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Oral history interview with Colvin Leonard by Kathy Carter
May 28, 1989
Colvin Theodore Leonard
Colvin T. Leonard (1899-1995) was a longtime editor of the Greensboro News and Record and later public relations director at Guilford College.
In this transcript of a May 28, 1989, oral history interview conducted by Kathy Carter with Colvin Leonard, Leonard recalls race relations in Greensboro from the late 1940s through the 1960s. He describes being at the Woolworth’s lunch counter when the February 1, 1960, sit-in occurred, and how, at the time, it did not seem like a dramatic, historic event. He provides details of demonstrations and pickets, commends the police department for maintaining peace, and describes his personal relationships and experiences with black citizens.
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Oral history interview with Colvin Leonard by Kathy Carter
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
—speaking with Mr. Colvin Leonard. He's a retired editor with the Greensboro Record, is that right?
Okay. And Mr. Leonard, you're just going to chat for a little while about your memories, I guess starting with Ralph Johns, since he's so much in the news.
I have some recollection of it. I was just reading an article in the paper about him. He's California now. And some of the things in there that he said didn't exactly jive with my own recollection of what happened. Of course, it's been a long time ago.
How do you remember that time, compared with what he said?
Do you want me to tell you about the circumstances of the sit-in itself?
Sure, start with that.
Well, we had a custom at the paper. When some of us got our work done of the first edition of the afternoon paper, we would go over to the Woolworth for coffee. And we had heard that they were going to have that sit-in effort, and we were in there when they came in. And one of the things I remember, which I think has been neglected, is the way the police handled the situation.
There were two entrances to Woolworth's, one from Sycamore Street and one from Elm, the main street. And there were plainclothes officers stationed at those doors. And they were there because they knew certain potential troublemakers, and they watched for them and they never let them in. And I think that had a lot to do with the peaceful circumstances, or atmosphere, of the sit-in. Nobody—no excitement about it. It was just like you got four guys walked in and asked to be served, and they were served. In fact, it was done in such a way that I hardly realized the significance of it at the time, because it was very undramatic, to tell you the truth.
And there wasn't any trouble, no physical violence, or anything like that. There were very few people in the store. And there wasn't any hint of the significance of what really was happening, I think, because it was done in such a quiet, orderly manner. Curly Harris—that's his nickname. I've forgotten his real name [unclear]—but he was the manager of Woolworth's, and he was bothered by this situation before it happened.
As I recall, he had two daughters, and I think one, if not both, were in social service work. And they were urging him, you know, sort of saying to give in, let them have their service. And he was—had to realize, whether it was right or wrong, that he had to consider the economic consequences of doing this, you know. He was sort of put in the middle.
And—but he did not show any resistance to them. When they came in, you know, they just sat down, and they were served. And that's about all I remember about what happened at that time. There was no violence, no real excitement about it. And I that think a lot of people in there, customers, didn't know what was going on. That's my impression of it. Because as I say, it was done in such a quiet, orderly manner, very undramatic.
And I give the police credit for keeping things under control [unclear]. A fact, I don't think it has been fully publicized or recognized. I think they deserve a lot of credit for the way they handled it, because I'm sure that some of them, personally, weren't in favor of integration, maybe. But that didn't let them—that stand in the way of doing their duty. And no troublemaker got in that morning.
And that's about what happened. Later I told—we sort of discussed it. And we joked among ourselves that we didn't really know, recognize the significance of the historical event was taking place.
Most people don't when historical events take place. They don't seem to be that important at the time. Were you, were you a managing editor of the Record?
I was editor of the newspaper.
You were editor?
Yes, that's right. I'd been editor from 1948. I had worked at both papers, the [Greensboro Daily] News and the Record. I worked several years on the News. And then I resigned the News and went to Raleigh during the war, to the North Carolina League of Municipalities, in charge of their publications. And that was in '44, and '43.
