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Oral history interview with Leonard Guyes by Eugene Pfaff


Date: September 21, 1982

Interviewee: Leonard Guyes

Biographical abstract: Leonard Guyes (1929- ), manager of Prago-Guyes women's store in downtown Greensboro, NC, served as president of the Merchants Association and on the Human Relations Committee during the early 1960s.

Interviewer: Eugene E Pfaff

Description:

In this transcript of a September 21, 1982, oral history interview conducted by Eugene Pfaff with Leonard Guyes, Guyes discusses the rise and demise of businesses in downtown Greensboro from the 1950s through 1970s, including his father’s department store, Prago-Guyes. He describes his work on the downtown revitalization plan, Greensboro Merchants Association, and Human Relations Committee. He mentions life in Greensboro during the Depression, and his commitment to integration of sales personnel for resolving the 1963 civil rights demonstrations.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.517

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 Leonard Guyes by Eugene Pfaff

EUGENE PFAFF:

—oral history program. It's being taped in the library on September 21, 1982. And I'm speaking with Leonard Guyes, a longtime prominent Greensboro businessman. Mr. Guyes, I'd like to get some biographical information from you, if I might. Where were you born?

LEONARD GUYES:

Savannah, Georgia.

EP:

And what is your birth date?

LG:

August 18, 1929.

EP:

I see. When did you first come to Greensboro?

LG:

At the age of two and a half.

EP:

So, virtually all of your life has been spent in Greensboro.

LG:

Yes, right.

EP:

Your parents—what was your father's occupation?

LG:

Well, my father was an orphan at the age of ten or eleven and was raised in Baltimore. And he never went beyond high school and was in the First World War and later became a shoe merchant down in Jacksonville, Florida. And his brother settled in Dover, North Carolina, which is between Kinston and New Bern, and brought the family together there. And they had a general store in Dover. And, I guess, all of the family, more or less, was sort of retail-oriented. And from that, he went into the millinery field, which is lady's hats, and opened a series of leased departments which was big back in the twenties. And from that, expanded into ladies' sportswear, I guess back in the early or mid-thirties when sportswear was just starting out. And from that phase, he just stayed in sportswear and millinery and expanded into cosmetics.

And his longtime friend, Mr. Sam Prago, moved down from New York and opened a dress shop in Greensboro under the name of Prago's, and my father's store was Betty Lou Hat Shop. And in the very—I think about 1940, they decided to pool their sources—although they didn't join together in companies and formed—just called their store Prago-Betty Lou and moved over to what used to be the Belk building. They leased some three or four thousand square feet in the Belk building, which is on the corner of Elm and Market, and operated two floors there. And then a year or so later, they decided to change the name to Prago-Guyes and formed a partnership. And I guess that's sort of how the company evolved.

Later on, when I got out of [the University of North] Carolina, I think in 1952, and soon after, Don Prago joined the company after serving time in the army; in about '55 or '56 we formed a corporation. Of course, at the time before that we had moved locations and moved into what is known now as the Dixie Building, which is on the corner of Sycamore and Elm Street. And that was in 1950. And, of course, I didn't join the company until two years later, and stayed in that location until a fire caused us to move out in 1979.

Prior to that, we had opened our first branch store in Northeast Shopping Center in 1959, and just continued to sort of grow from there. It was probably a good thing that we did, because not too many years later the downtown started to just come apart at the seams. I guess as Four Seasons opened and Friendly got more viable, it just seemed that downtown no longer was a viable retail center. So, we had subsequently opened other stores in Thomasville, North Carolina, and in Salisbury and in Reidsville, and had opened a couple more stores in Greensboro—one in Plaza Shopping Center and Friendly Shopping Center and, ultimately, in Four Seasons Mall and later at Carolina Circle.

And as business continued to deteriorate, we finally closed our retail operation downtown on Elm Street in 19—about 1978, and just ceased to operate that location as a retail outlet. [We] used the building primarily as executive offices, receiving and distribution for our other stores.

EP:

I'd like to backtrack, if I might, on your personal life.

LG:

Well, I sort of got ahead of myself. Right.

EP:

Well, I didn't want to interrupt you. I know it was 1931-'32 when you came to Greensboro, but do you have any memories of the Depression in Greensboro in the 1930s?

LG:

I don't really know that I would have recognized it as a depression. I do recall a lot of the dirt streets in Greensboro. I do recall the old post office being where the Belk building is currently and the old streetcar tracks everywhere—Market Street, Elm Street, I guess what is, I guess, Lee Street. But I guess I just was too young to really recognize it as being the fact that we were in a depression, other than the fact that I do remember my father working long, hard hours.

