American Culture

The truth about Mayberry

cast of Andy Griffith ShowThere’s a famous scene in a season one episode of The Andy Griffith Show, “Ellie for Council.” A battle of the sexes erupts when the local pharmacist (and Andy Taylor’s first love interest on the program, Ellie Walker, played by the wonderful Elinor Donahue), a woman, runs for town council. Just at the moment when Ellie has decided to quit the council race to try to bring the gender feud to an end, Andy, who’s been as chauvinistic as any man in Mayberry, steps up and defends her right to seek office. Andy begins his speech with one of the most delicious of “Southernisms” you’re ever likely to hear: “Naw. Naw. Now, listen – all of you. I’m’a gone say this. I’m bound to say it and you’re bound to hear it!” And he proceeds to shame his own gender, including himself, for their petty bigotry.

This essay is going to be a little like that.

Question #18 on the FAQ page of the Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers web site reads as follows:

“The absence of black people in any town in the South is an impossibility. Did the writers deliberatly script only white people for the show?”

The somewhat sputtering response, which reads far too much like far too many Southern apologias says the following:

“First off, you’re 100% wrong (my italics and bold). It is NOT an impossibility because there are NO black people living in the part of Alabama in which I grew up. I mean none. There are a few black folks in the county seat which is in the valley but there are none living up on the mountain which I grew up. The mountain has over 40 towns of sizes ranging from 4,000 up to about 15,000 people. So, your assumption is wrong. There are MANY towns in the south without black people.

Also, you are wrong that there were no blacks in Mayberry. If you watch the people in the background, you’ll see several black townspeople walking down the sidewalk and being a part of town. One that comes to mind right off is when Ed Sawyer, the stranger in town, is being confronted by the towns people out on the sidewalk…that crowd contains at least one black person and maybe more.

“Of course there’s also Flip Conroy (played by Rockne Tarkington). He was going to coach Opie’s football team on the episode “Opie’s Piano Lesson” #215. In that episode, Flip says he’s returned to Mayberry after his pro-football playing days are over to run his father’s business. This was the first time (and only time) that a black actor was featured as a main character. Up until then, blacks were only used as extras.

“In my opinion, not having blacks on the show was just a reflection of the way things were and actually still are in many places (italics mine). I’m not just talking about the South but all over. Folks tend, no matter how sad it is, to flock together in groups. It’s not unusual for black folks to have mostly black friends and white folks to have mostly white friends….and that’s in today’s world. 40+ years ago it was even more true….which is too bad but that’s life (italics mine).

“I don’t really think it was the writers, sponsors or anybody else that caused the “whiteness” of the main characters on The Andy Griffith Show. I think it was based upon truthful story telling in relating stories revolving around Sheriff Andy Taylor and his friends….nothing else. I just don’t think that there’s anything else to read into it other than good story telling.

“To see for youself some of the black townsfolk in Mayberry just visit the Black Mayberrians website.”

Yes, you should visit the Black Mayberrians web site. What you’ll see are photos of crowd scenes from Mayberry with the occasional African American or two scattered in. (I believe the term we’re looking for is “tokenism.”) You may also notice that the Black Mayberrians web site is a page in a larger web site run by what may well be another Southern apologist.

My point here isn’t to attack The Andy Griffith Show or The AGSRW, as I’m sure somebody in their organization refers to them. Nor is it to besmirch the memory of Andy Griffith, a gifted actor, who passed away earlier today. The minutely more prominent role of African Americans in later seasons of that program might well be traced to Griffith’s growing power as television icon. And Andy certainly portrayed African Americans as colleagues and close friends in his later (and produced by his own company, which allowed him to exert creative control) successful series Matlock.

The failure to include African Americans in a TV show set in the South in some undefined past (difficult at times to tell if the show is set in the fifties, the sixties, or some sci-fi/fantasy “other time” from the show’s milieu at times) is more a reflection of the desire of television executives of the time had to avoid controversy and aim at LOM (least objectionable material) programming. While this practice drew increasing fire as the sixties became the seventies (as much a result of the revulsion TV viewers experienced watching programming aimed at 12 or 72 year olds – do the names S.W.A.T. and Barnaby Jones ring any bells?) LOM was overwhelmed by grittier, more realistic programs (mostly comedy, oddly enough) such as All in the Family, Good Times, and One Day at a Time

But, as current popular sitcom character Leonard Hofstadter, would say: “See, here’s the thing…”

I grew up in a small Southern town in North Carolina just as Andy Griffith did. Actually, I grew up in a small Southern town and had a childhood not unlike that of Opie Taylor. I could walk anywhere in town and I was safe. The town was full of interesting yet relatively harmless eccentrics, as Mayberry was/is/will be.

But there were things I puzzled about – like why some restaurants had signs over (usually) side doors that said “Colored Only.” Or why, at the war memorial beside the fire station there were two water fountains – one labeled “Whites” and the other “Coloreds.” (I once, on the way home from a long walk to a movie matinee on a hot summer afternoon, drank from the “Colored” fountain only to be castigated by an elderly African American gentleman whose question has haunted me for 50 years: “Ya’ll got everything else – why you want to take this, too?”)

Or why I never had an African American student in a class with me until I was in high school in the late sixties.

Now maybe it’s wrong to say this, but I learned a lot from television growing up. And the show that taught me probably more about being a good person and doing the right thing was The Andy Griffith Show. Its gentle, homespun wisdom has stiuck with me, as my ability to quote the line at the beginning of this essay proves. But it didn’t tell me the whole truth about my South.

But I suppose it did give me one of my earliest and best lessons in the difference between fiction and reality.

4 replies »

  1. Apparently that person never heard of ‘sundown town’.

    I grew up and live in Southern California. The three cities I grew up in had NO people of color during that time (the 60’s). Not one school I attended while growing up had a person of color, except an exchange student from Columbia when I was in high school.

    Those three cities were Manhatten Beach, Palos Verdes, and Torrance. Later I discovered all three were notorious sundown towns.


  2. As an African American with roots very deep in Pilot Mountain, Mount Airy and Carroll county Va.(just 5 mins from Mount Airy city limits), I can tell you that it was a very inaccurate depiction of Mount Airy. The absence of Blacks even in the jail ??????? Please. It really is a place with many many Black families then and now. Mine go back to the early 1800s as Free Persons of Color, but there were slaves and Native Americans as well.