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Oral history interview with Alma Adams by William Link
February 15, 1989
Alma Shealey Adams
Alma Adams (1947- ) served on the faculties of Palmer Institute and Bennett College before becoming a legislator in the N.C. House of Representatives in 1994. She also served on the Greensboro School Board from 1984 to 1986 and the Greensboro City Council from 1987 to 1994.
In this transcript of a February 15, 1989, oral history interview conducted by William Link with Alma Adams, Ms. Adams compares her experiences in Newark, New Jersey, and Greensboro, North Carolina. She primarily discusses her own educational experience and the evolution of educational opportunities for African-Americans in Greensboro, including North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (A&T) State University.
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Oral history interview with Alma Adams by William Link
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
WILLIAM LINK: This is William Link and the date is February 15, 1989 and I'm here in the office of Alma Adams. I'd like to begin just by hearing a little bit about your life, where you were born, and where you were educated, and how you came to Greensboro.
Okay. Most people don't know it but I was born in the Tarheel State. I was born in High Point, North Carolina. Left here at about six weeks old, so I never really lived in North Carolina until I came back after high school. I lived in my early years—I began school in Baltimore, Maryland and left there and went to Newark, New Jersey, and there I finished high school at Westside High School in Newark.
During the time when—of course I think Kennedy was president and I was actually in high school when he was killed, and there was a lot of turmoil in Newark. Newark was a city that was hit very heavily by rioting, and there were a lot of other things going on in Newark. And living in the midst of the ghetto—and that's where I grew up—I knew that I did not want to live there for the rest of my life, and I made a commitment early on to go to college, and I didn't exactly know how I was going to go because I grew up in a single parent home.
But anyway I came to North Carolina, to Greensboro. I did a little research, and I had some relatives here. I was very impressed with what I had read about North Carolina A&T. So I came to Greensboro in 1964—seventeen years old—as a freshman, and always did want to go into art, so I was not really confused about that. So I went straight into my area and I've been working in that ever since. Growing up, that was something that was kind of an escape mechanism for me to get into my art, so I did a lot of that. And I basically had some good teachers, but I did not have what I considered to be role models in the way of black teachers and that's really one of the reasons I wanted to come to A&T because I wanted to interact with not only black teachers but some other black students.
And as I came out of Westside, that school was predominately white. As a matter of fact, graduating out of a class of about five hundred—it was a very large graduating class—there must have been about seventy-five, eighty black students. So I'm not sure what percentage that was but—and it was a good school, no question about it, it was a good school. They had a good program. That does not exist—the school still exists today but it certainly does not have the reputation that it had back in the '60s. That's one of the reasons why my mother wanted me to go to Westside, and why I think a lot of black children end up in many of those kinds of situations, because we do look for, and at that time, schools that had the best programs for our children, and socially it may not have the best environment, but it was a good school, so.
Did you—as a minority student who was pretty much in a minority there in Newark, in Westside High School, what sort of feelings did you develop? I mean what was the experience?
Well, my experience there, academically, I think it was all right. But I did have one negative thing that I think really stayed with me and was kind of the motivation for my wanting to go to college, beyond my mother instilling this in me, and that was I had a counselor who advised me not to go. I was not the most ready young person. I had a pretty good sense of humor, which I think I still have, and I played around a little bit, but did do my work, and I was not the “A” student that some young people were. And it was not—the thinking, at least at that time, that if you were black and did not have an “A” average, that you should be college bound. And so I was not singled out to be college bound. And I think that's wrong, because internally, in terms of my own thinking and my own desire, I did want to go to school.
I was the first person to go to college in my family and so it meant a lot to me to want to go and to have at least the school's encouragement. I didn't get that encouragement and I resent that, and I worked very hard to dispel any notion that I could not do it. And so I—of course I did have some deficiencies, and I'm not ashamed to talk about those because I think that's something that does happen and that occurs with a lot of young students and especially young black students.
But I came to A&T, enrolled in their program and did have to take some courses for remediation, and I'm glad I did because it really helped me to kind of get my grounding and I got off to a good start. But I think the most significant thing about that was that I was allowed that opportunity. You see, many colleges and universities don't allow you that opportunity. They look at that record and that's the only thing that they look at as a judgment of whether or not you should be allowed to come. And you never get a chance to prove whether or not you can do that. And I'm just thankful that I had that opportunity, because had they not said yes,” then I might not be sitting here today in this particular capacity. So, you know, and I use that to try to encourage young people to really get on the stick and get on the stick early because you know you can, somehow lacking, you can have deficiencies. Sometimes you don't get an opportunity to prove yourself.
