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1:04 - Life during World War II

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Partial Transcript: Abigail: Do you happen to remember where you were when you found out the U.S was entering World War II?

Keywords: World War II

Subjects: Blacksburg; Christiansburg

4:17 - Mary meeting her husband at CI

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Partial Transcript: Abigail: Your husband joined the service.

Keywords: Christiansburg Institute; Husband

8:38 - The Christiansburg Institute Football Team and Marching Band

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Partial Transcript: Abigail: Were there many extracurricular activities at CI?

Subjects: Christiansburg; Christiansburg Institute; Football; Marching Band

13:07 - First School Dance at CI

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Partial Transcript: Abigail: Like dances, did you have many of those at CI?

Keywords: school dance; Snow

Subjects: Christiansburg Institute

16:02 - Boarding Students

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Partial Transcript: Mary: I was just real excited about going to the school because, you know, it was like a college. The campus was like a college.

Subjects: Christiansburg Institute

19:13 - Working at Louise's

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Partial Transcript: Mary: When I did go into the workforce, I was able to apply that. When I first went to work it was over here in Downtown Blacksburg.

Keywords: Blacksburg; Christiansburg

28:21 - Thoughts on CI

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Partial Transcript: Abigail: When someone mentions CI to you, what do you think? Like, what is the first thought that comes to mind?

Subjects: Christiansburg Institute


´╗┐Abigail Lau: Okay, this is Abigail Lau interviewing Mary Smith Mills at the Blacksburg Public Library on November 27, 2012. First, I would like to start--in our previous interview, you mentioned that your mother worked at the arsenal. I was wondering, was she employed there during World War II?

Mary Mills: You know that's--when did World War II end? [19]40-?

Abigail: Pearl Harbor was 1940, [19]41.

Mary: I know it was in the [19]40s. I was trying to think, I just don't remember. I think it was. It was in that time period that she worked there. I just don't remember the exact year.

Abigail: Right. Okay, do you happen to remember where you were when you found 1:00out the US was entering World War II?

Mary: Now, what?

Abigail: Where you were when you found out the US was entering World War II.

Mary: Okay. If I'm remembering correctly, I was going down--I lived on Stone Street and I was walking down toward town, downtown Blacksburg. [Laughter]

Abigail: Do you remember what you thought of that?

Mary: No. Well, you know at that age, you have thoughts but you don't really think that much about it. You know, it's just, it's happening and I'm sorry it's happening. But, I didn't put a lot into it. I really didn't.

Abigail: Okay. You mentioned that you attended CI from [19]41 to [19]43?


Mary: [19]45. Okay, I graduated in [19]41 from grade school so I went in September of [19]41 as a freshman. [19]42, [19]43, [19]44, so [19]45.

Abigail: [19]45?

Mary: Um-hm. From [19]41 to [19]45. I think now. Let me just get it straight.

Abigail: Oh, no. Take your time.

Mary: Because I know I came out of there in [19]45. As I told you, I didn't graduate, I just quit.

Abigail: Okay.

Mary: I think it was [19]45.

Abigail: It was [19]45? Okay, well that puts it--as I mentioned to you on the phone, that puts you at school right in the middle of World War II and I know a lot of schools adjusted.

Mary: Oh, yes.

Abigail: I was wondering, did CI take any measures after the US entered the war? 3:00Like drills of any sort or--how did it affect your schooling, if you remember?

Mary: I think they did. I don't really recall a lot of it. And I don't know if it's because of the stroke I had but I have memory loss at times. Then again, it all comes back to me. I do think I remember us having drills at the school. Because we had to go outside when the thing would sound off. We had to go outside and stand for a certain amount of time and what not. I don't remember the time. We did have to go outside. So that much I remember. I remember the young men getting drafted. Gosh, at that time you were drafted rather than 4:00voluntarily. So I remember a lot of the young men in school getting drafted.

Abigail: I think you mentioned in our previous interview that your husband joined the service.

Mary: Um-hm.

Abigail: First, if you don't mind me asking, how did you meet him?

Mary: At school.

Abigail: At school?

Mary: Um-hm.

Abigail: Did you get a friend to introduce you?

Mary: Um-hm. [laughter]

Abigail: That's cool.

Mary: No, we were in Biology class and the buses would come up. I don't know if you know where the school is.

Abigail: No, unfortunately we didn't get a chance to visit the site.

