Sarah Patton Boyle

Sarah Patton Boyle (1906–1994)

Sarah Patton Boyle was one of Virginia's most prominent white civil rights activists during the 1950s and 1960s and author of the widely acclaimed autobiography The Desegregated Heart: A Virginian's Stand in Time of Transition (1962). Her desegregation efforts began in 1950 when she wrote to Gregory Swanson welcoming him as the University of Virginia's first black law student. Through her experience with Swanson, her views on desegregation evolved from being a proponent of gradual desegregation to a leading and often controversial white voice for immediate desegregation in public schools and in higher education. Her 1955 article for the Saturday Evening Post, titled "Southerners Will Like Integration," prompted a fierce backlash that included having a cross burned in her Charlottesville yard. Boyle did not moderate her views, however, and worked closely with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), earning praise from Martin Luther King Jr., Lillian Smith, and others, as well as numerous awards and a measure of national fame. The intensity of her political involvement triggered a deep depression, however, and she eventually became disillusioned with the civil rights movement, retiring from activism in 1967. In 1983, she authored a memoir that contemplated her experience dealing with age discrimination. MORE...

 

Sarah Lindsay Patton was born in Lindsay, Virginia, on May 9, 1906, to Jane Stringfellow Patton and Robert Williams Patton. Known by the nickname "Patty," she was educated at home and, because of undiagnosed dyslexia, did not learn to read until she became a teenager. She studied painting for six years at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. Her father was an Episcopal clergyman and a racial moderate who served for twenty years as the director of the American Church Institute for Negroes, which oversaw several black colleges, yet Boyle nonetheless developed a strong commitment to segregation during her childhood. In 1932, she married Eldridge Roger Boyle II, a drama instructor at the University of Virginia, with whom she had two sons: E. Roger Boyle III in 1939 and Patton Lindsay Boyle in 1943.

Boyle's political transformation began in 1950 when she learned that an African American named Gregory Swanson was expected to win his legal battle for admission to the University of Virginia law school. Suddenly convinced that "the South had somehow committed enormous injustice," Boyle reached out to Swanson but, upon showing him the draft of an article she wrote celebrating his arrival at UVa, offended him with her condescending manner and gradualist approach to change. Upset by his reaction, Boyle turned to Thomas Jerome Sellers, editor of the black weekly the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune, who patiently explained her mistakes. For the next two years, Boyle and Sellers met frequently in his office for heartfelt conversations that they only half-jokingly called the "T. J. Sellers Course for Backward Southern Whites."

At the same time, Boyle began to write newspaper and magazine articles and letters to the editor calling for immediate integration and improved communication across race lines. Her commitment to civil rights continued, and late in 1954 she was one of the few white witnesses to appear before a committee of the General Assembly to denounce efforts to block the desegregation of the state's public schools under the Massive Resistance policy declared by U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. Her campaign attracted little attention in Charlottesville, however, until February 1955, when the Saturday Evening Post published one of her articles and changed her original title from "We Are Readier Than We Think" to the more incendiary "Southerners Will Like Integration." The purpose of the article had been to reassure other white southerners that segregation could be ended without animosity; yet the title, along with a photograph of Boyle standing next to two black male medical students, raised the specter of interracial sex in the minds of many white readers, and Boyle was soon deluged with hate mail and threatening phone calls. The social isolation she faced in Charlottesville at this time was dispiriting; local segregationists burned a cross in her yard and she became so depressed that, despite her previous idealism, she contemplated suicide.

In the mid-1950s, Boyle traveled extensively for the new Virginia Council on Human Relations, recruiting members throughout the state as the interracial organization's only field worker for three years. Boyle withdrew from active membership in the state council by 1960, as she had come to see it as a refuge for moderates. Subsequently, she joined the NAACP and early in the 1960s was appointed to the Virginia advisory committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. In 1963, Boyle participated in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and in 1964, while taking part in a demonstration against hotel segregation in St. Augustine, Florida, she was arrested for the first time. Equally significant was her role in denominational politics as the only female member of a civil rights advisory committee of the National Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church and her receipt of the woman-of-the-year award in 1956 from the National Council of Negro Women.

Throughout this time, Boyle's work as an author furthered her contribution to improving the national conscience on issues of race. Her autobiography, The Desegregated Heart: A Virginian's Stand in Time of Transition, was published in 1962 and became a best-seller, establishing her national reputation as a civil rights expert. In the book, Boyle argues for desegregation by combining political idioms with uplifting spiritual and religious rhetoric: "If we love-and-serve an ideal we reach backward in time to its inception and forward to its consummation. To grow is sometimes to hurt; but who would return to smallness?" Another important aspect of The Desegregated Heart is Boyle's quashing of despair and disillusionment with her fellow human beings during her fight for desegregation by putting her faith entirely in God. Her second book, For Human Beings Only, an etiquette manual for well-intentioned black and white readers, was published in 1964.

In 1965, she divorced and moved to Arlington, further subdued by exhaustion caused from ideological shifts within the movement. She retired from race politics in 1967. Nonetheless, her compassion for the underrepresented continued and in 1983 she published a third book, The Desert Blooms: A Personal Adventure in Growing Old Creatively, which focused on age discrimination. On February 20, 1994, Boyle died at her home in Arlington due to complications stemming from her battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Major Works

  • The Desegregated Heart: A Virginianian's Stand in Time of Transition (1962)
  • For Human Beings Only (1964)
  • The Desert Blooms: A Personal Adventure in Growing Old Creatively (1983)

Time Line

  • May 9, 1906 - Sarah Patton Boyle is born in Lindsay, Virginia.
  • December 26, 1932 - Sarah Patton Boyle marries Eldridge Roger Boyle II.
  • February 1955 - Sarah Patton Boyle authors an article for the Saturday Evening Post titled "Southerners Will Like Integration," earning her fame but also an intense backlash. A cross is burned on her Charlottesville front yard.
  • 1962 - The Desegregated Heart: A Virginian's Stand in Time of Transition by influential white civil rights activist Sarah Patton Boyle is published.
  • August 23, 1963 - Influential white civil rights activist Sarah Patton Boyle participates in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
  • 1964 - For Human Beings Only, an etiquette manual by influential white civil rights activist Sarah Patton Boyle, is published. Boyle is also arrested for the first time for demonstrating against segregation.
  • 1967 - Sarah Patton Boyle retires from civil rights activism due to personal exhaustion and ideological shifts within the movement.
  • 1983 - Focusing her attention on age discrimination, former civil rights activist Sarah Lindsay Patton Boyle publishes The Desert Blooms: A Personal Adventure in Growing Old Creatively.
  • February 20, 1994 - Sarah Patton Boyle dies at her home in Arlington.
Further Reading
Boyle, Sarah Patton. The Desegregated Heart: A Virginian's Stand in Time of Transition. With letters edited and an introduction by Jennifer Ritterhouse. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.
Dierenfield, Kathleen Murphy. "One 'Desegregated Heart': Sarah Patton Boyle and the Crusade for Civil Rights in Virginia."Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 104 (1996): 251–84.
Hobson, Fred.But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative.Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Ritterhouse, J. Sarah Patton Boyle (1906–1994). (2011, April 26). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Boyle_Sarah_Patton_1906-1994.

MLA Citation:
Ritterhouse, J. "Sarah Patton Boyle (1906–1994)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 26 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 10, 2009 | Last modified: April 26, 2011


Contributed by Jennifer Ritterhouse, who teaches history at Utah State University. She is the author of Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race (2006).