What sort of reputation—I mean, you knew about A&T. How did you know about A&T? What sort of reputation did you think it had?
Well, A&T of course had been in the news, you know. It was a school—a black college in the South. I had relatives here and they spoke very highly of A&T. I did not know of—and we didn't have a lot of that, you see. In the North you don't have a lot of schools, particularly black schools, that the black youngsters could really relate to. As soon as I got on the campus and even got into the city and in the area of southeast Greensboro—well, I had always seen black people in Newark, you know, because when you live in the ghetto, that's about all that lives in with you.
But I was in an educational environment, and that was really good for me because it looked as though as I went around the city that black people were progressive, you know. They had—you know, they were very interested in terms of building the community economically. There was a lot of interest in their homes and those kinds of things. Being in a city on top of people in apartments and those kinds of things, somehow you don't get that feeling of family and, you know, that home—
—community, kind of attitude. So that was good for me. And not that I didn't feel that I was loved or anything like that, because surely I did. But it was just that the pace was a lot slower here. You know, you go in the city, you've got cars—the thing that impressed me the most about Greensboro when I got here was how clean it was. Having grown up in the city where all you see is paper and trash on the street and just a lot of activity. The quietness, the cleanliness, these are all impressive things for a kid coming out of a ghetto city. And so I sort of, I missed Newark, but I didn't miss it, if you know what I mean. And I always said I never want to go back and live. I go and visit because I have relatives there.
As a matter of fact my dad lives in Stearns[?]. But you know it was—so I felt that, immediately, that I could have a better life and that things could be better and that I could be productive, and that's one of the things I wanted to do. So I worked very hard and, although low-keyed, I think I was initially, for a lot of reasons—I was a young married student and having to work and go to school, those things took up a lot of my time and I really could not be as involved in the community as I perhaps wanted to be. I was involved on the campus very heavily with student activities. I was even president of the Art Circle, one of the arts organizations, and so I was very involved on the campus. And then I found that A&T was really considered to be a very unique and integral part of this community. So I felt at home here, I really did.
What sort of impressions did you have coming to Greensboro in terms of race relations, both when you first got here, and then if it changed at all while you were here?
Well, I suppose most of the time that I spent, my first three or four years that I was here, I spent on the campus. So I didn't interact very much with the community and I really probably couldn't give a fair assessment of that. I don't recall ever encountering any racial incidents. I don't—I'm not saying they didn't occur. But one of the things that I did find in the South, and I think most people that come from the North will say this—I have had people come visit me and they're impressed that people speak. You know, that it's friendly basically, it's friendly.
That does not exist in other parts of the United States, especially up North. People don't speak, you just don't do that. As a matter of fact, that's kind of a no-no, to go around speaking to people. That was the first thing. It just appeared to be a very friendly place. I did not really experience at that—but I did experience a lot of that in Newark though. You know I, people were not—some people say that northerners tend to be very outspoken. I think the racism was here, it was very subtle. I didn't interact in the community that much. I did have a few jobs that were just not—very menial kind of things, that I did, you know, washing dishes. I've done a number of things just to get through school and so I did find that to—[Phone rings] Excuse me one second.
[Tape is temporarily stopped]
But I can't think of an incident really where for instance someone may have called me a nigger even. I mean I can think of plenty of them up the way.
There's sort of a popular wisdom that—
But let me tell you one thing that I did see. It sort of alarmed me. I was headed to Fayetteville, North Carolina, I think, and driving around this state. I think I even went into the Smithfield area, and I noticed—and this was when I think I really began to realize the extent of racial violence in this state. I saw a billboard, I guess it was, sitting in the midst of a city as you enter: “This is Klan Country.”
I was driving to Fayetteville around that area once, coming out [Highway] 421 I think it was, and saw this big light. I was very far away from it and it was just like this real strong light in the center of the road and as we got closer I began to see that this light was burning, and that it was a cross! And so, of course immediately I thought about the KKK [Ku Klux Klan], but then I realized that there were—and it was—they were having some kind of a meeting. And they weren't—it didn't look like they were harming anyone—but I mean the point is, that kind of thing was so visible.
And I always—as I read about those things—thought that people hid and did those kinds of things. They didn't have an open—it was a rally, is what it was. They were having an open rally in a field, and they had the hoods and everything, and it was very frightening. People were kind of—there was someone there directing the traffic, and here it was just a two lane road, and I was very fearful at that time. And that's when I really began to really [audio malfunction]. I guess I was just too young initially to realize.