Mary: Okay, well it would come in there and the parking lot of the buses was to the--well, when you drive in there, it's to the right. My friend was from 5:00Blacksburg. Of course I was from Christiansburg. See, they caught the bus from Wake Forest.

Abigail: Oh, he's from Wake Forest?

Mary: No, he's not from Wake Forest, but the bus would come through and pick them up.

Abigail: Oh, cool.

Mary: Okay, so we were looking out the window, 'cause see, by then, we were sophomores. [laughter] And so, when the bus drove up next to where they started getting off, I remember when he stepped off I thought, ooh, now who is that? Is that from Blacksburg? And she said, yes, and she told me his name and she introduced me later on during the day. I don't know exactly when it was and that's how we met. Yeah, so. I don't know if it was good or bad, but anyway. [laughter]

Abigail: Sounds pretty good to me. So was he drafted or did he join voluntarily?

Mary: You know, I was thinking about that the other day and I never thought to 6:00ask him but I was thinking that he was drafted. No, he wasn't.

Abigail: He wasn't?

Mary; No, he wasn't. I'm trying to think back a little. He wasn't drafted. He volunteered.

Abigail: Okay. So how did the war affect the student body--like male to female ratio or something like that? Do you recall?

Mary: Well, I guess it had an effect in a way. I know there were a lot of guys 7:00that had already gone on in as time progressed and we were always writing letters. I would get a letter from someone, and then I would pass it on and then she would pass--we would exchange letters. We didn't exchange letters but we would exchange addresses. But we felt like that's the least we could do so we did a lot of letter writing.

Abigail: So you wrote to the boys who went overseas?

Mary: Um-hm, yes, uh-huh.

Abigail: That's really cool. People don't write letters today.

Mary: No, and you know, that's a bad thing.

Abigail: I agree. I have a lot of my grandparents' letters and I'm just like, I wish we wrote letters like this today.

Mary: You really miss a lot of that but I guess technology is technology.

Abigail: It is. Do you remember any of the faculty and staff changing during the war?

Mary: I don't think so because most of our faculty were adults. I mean, you 8:00know, they were of age. You know like middle age or what not, as well as I can recall. I don't think we had, like they do today, they have--it looks like kids up there. But I really don't remember any of them changing.

Abigail: None of them changed? None of them went and joined the service?

Mary: Not as I can recall.

Abigail: Okay, were there many extracurricular activities at CI?

Mary: Like what?

Abigail: Like clubs or athletic events--

Mary: Oh, well now, we had quite a football team.

Abigail: Really?

Mary: Oh, yes. We had a marching band. Oh gosh, people used to line the street for our marching band. To this day, now if you see someone that's been members 9:00of it or if you got on your school jacket or something, they'll say, oh I just remember that band. I mean it was fantastic.

Abigail: Was it?

Mary: Yes, it was.

Abigail: Were you a member of the band?

Mary: Oh, no, no, no. [laughter] My experiences were limited. I just didn't go for that kind of thing. But we did have a great football team.

Abigail: Since it was a regional school, the district that you played in, which types of schools would you play? What other schools would you play in athletic events?

Mary: Okay. I remember--was it Lucy Addison? You know, of Roanoke?

Abigail: I'm not familiar with that school.

Mary: Okay, yeah. I know Lucy Addison--but you see, we did not--I really don't know what region we were even in because we were not recognized as a, I guess, 10:00big time thing. But it was something that the boys wanted to do. And see, in order for them to play, to have uniforms to wear, [Virginia] Tech would give us their cast-offs.

Abigail: Oh, really?

Mary: Yes. And of course, they were cast-offs, too. [laughter] But, I just don't remember us doing too--I don't remember exactly how many teams we played or even--because I didn't follow the football.

Abigail: So you never went to any of the games?

Mary: No, no. But we did have a fantastic football team, though.

Abigail: And an excellent marching band.

Mary: Oh, yes the marching band was really fun.

Abigail: Would they parade through downtown Christiansburg?

Mary: Um-hm, and the streets would be lined. It really was. I think about that a 11:00lot. That it's gone down in history for those who remember it. That there's really no recognition of it. Oh, I guess there is to an extent, but it was just recognized as such a fantastic band.

Abigail: So, it was like the community all together, not just African Americans or whites or anything. It was the community as a whole that recognized the marching band?

Mary: Oh yes, see it was an all-black school.

Abigail: Right.

Mary: So there was no other group in it. But everyone came out to see 'em because as I can recall--but I can't think of his name now--but he was a high stepper and when he went down that street, I mean he really got the recognition. 12:00He really did. So it was just a lot of fun. It really was.

