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Oral history interview with Neil McGill by Eugene Pfaff


Date: circa 1980

Interviewee: Neil McGill

Biographical abstract: Neil McGill (1913-1988) was manager of the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro from 1946 through the 1960s.

Interviewer: Eugene E Pfaff

Description:

In this transcript of an oral history interview conducted circa 1980 by Eugene Pfaff with Neil McGill, McGill discusses demonstrations held at the Carolina Theatre, their effects on business, and the outcomes after desegregation. He recalls encounters with demonstrators and incidents between black people and white people after desegregation. He discusses the trials of those arrested, tactics employed by segregated businesses to try to satisfy the demonstrators, and the committees appointed to handle the situation in Greensboro.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.552

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 Neil McGill by Eugene Pfaff

EUGENE PFAFF:

—on tape before we begin, Mr. McGill, is that you are aware this conversation is being tape recorded.

NEIL MCGILL:

Right.

EP:

And we have your permission to do so.

NM:

Right.

EP:

Thank you very much. I'd like to begin by getting some brief biographical information about yourself.

NM:

All right.

EP:

Date and place of birth, where you went to school, early career—that sort of thing.

NM:

Well, let's see. I was born in Raeford, North Carolina. You say you want the date?

EP:

Yes, sir.

NM:

November the 24, 1913. And of course we moved to Charlotte when I was just a kid. I went through the public schools here.

EP:

In—

NM:

In Charlotte.

EP:

In Charlotte.

NM:

And, and when I finished high school, it was the Depression, so I didn't have the opportunity of going on to school. But I served in the [U.S.] Navy, World War II. I was in Naval Intelligence for four years as an officer. And I was in the motion picture theatre business all my life.

EP:

Did—was that service in Naval Intelligence during the war?

NM:

World War II.

EP:

World War II. When did you become manager of the Carolina [Theatre]?

NM:

Let's see. It was 1955, I believe. Wait a minute. Nineteen forty-five—now wait a minute. Nineteen forty-five, fifty—no, 1952, '51 or '52.

EP:

That means that you were there when the new technology of 3-D came in. Is that correct?

NM:

That's right.

EP:

What, what, basically, was 3-D?

NM:

Oh, it was, of course, third dimension. If you wore these little, flimsy, pasteboard glasses you could see, see the real depth of third dimension. It was fascinating, but the public objected to the little glasses that you had to wear.

EP:

There was no way to actually shoot the film such that—

NM:

No.

EP:

—it wasn't necessary to use the glasses?

NM:

No. You had to use those little flimsy glasses that brought it into focus for you.

EP:

And that's why it failed.

NM:

That's right.

EP:

How long did it last? Was it a very short phenomenon?

NM:

It was less than a year, because about the same time CinemaScope came into being, and the public, they liked CinemaScope. That's a wide screen.

EP:

So that more or less—

NM:

That was very popular at the time.

EP:

I see. Was this the change from the thirty-five millimeter to seventy film?

NM:

No, that came later. I don't remember the exact year. Then we had Cinerama in some of our theatres.

EP:

What exactly was that?

NM:

That's two projectors projecting the image at the same time with sort of a split screen. And that was fascinating, too, but for some reason that didn't catch on. You see, it doesn't make a difference which process you use unless you have an entertaining movie, a good story. For instance, the 3-D was all novelty. Well, 90 percent of it was.

EP:

Just mostly special effects.

NM:

That's right.

EP:

So that passed rather quickly from the scene.

NM:

—a guy leaping out of the bushes at you, you know. It looked like he was going to bite your head off with that depth. [both laugh]

EP:

Was the Carolina unique for its time?

NM:

Well, the Carolina in Greensboro was known as the finest theatre between Richmond and Atlanta. And, of course, in the early days, we had all of the legitimate shows and all of the personalities like Amos and Andy, and—

EP:

Oh, did they make live appearances on the stage?

NM:

Oh yes, yes.

EP:

Now when you say “Amos and Andy,” do you mean the radio show or the one that was on television?

NM:

The radio show.

EP:

Radio show.

NM:

The original Amos and Andy.

EP:

Were there any other stars that made personal appearances?

NM:

Oh, yes, goodness. Andy Griffith. Of course, we had the Richard Petty story over there—you know, the race driver.

EP:

Oh, yes.

NM:

It was very popular.

EP:

I assume these were premieres. Is that correct?

NM:

That's right, world premieres.

EP:

Were there very many of them made?

NM:

You mean—do you mean, did we have many world premieres?

EP:

Yes.

NM:

I had five in my career.

EP:

Can you name them?

NM:

Yes. There was an original picture called Carolina, starring Jeanette Gaynor. And then the O. Henry story, it was called A Full House. It was five of O. Henry's stories. And that was very successful. Let's see, the Richard Petty story. Let's see if I can remember the other two—

EP:

Were they all at the Carolina or at various theatres?