EP:

It must have been a very difficult period to begin a business.

LG:

Well, my father was in business for years past that. But I guess we moved to Greensboro and he had his first store in Greensboro in 1928, which was the millinery shop, which was on Elm Street, which we liked to always say it's under the first "O" in the Woolworth building, was his first location on Elm Street. But I do recall, you know, working long hard hours.

And I guess people in those days really did not have the means to live too well. We lived very modestly, as did most people in our neighborhood. And I guess that's all I really recall.

EP:

Apparently, a major growth period for Greensboro came with the Second World War and the placement of ORD [Overseas Replacement Depot]. Do you recall any change in the lifestyle or the physical face of Greensboro as a result of the increased people that came in?

LG:

Well, I think so. I think the fact that it was the first time that we really had entertainment and amusements on Sunday. Back before ORD opened, I know none of the movie houses opened on Sundays and there were no ball games. There was just no entertainment activity on Sunday. And maybe we can say that that was the beginning to where people would come to Greensboro on Sundays for entertainment. Go to baseball games, and, of course, ORD had a very active football team in those days that played out at Memorial Field. The movie houses opened on Sundays, and I don't recall how many restaurants we had in those days. I know we had the cafeteria, the Mayfair, and we had Mecca, Thacker's, and I don't recall how many others.

EP:

And I assume that you attended Greensboro High School.

LG:

Yes. I went to Lindley Elementary and then Lindley Junior High School and Greensboro Senior High, which is now Grimsley High.

EP:

And your activities there—were you involved in the student activities, that sort of thing?

LG:

Well, I was what is commonly known now as a jock. I was not involved in too many student activities. I was in some of the groups, but was not actively involved. I did play all sports: basketball, football, and baseball. But I really was not what is commonly known as one of the joiners or members of any of the activity groups in the high school beyond that.

EP:

And this would have been under Bob Jamison, is that correct?

LG:

Under Bob Jamison, and Mr. Routh was our principal.

EP:

What opinions do you have of Bob Jamison as a coach, having played for him?

LG:

Well, we always referred to him as, affectionately—and I still do today—as Daddy Bob. I, you know, always have a warm feeling because I just felt he was a super human being who really liked his players and always tried to push them to the maximum. Of course, I probably was one of the more lazy ones and didn't respond as well as he probably would have liked. But I just think he's a very fine gentleman, and I think Greensboro can be very proud that he was a part of our community and still is.

EP:

So then you went to [UNC] Chapel Hill.

LG:

Right.

EP:

And your major was?

LG:

Well, my first major was business administration. Naturally, I guessed that I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps. Back in those days, I think most fellows my age, unless we were going to become doctors or lawyers, just chose to stay close to home. So, I entered the School of Business Administration, business school, [but] did not enjoy it too much.

Back in those days they mostly taught a lot of theoretical application, and I just was not tuned into it. So, I left the School of Business and entered the School of Journalism and Political Science and while there, actively participated in school activities.

I was on the basketball squad for my freshman and sophomore year. I played—was actively involved in a lot of intramural activities, was involved in some student affairs and just generally had a good time as a college student.

EP:

Well, obviously you were very interested in sports. And this would have been the last two years of the [Charlie] "Justice Era" there, I imagine.

LG:

You're absolutely right.

EP:

And one gets an impression that that's what the school was primarily known for, and that he was quite a celebrity. Was there that much of a feeling about him in the student body, or has this sort of been blown out of proportion by the media?

LG:

Well, you know, I know Charlie better now than I did back in those days, as with Art Weiner and the rest of the boys on the [football] squad. You have to remember; I came fresh out of high school into Carolina and was a young eighteen-year-old whose eyes were agog. And these guys had already served in the military and were probably four or five years older than I, or six years older. And they, most of them were married and didn't live on campus. And we very rarely saw the athletes. I mean, especially the underclassmen, because most of these fellows when I was there were in their junior and senior year.

So very rarely did we happen to see them on campus or anything. So, we really weren't a part of them, other than just watching them on the football team. And I guess we were all in awe of them because they were so super. Sort of like, you know, we were looking up to them constantly like you do some of the pro football players today or something like that.

EP:

Upon graduation, what course did your career take at that time?

