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Oral History Interview with David Richmond and Joseph McNeil


Date: circa 1994

Interviewee: David Richmond

Biographical abstract: David Richmond (1914-1990) of Greensboro, North Carolina, was one of the "Greensboro Four" who participated in the sit-in at Woolworth’s on February 1, 1960.

Interviewer: Joseph McNeill

Description:

In this 1994 oral history interview conducted by Eugene Pfaff, David Richmond and Joseph McNeil discuss their participation in the February 1, 1960, sit-ins at the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Specific topics include how the students&8212;including fellow participants Ezell Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) and Franklin McCain&8212;came to be acquainted, their discussions in a dormitory room at North Carolina A&T State University (A&T), the influence of white businessman and supporter Ralph Johns, and the reaction of A&T administration. Also discussed is a 1955 speech by North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges and other motivating factors behind the sit-ins and other aspects of the civil rights movement.

The interview was recorded on video, which has since been lost. This partial transcript, originally published in The Carolina Peacemaker on February 24, 1994, is the only record that remains of the interview. This material is published with the permission of The Carolina Peacemaker.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: External Collections

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.86.1391

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Civil Rights Greensboro and the appropriate repository.



Oral History Interview with David Richmond and Joseph McNeil

Eugene E Pfaff:

Our interview today is with David Richmond and Joseph McNeil, who, with Ezell A. Blair, Jr. and Franklin McCain, conducted the first sit-in of the F. W. Woolworth & Company in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. These four freshmen of the Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, now known as N.C.A&T S.U.{North Carolina A&T State University], began a protest of segregated lunch counters that quickly spread throughout the South and resulted in the desegregation of hundreds of eating establishments. Many historians consider this to be the first step in the modern civil rights movement.

I’d like to welcome both of you to the Greensboro Public Library Oral History Program. I’d like to begin by asking what forces motivated you to test desegregation in Greensboro in 1960.

David Richmond:

Well, basically, there were many things that occurred since day one, since you were able to talk and see things that occurred. Joe will probably have different experiences. Riding on the back of the buses, going to the back of restaurants to get things—all of these things were present in Greensboro where I lived as a youth. Insurance collectors coming to your house, calling your parents by their first names—there are many things that motivated me.

EP:

Mr. McNeil?

Joseph McNeil:

There was not too much a question of motivation; it’s there. You’re going to face it every day to the extent that you have a sense of self-respect.

EP:

Was there any one particular catalyst or any one thing that made it February 1, 1960? Was there something that occurred the night before or several days before that made it "now"?

JM and DR:

Twenty years is a long time.

EP:

How long had all of you known one another prior to this time?

DR:

Well, I’d known Ezell prior to coming to A&T. Frank came to Greensboro and attended Dudley [High School] his junior year. Ezell, Frank and I were at Dudley. Ezell and Joe were hooked up as roommates. During freshman orientation, we all met, and the four of us really jelled; we had classes together. Joe, Frank and Ezell lived on campus and I lived at home, but I stayed on campus more than I did at my house.

We talked about a lot of things in the dorm. We talked about everything but our studies; things that were happening around the world, things that were happening in Rhodesia, the Montgomery thing, and Joe was very, very articulate, a very, very dynamic person. We talked about everything. I’ll let Joe expound on some of the things that we talked about in the dorm.

JM:

I think that we were emerging into a sense of wanting to do something in our own context, of making a contribution, albeit a small one.

EP:

There have been numerous accounts of how this sit-in came about and there is debate back and forth as to whether or not there had been outside influences like the Gandhian concept of non-violence, the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, South Africa and Rhodesia. So, you’re saying that these outside influences did have an effect on you?

JM:

They certainly had an effect on anyone at the time, to the extent that you did any reading. We lived in a time when many found it very easy to shun events that happened around them. But, to have a sense of self-respect required that you read, and, if you read, you saw certain things that you couldn’t ignore. If you walked down the street and you experienced certain things, you could ignore them for some time in life, but it becomes a question of how long.

