Mary Hellen Dellinger Oral History Interview


Dublin Core


Mary Hellen Dellinger Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview
Farmer, James 1920-1999
Dellinger, Mary Hellen
History and American Studies Department
University of Mary Washington
Mary Washington College


In this oral history interview, Mary Hellen Dellinger speaks about her time in Dr. Farmer's Civil Rights class and his educational legacy at the University.


Hist 428 Spring 2020


To see this video on Youtube please click here.


HIST 428: Farmer Group




Dellinger, Mary Hellen
Eastridge, Kimberly
Mahoney, Eilise


Youtube Video




Moving Image

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Eastridge, Kimberly


Dellinger, Mary Hellen




Text: This oral history interview was created as part of a project on Dr. James Farmer’s educational legacy at the University of Mary Washington. This project was completed for the University of Mary Washington’s Adventures in Digital History class taught by Dr. Jeffrey McClurken. We would like to thank Dr. Jeffrey McClurken for agreeing to participate in this interview.
Text: Thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview, Ms. Dellinger. Could you please state your name for the record?
Ms. Dellinger: Mary Hellen Dellinger
Text: What year did you graduate?
Ms. Delligner: 1990.
Text: What was your major?
Ms. Delligner: History.
Text: How did you know Dr. Farmer?
Ms. Delligner: He was a visiting professor there. I’m not quite sure what his actual title was. And I knew him by his classes.
Text: You were in his Civil Rights class?
Ms. Delligner: I think that’s the only one he taught. Yes, that’s the one I took.
Text: What do you remember learning about in his class?
Ms. Delligner: I remember sitting there thinking—I was a senior when I took it— “I’m looking at a living history.” I mean, right in front of me. Just straight out of the pages of a history book. And I remember learning things about the Civil Rights Movement that I didn’t know. Um, I liked the fact that the class addressed a lot of the—I don’t want to call it the pre-movement, because it was all the movement, I guess, but, uh, a lot of the early things from the 1950s. He talked a lot about that, thing that I’d never gone into before, and then quite a bit of time about his personal experiences literally on the front lines of the south. I’d probably say it was the best class I’d ever taken, and I completed the graduate courses at George Mason University. So, yeah, that’s hands-down the best class.
Text: How would you describe Dr. Farmer?
Ms. Delligner: I’d describe him as a very, um, compassionate person. One that despite all his experiences wanted to share. He wasn’t bitter in the least, didn’t harbor any animosity towards anybody, and, um, was very eager for us to understand his story, so as to, you know, not repeat those types of things. Try and make us better people, I guess you could say.
Text: Do you have a favorite memory of him?
Ms. Delligner: I remember-my favorite memory is the laugh he had. He had a James Earl Jones kind of voice. One of those really deep voices—you can probably look him up online; I know there are recordings of him out there—but that voice, and when he would laugh—even though at that time he was blind and had to be brought into class on a wheelchair, he had an aide that brought him in, he had that signature eyepatch, but he still couldn’t see—his whole face would light up when he would remember something fondly or a person fondly, or when someone would ask a question that made him laugh. That’s—I know that’s not really a historical type of answer, but that’s the thing I remember the most is sitting there thinking “everything he’s been through, what people did to him solely because of the color of his skin, and yet he sits here and shares that story with a room of- we were all white students; not that he would know there wasn’t one minority student in the room, and he just, you know, just-it was like he was just telling a story.”
Text: What kinds of values or lessons did he instill in his students?
Ms. Dellinger: Well, I think that it was always that we shouldn’t judge other people. I, at that time, was-my roommate, my college roommate Freshman and Sophomore year, Junior and Senior year is still one of my very best friends, um, was from-was-was a minority student. She had been adopted by a white family as a young-as a young infant, um, and brought to the states and was a US citizen. And I think it made me see her life experiences a little more differently. Um, you know, just to- just to live with somebody that goes through the world and experiences the world differently than I do, I think that was one thing that I kind of learned from him. Does that answer your question?
Text: What kind of impact did he have on your time at Mary Washington?
Ms. Dellinger: Well, this was in the late 80s, obviously, um, so the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t even 25 years old at that point, 30 years old. Um, there were a lot of people who lived through that- both sides of it and remembered it, um, and I know that dateline or nightline, one of the big news programs of the time had been to Fredericksburg at that point and had interviewed a lot of people. It was a big, big story. We all watched it in the dorms. It talked about how racism was still a problem. Um, so I think to-to-to sit in his class, to kind of be exposed to, you know, that story… that was such an experience, um, you know, living in a different time I can’t say that it’s any better now. I don’t know-I don’t know. I’m not a minority person-to be living through that, I guess, I guess that’s a good answer.