An earlier comment you made about coming from the North to the South, there's sort of a—I don't know whether this is a cliché or not—but there's popular wisdom that race relations are better in the South, or more open perhaps, than they are in the North, and I was wondering what your observations were.
I think probably, I think they're equal, but I think the approaches are different. And they're a little more open around here I think. I guess just a strange kind of people. To come here as early as I did and having lived here now all of my adult life, and then I go home three or four times a year. I think that level of—I just have to call it racism. I think it's—we're pretty much on the same level. People just tend to approach people different.
Once you graduated, you did various things in Greensboro.
Yeah, I stayed around here after being a student, you know. I liked Greensboro fairly well and I thought it was a good place to raise a family. Having grown up, as I said, in the ghetto, you don't want that for your children. Greensboro was, the pace was so much slower, you know, you didn't feel like you were rushed all the time. If you're in the city you're just rushed all the time. The whole pace is fast. You walk down the street and every day it's like people are running instead of just casually walking. That was really why I stayed and I married a fellow from Goldsboro, North Carolina.
And I guess that's when I sort of became acclimated to the real country. It was country, and I mean like sticks and woods and more woods. Not facilities that we would normally have and that were not as modern. So I experienced a lot in that regard in terms of how people live and how the rural part of the state and how some people were really struggling and having a very, very difficult time. I just became a little more sensitive, I think, to some of the trouble spots in the area—particularly in the eastern part of the state. I spent a lot of time down there with my husband's family, and going back and forth to visit and that type of thing.
Are there—were there or are there major differences between—major differences in black-white relations say between Piedmont North Carolina and eastern North Carolina?
Well, I think the respect, just generally looking at it, I think the respect on this end is a little greater and I think probably that is because Greensboro, this area, is really sort of an educational center, when you look at it, and you have a lot of people, particularly blacks, who are educated. And people tend to relate to you a little bit differently when you are. And I'm not saying that's wrong, but that is something that does happen.
So I think that you can compare that with, you know, people who economically don't have the same opportunities and are working always for minimum wages, those kinds of things, who have not had the opportunity, who have [phone rings] not taken the opportunity to speak out, who are just down right afraid [phone rings] to some extent. A lot of people are just afraid to speak out, you know. That mentality of the “boss-man” relationship I think still exists today in certain parts of the state.
—key differences in the existence of black middle class and an articulate class.
I think so. I really think that has a lot to do with it. I think the whole economic climate here is different. I think [audio malfunction] a higher level of interaction and involvement between black and white people. Basically, you know, the only thing that separates people, I think, really—although there are some economic differences, there are some very serious economic differences in terms too of —[audio malfunction]—but essentially, you know, when you break it down, people, everybody is a person, there's a difference in color, there's a difference in sex, but, you know, in terms of the intellect, you know, open my head up and it probably looks just like yours on the inside for the most part. And I think that we have sort of tainted our vision with the notion of color permeating more than just the color of your skin. That's a societal problem; I don't think that's necessarily unique to North Carolina. I think that's something that you see all over the world.
When you graduated you had some experience with Palmer Institute. I'd like to hear a little more about that.
I went to Palmer very young. Palmer at that time had a sort of a split faculty. The young group and a group that was there quite a while back, some maybe as long as ever since they said “Let's build Palmer.” But very, I think, a very dedicated academic climate to excellence. Palmer had a tremendous history, the oldest black college preparatory school in the United States.
You see, again, there were these things in the South going on that I had never—there was not that much emphasis on black education where I came from. At least black children weren't told that, okay? I don't think they're told that as much here in the public schools, but I think in the homes and in the communities, for instance in the black communities and in the homes of the black families people probably tend to focus on it more, because it's a part of what you see when you go outside. You know, if you live in, over here on, what is this, Lincoln Street or Dudley Street, you can't help but associate with North Carolina A&T.
So I think the climate here was conducive to that kind of thing. Palmer was a good school. I had some very talented students. I went there to chair the department of art and taught kids from seventh grade to twelfth grade and really thoroughly enjoyed it. And probably would have stayed for a longer period of time had the school not closed. The school had some financial difficulty which caused them to close. Those kids there—and the thing about it was, it was like a little New York in the middle of North Carolina—these kids for the most part were financially well-off—parents, kids whose parents were doctors and lawyers. Even though they came from where I came from for the most part, I could relate to them. A lot of them just did not like the country.
