Darling Ruth and Ophie Dear: The Long and Unlikely Interracial Friendship of Two American Women, 1925-1984
In 1928 a young African American woman from Texas by way of Howard University in Washington, D.C., landed a plum job in the newly formed Department of Social Science at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Even her friends were envious. But as she settled back into life in the American South, she found herself lonely and at odds with many of the people around her. Solace came in the form of correspondence; she exchanged letters most frequently with a female friend made at a 1925 summer camp of the National Student Forum Conference. That friend was the daughter of Austrian Jewish migrants to New York City, educated in Quaker high schools, and now active in youth movements while trying to get a break as a theatre actress.
Several things distinguish the correspondence between these two women. First, they exchanged letters, cards, postcards, and very occasional parcels from 1925 until one of them died in 1984. Second, while there was an inevitable slackening in the pace of their conversation when children were born, husbands faltered and work overwhelmed, they remained one another’s primary confidante throughout these many decades. Third, while one was a black Southerner who almost always struggled to make ends meet, the other was a wealthy, white, Jewish northerner. Ophelia Settle Egypt and Ruth Lewis Hall had few opportunities to talk face-to-face, and although they keenly anticipated such meetings, they often failed to live up to expectations. It was in letters that they forged a long-term and long-distance intimacy. This paper will use their correspondence to illuminate the history of women’s friendship and to tell this extraordinary story of interracial friendship.
Dr. Clare Corbould is an ARC Future Fellow at Monash University’s History Department. Her research has appeared in Becoming African Americans: Black Public Life in Harlem, 1919-1939 (Harvard University Press, 2009) and most recently in an edited collection titled Beyond Blackface (UNC Press, 2011). She is currently working on three projects: a study of the memory and legacy of the American Revolution (with Fitz Brundage, Frances Clarke and Michael McDonnell); a biography of civil rights campaigner, writer and musician James Weldon Johnson; and a book about interviews with ex-slaves conducted in the 1920s and 1930s.
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