And the News company made me several offers to come back. And I missed the newspaper work, because I liked it very much. And I finally took the last offer, and that's when I came back to Greensboro in 1946. And the special work—wrote special features and articles over the state for the Daily News. And then in '48 I was made editor of the Record. That's about all there was to it.
As editor of the Record then, when did you decide or recognize that this was a story that deserved coverage?
Well, of course, it was recognized that it was a very significant event and movement and something which was sooner or later to come, although they didn't think about that. And I'd like to inject this point. Over the years, Greensboro has had what I consider, or did have what I considered at that time, very fine racial relations. It was a good feeling between the whites and the blacks. I served on several community organizations with colored people. We ate together, and I, and I—they're still, the ones living, are my friends. And I think that's one reason maybe there wasn't any more trouble than there was in Greensboro, because of that background of harmony.
There was animosity, you know, between races, like in some communities. Maybe that was because of the colleges' influence in Greensboro. I don't know. Nobody said much about it. It was just taken for granted. They were on—we had a lot, several interracial committees and commissions and organizations in the community, you know, for people of both races. And I still see some of them. I saw Dr. Stewart[?] not long ago at the convenience store. He's a nice gentleman. And I was on the welfare board for six years, and one of the members on that was Dr. Hardy Liston. He is colored man who was a member of the faculty at that time at A&T [North Carolina A&T State University], and we got along well.
And I guess I was—maybe by having that kind of a situation where I did not come up against the rough element of both races, you know—there are some extremists on each side. And I guess I regret that Greensboro got a sort of a black, community black eye because of this sit-in situation, because it was not characteristic of the community to have violent relations between the races. It just wasn't done.
Right. Greensboro did have that reputation.
That's right. And I think that's one reason that this went off so well, that there wasn't anybody around to inflame people. A lot of us realized that sooner or later was coming. I remember—digress a little bit—when I was in Raleigh, George Franklin, who was an attorney for the League of Municipalities, and I were going to Chicago for a meeting of American Municipal Association and went down to the station to get on a sleeper, which would be picked up by the train. And we went into the station restaurant. And it was kind of a circle thing, and in the middle there was this sort of placard there or board there separating the two races.
And we went on out, started down the platform to our car, and he said, “Wasn't that silly?”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
He said, “That placard up there, separating us from those other people. White and black, that's silly isn't it?”
I said, “I agree with you.”
You know, there were people who realized that and maybe we should have done something about it before then. But we didn't. But on the other hand, we didn't resist it when it did come. And I don't think there's anybody, one individual could take credit for what happened. I think some of these students realized, you know, what was happening—they were being discriminated against, and they were going to do something about it.
And I may be wrong about it, but I feel like that's what happened, that unbeknownst to the average person, the relationship between the races was becoming better and better. There weren't any—the feeling of antagonism wasn't there. And we just, something we weren't used to. I don't think that the average person in Greensboro intended to be unkind to members of the other race. They just, that's just the way they'd grown up. They were here and we were there, you know. And were neighbors[?] and had relationships. They were on, they were on community organizations, we met together. And I know on the welfare board there wasn't any distinctions made between races or any bigotry there.
Although, we had a case of an exorbitant ambulance bill. Mr. Thompson, the superintendent, L.M. Thompson, presented the board with it but he withheld the name of the funeral home. And I realized later why he did it. So it came up again in one of our board meetings, and we were inclined to deny it. Hardy Liston, who I mentioned earlier, said, “Will you tell us the name of that funeral home, please?” He called the name of that funeral home, which had a bad reputation. It was a Negro funeral home. And immediately Hardy said, “I move we reject the request.” That was the end of it. He knew these people, see.
I cite that as an example of cooperation between the races. There wasn't any feeling that—now if somebody else, a member of the board, if a white member had said that, later on somebody'd have said they did that because he's black. But that wasn't—he knew these people, and more and more individually treated each other as human beings.