Have you ever been down to Palmer? You know, Palmer sits right in the middle of almost like a field, just rows and rows of nothing. And many of them had a lot of problems with that. Distractions, because they were used to a faster pace and I think they couldn't slow down because they didn't want to slow down. So, you know, I enjoyed that, you know, because in terms of the teaching aspect, the students were just very talented. You know, it's an advantage for you when you're teaching something like, you know, skills course [audio malfunction] not only interested in it but there's a certain amount of talent that you can develop.
So that went very well. I was real impressed with the faculty. These people were so dedicated to that school and to really making that school work. And many of them—I had to respect that older group that I talk about because they were the history and the foundation and the heritage of that school. They made Palmer what we finally knew it as, a really great school. I think that's something that I really was impressed with this area, North Carolina. You know, black people were really committed, I think. I think we're slacking up a little bit.
But I think overall you've got some real strong people who have existed in this community who have really had a commitment to making things go and work and I think when you come out and you get involved, see, and I started going to the meetings and meeting people like the Smiths, a lot of other older people who had—you see, these people can work so hard and give so much of their time, for us. And that's what they were doing, for us. And we need to give something back to the community. And, you know, the more I thought about it—I mean, you know, you can come and you can get, go to school, and you can get two or three degrees, but if all you're going to do with that degree is do something for yourself, I don't think, I think you're almost worthless. I just think that should be about sharing, because a lot of people just don't have that opportunity. One of the things I wanted to do—you know, in a way I guess I do that as I serve in the community—is to just go back and give some time to the community.
I guess the biggest experience that you—well, one of the areas in which you had a great deal of experience in the 1970s and '80s was in this area of education, as an educator and you had children who've gone to Greensboro schools. And I'm interested in hearing your observations on how desegregation took place. You were a parent while, when the first students when your children were in school at the time?
Yes. My children started school here and then, of course, my kids are three years apart, so my daughter, I think, started kindergarten and then at that time I was taking off for Columbus. My son had been in school about [audio malfunction]. I sensed as a parent going into these schools a very tense atmosphere between teachers, and I say particularly white teachers, you know there's a difference—I think when—I think all parents ought to go to school. All parents don't go to schools. Most parents, black parents, a lot of black parents in particular, go to school when there's a program.
Okay, you go to see your youngster do this, that or the other. Many of them can't go because of work schedules and those kinds of things. And you have some parents who are just not interested and just don't go, and that's black or white. But I sense a feeling of, sort of intimidation from—and I still get that now, and I guess now I kind of know why I get that now, because of some things that I've done and maybe have said in the community.
But there's been a fear, I think, of black parents who go in and ask questions. But yet, I see it and I sort of think of it as I was serving on the school board. White parents stay in the schools, white teachers are not intimidated, seemingly, by that. But I think it's this whole misconception that to some extent black people are about trouble. I don't think that there's been, I don't think that the thinking that we are sincerely interested in the progress of our children have really sunk in, and so teachers tend to feel a little intimidated when black parents show up and ask questions. When you just show up and sit there and come and watch the program or something, they're not too bothered by that. But when you go in and you ask questions—I've just seen it so many times.
And some people are just intimidating folk, okay? But I think that some people have a tendency to be intimidated simply because of one's color. And if you—and what goes beyond that is if the parent, particularly if the black parent happens to be a very literate, articulate parent, [audio malfunction] downright interested. Then you've got to realize that most parents who are, most black parents who are educated tend to try to impose, push this on to their children, and that's just natural, you know. It used to be, we can think about some generations, where I came through, my mother always talked to me about going to college, not because she had been but because she had not been, and because my mother was a domestic worker and did not want that for her children. I've done some domestic work and I tell you I don't even like to do it at my own house. [laughs]
But I noticed that real tense climate there. And I think part of the frustration that was felt was that desegregation was forced on a lot of people. The black community I believe generally felt that this was the very best thing because it was always felt that if you could go across town and get what they had, that they had a little bit more, and if you could go—whatever they had was better, and if you could go across town and get that then that would make you a better person.
I think the problem with desegregation came when we simply desegregated for physical purposes, that is, placing X number of black children and X number of white children in a classroom. Not even thinking about—so the people who did it, in my opinion, although they were supposedly highly intelligent people, I questioned some of that because of the way in which it was handled. Nothing was done about the—and, you know, granted we live in a multicultural society—but nothing was done about the curriculum, nothing was done really about mandating—and you can't mandate sensitivity, you see. So you can—I can be—you can be made by force, by the law, to allow me to come in, but I can't force you to teach me, you know, and that was part of the problem—and a lot of these teachers I think psychologically were turned off to the whole notion. They didn't want us there to begin with.
