Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Sarah Lindsay Patton Boyle (9 May 1906–20 February 1994), writer and civil rights leader, was born in Albemarle County, the daughter of Robert Williams Patton, an Episcopal minister, and Jane Stuart Stringfellow Patton. She was tutored at home but suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia and did not learn to read until she was a teenager. She enrolled in 1926 at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and studied painting there for six years.

On 26 December 1932 Patton married Eldridge Roger Boyle, a speech and drama instructor at the University of Virginia, and moved to Charlottesville. After the birth of the first of her two sons in 1939, she gave up painting to care for her child and concentrate on the freelance writing with which she supplemented the family's income. Boyle was a successful nonfiction writer who published an average of one article a week in popular women's magazines. In spite of a long line of Episcopal clergymen in her family background, she rebelled against Christianity as a young adult and experimented with a variety of religious forms. Late in the 1940s, as her marriage became more difficult, Boyle turned back to Christianity and became a practicing Episcopalian, which she continued for the remainder of her life.

This resurgence of faith in the 1940s anticipated the spiritual awakening Boyle experienced in the summer of 1950 when she learned that the first African American was to be admitted to the University of Virginia's law school. She realized for the first time that segregation was an "enormous injustice," but her draft article welcoming the student, Gregory H. Swanson, to the university community offended him. Seeking to understand how she had given offense, Boyle submitted the draft to Thomas Jerome Sellers, the associate editor in charge of the Charlottesville branch office of the Tribune, a weekly African American newspaper headquartered in Roanoke. He criticized her article frankly and constructively, showing Boyle that her condescending tone and endorsement of gradualism in the ending of segregation implied that although the law student might be welcome at the university, other blacks were not. Though Sellers had barely known Boyle, they began a personal dialogue that forced her to change her mind on many matters, and early in the 1950s she began writing and speaking in behalf of immediate integration. Under the nom de plume of "A White Southerner," from about the beginning of 1952 until 31 January 1953 Boyle wrote a weekly feature column for the Charlottesville and Roanoke versions of the Tribune in which she sought to explain that, despite objectionable attitudes, typical white southerners were neither hostile to nor contemptuous of African Americans and would renounce segregation when the system's injustices were exposed. She also involved herself directly in the civil rights movement by becoming president in 1954 of the Council for Social Action, a new interracial organization in Charlottesville that worked to secure adequate housing, education, and jobs for all of the city's residents. Boyle began by directing a drive to marshal votes for a fair housing referendum.

Boyle's opinions did not attract much attention in Charlottesville until late in 1954, when she was one of the few white witnesses who appeared before a committee of the General Assembly to denounce efforts to block the desegregation of the state's public schools. She wrote an article entitled "We Are Readier Than We Think" for the Saturday Evening Post, intending it to reassure other white southerners that segregation could be ended without animosity. The magazine published it in February 1955 as "Southerners Will Like Integration," and with the inflammatory new title it brought Boyle severe criticism. Local segregationists burned a cross in her yard, and few white liberals were willing to join her public stand against discrimination. Very much an idealist, she was prepared neither for her critics' attacks nor for the lack of support from her friends, and she became so depressed that she contemplated suicide.

Despite her depression Boyle continued to campaign tirelessly for civil rights. In 1955 she joined the interracial Virginia Council on Human Relations and stumped across the state for three years as the organization's only field-worker, promoting interracial dialogue, establishing local discussion groups, and evaluating community needs. Boyle organized a local Council on Human Relations in Charlottesville in July 1956 but had withdrawn from active membership in the state council by 1960, criticizing it as a refuge for moderates. She preferred to work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Boyle's first book, a spiritual autobiography entitled The Desegregated Heart: A Virginian's Stand in Time of Transition (1962), described her change of heart in 1950 and her slow recovery from the disillusionments that came later that decade. The best-selling book earned her a national reputation as a civil rights expert. Boyle was appointed to the Virginia Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1963 and the following year published a second book, For Human Beings Only: A Primer of Human Understanding (1964). She took part in a number of marches and nonviolent demonstrations during the 1960s and worked with several interracial organizations, including the Southern Regional Council, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the NAACP. Martin Luther King Jr. commended her writings in behalf of civil rights in Why We Can't Wait (1964). Numerous awards for her work included a woman-of-the-year award from the National Council of Negro Women in 1956, the Russwurm Award of the National Newspaper Publishers Association in 1958, citations from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP, and the first Bishop Ireton Award from the Catholic Interracial Council of Richmond in 1963. The emergence of separatist ideologies within the civil rights movement convinced Boyle that her call for Christian brotherhood was no longer relevant, and she retired from the movement in 1967, deeply saddened by, yet with an empathy for, frustrated young African Americans' demands for black power.

The Boyles divorced in 1965, and she moved to Arlington. Her final book, The Desert Blooms: A Personal Adventure in Growing Old Creatively (1983), confronted the issue of age discrimination. Having nursed her mother-in-law through terminal cancer in the 1950s and cared for her own aged mother, who died in the 1960s, Boyle in her retirement battled stereotypes associated with age. In her final book, as in all of her writings, she tried to cultivate people's ability to love and understand one another as the best means of eradicating perceived social barriers. She remained active in behalf of equal rights for the elderly and the handicapped for another decade. Sarah Lindsay Patton Boyle died in Arlington on 20 February 1994 and was buried near her birthplace in Albemarle County.

Sources Consulted:
Jennifer Ritterhouse, "A Crisis of Convictions: Sarah Patton Boyle's Desegregated Heart" (master's thesis, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 1994); Ritterhouse, "Speaking of Race: Sarah Patton Boyle and the 'T. J. Sellers Course for Backward Southern Whites,'" in Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History, ed. Martha Hodes (1999), 491–513; Kathleen Murphy Dierenfield, "One 'Desegregated Heart': Sarah Patton Boyle and the Crusade for Civil Rights in Virginia," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 104 (1996): 251–284 (portraits); Joanna Bowen Gillespie, "Sarah Patton Boyle's Desegregated Heart," in Beyond Image and Convention: Explorations in Southern Women's History, ed. Janet L. Coryell et al. (1998), 158–183; Bureau of Vital Statistics Marriage Register, Albemarle Co.; Sarah-Patton Boyle Papers, Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia (UVA), Charlottesville, Va.; other letters in Benjamin Muse Papers, UVA, in James McBride Dabbs Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and in P. D. East Papers, Boston University Library; oral history interview, 7 Jan. 1994, copy in author's possession; Boyle, The Desegregated Heart: A Virginian's Stand in Time of Transition (1962; repr. 2001), quotation on 50; John Egerton, A Mind to Stay Here: Profiles from the South (1970), 128–145; feature article in Richmond News Leader, 17 Dec. 1980; obituary in Charlottesville Daily Progress, 5 Mar. 1994.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Jennifer Ritterhouse.

How to cite this page:
Jennifer Ritterhouse,"Sarah Lindsay Patton Boyle (1906–1994)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Boyle_Sarah_Lindsay_Patton, accessed [today's date]).

Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.

facebook twitter youtube instagram linkedin