Abigail: So no sports or clubs? Did you participate in any extracurricular activities?

Mary: Unh-uh.

Abigail: No? Just education?

Mary: Yeah. And there wasn't too much of that. [laughter] I don't know. I just wasn't, I really wasn't into school. At that time, I just really wasn't. I knew I had to go and I went to my classes and what not. But, I guess I just was a loner, more or less. You know? So I didn't participate in school. 'Course I went to home ec[onomics] classes and I learned to sew and cook. But that was just the 13:00extent of it.

Abigail: What about school events like dances? Did you have many of those at CI?

Mary: Oh yes, I can remember the one that I had been looking forward to. As I told you, I was raised by an aunt.

Abigail: Yes, your great aunt.

Mary: A great aunt. And, of course, there were rules and regulations. But there was one dance that I was going to. And it was the first dance. Of course, I think I was just a sophomore or maybe a junior. I didn't even have a dress, but one of my friends, we were the same size--well, we were always exchanging clothes. But her brother was married to my neighbor that lived up on Stone 14:00Street and of course I lived right down below them. And she said, don't worry, I'll bring a dress to you and all. So I was really looking forward to that. And do you know it snowed like mad?

Abigail: Oh, no! Blacksburg-Christiansburg weather.

Mary: Yeah, I know. It just poured snow.

Abigail: So did you still go?

Mary: No! He couldn't even get out.

Abigail: Oh!

Mary: See, we lived--I don't know if you're familiar with Nellie's Cave Road.

Abigail: I've been in that general area a few times.

Mary: Um-hm, yes. And of course, at that time it wasn't paved or anything. It was kind of hard to get in and out of.

Abigail: And walking through the snow is just-

Mary: Yes, yes, but we did it. And we thought nothing of it. It was just a way of life. So, that's how we do it.

Abigail: Were snows then better than the snows now?

Mary: Oh gosh, yes. Snow up to here. [laughter] But you know, it really was. It 15:00was just something that you looked forward to. We didn't mind and we just went on. Just went on with it, I guess.

Abigail: So did you ever go to any other dances at the school?

Mary: Unh-uh.

Abigail: No?

Mary: No.

Abigail: So the one you looked so forward to--

Mary: Yes, the very one I looked forward to. It must not have been for me to go. [laughter] Oh, gracious.

Abigail: So what is your fondest memory of your time at CI?

Mary: First off, I was just real excited about going to the school because it 16:00was like a college. The campus was like a college. It was just so great to go to that kind of environment. So, I guess the biggest thing was--well, one thing, it was meeting a lot of people from different locations, for one. Even though Radford and Christiansburg were close at that time, we didn't go together or anything. But when I went there, there were already boarding students there and to meet people from other areas of the world--well, of the state. [laughter] Well, I guess, of course we had 'em from New York and New Jersey.

Abigail: So like the Eastern Shore?

Mary: Yeah, we had 'em from everywhere. So, you know, you met a lot of people 17:00that had a lot of different ideas and things and we enjoyed talking with--one of my best friends was from Elkton, Virginia.

Abigail: Elkton.

Mary: Which is near, is it Harrisonburg?

Abigail: Harrisonburg.

Mary: Harrisonburg.

Abigail: Where JMU is, I think.

Mary: Yes, uh-huh. That was one of my very best friends. And to this day we still keep in touch.

Abigail: Do you really?

Mary: Um-hm. Then her brother--well her brother and sister were really there before she and I did--but her brother married a local girl. In fact, her brother married the girl who took me to school for the first time over at CI.

Abigail: Aw, the girl who made you late, if I recall.

Mary: Yes, uh-huh, yes. Yes, siree. But anyway, it was just a fun thing to do. 18:00As I grew older, became a little bit more settled down. I guess you might say I was wild. I don't mean wild, but I mean it was just all so new to me. I was going here, there. But as I settled down and began to, I guess you could say, look at it in a different way. We had a math teacher and that was not my good subject, but she made math interesting. Her name was Ms. Grace Sally.

Abigail: Grace Sally.