And then I think—at least it's my feeling today that I think desegregation has been good. But I think desegregation has been bad also, because it did not do anything about the curriculum. We've got children who know absolutely nothing about who they are and they don't know it because the teachers don't know it. And you can't teach what you do not know. And we've done nothing about requiring that, you see. And then we found out that the social development of the child was just as important in the educational process. And I still don't think that sitting, that because I sit next to a white child or a white child sits next to a black child, that has anything to do with one's intellectual ability, capability, that it has anything to do with their ability to think. So we did it—it all occurred, I think, for the wrong reasons and I think that the process was not fully implemented to make sure that certain other—
[End Tape 1, Side A-Begin Tape 1, Side B]
The other issue about sensitivity I think is real key, because the teacher's a facilitator and the teacher disseminates information. And I also think that the teacher's attitude is real key. The teacher is a part of the larger culture, you see. So even though you go to school and you go into this classroom and enter into this building where there are certain kinds of things going on, you came out of a culture which speaks very negatively, to some extent, about black children. That you're going to go into your classroom and you've got black—so, you know, can you turn on and off these kinds of things? And I think that the fact that the educating of teachers for desegregation really didn't matter.
They focused on other things.
That's right. Just a physical thing: We've got to have X number of blacks in this class, X number of whites. And what do you do about the teacher who has always been taught that there's something wrong with these children? That they can't possibly learn, you know? And what's really ironic today is—what is this, thirty-some years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954? Even today you have people who verbally say, even in the Greensboro public schools, who verbally say that black children can't learn. And that's the thing that motivates me to do what I do in the community. And I say that and that's not a guess.
Now for instance, a couple of years ago when I was on the board, I had a young woman, a Bennett College student, who was preparing to become a teacher who came to me and told me that she was a student teacher in one of our public schools [and it came] time to take over the class, and when she did it, she was trying to get the black children involved. These kids were sitting in the back of the room, she was trying to get them to come up and get involved. Why were they in the back of the room? The teacher's response was, “They're not going to learn anything anyway.” And the teacher followed that and said, “Well, I'm surprised that you've gotten as far as this.” I'm sorry, these attitudes still exist.
I brought it to the attention of the superintendent, the same superintendent we've got right now. I went right down and I talked with him. We don't need teachers like that. That teacher's still existing in the Greensboro public schools, still teaches, still teaching somebody's child. So I think that when you feel, when teachers feel that way—so we've got to do some things, and we never really did it, to change attitudes so that there is an acceptance and understanding and an appreciation of one's culture that simply says that because I am different from you, that doesn't mean that I'm any less than you. It means simply that we are just different, and differences are to be appreciated.
I just don't—I think there needs to be some educating of those people who interact with young people, because they are the ones who mold these minds. If they are of the notion that you can't learn and if they—you internalize this from their attitudes, then you're not going to learn. And that happens so much.
For instance, what would have happened to me as a young person in high school? Suppose I had embraced the philosophy that my guidance counselor had for me, that I should not go to college, you see. So some of the information that we get sometimes in the way of advice is not the best advice for us. And so I think that we have [audio malfunction]. What--so A&T just, I mean it just gave me a sense of establishing who I was. And it helped me to then leave this city and leave this campus and go to an Ohio State University where there were fifty or sixty thousand people and I could exist fine. Find my way and didn't have any problem. So this is why I just have a real strong, I have a real strong commitment to black colleges because of that, because I know what it's done for me and that's why I'm here right now at Bennett College.
Yes. Do you think that one of the—you said desegregation is both good and bad—do you think one of the bad aspects of desegregation was its effect on black community schools? I mean for example—in other words, is there sort of a trade-off in going from a system in which there's a lot more of the kinds of things that maybe you'd like to see the system have?
I think we were confused about what we thought we wanted. You know how you go into a restaurant cafeteria and you just take everything and you sit it down, really can't eat anything or you eat it and it wasn't good. Well, I think we found out it wasn't good. We thought we wanted it, we thought it was going to make us a better people and that kind of thing but we did not realize, I don't think, the sacrifices that we were making.
For instance, I am a firm believer that we have had some very powerful kinds of things occur in black community schools. You had a sense of neighborliness, a sense of community, you had a sense of, you had teachers who made you learn, who knew your parents and was in church with your folks and they had that communication process going on, who took an integral part in your success and your failure. That does not exist today. Many of these parents never see these teachers. I mean first of all because you've got to look at the living patterns. You know, you don't live in the same community, so I think we did lose a lot of things. I also feel that because many of the black teachers who worked in these black schools in these communities came from black colleges who had as a part of their mission the focus on really educating these kids because nobody else was educating them.