LG:

Well, after I left Carolina in '52, I came immediately into my father's business. I was drafted for the military and I think was declared [Class] 4-F because of bad knees, chronic knees, I think at the beginning of my senior year. And fortunately, it happened just at the beginning of school, so I was able to get back in school. So, when I got out of Carolina in '52, I came immediately into my father's business.

EP:

Was there some conflict of choice here, since you had majored in political science and journalism and then you went into the business career? Had you considered pursuing either of those fields as a career?

LG:

Well, I don't really think so. I enjoyed political science. I did not—the only thing really I got out of journalism probably was some of the advertising courses that I took. I enjoyed those. I had considered possibly pursuing law, because I did enjoy political science. I just didn't feel I had enough English and I didn't want to go back and take more English, so I just dropped that. And, I guess, I just took the path of least resistance back then.

And my father and Mr. Prago seemed to have a definite need for some young person to come into the business, since both of them were not older men, but they were getting up in years and they had been at it and they had talked many times to have both Don Prago and myself in the business. Hopefully we could make it grow and flourish.

So, I just naturally moved back to Greensboro and stayed with my folks for a couple of years to try to save money and got into the business and started to learn it. Although I had worked in the business—some at Christmas time and some in the summers to help out—I really was a novice and didn't know too much about it. So it was really a learning experience.

EP:

I suppose this being '52-'53, it wasn't the immediate post-war boom. But the South as a whole, in particular, particularly the Piedmont of North Carolina, was experiencing a rapid rate of growth. Did you see anything of this in Greensboro and as a retail businessman in Greensboro?

LG:

Well, there's no doubt, I do feel that Greensboro was a core area for the Piedmont. I remember on Saturdays especially, people used to come in from Siler City and from Liberty and even from Burlington and Asheboro and all surrounding communities to shop. Elm Street just—it was like Christmas on every Saturday.

And I think the reason for that [was] because there were no big shopping centers around, and most of the smaller communities did not have department stores or specialty stores comparable to what Greensboro had. So, we enjoyed extremely good business during the early fifties, right after and during that time of growth.

EP:

Well, several of the large stores and developing chains and individual stores, at [those] times—was this a particularly good area for the clothing and apparel industry?

LG:

Well, I think it seemed to be, because there was such a broad population in and around Greensboro. High Point was not in a big growth period at that time, and we just never seemed to get too many people from Winston over, or from Greensboro over to Winston. So we really had a tremendous draw in Greensboro. From High Point, I guess within a radius of forty/fifty miles of Greensboro, people just used to come to Greensboro as the place to shop.

EP:

It is my understanding that Greensboro at this time for many years—well, really right on up to the present—with the exception of Charlotte, Greensboro is the largest population and business and commercial area between Richmond and Atlanta. Did this figure into the patterns of growth that Greensboro took during this time?

LG:

Well, I would have to think definitely so. And I have to attribute to our airport commission. I think we started to get better and better airline service that our corporate people looked at favorably. And certainly, it gave many people more direct access to surrounding areas. I think the fact that we were, you know, the hub of Southern Railway [Company] helped tremendously. We had so much large textile firms around us, which helped tremendously for employment. You know, we were just able—we just seemed to have a lot going for us as a community in so many aspects that I think made us flourish.

EP:

Has there ever been—was there concern that a lot of—in the textile industry that you just mentioned, a lot of the raw material was made and then sent out to finishing plants in New York. Was there ever concern that people in the apparel industry in this area would like to have had more of a finishing process to clothing?

LG:

Well, I think that's true. There's no doubt about it. You know that old saying; we didn't have the skilled people here. It just seemed that the New York area and the California area and probably the Midwest, St. Louis and Kansas City, is where the needle trade was so heavily invested in. And it just was very difficult for us to move any Northerners down here back then. We didn't have a lot to draw to make them come for.

I think had we been able to really get a lot of manufacturers to come down here, it would have been a lot quicker growth, and probably we would be a much larger community today. As a result of what's happened in your larger cities today, I think many manufacturers have, in fact, moved out. A lot of them have moved to the South, maybe to be nearer to the raw materials, to get away from the congestion, unpredictably bad weather.

But I think we could have accomplished that a lot quicker back then. I get the feeling—and, of course, this is just hearsay—that a lot of your bigger textile people were not real thrilled to try to bring too many people in for fear of unionization. Now you know this is all scuttlebutt. But the fact is that the unions were never able to get into Greensboro in a very big way, and were never able to infiltrate a lot of our large textile companies. Makes me believe that this was one of the reasons, because we just did not encourage industry of the needle trade to come here for fear.