Text: Would you say that he has had an impact on your life outside of Mary Washington? Do you think about him sometimes?
Ms. Delligner: I do. Definitely. I have two copies of his book, one in hard cover, one in soft cover, both autographed. He was still able to do that. And I-I’ve read them more than once. And I do think about that sometimes when I think-when I see on the news about racial injustice, or when I, you know, have dealings with-with people of color or minority-minority, um people. You know, I sometimes-I can just hear his voice in my head talking about the injustices that he felt and I always try and think “I’d like to do a better job, um, as a person.” Um, again, I move through the world as a white woman, and so that’s how I experience the world. And, so, um, I think that colors everything I do. And so it’s good that I had this class to kind of remember, you know, that there are people out there that-that experience horrible things every day based on just what they look like, um, or what they might sound like. So, that’s a thing I carry with me, and I think it does have an impact, yes.
Text: How do you think he is being represented on campus today?
Ms. Delligner: Definitely more of a presence today than when I was a student. I mean, obviously at that time he was still a teacher there. Um, since that time, obviously, he has passed away. Um, before he died President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is, I think, is the highest civilian honor we give in this country; well deserved, long overdue. Um, there’s a statue to him out in front of—what will hopefully be renamed—uh Trinkle Hall, and I know there’s the-I think the multicultural center is named after him. So, those are good steps. Um, I was recently asked to participate in a survey about the renaming of Trinkle Hall and I strongly suggested it should be named for James Farmer because the statue is right across the way. So, I think that’s great. Um, and I’m sure there are other things that I’m missing that I don’t know. I think the school does a good job of that, um, but only in the Mary Washington community. I think the bigger community-if you’re a Fredericksburg resident and you’re walking down campus you might not know that story. Um, and I think it’s critically important that people know he was one of the big four, he taught there. Um, very few people had more of an impact on the Civil Rights Movement than he did. Of course, Martin Luther King is a big name but he was just as important in doing a lot of the heavy lifting. If you-I can’t remember what the statue says, but obviously it identifies all—a statue like that does—but I know I’ve been on campus with people, ‘cause I live right next to campus, I can walk there from my home, and we’ll walk our dogs there and sometimes people will say “well, who’s that?” I mean, they just don’t know. He’s not a face that is recognized like Martin Luther King who is the face of the Civil Rights Movement, um but just as important if not more important. So, I know that can’t just name a day after him or anything, but they-you know, yeah, I think they do a good job of within the Mary Washington community, but outside not so much. So, I think, you know, it’s a good job that the school is doing, but there’s always room to do more, you know.
Text: Do you have any funny anecdotes or other stories about Dr. Farmer?
Ms. Delligner: Ah, man, I’m trying to think. It was a very serious class. You could feel the weight of the subject, um, as he was talking about it and because he couldn’t see, he sat at the front of the room and just talked. Um, you know, I don’t remember. I really don’t. I’m trying to think. I was kind of a serious student. I didn’t fool around a lot. Um, I can’t remember anything. I just remember going to his office one time and waiting quite a while to have him sign the book, and I guess he had heard me out there and he thanked me for waiting. I, um, he didn’t really meet with his students one-on-one, he wasn’t on campus as much as some of the other professors. I don’t know if that was due to his health or just the arrangement, they had with him. I can’t think of anything, I’m sorry.
Text: Did you ever attend any of his guest lectures?
Ms. Delligner: I didn’t do any of those, I just attended his classes, never missed one, never took any notes either—you didn’t have to. I mean, you just kind of sat there and listened. And I don’t-I just remember he gave us a couple papers to write, I don’t think we had any exams. I think it was more just like papers and that was it. Everybody passed if you just showed up and paid half-way attention, which I don’t see how you couldn’t. Um, yeah, so that’s just what I remember.
Text: Thank you again, Ms. Dellinger, for helping us get to know Dr. Farmer even better!
Text: Interviewee: Mary Hellen Dellinger; Interviewer: Kim Eastridge; Editor: Eilise Mahoney; Team Members: John Forest, Katia Savelyeva, Megan Williams; Advising Professor: Dr. Jeffrey McClurken
Text: For more information on this project please go to

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Hist 428 Spring 2020, “Mary Hellen Dellinger Oral History Interview,” James Farmer at Mary Washington, accessed July 20, 2024,

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