So therefore they have sort of an inroad into understanding these kids. And knowing that maybe you needed to be whacked across your butt to get that lesson, you know. But now of course with all the corporal, with all these other little laws and the public school things you know you can't do that and I'm not advocating that necessarily, but I'm saying that there was a sincere interest on the part of these teachers who made you learn. You don't have that today. You don't have that today, so we lost some things.
The other thing is that is probably even more crucial is the history and the heritage. You, again, you can't teach what you do not know. There is no sense of identity now with these kids in terms of school and community. All of that is lost. We gave all of that up to go across town to sit next to some white folks who didn't want us there, many of them refusing to teach our children. So what did we get? Frustrated.
I mean you have to really look at that. We got some new books, we got to use some nice libraries and some other kinds of things, but listen: when I worked at Palmer Institute, you know, I don't think anybody can go out into my studio as disarrayed as it might be, you know, I don't think you can go into an environment necessarily and say whether or not learning is taking place there. You see, because they may not have the same kinds of facilities. But look at the statistics, they don't lie. Look at the statistics, the statistics show that today since desegregation we've got more black children dropping out of school, being kicked out of school, being maneuvered into all kinds of programs for slow learners, mental retardation, and everything else. We did not have that before desegregation.
So somebody is at fault. The statistics show today that things are worse. What is it, forty-one percent of all black 17-year-olds are functionally illiterate? That's since desegregation. As a matter of fact, I can remember saying things the wrong way and they'd say, “Girl, you know that's not right”, and they'd correct you, “Don't say that like that.” That kind of thing, you don't see that kind of thing. You couldn't go through any of these schools in the black community and see black children sitting up there asleep. The teacher wouldn't have allowed that. You'd have to stay awake even if you weren't internalizing anything, you had better pretend and act like you were internalizing something.
But you can go through the public schools in Greensboro now. I've been in all of them. You've got some kids sitting back there with earplugs on, with a little box hanging on somewhere listening to music in a classroom where they should be learning something, where they should be taught something. But the notion now is, “Well, they're not going to learn anything.” Everybody has the capability of learning something. So it's an attitudinal problem.
But I think the segregation has been good. And I went to a school in Baltimore, Maryland, and I was the only black—that was back in the fifties—and I had a young white boy come up to me and ask me on my way to school one day, “Is that black or does it rub off?” He had never seen, evidently he had not seen—and I went to this school, I stayed in that school for about five months, racial slurs every day. I didn't really know what was going on, not really.
Were you deliberately trying to—I mean was this—had you thought about going to that school?
I don't even know how—I think what happened—we moved into—see, the idea in the black community is to elevate yourself and to move up, so what you do is to try to get a better place to live and you might move into a neighborhood that was a white neighborhood that's slowly now blacks are, you know, they're making a little more money, they can go move in there. And that's what's happened.
We were in this neighborhood, we had moved into this area, and that was the school that was closest to me, because people weren't busing then.
WL: That was a neighborhood school.
Yeah, this was in like '50, I guess. It was very early. And you could—it was a neighborhood school. And it was a horrible experience. It was a horrible experience. But I was not—at that time I don't think I was one to do a lot of fighting. I wasn't going to let anybody push me around, but it was just, you know. Basically, it was just a verbal kind of abuse that was going on. You know, people looked at me strange because they had always gone to school with people like them. So they didn't know who I was, you know, stranger from Mars somewhere. And then you know the way communities are set up, black and white people were not living together at that time, so you know it was that kind of thing.
But that was a terrible experience, and then I went to a junior high there just for a year and then I went on to Jersey, where I was just kind of, having gone through all of that, I didn't feel like I belonged, to be perfectly honest with you, and I just wanted—and I knew that—and I had always heard that, you know, people in the South were pretty good anyway. You know, I didn't know what that meant necessarily, but there is a sense of community and commitment, a sense of unity, that you don't find in some of the northern places because everything is so scattered. There's kind of a closeness here. It has been very good.
To get back to desegregation, schools in Greensboro. How well do you think both the school administration and the school board, how well have they done?
Well, I think they—of course, you know, Greensboro was one of those systems that, too, was forced to desegregate. I think initially that worked pretty well, you know. Of course, this particular area, we experienced almost no outbursts like those we could kind of recognize in some of the other parts of the country. So I think in that sense that was, that transition was pretty good. I think though since we have been in that there have been a lot of people who have been uncomfortable with it. Still I see that the mass, the majority of the busing and movement have been among black kids.