I think that's one of the secrets of our lack of trouble in Greensboro, is that there was a lot of this clean relations between the races on a personal basis, that we've had friends who were of colored—of another race. And while you didn't mingle socially, that wasn't anything against them, because there was some white people that you didn't associate with because you had different interests.
And I like to think—that may be a sort of jaundiced attitude, but I like to think that. And I'm proud of the fact that Greensboro handled the situation like they did. And I regret that, very much that Greensboro may have gotten a bad reputation, a bad image, because this sit-in happened. Of course, it went off without trouble and it sort of marred our picture of a community that was tolerant.
I don't think most people tended to look down on somebody else of another race particularly, it's just something they grew up with, you know. It was like my friend George Franklin said, “Isn't that silly?” That board there, that was a symbol of something.
And I remember once—I'm digressing again—we were coming back from Washington on the Pullman one Sunday after been to—after meeting in Washington. And we were in the dining room, and they pulled this curtain down. There was this couple and their two children—a black couple, colored. And he was a rather, I imagine he was, he looked like college professor, that type. A highly, highly, high-classed person. And, wasn't that silly? But it takes us a long time to get over something. I know personally, I never intended to hurt somebody because I discriminated against them. That's just the way we'd grown up, and we took it for granted.
I remember talking to some business friends of mine once about helping some of the black leaders promote their own businesses down there, shopping centers. And their reply was, “Well, we've suggested that,” but said, “they say, 'Well, if we do it, our folks won't patronize us, they still want to come uptown.'” So you know, that's another problem we had, trying to assimilate things.
There's some of the people that were pushing integration among the blacks, I don't have much respect for them. I'm not going to mention them.
But people that know me know how I feel about it. And because I think that it's wrong, it hurt the cause. And I think probably what some people think I think, they were very selfish in promoting it.
You're talking about those who really made a push for it, and then insistence and those sorts of things?
Yeah, and the way they did it. And they were hypocritical about it. I remember one—his daughter, she didn't go to school here. And he had enough money to send her off to a private school, see. And some of those people did the cause of integration harm, I think. Because they caused some people who sort of on the fence about it to go back against them, because they interpreted their attitude as typical of the, of the race, which wasn't true.
On the other hand, there were people who were working quietly, on both sides, trying to work this thing out. And I give them the credit for what happened. I give them credit for encouraging those four boys to go up there and sit down.
And I remember an experience just after that happened. My wife and I were going to a cafeteria used to be on East Market Street, right behind where Belk's was right on the corner, called S&W. And our oldest grandson's family moved to New Mexico. His father was in nuclear work. He spent a winter with us because he didn't want to go out there at that time.
And we started to the cafeteria that night. And this group of students came up, about A&T, in that area, and they forced us off the sidewalks. We didn't have any chance in the world. And that's the closest demonstration of sort of, I want to call it mob, mob action, but that's the nearest thing we experienced. And somebody had gotten them—and this was after the sit-ins—gotten them excited. They decided to march uptown, which they did. They didn't do any harm to anybody, except push you off the sidewalk [laughs]. And that's, that's about all I recall about it.
Okay. And then—that was in 1960, then in 1963 there were some demonstrations and some marches in Jefferson Square downtown.
Became the focus of some of that.
Well, this instance I was telling you about when they forced you off the sidewalk, that was part of that.
Ah, I see. Okay. Okay.
It came along later. I don't, I never had much experience with that. But that night, evening, we were going to dinner, supper down there. And we parked the car in some place—I forget where it was—and we were going down the street, and here they came. And we just—well, when I say they pushed us off the sidewalk, that may not be exactly true. Because we just got off and out of the way.
Made some room, huh? [laughs]
But, and then they had some demonstrations which I'm not very clear about. And an interesting thing, see Jesse Jackson showed up, and he was heading up the blacks, you know, the network[?]. And the police officer in charge of the police handling the situation—which they did with a great skill and I think, efficiency—his name was Jesse [sic, Captain William Jackson], too, first name.