EP:

Moving back to your [coughs], excuse me, personal career within the company, can you perhaps summarize or describe to me the various positions or responsibility within the company that you had during this early period in the early to mid-fifties?

LG:

The very first part, of course, I trained under Mr. Prago. Naturally, I think it was a wise decision on the part of my father and Mr. Prago.

I think there's natural rivalry, although we won't admit it, between father and son. And probably I was too close to my father to really have grasped what he was trying to teach. So as a result, I had probably one of the best teachers in the industry back in those days in Mr. Sam Prago.

He first trained me in the arts of merchandising, knowing in our business we like to say that the ultimate is the right item at the right time at the right price, and it's called timing. And I think it's something you have figures to go by, but a lot of it is intuition and instinct, also. And he taught me that, and from that I learned something about open to buys and when to buy and how much to buy and when not to buy.

He trained me first in buying dresses, both misses and juniors, and later in suits. He continued to buy and merchandise coats. My father was the sportswear end of the business. And in '55 when Don Prago came into the business, he worked under my father and trained to buy and learn to merchandise sportswear.

EP:

So, each father trained the other son?

LG:

Right. This worked well for a long time, and ultimately, I assumed responsibilities other than just buying. They made me head of the ready-to-wear floor, and I was in charge of goals and projects for the salespeople, and monitored them. I also was put in charge of advertising, figured the budgets, and worked with the advertising man, Clyde Hahn, and did all of that.

And, I guess, probably I really didn't get involved in buying or merchandising beyond that level until the mid-sixties when Mr. Prago became ill and, I think, died in 1967. Then I became ready-to-wear buyer and bought all of the coats, suits, and dresses, and did all of the merchandising. In other words, I was responsible for getting the open to buys for all the buyers, although we didn't have that many, those many buyers in those days. It was Don Prago and myself. And we had a jewelry buyer and a children's buyer and lingerie and foundations. But I worked all the figures and gave them open to buys and went to market trips with them and generally supervised most of the buying in the company.

My father, in those days, chose not to continue in the buying aspect, and he took a liking to our Northeast Shopping Center store and just decided that he wanted to go out there and build that and watch that. And that became a very viable first branch store for us in the Northeast Shopping Center [Summitt Avenue] as a result. So, we continued along this pattern and gradually continued.

Both Don and I were involved in operations and looking to increase the growth of our company as opportunities presented themselves. And then we opened, I guess in the early sixties—we, after the Northeast store, then we opened a small store in Plaza Shopping Center [West Market Street]. And then soon after that we opened a store in Thomasville, North Carolina, in a shopping center they called South Gate. And soon after that, we opened a store in Salisbury, North Carolina. And from there, we continued to grow and expand. And we opened in Reidsville, North Carolina, and after that we opened in Friendly Shopping Center.

All during this time we had finally decided that Don Prago—we needed somebody in operations. In other words, to oversee and supervise the financial end of the business as well as the credit end of the business. And we felt that Don Prago would be a logical person for that, so we moved him into that area and hired a sportswear buyer who we had known in Greensboro previously. He had worked for Meyer's Department Store and had subsequently left and gone down to Columbia. We hired him and moved him back to Greensboro as our sportswear buyer.

EP:

Approximately this time was the first of a number of studies of the downtown area, sponsored either by the [Greensboro] City Council or the Chamber of Commerce. In the late fifties on up through the mid-sixties, I know there were at least three or four studies. Plus, the Chamber created a committee under McNeill Smith to commission these studies and to look to downtown revitalization. This suggests to me that there were problems in the downtown area, even before the competition of the larger malls and the shopping centers. Is this true?

LG:

Yeah. I remember that Mr. [James] Doggett and Charlie Weil[?] and McNeill Smith, among others, were actively involved in trying to get a plan. I guess we were all concerned about a more orderly growth. And I think we all realized that to have a viable community, you needed to have a viable core, business core area.

So, as a result, there were, you know, they had hired a firm—I know, I remember I was interviewed and I can't recall, I think it was probably the early sixties or late fifties where they came in with the concept of a governmental center. And there was even talk of tunneling Market Street under Elm Street, you know, locating certain buildings in certain areas, you know, to have a retail core, a governmental core, a financial core, and things of that in order to have a more orderly growth for our downtown core area. This was very well received by the financial institutions and the business community and, I think, governmental. Of course, I can't recall how much we had spent for the survey, but it was a considerable amount of money. And we tried to push and push and push, but nothing really came of it.