You see, the notion was that our schools were not as good in terms of equipment and so forth so that was the rationale for your coming over to my neighborhood. I think that blacks should have insisted on a better system to begin with, and we didn't do that. We were so glad to get over there to get what we thought they had, you know, until we just didn't think, we just didn't think. And what happened was in the process we lost a lot of our neighborhood schools. A fairer approach would have been to have an equitable distribution of the traveling. You know, if I don't have as much in my school, put what you need over here to make our facility equal to yours if that's what is needed. So it's that kind of thing. So we never insisted on that. I think initially it worked pretty well. Then, you know, people began to sort of analyze some of the other problems that I spoke about earlier. And later on there was an uncomfortableness, I think, among some of the white residents, and there were all kinds of things injected into the school systems policies to allow—so it will break down in the whole desegregation thing.
For instance, policies that would allow students to transfer out. That has caused a lot of the imbalances today. We have students who transfer—see again we have, I think, nurtured a lot of the societal negativisms and stereotypes right here in Greensboro, because—and I think we have, because we've got students who have—in one year, my last year on the board, I saw that over a hundred children, way over a hundred, a hundred and thirty-something transferred white children from Dudley High School from September to January for “psychological reasons” is what they're saying, you know. Now that's just—that was just something the school system put in to allow for a transfer. So in other words, so people are of the mindset that psychologically something is going to happen to me if I sit next to somebody who's different. That's a psychological thing that is perpetuated by society.
And that was grounds for transfer?
Oh yes, Greensboro Public Schools, they allowed for that. And that was one of the reasons that I was so controversial, I guess, because I had them put a freeze on transfers, and I went back and I looked to see the kinds of things that—and that has really caused a lot of the imbalances and disruptions when they had what they called daycare transfers. Public schools are normally—we're not in the business of daycare. But Greensboro public schools seems to be. You know, if you want your child to go to a certain daycare you can transfer to X school. Well, while the intentions might have been good, to help parents, a lot of parents abused that. Okay, while some people do have psychological problems, some people used that and abused it. And so I think that the system now realizes that it has created some real problems.
The other thing is, I think the attitudes in the communities have changed. There are some blacks who are saying community school. Well, community school would mean a segregated school for the most part, because when you look at how your communities are lined up, then you don't have too many racially mixed communities, you really don't. One majority versus another majority in that community. So you know, people are saying, “Well, it's not as important to have my child to go across town, he'll get a good education right here. It's important for the child to have a sense of community and environment and to be close to home, those kinds of things.” So I think people are beginning to reassess the real importance of it, and as a result, I think we're probably going to see a lot different things apparent.
The Greensboro Public Schools even now are struggling with this. What are they doing? Magnet schools. Another way of really creating, in my opinion, segregation. It's almost like we are reverting back. Then of course you notice all the white flight. It's going to be a natural process, just about.
Do you find the idea of re-segregating—I mean, does that alarm you at all?
Well, it's alarming in one sense. It's alarming because I think that, I fear that if that happens, because of so many things now, that will allow people not to do what is right. Like the law, you know, when you look at what happened in Richmond. The law at one time was on the side of a lot of black people. The law saying you don't need, the law saying basically, “The hell with equal right, the equal rights amendment,” those kinds of things. And I think that because of that trend, if we go back we're going to find that we're not going to have equity in these schools in terms of education. And that's really, that's really what the bottom line is. Is it the school? Make all schools equal, then you can go where you want to go.
I mean really. See, the impetus behind desegregation was that all schools were not equal, that there were some very serious inequities over here in the black community and black school, therefore black children were being deprived. So that's when desegregation came in. I fear that if we re-segregate, go back to segregation, that there's going to be no way to demand the kind of equity that is really required and that is morally and ethically right.
After the old system?
That's right. That's exactly right. We went in this big circle, spent millions of dollars busing children, but people are just tired of riding and people are tired of the psychological abuse. And I'm saying black people and white people—because to me, it's just as critical, I have to feel for those ten, fifteen white children who go to Dudley High School [with] 98 percent black children. And I'm saying, there's nothing wrong with being around black people, there's nothing wrong with it, but I mean everyone wants to feel comfortable. That's what I'm talking—I've been in a school where I was—I know how uncomfortable it is to feel that way, because the whole social—the educational process, there is a social aspect to that.