And the interesting thing was—I can't remember his last name. He retired. I think he's dead now. But, he and the other Jesse kind of became friends. They had a, they had a good relationship, I'll put it that way. And I think that helped to keep things from getting worse, from getting out of hand. And I don't remember too much about that, because when that happened, lots of times I'd be at home. I'd come home from work, you know, so I did not witness any of that. The main thing I witnessed was the sit-in, and [coughs]. Excuse me. [coughs] I'm sorry I can't be of any more help on it, because my recollection is kind of dim.
Okay. No, that's fine. You've been a terrific help. Do you remember the feeling in Greensboro after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated? There was a curfew, was there not? That would have been several years later.
That was in what year, now?
Nineteen sixty eight, when—
See, I had retired then, and I was not uptown like I had been, so I don't know much about that.
Okay. I was just wondering if you remembered the feeling. Some people tell me it was a very tense time.
Well, I think it was, I couldn't speak firsthand information about that. I remember when it happened. It was a great shock. I forget what day of the week it was. I belonged to the Greensboro Civitan Club, and I remember when we got the news of Jack Kennedy's assassination, what a shock that was. It happened about the time we were in session that day.
And I don't remember about Martin Luther King. I heard the news, but I was [cough]—excuse me—I was not uptown. See, after I left the paper, I was part-time over at Greensboro College helping them with their publications and their publicity, public relations. And when you're on a college campus you're sort of cut off from the rest of the world.
You can be, that's true. [both laugh]
I was over there fourteen years and two months after I retired. I enjoyed that very much. My niece came down there to go to school there, see. My grandfather and my brother sent her, paid for her to go to school over there. They came down for her graduation. She graduated with honors over there.
And as far as the reaction with Martin Luther King, what I got mostly from that was what I saw on television. I did not, I was not uptown, and I was over at the college. Of course, that was just where everybody else was talking about it. I remember they accused a white man of doing it over in Tennessee. It was Memphis was where he was killed, wasn't it?
Well, you know, I'm glad that part's over. And I think, I think a lot of us appreciate contributions that Negro leaders have made. Dr. [George Washington] Carver, for a good example, Booker T. Washington, people like that, you know, that did wonderful things for their people, yet they went about it in a quiet sort of way.
And of course, the average white person, I guess, sort of reacted to the colored race with the way they grew up, with the attitude they had, you know, right or wrong. At the same time, I think, especially in Greensboro, like I said in the beginning, has had a real good relationship between the races. Individually, whites and blacks have good friends in the other race. And we didn't have that mob, violent attitude that you hear in some communities. I think it was because we had the colleges here, and educated people. And I know that some of the black leaders were some of the most respected people in the community. Unfortunately, some of them weren't so respected, because they were too extreme in their interests.
I remember hearing once that Booker T. Washington said—described the relations between the races should be like the fingers on the hand, both parallel. And maybe that's right. And, any of—unfortunately, you know, some of the people are so bigoted about race relations. Among the white people are some of the most ignorant people, you know. I guess it's—or maybe its some jealousy on their part, I don't know, they were taking over what they had had. But that's about all I can say about it. I wish I could remember better about certain things.
Mr. Leonard, tell me a little bit about your background. Were you born in Greensboro?
No. I was born in the far away county of Randolph.
Oh, far away.
I came to Greensboro when I was about five years old—
[discussion of Leonard's siblings, parents, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren not included in the online transcript]
It sounds as though you had a very good upbringing, really. Getting back to, getting back to relations between the races, which you've said were very good, really, in Greensboro. When you were younger, when you were being raised, who told you, or how did you know how to act toward black people? I mean, how did you learn that?
I tell you, I grew up on Tate Street. My father built a home. A picture of it's over yonder. And I don't know whether you know it or not, but on McGee Street, between Tate and Mendenhall, was what we called a colored settlement. When they opened up the college, they needed—you know, a lot of those people came there to work, colored people. They had nowhere to live, and so somebody started building those houses in there. Some of them owned their places. A lot of them, they owned their own houses in there.