Mary: How about that? Two first names. But she made you learn. She had to let you find out how to do it. She would help you but then you had to find out 19:00exactly how to do that. I guess I am grateful because when I did go into the workforce, I was able to apply that. Because see, when I first went to work it was over here in downtown Blacksburg. I worked in a ladies shop. But I was not on the register until I'd been there maybe a couple of years. But then, when she closed--I think I told you she sold it to someone from Roanoke. But when it all closed down and I answered an ad to work in Christiansburg, then I became the manager. That paid off because I had to do the inventory, the ordering, and what not. You know, it had its quirks. And of course I think I told you that biology 20:00was a great subject. I think his name was Mr. Anderson.

Abigail: Mr. Anderson. Yes, you did mention him.

Mary: It was okay 'til he started cutting up frogs.

Abigail: Cutting up frogs. I don't recall this story about cutting up frogs.

Mary: Well, no, it was just something that you did. It was part of the thing. It was just a lot of different aspects of going over there that made it, that paid off in later life. Because as I said before--I'll probably repeat myself--when I 21:00got the job downtown here in Blacksburg, and see, I was the only black working downtown.

Abigail: Really?

Mary: Um-hm.

Abigail: What was that like--if you don't mind--what was that like?

Mary: Yeah. It was good and it was bad. 'Course now there was a young man that worked in a filling station. But as far as stores downtown, I was the only one. The boss that owned the store and the ladies that worked in the store were fantastic. They accepted me. 'Course I started back in the back, doing inventory 22:00and ironing. See, all the VPI things, they all came to that store. See, that was the big store in town. Louise's was the name of it.

Abigail: Louise's?

Mary: Her name was Louise Watkins. It was Louise's and there were some who accepted me. One who didn't. [laughter]

Abigail: Oh, dear.

Mary: [Laughter] But, you know, really. I can only remember that one that kind of gave me a hard time.

Abigail: How so?

Mary: Well, she didn't want me to wait on her.

Abigail: Oh.

Mary: Yeah. You see, when I did start working, see, I was in the back. But then when she put me on the floor to train, we would have turns. Like, this one come 23:00in, you're up first. Then the next one comes in, that was yours. This one just didn't--she didn't want me to do it. She just didn't want me to wait on her. But, you know what? Her mother was completely different.

Abigail: Really?

Mary: Um-hm. I mean, it was strange. It really was.

Abigail: That's interesting.

Mary: Yes. It really was.

Abigail: So do you think that was from going to school or? If her mother was totally different and she was like that, do you think?

Mary: I really don't know. I really don't know what it was except that it was just something that had never happened. So, here's this black girl. I'm just gonna be frank with you and I don't want her doing for me right now. But she did 24:00come around. She didn't get to be buddy-buddy but she came on in. If it was my turn to wait on her, she let me wait on her and everything.

Abigail: This store, it was like a dress store, right?

Mary: Um-hm.

Abigail: Get dresses fitted. That sort of store?

Mary: No. Well, it was dresses, and this is when everyone wore hats. Hats, lingerie, hosiery. I don't remember if there was jewelry in there or not.

Abigail: So it was somewhat like a clothing department store in downtown. That's what it sounds like.

Mary: Well, but it wasn't really a department store. It was owned by this woman, Louise. This is what she had in there. The people could, excuse me- say you 25:00wanted two or three dresses to try on but you didn't have time to do it there. We had a book because see they were wives of the faculty, so she felt, how about doing this for them? So if they wanted--I don't know if there was a limit or not, I don't recall that--but we had to write down what they took out.

Abigail: So they could take the dresses home?

Mary: Um-hm.

Abigail: Just to try on?

Mary: Yeah, just to try on. Most of them would buy it. At least one. But that was just a thing I remember. And then, the hosiery department, of course my 26:00hands don't look good now. But--

Abigail: Hosiery is gloves right?

Mary: Stockings.

Abigail: Stockings, stockings.

Mary: Yes.

Abigail: Yes, what is gloves? There's a specific term for gloves, too.

Mary: Oh, is it?

Abigail: I think so. I can't recall, though.

Mary: I don't know. But anyway, they wanted to see how--say, for instance a guy was getting his--'cause guys would come in and buy for their wives, particular at Christmas. They would want to know how the hose would look. And of course, you see, they were in boxes. We didn't have them out. They were in a closet behind the counter. He would tell us, say, my lady's skin is fair and I'm getting this colored dress or whatnot. He would tell us what to do and what he wanted, and then we would go back and get the hose. Then we would put our hands 27:00down in it.

Abigail: So they could see how--

Mary: Of course, I can recall saying over and over again, my skin is not the color of yours. [laughter] But you know, they took it as a joke. And they went on with it. We sold quite a few unto the men. Quite a bit. Then at Christmas, we would gift wrap so there was a little gift wrap station there. It was just a fun thing.