Now you want your children to date somebody, go out with—you know, so I just don't think—and the other thing is, I see a lot of black parents today who moved out of the city of Greensboro to get into the county, wanting their children to go to what they thought were good schools. County schools are no better than the city schools as far as I'm concerned. [unclear] programs aren't as good. But anyway, they moved out, it's a better neighborhood, they get out in this neighborhood and the kid has to go to a school and they are the only black in every class. Now that's bad for a child. That's bad for a child. Bad for a black child, it's bad for a white child. But it's bad for that minority who's in there. I mean, that's truly a minority.
Now the thing about it is you don't see that kind of thing existing even where you find white children going to a black school. They are almost never just one white child and the whole class black. You don't see that, you know. And then Greensboro of course tried to make some, when that situation occurred over at Wiley School, they went in and then they were going to put all the white children in one class. Why? Because they wanted them to be comfortable. But nobody ever took that initiative to make black children comfortable. But anyway there was a big mess about that and they had to go in and disperse that.
But I think, see again, that's sensitivity. Being sensitive to black children who have to go through that is just as important. You know, why are you just going to be sensitive now, after years and years when we've had to be—but you know, the whole situation about desegregation and how these kids were attacked and everything else, forcing them to—I mean, that's a bad thing. I think it's a horrible thing. I would not want to be walking into a school with a police officer behind me, and that kind of thing. I don't know. It's a shame that we've had to go through it, but I guess it's all been a part of, it's all been a necessary part of progress, if you say, in fact, we've had progress.
Do you think—You've had, recently, and for a while, a good bit of political experience, and I'd be interested in your observations about how the political structure has responded to, well, to the question of race, I guess, and also just how responsive, whether the political structure has become more responsive.
Well, I think they have been, but as with everything else in this city, and in many cities, we've had to force it. We've gotten some things accomplished and we, I think, have allowed, in terms of the whole political network, it's basically been fairly well-sensitized, primarily because we have made our way into the system—primarily through force again—participation on boards and commissions, having that visibility, you know.
People sometimes will begin to think, if they see you. You see, when you're absent from—this is like what people say to me all the time, they said to me all the time when I was on the [school] board, “I don't see color.”
And I tell people very quickly, “I am race conscious. I am not a racist, I am race conscious.” Being knowledgeable, that's all, observant, that's all it is.
They say, “I don't see color”.
Well, I know when they say that, they're saying that they mean that, well, they're not racist or something like that. But to me that is an unacceptable kind of comment because that's the problem. If you don't see race, then you don't see, for instance, that these people have been excluded from whatever the plan is, and you automatically leave people out. If you don't see them, then you don't see that they're not there, when they should be there, and so forth. So I question that kind of thing.
But I think, you know, politically Greensboro has grown, accomplished a lot. But then when you look at the recent things that have occurred [in the past] several weeks, we retrogress. County commissioners standing behind what they say was a law somewhere else—which isn't even applicable, in my opinion. You have to deal with a city, each city individually. You know, it's just like trying to treat all of your students the same. You've got to deal—you might treat them all the same, but you've got to—you can't give everybody the same grade. You look individually at what that student is doing and you evaluate based on that individual. And, you know, I see the same kind of thing. For instance, when I was on the school board and we were interviewing for a superintendent, you know what one of the board members said? “Greensboro's not ready for a black superintendent.” Charles Lambeth. Give his name.
But, you know, that's an attitude. Why isn't Greensboro ready for a black superintendent? I mean we have black superintendents in—again, that's silly. Judging a person because of the color of their skin and not, as Martin Luther King has said, the content of their character, or their intellectual ability to do the job. You see, so until we can detach our thinking from those kinds of things, I just don't know whether Greensboro will—you know, Greensboro has moved, or Greensboro's [audio malfunction] very negative and stereotypical kind of attitudes, [audio malfunction] and I just think that's a real problem. That's why we only have one black county commissioner. That's silly. Will Greensboro ever have a black mayor? I'm going to run.
[laughs] I don't think I'll get elected but I think I'll stir up some interest anyway. But, you know, it's an attitudinal thing. And then, you look politically—things have been sort of networked a certain way for so many years with a certain group, instilled in their wanting the power. Power is something that people, when they get it, they don't want to let it go, but according to Maxine Waters, California Assemblywoman—you know her or you may have heard her—she says power is what makes the difference in lives and communities.
And I agree with that, and I use it all the time when I go to speak, because it does. And I think that to some extent black folk have relinquished much of the power that we could have. So I don't know—that's something we have to—that's sort of an internal community struggle that black people have with each other. Look at how successful other ethnic groups have been. It's been because they have acquired the power through working together, you see. And that's one thing that you really—
[End of Interview]