I think it was probably, back in those times, would have been a very expensive undertaking, we thought. A lot of us thought it was the practical and the right thing to do, and the opposition, who were the money people, obviously felt otherwise and thought it was just too costly for what the return would bring. So, like many other things, it just sat up on the shelf and collected dust. But of course the thing about it, we have—although I don't think many people realize—we have adhered to a lot of the foresight of that basic idea and plan.

EP:

Well we have created a governmental center—

LG:

Yeah.

EP:

—and finance center, financial center downtown. And, apparently, this is going with just a few small retail businesses downtown, this is patterned as—

LG:

Well, I feel that the pattern of retail was the obvious. I think back when we didn't have any real shopping malls or big centers on the drawing board, I think everybody assumed that the downtown would remain a viable retail core area. Needless to say, that would not have been the case.

I think if you look at the demise of retail in most of the larger cities all over the country, you can readily see that customers are moving so fast and rapidly that they won't necessarily or don't want to shop, don't have enough time to shop where they work. I mean, the only time they have is their lunch hour, and they certainly don't want to come back into a downtown area in the evening to shop. Most of them like to be very leisurely in their dress and will go to a shopping center or a mall on a Saturday or a Sunday, whereas they don't feel that they want to come to a downtown area to shop. So, I think it was inevitable that retailing in the core area of downtown Greensboro would soon evaporate.

EP:

You were very much involved with the Merchants Association in the early sixties, were you not?

LG:

Well, I guess you might call it a distinction, I don't know. But I was president of the Greensboro Merchants Association at a very tender age, I think in about '60 or '61. At the time, our black community felt the need to integrate the retail establishments. They had sent some pretty strong threatening literature to me as president and other members of the white community.

EP:

What nature was this threatening communication?

LG:

Well, mostly in the way of boycotts. That since so much of our retail population was black, they felt that a monetary boycott would best serve their purpose if we were not willing to discuss the feasibility and the possibility of integrating. They were mostly after the retail sales staff at that time. Of course, we had many meetings with their groups and—

EP:

Well, if I might pursue this for a minute. Since you said that a significant part of the downtown buying public was black, and I know that several boycotts were initiated, did that substantially hurt the downtown retail trade during that time?

LG:

I think that there was unfounded fear on the part of the white citizenry of Greensboro. I think they became fearful that because of demonstrations up and down the street that there was going to be some violence, and, as a result, they stayed out of the downtown area.

And naturally the blacks did not shop. All they did was to picket and parade up and down the streets to try to create somewhat of an unpleasant situation for all of the merchants, trying to make us see that there was a purpose and a need to hire black salespeople. At that time David Schenck was our mayor and, of course—

EP:

Did you communicate with Mayor Schenck on this?

LG:

Well, I was just going to say, yes, some of us. We had a retail group that went to see Mayor Schenck and to urge his cooperation and support. What we were trying to do was to, I guess you might say, get the monkey off our back and involve the whole community, since the retailers were the ones who were suffering as a result of all this. It did result in some positive measures.

Mayor Schenck did appoint a Human Relations Committee, of which I was one of the early appointed members, with Oscar Burnett and other members of our community, Carson Bain; I can't remember some of the others. But we did manage to meet, and we did meet with certain responsible members of the black community. You know, back in those days, they had the NAACP and CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] involved. And some of the young members of CORE were pretty outspoken and I didn't feel acted too responsibly, but nevertheless—

EP:

Did you meet directly with them or indirectly—?

LG:

We met directly with some of the people who represented them that we felt we could communicate with.

EP:

Do you happen to recall any names?

LG:

I really don't. I really don't. I could go back and look through some of the Merchants Association, but you know that was what, about twenty-one, twenty-two years ago, and it was not such fond memories. Since I was president of the Merchants Association, I used to get threatening phone calls and nasty letters, and my wife and children did suffer some abuse, so it was not a very pleasant time for me. And, I guess, maybe I should have better recall, but I just sort of put some of those names to the back of my mind and just can't recall.

Well, George Simkins is really the one name I do remember, because I think George has probably always been a very outspoken member of the NAACP. And I know he was one of the first people we did meet with. I think—

EP:

The reason I ask this is that in the newspaper in December or the late fall of '61—or '62 rather—and on into March of '63, the newspaper mentioned there were a group of businessmen that met with representatives of CORE and the NAACP and the Greensboro Citizens Association from the black community, and you were identified as the head of this group, I guess because of your position as president.