And I remember one, her last name was Rhodes, she worked as a maid. And I—see, the street wasn't cut through there to Tate. It ended behind Tate Street houses. And Nellie, I believe was her name, Nellie, her last name was Rhodes. She was very nice, clean, colored woman. And I remember, time and again in the summertime, she'd come by there, and my mother would be on the porch and they'd start talking. My mother would say, “Come on up and sit down and let's talk awhile.”
One day I went looking for our son [Ted], a little fellow. I walked over to the neighbor across the street, name of Sanford. Of course, she had a son that was a little bit older than Ted, and they played together. And I said, went over there and I said, “Do you know where Ted is?” “Yes, he and Bobby are playing with,”—called the name of this boy, I don't remember his name. And I said, “Who's that?” He said, “It's so-and-so's son, a colored woman up there.” This colored boy is now—became a doctor later. They were high-classed people too. And there never was any trouble between them. And I guess that's one reason I had that feeling about the coloreds.
And I remember my mother wasn't well, and we had a woman that worked for us at Guilford College. And I remember her name, her name was Ida Albright. She was a colored woman. She was going to Bennett College, and she stayed at our house. She had a room upstairs, just back of where the rest of us lived. I mean, she wasn't pushed in the corner. And she worked there and go to school, see. She did that for four years, and we respected her.
And I know after she left, they got one. She came out of what she used to call the terra cotta, terra cotta, out there at Cone—at Pomona. And she was mean. She did the cooking, see, and I had to get the stove wood in for a big stove. And she said something to me one day it made me so mad I hauled off and hit her with a stick of stove wood. It's a wonder I didn't break her arm. But I mean, that was the difference, see. This other one was educated, but she was, she was just a different type of person.
We had some others, that we got along well. They stayed there in the house. They had a room upstairs, just back of where the other rooms were. It wasn't—they weren't shunted away or anything, it just happened that was a room that was not being used.
So I guess that had something to do with how I feel about the colored people. These were good folks, you know? They weren't educated. They were just good, law-abiding people. We had our janitor for the old Curry School, training school, Rufus Johnson, that was his name. [laughs] And they used to, kids sing, “Rufus Rafus Johnsons Round, when you [unclear] coming to town.” Singing and all. At Christmas they'd always give him a handsome gift. I remember one year they gave him a real nice rocking chair. Kids just raise the money themselves. He'd get up there on that platform and rock, you know. So I guess that contributed something to my attitude about the colored people.
I, I remember, before we moved to Greensboro, my father and two other men owned a furniture factory at Ramseur, and it burned twice. The last time it burned down, all my father had was gone. And see, insurance rates for a furniture factory were very high anyway, and a place like that was just almost prohibitive.
But what I started to say is a colored man worked down on, at the factory and looked after our horse we had, named Charles Lineberry. And I used to watch him eat his lunch, and he had big old biscuits. I know they were very indigestible, but I used to want one of them so bad. I'd sit and watch him. And he called me “Little Capt'n,” see, Little Capt'n. I drove down there later on, I was about grown, you know, and I'd see him and he would always speak to me. So we've had, personally we've had nice relationships with colored people.
We had this woman who worked for us part-time. She worked for some other people, cleaning up. This was in my latter years. Mattie. And Mattie was a woman who had the finest principles of all. She told my wife one day, she said, “Mrs. Leonard, my Daddy told us, preached certain things to us, what was right and what was wrong, and you'd better do it, like he said.” He was a carpenter, I think, or something like that. Mattie.
But, you know—so hey, I reckon that's considered my feeling about the colored people. I just, I respect them. I always—I started telling a joke, but I don't want them to get on me.
But, it's so indicative, our attitude. Afterwards, when you turn it off, I'll tell you what it was. Anyways, I guess, I guess that closeness there between our neighborhood and those colored people was, helped cultivate the attitude I had about—
[End of Interview]