Abigail: It sounds like fun. I don't think they have stores like that these days

Mary: No, they don't. I know Belk used to, years ago. When it was legged, you know? I don't know, they might have gift wrap. I don't even go in there anymore. [laughter]

Abigail: I know they have gift wrapping, but as far as the customer service.


Mary: Oh yeah, that's right.

Abigail: It's not quite what it used to be.

Mary: Oh, no. Unh-uh. No, not at all.

Abigail: Okay, and one final question. When someone mentions CI to you, what do you think? What is the first thought that comes to mind?

Mary: That it was a school that provided a great education for minorities. It was there. You just had to reach out for it. I guess it gave everybody an opportunity.

Abigail: Okay.

Mary: And a lot of them went on to bigger and better. They left the area because, at that time, there still wasn't a lot of acceptance for the 29:00minorities. So they went on, but they would come back to the reunions, and to this day, they still--those who are living. [laughter] It was quite an opportunity. And they were--say, the boarding students. On Sunday they were made to go to church and you know how they went? They walked.

Abigail: Oh!

Mary: [laughter] Yes, but they did, they walked. But you don't know where the school is though, do you? Okay, do you know where the Christiansburg High School is? Off four- you know, going into Christiansburg.

Abigail: I think so.

Mary: It's on the left and see right down below there--see, I guess there's a 30:00couple. My guess is the next driveway and you turn in up there at the high school and the next driveway you would turn in. That's where it was. It was mandatory for them to go to church or get punished, I guess. I really don't know what the punishment was because I lived in Christiansburg. But, they would walk and you know, the teachers would walk with them and they would go to church.

Abigail: So, did they go to a particular church or?

Mary: No, I think they scattered around.

Abigail: Whatever their denomination was?

Mary: Right. I think they tried to instill in us the values of life. You know? You had to be at least some kind of religion. Not specifically religion, just to 31:00accept being a part of it. I don't know if I'm saying it right or not. We had to recognize God, in a way, because we had chapel everyday too.

Abigail: Oh, really?

Mary: Um-hm. Yup. The bell would ring, I don't remember, but I think it was at noon. We went in for chapel and we sang and prayed. We didn't all pray but what I mean, it was there for someone to pull from the stage. So it instilled in you how to be somebody if you wanted to. That's the way I looked at it--that it's 32:00here for you, and if you want to accept it, I'm offering it, and that's the way it was.

Abigail: So the way you spoke about it, you made it sound kind of like a choice to go to CI. Since you lived in the region, could you just go there if you wished to go there? Or was there--

Mary: Oh, no. You were expected to go there. After seventh grade because that's as far as primary went. You couldn't hardly put 'em out in the world at that age. Not everyone went, but it was there for us if we wanted to go. If we could afford to go, then we went. I think just about everybody looked forward to at 33:00least one year there. Because see, my mother went. I don't remember, I know she and two of her sisters. I don't remember how far, but I remember them talking about it. I don't know how far they went but they did go to CI. It was just the school to go to.

Abigail: What about your aunt? Did she go?

Mary: No. See, she had already raised my mother and her two sisters and so, ugh. [laughter] And, of course she was working too. But, it was fun.

Abigail: Fun. That's what school should be. It should be fun.

Mary: It should be fun, yes. And we would go up on the football field, which was 34:00back of the home ec building, and we could stand up there and watch them practice and whatnot. Still there was no mingling, male and female. It was just a fun thing. I don't recall a lot of it, because really, that's been a good while ago. As I talk, some of it kind of comes to me, then some of it I just really don't remember because it was just so long ago. As it's been entered into my life, it's just kinda hard to remember all of that. As much as I remember, I enjoyed it. It was a great thing.


Abigail: Good. I'm glad you enjoyed it. [laughter] I think that is just about it, unless there is anything else you would like to add?

Mary: No.

Abigail: No?

Mary: No. Thank you for asking me. I know I haven't given you as much as you would like, but like I say-

Abigail: Oh no, what you've given is-

Mary: It's just a thing that comes to mind. You know, the ones that stood out with me. But then there's a lot of things that did go on that I just don't remember. You know it's, as I say, some of it's been a good little while. [laughter]. So maybe some of it you can do, you can delete whatever.

Abigail: Unfortunately, we can't delete anything from recordings, but--. Thank you very much.

Mary: I'm really glad to do it.