the Georgia Regional Conference, scheduled for March 28 at RU.