Norms of Southern Racial Etiquette and Helen Fisher Frye

February 25, 2013 in 1940s-1950s

Helen Fisher Frye was an African American woman that grew up in a fairly stereotypical segregated area.  Her entire pre-collegiate education was spent in a segregated school system.  Even when she became a teacher herself, she spent her first years teaching in schools for African Americans only.

For most of Frye’s childhood, she truly “adhered to the norms of Southern racial etiquette.”  This phrase comes from a theme in The Maid Narratives.  The general idea supporting this theme is that children were normalized to the idea of segregation and unequal treatment.  Although The Maid Narratives focuses largely on this idea in the Caucasian context, it could equally be applied to children like young Helen, whose parents encouraged them to tolerate existing social norms.  In Freedom on the Border, Frye recollected about moving off the sidewalk for white children as a daily expectation.

Perhaps the definitive factor that kept this idea from a life of complete tolerance and disregard to the unfairness of the situation was Frye’s upbringing. Although her parents encouraged her tolerance of the current unjust system, they greatly encouraged her that education was the best path to rise above that poor treatment.

Helen’s education allowed her to become a successful activist in Danville.  Higher education was not easily achieved.  Her initial degree, a BA in education, came from the traditionally black Kentucky State University.  Graduate studies proved much more difficult to get in the state of Kentucky.  Frye eventually had to attend Indiana University for her master’s in education, after losing a battle to take classes through the University of Kentucky.

Despite that setback, Frye eventually attended UK for her second graduate degree in library sciences.  She became the very first African American woman to receive that degree from the university.


Wormer, Katherine Van; Jackson, David W., III (2012-09-17). The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South (p. 270). Louisiana State University Press. Kindle Edition.

Fosl, Catherine, and Tracy E. K’Meyer. Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. Lexington, Ky: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2009. Internet resource.

Frye, Helen Fisher.   Interviewed by David R. Davis.   Eastern Kentucky University.   1980.  Web.   16 Feb. 2013.

University of Kentucky Libraries. “Notable Kentucky African Americans – Frye, Helen Fisher.” University of Kentucky. (accessed February 24, 2013).

2 responses to Norms of Southern Racial Etiquette and Helen Fisher Frye

  1. I really like the way that you connected the idea of adherence of the Southern social norms to both blacks and whites. The way that you put these two stories and the overall idea of these idea worked really well and allows for more thoughts and ideas to come up. You did a great job emphasizing the importance of those who defied these social norms. Great Job!

  2. Great info on Helen Fisher Frye — she sounds like an amazing woman!

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