EP:

 Is there anything that made A&T a leading institution in civil rights, the kind of institution that would foster a very activist student body?

JM:

Vis-à-vis other institutions of the state?

EP:

Yes.

JM:

I don’t think that there were any particular elements present at A&T that you wouldn’t have found at other institutions.

EP:

 Several historians, among them Miles Wolff, have indicated that in 1955 the student body booed Governor [Luther] Hodges because of his mispronunciation of the word "Negro," and that this showed a very forthright and strong, independent attitude on the part of the student body toward a governor who could, presumably, affect the cut-off of funds of this institution. I was wondering if you felt that there was a sense of that--that it was an independent student body that would behave according to its principles despite the threat of cut-off of funds.

DR:

We were not aware of what had happened at that time. The only thing that I could say would be that it started with the sit-ins and you always have a gap, a four-year span, and it continued from what, ’60 to ’63? Then you had the class of ’64 that probably graduated in ’67. So, basically, that was probably the reason, because you always had some student there that had participated, and the dialogue and the interchange of ideas, and they communicated with each other. So, definitely, there would be some sort of reason for what carried on at A&T.

JM:

In all fairness, it could have happened at Southern University in Louisiana, Orangeburg in South Carolina, North Carolina Central in Durham. I don’t think that there was anything in particular about our student body make-up. It was a problem that faced us all.

EP:

What role did Ralph Johns play in your decision to sit in at Woolworth’s?

JM:

Ralph was a good man, in the sense that he did an awful lot of things in the community and with the college. He was helpful to us in the initial stages in sort of getting things going, giving us a shoulder to lean on.

EP:

There is a chapter in Miles Wolff’s Lunch at the Five and Ten which indicates a rather dramatic occurrence, where Mr. Blair called and identified himself as "Number Two", and, according to the book, each of you was given a number and Ralph Johns was "Number One", and he called the newspaper and set up bail. Do you agree with this assessment or is there another point of view to this?

DR:

I don’t recall a numbering system. This is what we were discussing a few minutes ago.

JM:

I was reading the book a moment ago and I asked David "Number One"?

EP:

What were your feelings as you sat there?

JM:

Such a pride and such a fear. A sense of "Damn it, we’re going to do it. We’re going to see where this thing goes." More so, a deep, overriding sense of pride.

EP:

Did you expect to be attacked or arrested?

JM:

I think that we had a lot of expectations. We expected a lot of things to happen, and we sort of prepared for the worst.

DR:

We had talked from September because we were together. We had talked about this thing all this time, and it went over all sorts of possibilities, anticipating things. And, I guess, we didn’t know what to expect, but we knew all of the possibilities that existed. And then that Sunday night we were talking about it again, and about four o’clock that Monday afternoon, we said, "Let’s do it." And we walked downtown.

EP:

Was there anything said to you by the store manager, the waitress, other patrons? Was there anything done to you?

DR:

Basically, when we went in and sat down, one of the waitresses came over and asked us what we were doing sitting at the counter. And then we saw the manager and shortly afterwards, we saw two police officers standing there, but they didn’t do anything, they just stood there.

EP:

Would you have left if the police had ordered you to leave?

JM:

I don’t think so. We were prepared to be arrested, if it came to that.

EP:

Did you anticipate any disciplinary action by the A&T administration?

JM:

Quite openly, no. It was a law which we felt was wrong and it gets back to the old philosophical stuff that even seventeen and eighteen year olds back in that time could understand. When it becomes prudent to disobey a law which you feel was morally wrong, where are you going to make your stand and what is it worth? A&T was certainly not the only school where we could obtain an education.