LG:

That's correct.

EP:

But you were careful to distinguish this from an official group from the Merchants Association. Was it an ad hoc group, or did it emanate out of the Merchants Association?

LG:

I would say it was really an ad hoc group, but it probably did emanate from the Merchants Association, although we did not do anything that involved the Merchants Association. All of us were members. Many of us were members of the board. So, I guess you could say that because of the fact that we were a close knit group, we did have some organizational structure. I guess you could say because of the Merchants Association we were able to have a better, more solidified group of business people.

EP:

But you're saying that the board of the Merchants Association didn't meet and say, “We're going to send these representatives to meet.”

LG:

No, absolutely not.

EP:

Another point during the same period, and I'm not sure whether you were still president at this time—you were president on through the spring of '63 during the mass demonstrations, is that correct?

LG:

As best I can recollect.

EP:

Then there was a—well, several large articles, or at least a lot of media attention to the two resolutions passed independently by the Chamber and the Merchants Association calling for voluntary desegregation of the theatres and restaurants downtown. I understand that this same group that was appointed by the mayor—it's my understanding was under Mr. Bland Worley—came and urged each of the separate boards to issue such a resolution. Is that correct, or is that a misconception?

LG:

I don't really recall. It could be. You know, again I'm not trying to be evasive. And I do recall now that Bland Worley was very much involved as was, I think, Ed Zane, now that I recall names. It sounds feasible.

EP:

In other words, he came and urged that if you will—

LG:

I don't know that it was he necessarily, but I do feel that that was how it probably evolved.

EP:

And so the Merchants Association nor the Chamber had direct dealing with the city government as such. It was through this committee that was appointed.

LG:

Yeah. Well, I think probably the Merchants Association, and I can't speak so much for the Chamber, because I never was privy to any of the board meetings of the Chamber at that time. I think the Merchants Association was very fearful of taking any political action that might not meet with the overall approval of the majority of its members. Now, we never went out and polled the membership. But the board of directors did not feel that it could speak for the total membership. So, as a result, a lot of us who were involved in the Merchants Association also were involved in trying to see what we could do to better help our community in race relations.

EP: You had mentioned that you were a member of this committee on along with Oscar Burnett, who was head of the Bessemer Improvement Corporation, and you were president of the Merchants Association. Do you recall the other members of the business community that served on this?

LG:

I really don't. I'm almost certain Ed Zane [head of Burlington Industries] was one. But I quite honestly cannot recall all the other names.

EP:

Do you recall what time period? Would this have been while the major mass demonstrations were going on in the spring of '63?

LG:

I would think so, and I think probably the most heated part of all of this was the attempted desegregation of the Mayfair Cafeteria. I think finally the—I don't remember, was it the S&W? S&W Cafeteria did finally capitulate and agree to desegregate its facilities. The Mayfair did not, for some reason, choose to do so.

EP:

Was the head of—there were several committees, and I was just trying to get this straight. Was this the committee that the chairman was Dr. George Evans and Mr. Burnett was the vice chairman? Does that sound correct?

LG:

Yeah. George Evans was a very prominent member of the black community in those days, and was deeply involved.

EP:

What was your participation and responsibility in this committee?

LG:

I just was a member of the committee, and we just tried to meet with the issues. And we were trying to really satisfy race relations in Greensboro by urging the people to keep a cool head and do what we felt was the right thing to do, and that was to desegregate.

EP:

Well, on a separate aspect of the oral history program, I did interview Dr. Evans, and we discussed this committee, and he said that a number of subcommittees were formed. And different individuals spoke with the different stores or businesses that had been targeted by the demonstrations.

For instance, he mentioned that Mr. Burnett spoke mostly with the restaurant owners. And he himself was involved primarily with the theatres. Did you belong to one of these subcommittees and speak to a particular segment of the business community?

LG:

I can't truthfully say because I don't remember, but I would assume that, since I was a retail merchant, that I probably was deeply involved in urging some orderly agreement on the part of the retail merchants to help them find ways and means and draw up guidelines in which they felt that they wanted to employ some black people into responsible positions in their retail stores. Such as people who would work in the credit department, people who would work on the retail selling stores, and maybe become even assistant buyers or managers, something that would offer the black community an opportunity for better advancement in the retail field.

EP:

It's my understanding that, apart from theaters and the cafeterias, most of the retail merchants were not the targets of specific demonstrations. Is that correct?