NM:

At the Carolina.

EP:

Pardon?

NM:

At the Carolina.

EP:

I see. And what—stars just made appearances on the stage before and after the movie, that kind of thing?

NM:

That's right. That's right.

EP:

I'd like to shift now to the main focus of the interview. And that involves the civil rights demonstrations—

NM:

Right.

EP:

—if I may, in 1963. Had there been any picketing or demonstrations prior to the spring of 1963?

NM:

No, I don't think so. But I'll say this, that was one of the most frustrating experiences of my lifetime, because the blacks would march downtown. They would form at the A&T College [North Carolina A&T State University], march downtown, completely surround the Carolina Theatre and sing "We Shall Overcome." And they were always led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was at, at that time president of the student council of A&T, president of the student body. And, well, of course, it paralyzed our business. But—

EP:

When do you recall as the first time this occurred?

NM:

Well, of course, I don't remember the exact date, but as you said, it was in 1963.They would march every night for about a month.

EP:

There was an incident when—the first time that I see in the paper of demonstrations in front of the Carolina was [when] they, they knelt in prayer either on the street or on the sidewalk, or in front of the Carolina, on May fourteenth.

NM:

That's right.

EP:

Do you recall that incident?

NM:

I do.

EP:

What occurred?

NM:

Just what you said, their kneeling and praying. And I think—I think it was led by Jesse Jackson because—

EP:

Was there any difficulty or violence, or any arrests at that time?

NM:

No. Let me tell you what did happen. I don't remember the exact date. But one night, part of this black group forced their way into the Carolina. And well, unfortunately, we had to have them arrested. But it was proven in court that—it was not established as to whether they had admission tickets or not, so it was thrown out of court. But—

And then on one occasion—this was kind of frightening for me—I remember that, well, we had a late show like any other theatre was doing in those days. And we had a large crowd, and it was about half white and half black. And before the movie was half over, the whites had just been—they had to leave. They were just more or less driven out. That was sort of a frightening experience.

EP:

The—you mean, the crowd—

NM:

That was after we integrated.

EP:

—that came there to watch the movie?

NM:

That's after we integrated, you see.

EP:

Oh, after you integrated.

NM:

Yes.

EP:

Well, I'd like to get to that. But first, I would like to establish the sequence of events, if I may.

NM:

I see. All right.

EP:

Did you consult with any of the other theatre managers as to what stance you would take or policy you would follow?

NM:

Well, yes. And as I mentioned to you earlier when we talked before, Robert Kennedy, who was then [United States] Attorney General, called in a number of the executives of the theatre companies, including my boss.

EP:

Who was—

NM:

H.F. Kinsey[?].

EP:

H.F. Kinsey.

NM:

And at that time we were being operated by the American Broadcasting Company, known as ABC Southeastern Theatres. And we were nationwide and—but anyway, Robert Kennedy called in these theatre executives, and he said, “I want you to go back home and integrate.” And, of course, they didn't have much choice then. It finally came about. And I was glad to see it because—

EP:

You did not attend the meeting yourself?

NM:

No, I did not.

EP:

How were you informed of it? Were you informed of it by your boss?

NM:

Yes.

EP:

And do you recall exactly what he said or how he described it to you?

NM:

No, I don't remember exactly.

EP:

Well, I understand that. But you say—did you have meetings with Eugene Street [manager of the Cinema Theatre], James Bellows [manager of the Center Theatre]—

NM:

We were all very close friends. And you asked about [Armistead] Sapp. Now he was the attorney for Gene Street and Jimmy Bellows.

EP:

Are you—do you have any knowledge of what legal advice he gave them or—

NM:

No, I don't. But you know we were segregated, and it was a law.

EP:

What sort of things would, would you discuss amongst yourselves?

NM:

Oh, just when and where we'd integrate, you know. We knew it was coming.

EP:

What sort of plan did you have? Did—was it going to be all of you together or—

NM:

Oh, yes, all at the same time. That's right.

EP:

I see. Well, I, I understand that eventually such a policy was announced and, and adopted. And I understand that it came through negotiations with the mayor's committee, principally with Oscar Burnett. Is that correct?

NM:

I think so, yes.

EP:

When were you first approached—were you ever approached by the Human Relations Commission under Bland Worley?

NM:

No. I knew Bland, but he didn't approach me. What was the gentleman's name that used to ride a bicycle over there?

EP:

McNeill Smith?

NM:

Yes. He approached me. But I told him that my company was nationwide and I couldn't, I couldn't authorize the integration myself, you know.

EP:

I see.

NM:

McNeill Smith did, yes.

EP:

Did he approach you as an individual or a representative of some organization?