It had to be in our minds, as I look back now, that when we made these decisions, that we were putting an awful lot on the line up front. It is difficult to think back precisely, but now that I look back, your question prompts it. If we had been canned, there goes your education, right? If you had been in jail for four years, there goes your education. All of these things had to be thought out, and I feel comfortable in saying that we did address these matters. They were resolved and we were prepared to take whatever came our way. It wasn’t something that we blindly went into, with no sense of expectation.

EP:

Mr. Richmond?

DR:

I don’t have anything to add.

EP:

Did you think that the city or the state might exercise reprisals against A&T, a cut-off or a cut-back of funds?

DR:

It had been a factor prior to our arrival. A&T has always received the low end of the totem pole as far as allocation of funds, so they were getting the maximum that they were going to get anyway. So, I don’t think that they could have (cut funding). By law, they had to give them something, and they were giving them the least that they could anyway.

JM:

That was the old dilemma that other black leaders had. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t; if you take some provocative action, they’re going to squeeze you financially, and not extend education to the masses of blacks who really need it. So, that was a fragile line, and, as we look back, those in the administration probably walked it very well.

EP:

What happened after you left the store? What did you do and what was the campus reaction?

DR:

The store closed and television cameras had gotten in and we walked back to campus. We were freshmen and we didn’t know the masses of students. We knew mostly freshmen, so we contacted some students that we knew and asked them to return Tuesday morning. And then it hit the six o’clock news, and that’s when we started to organize with other college leaders on campus.

JM:

As David said, we were freshmen. One of the things that made sense to us at that time was to try to get established campus leaders in various elements: the student government, the ROTC [Reserver Officers' Training Corps] Program, the athletic program, the fraternities. Get these people involved in this thing and have them get their membership out and see if we can get something going.

EP:

How were you treated by the average student and by the student leaders that you contacted?

JM:

I think that they were very receptive. It was a question of "We should have done it sooner. Let’s go."

EP:

Did you encounter any criticism?

DR:

None whatsoever.

JM:

There may have been some oblique criticism, but I can’t recall any that terribly upset me.

EP:

Was there much interaction with the adult black community?

JM:

You bet. It developed in that way. The black community was essential-- all of the help that they gave us. There were just hundreds of people behind the scenes whose names never made a newspaper, who never stood in front of an audience, who were essential for this thing, particularly in the early stages.

EP:

What sort of things did they do?

JM:

For one, they gave us really solid commitment after this thing got going. We knew that if we put ourselves out there, that we had a lot more behind us that first day. They’re going to stay; they’re going to stick behind us. They arranged, through George Simkins and others, to give us legal protection through the NAACP’s [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] Legal Defense Fund.

People had talked and when the time really did come up when we needed money for bail, it was there. The community was there. It wasn’t a case where we had to put up hard dollars. I think that many members of the community even pledged personal property as bail satisfaction for students whom they did not know.

EP:

Do any specific names come to mind?

JM and DR:

Dr. Barnes, Simkins, Hairston--many of the names that are still around now.

JM:

It is so unfair to name names. There were so many unnamed people. The real soldiers were the unnamed guys out there.

EP:

Did any of the older members of the black community actively participate in the sit-ins, or was it mostly students?

JM:

It was a student function. We pretty much decided that, didn’t we, Dave?

DR:

Because we had to have some sort of control, because we were walking a thin line; we didn’t want it to get out of hand. There were some incidents that could have eroded into violence.

EP:

Do you think that if the adult members of the community had taken a more active part, there might have been violence?

JM:

There was already the potential for violence, but it’s like David was saying. But in another sense, too, it was more practical for students to do it. They had families to support. We weren’t breadwinners yet. There was no one standing over us saying, "You’re going to get fired, buddy." So it made sense for us to do it.

EP:

Was there much communication with civil rights organizations, such as CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] or the NAACP?

DR:

After Day One, representatives came in from CORE and the NAACP, Walker, [Floyd] McKissick, not McKissick…

[This is the end of the interview as recorded in the Carolina Peacemaker, the only existing copy of the transcript. The video no longer exists.]