LG:

I don't recall it that way. I think we were very much targets for demonstrations. I think the fact that most of us were willing to tell the black community that we would do this and this and this; that after a while they sort of left us be. The boycotts that were threatened never really reached its full potential. The demonstrations outside of our stores never really seriously affected.

EP:

Oh, so you were picketed. Is that correct?

LG:

Oh, we were picketed, and no question about it. You know, most of the retail stores on Elm Street were for a while, until we came up and made a commitment to NAACP and CORE that we would try to do—have so many people in so many positions by such and such a time. And I think each individual business, primarily the department stores and us, and maybe one or two other apparel stores, made firm commitments as to what we would do by such and such a date.

EP:

The reason I ask that and you seem surprised, is that the newspapers, of course, focus on the demonstrations at the theatres—

[End of Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]

EP:

—with these different organizations that I named, December '62 and on through March [of 1963]. This is when you were being picketed and you received these threats of boycott and requests, or demands, for integrating your sales personnel.

LG:

Right.

EP:

Well, your name is mentioned prominently in this by different members of the black community that I've talked to about this and other related subjects. So I assume you took a prominent role in these negotiations.

LG:

I would have to assume so. [laughter]

EP:

Did this go on for long—I'm covering a period here of about four months from December through March—did this go on frequently? Were they infrequent meetings, or what was their nature?

LG:

No. I would think it went very hot and heavy for a short period of time, maybe a three- or four-month period. Because I think we were all concerned that this could conceivably lead to some bad feelings, and God forbid, we were all fearful of maybe some bloodshed. We just didn't know what to expect. I think a lot of us were really fearful that if we didn't do something to help the black community solve what they thought was something of urgent necessity; I think a lot of us felt that we were not being responsible citizens. So we did meet frequently, and we did have a lot of discussions, and I think we accomplished quite a bit.

I think, as I said, I think when we started to meet with some of the responsible citizens of the black community who we felt we could talk with, because they were as concerned as we [were]—I think we did, at a time, with some of the young people in CORE and some of the actively involved people with NAACP—they were very young, and very vocal and very demanding, and I don't think any of us felt comfortable talking with those people.

EP:

So they were not a part of this?

LG:

Well, they might have had some representation, but most of their spokesmen were represented by what I call more prominent, distinguished members of the black community who were a little bit more mature in their thinking and remained cool-headed and people you could sit down and have meaningful discussion with.

EP:

The newspaper says that a deadline for integrating sales personnel, prior to the big demonstrations downtown, was March thirty-first, and that most of the stores did meet this deadline. And it appears that this pressure against the retail stores—

LG:

Subsided, right.

EP:

Subsided.

LG:

That's my best recollection.

EP:

And did you, indeed, integrate your sales personnel at this time?

LG:

Absolutely. And we, you know, we made a commitment. You know, those of us who were in position to do so made a firm commitment to CORE and NAACP representatives. And I think we did it with a clear conscience. I think we did it because we thought it was the right thing to do. Of course, they put a lot of pressure to bear. There's no doubt about it. But I don't think there was any resentment after we had done it that we were backed up against the wall. I think we set the timetable. In other words, we agreed to have it done by such and such a time to show good faith. And we felt that the only way to accomplish it was to set a deadline for ourselves. And I think we are the ones who established the deadline.

EP:

After the mass demonstrations, the pressure appears to, from the black community, to have been less desegregation of these public facilities and more economic issues, which would have been jobs. Were you again involved in that segment, say, after the summer of, or during the summer and afterwards, of '63? Did pressure come again to bear on the retail business?

LG:

Not as I recall, no.

EP:

In other words, they were satisfied with the pace of the integration.

LG:

I think they felt that we acted in good faith, and that they believed that we had a willingness to cooperate. And I think we did open some very good channels of communication in the black community.

EP:

The newspaper mentions Mr. John Parramore making a report that fall to the Chamber [of Commerce]. And he says that they definitely did experience difficulty trying to bring in other industries and businesses to Greensboro because of the publicity of the demonstrations. Was there any similar report to the merchants, or was there a feeling that this had indeed hurt the business community of Greensboro?

LG:

I think there's no doubt that it did set it back for a while, but I'm not so sure that we were in a big expansion time or period at that time. I'm sure that a lot of large industry that might have been looking at Greensboro might have postponed or said, “No, we're not coming there; there's just too much unrest.” But I think the broader scope is that most business, or large industrial businesses that have looked at Greensboro's history have seen that we've met our problems head-on and have done everything we could to solve them. And, as a result, have concluded that we were, in fact, a good community to settle in. And I think although that might have set us back maybe for six months or a year. I think ultimately it is what has continued to help us grow.