NM:

It was a small committee and he was head of the committee.

EP:

I see. This plan that I understand was eventually worked out with Mr. Burnett, what sort of things did Mr. Burnett say—ask of you?

NM:

I just don't recall. I remember that my company said we would integrate, and that was it, as far as I was concerned.

EP:

I see. You don't remember the specifics of any conversations with Mr. Burnett?

NM:

No, no, I do not.

EP:

Did he meet with you individually, or was it large meetings?

NM:

McNeill Smith?

EP:

I was speaking of—well, either of those two gentlemen.

NM:

McNeill Smith did. He met with me—

EP:

I see.

NM:

—at the Carolina.

EP:

Just on one occasion, or several occasions?

NM:

On one occasion.

EP:

How about Mr. Burnett?

NM:

I don't remember what his capacity was. I knew him, of course. But I don't remember—

EP:

The newspaper says that he was a member of a second committee formed by the mayor under the directorship of Dr. George Evans, and that Mr. Burnett was the vice chairman of the committee, and that it was his special responsibility to negotiate with the theatre managers. Do you recall any meetings with him?

NM:

No, I don't.

EP:

I see. As described by Mr. Burnett in the press, it was following a plan adopted by Atlanta theatres some time before the spring of 1963, whereby tickets were given to the Human Relations Committee to be dispensed to the black community. Do you recall that as being—

NM:

Yes, I do, vaguely. I, I certainly do. Sort of a test, you mean?

EP:

Yes.

NM:

I remember that—

EP:

Okay.

NM:

—rather vaguely.

EP:

How did that work out?

NM:

Well, there were so few that it, it wasn't even noticeable.

EP:

But they did come in and sit in the theatre, is that correct?

NM:

Yes.

EP:

Was there ever any incident or—

NM:

No, no, not at that time. The incidents came later.

EP:

I see. There was a meeting in Armistead Sapp's office that I alluded to in our previous conversation.

NM:

Right.

EP:

And one conversation reported in the newspaper was that the theatre representatives at the meeting said that they had—were initially going to desegregate, but that there were subsequent demonstrations after their announcement, and that they had lost faith in the committee to be able to control the demonstrators from the black community. Do you recall this as having—the theatre managers having second thoughts about providing the tickets and desegregating as a result of this?

NM:

No, I don't. As I say, when we integrated, it came down from my company, see.

EP:

Yes. But you were involved in the local negotiations, is that right?

NM:

No, not really. We—as I say, Mr. Sapp represented Gene Street and Jimmy Bellows. We—I don't remember attending any of his meetings.

EP:

I see. So you did not attend this meeting on June ninth in Armistead Sapp's office?

NM:

No, I did not.

EP:

Did you know anybody who did?

NM:

No. Well, of course, Jimmy and Gene Street, because Sapp represented them.

EP:

Did they report back to you what occurred at this meeting?

NM:

Probably, probably so, yes.

EP:

How was the actual plan to announce a joint announcement to the press worked out between you?

NM:

I don't even recall exactly. We just told them that we were ready to integrate, as well as I remember.

EP:

But each of you met together and annou[nced]—decided upon a—

NM:

Time.

EP:

—date?

NM:

Yeah. Yeah.

EP:

What sort of legal advice did you receive from the ABC Corporation?

NM:

Well, I didn't at all. I received advice and information from the president of our company.

EP:

But not through any legal representatives?

NM:

No.

EP:

I see. Did you report back to him what incidents were occurring in Greensboro?

NM:

Oh, yes, yes.

EP:

What was the reaction of the company?

NM:

Well now, do you mean after we integrated?

EP:

No, sir, while these demonstrations were going on.

NM:

I just kept him posted. It paralyzed our business, of course.

EP:

In what way did it paralyze it?

NM:

Well, as I mentioned earlier, blacks would completely surround the Carolina, and they were marching. Now, as long as they were marching, it was perfectly legal.

EP:

Who determined when there was a violation of the law, either the fire laws or trespass, and the students to be arrested? Was that your decision or the police?

NM:

That's a good question. You mean when we claimed that they were blocking an entrance which was also an exit?

EP:

That's correct.

NM:

The reason for that was, as I said, they were paralyzing our business. We may as well have closed the doors.

EP:

What I'm getting at is, when you observed this happening, did you request the police to make the arrest—

NM:

Oh, no.

EP:

—or did they automatically?

NM:

They were working with us a 100 percent.

EP:

I see.

NM:

The firemen and the policemen.

EP:

Did you have prior conversations with police and fire representatives before the demonstrations?

NM:

No, no, not before they started.

EP:

What I mean is, on a nightly basis, before they started each evening.

NM:

Well, the police would be in certain positions and sort of came ahead of the marchers and, you know—

EP:

And did they ask you, did you want these people arrested for trespass?

