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 thepolicy declared by U.S. Senator 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.
- The Desegregated Heart: A Virginian’s Stand in Time of Transition (1962)
- For Human Beings Only (1964)
- The Desert Blooms: A Personal Adventure in Growing Old Creatively (1983)