EP:

There seems to be divided opinion on this. Since there were already these studies saying that the downtown business core area was having difficulties with the growth of the city, problem with parking facilities, the competition of the developing shopping centers, do you think that it was the shopping center competition or the demonstrations which had any effect on the decline of business in the downtown area in the 1960s?

LG:

Well, I can't really readily say what caused it. I think it was just the beginning of the change.

I would guess Friendly Shopping Center came into being twenty-five years ago, and I think that was probably the beginning of when their—plus the fact that if you look at Greensboro, I think we had a natural barrier where we could not really go beyond. And that was—it just seemed that Market Street to the north, although people had projected, said the city was going to grow north and grow north. The fact we could not get adequate close-in parking. The fact that the in and out access to the core area. You know, we were beginning to get into a real fast-moving, mobile society back then, and people really liked to move and go about their business.

And really, I just think downtowns per se were starting to see in the sixties the first lack of excitement and interest on the part of the consumer. You know, there was no excitement. There was no new growth. There was no potential unless we undertook some very vast expenditures for underground parking or high-rise parking. And I think we tried. We made the attempt, with the two municipal parking lots that we have, to try to ease the parking. But, you know, we got so much criticism on the part of the consumer who didn't want to go. They were dangerous. And, you know, once you got in there, they were dark and dismal. And they just met with a lot of resistance.

And I don't think, quite honestly, the newspapers helped us too much. I mean, downtown just seemed to become the whipping boy for everybody. It just seemed that all we ever got was bad publicity. And I can't fault the newspaper, I think they were reporting things as they saw. But, you know, after a while, people began to say, “Well you know, maybe what they're saying is so. And, you know, downtown is not an exciting place to go anymore. It's not the place to see and be seen. We've got Friendly Shopping Center out here that's in a good growth pattern, and we'll just go there. It's a lot easier to get to—plenty of free parking. You don't have to worry about parking.” And I just think that downtown became a good whipping boy. And I think people just started to stay away, and stay away more and more.

EP:

Well, you were one of the last of the longtime downtown retail businesses to leave [in] the late seventies. Certainly many businesses had left much earlier. Why was your [coughs], excuse me, decision not to leave the downtown put off so long?

LG:

Well, I guess the biggest reason was we did not own the Dixie Building and did not purchase it until 1976. We had an opportunity to purchase it then at a very reasonable price. Prior to that, we were on a lease which would have extended us to about 1980, and we were paying a lot of rent. And there was just no way to break the lease. So, I'm sure had we, the lease expired or it been a lot less expensive, I'm sure we would have probably bailed out before we did.

As a result of our purchase of the building in '76, our payments became substantially less than our rent payments would have been. So it became economically feasible to try to hang on. And what we had done, we sort of phased out the second floor as business got slower, put everything on one level. And then as it got slower, we moved it to the front and closed up the back to where it just got to the point it didn't really pay us to keep it open for retail. But since we had the building, and our offices were there—we made it a distribution facility and main offices for our executive staff.

EP:

In conclusion, Mr. Guyes, I have selected certain portions of your professional and civic career. Would you like to summarize the entire scope of your civic and professional participation in the community?

LG:

Well, I have been actively, for a number of years, involved in various organizations, primarily United Way related. I was on the budget finance committee for three or four years. I was on the United Way big board for maybe as much as six years. I've been on Cerebral Palsy board, the Red Cross board. I was on the campaign cabinet for two or three campaigns heading up smaller business divisions. I was on a Family Services board and was one of the creators and founders of the Community Consumer Credit Council Service, which was an arm of the Family Service.

Beyond that, I've been involved in the Jewish community, being actively involved in Temple Emmanuel. I'm an immediate past president of that organization, that Temple, I should say. And I'm on the board of the Greensboro Jewish Federation, which is a charitable organization that raises funds to help Jewish groups throughout our state and country, as well as money going to the State of Israel.

I'm actively involved in the Blumenthal Jewish Home over in Clemmons, North Carolina, and I'm the executive vice president and will become president of that home a year from this October. This is a home for senior citizens. It is a nursing home facility, not a long-term care facility. And it is not just confined to Jewish residents. It has very broad scope. It has a national meaning, a national following.

And, I guess, being a family man, having a wife and two young adult children and watching them grow, and I guess that pretty well sums it up.

EP:

Thank you very much.

[End of Interview]