NM:

We didn't arrest anyone unless they forced their way into the theatre. Then we had them arrested.

EP:

I see. So most of the—other than this incident you described where the people went on into the theatre, most of the arrests were for blocking the exits.

NM:

That's right.

EP:

What would happen when the—were the demonstrators still there when the movie ended and the movie crowd went out?

NM:

There wasn't any movie crowd [laughs].

EP:

Oh, people just didn't come down.

NM:

That's right. The theatres were empty practically.

EP:

Was this on a nightly basis?

NM:

Yes, sir, every night. As well as I remember, it was about a month.

EP:

So they were demonstrating before empty theatres.

NM:

Not completely empty. Some people would, you know, would ignore them.

EP:

Do you have any general figures, just off the top of your head or in general memory, of the decline in business?

NM:

Oh, no. I'd say it cut down 75, maybe 75 percent.

EP:

What was the average nightly take of the theatre during a week?

NM:

You mean in dollars and cents?

EP:

Yes.

NM:

I'm not at liberty to give you that.

EP:

I see. But would it be fair to say that it was substantial?

NM:

Very, oh, very much, prior to the demonstrations.

EP:

So this could have said to have cost actually thousands of dollars worth of business.

NM:

You bet your life it did.

EP:

Were you present at each night's demonstration?

NM:

Yes, I had to be [laughs].

EP:

Did you actually confront the demonstrators at each occasion? I mean, by standing at the door or at the ticket booth?

NM:

Oh, yes. I was—my position was there, you know.

EP:

The paper reports you as making a, what in effect was a rather formal speech, that you identified yourself as the manager, you asked them to leave, you told them that if they did not, they'd be subject to arrest. Did anyone recommend the choice of words that you made?

NM:

No, no.

EP:

They were strictly your own?

NM:

Right.

EP:

I see. Then it was up to the fire marshals and the police to determine whether or not to make arrests?

NM:

That's correct.

EP:

I see. Do you recall the sequence of action during the demonstrations on an individual nightly basis? What the demonstrators did?

NM:

Well, of course they sang "We Shall Overcome."

EP:

Yes.

NM:

And I remember on one occasion, this person that appeared to be white walked up to the box office, bought a ticket, and started into the theatre. And Jesse Jackson said to me, “Now you see, she's a Negro. You sold her a ticket.” [laughs] I said, I said, “Yeah, but she appears to be white.” That was one incident.

EP:

Was she stopped from going into the theatre once she was identified?

NM:

No.

EP:

Did you—so apparently you did have at least one conversation with Jesse Jackson.

NM:

I remember, yes. I recall that.

EP:

Do you recall any other conversations you had with him?

NM:

No, I don't think so.

EP:

How about other leaders of the demonstration? For instance, there were a number of times when—or at least several occasions—when James Farmer, the national director of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]—

NM:

Yes, yes. He was there.

EP:

Did you ever have any conversation with him?

NM:

No, I didn't. I remember him very well, though, and he was there.

EP:

Was it—

NM:

He and Jesse would lead the marches.

EP:

I see. Did you ever testify against any of these individuals in court?

NM:

Oh, yes. We took pictures of them and, you know, those that forced their way in.

EP:

And what—could you describe what your testimony consisted of?

NM:

Well, just the fact that they had forced their way into the theatre.

EP:

Okay. Were you asked to identify them?

NM:

Yes.

EP:

One—I've spoken to one of their lawyers, and he said that one action of the court was to show these photographs of groups to witnesses on the stand—I assume yourself, Mr. Bellows, Mr. Bentz [manager of the S&W Cafteria], and the other individuals involved. Were you asked to select them out of a group of people in the courtroom, or were they brought in individually?

NM:

They—oh, yes, they were brought in individually. That's right. I remember that. And of course, we'd have to look at the photograph to see if that was one of the ones that was arrested.

EP:

Were you able to identify many of them?

NM:

Yes.

EP:

Do you recall if many of them were convicted?

NM:

There weren't any convicted.

EP:

None.

NM:

No, not, no, because it was proven—the judge, Herman Enochs over there, was a friend of mine. [He] said that it was never proved that they were in the theatre without an admission ticket.

EP:

Now, I was—this point confuses me. If they were not sold a ticket, how could it be claimed by their defense that they entered with a ticket?

NM:

No, no. There was no mention of their entering with a ticket. But—well, you realize, of course, that—

EP:

I suppose what confuses me is, I assume what you're saying is the judge said it could be—could not be proven that they had not entered without a ticket.

NM:

That's right, exactly.

EP:

I see. Well, the point that confuses me is if they weren't sold a ticket—

NM:

How could they?

EP:

Yes. Yes, sir.

NM:

It, it puzzled me, too. But you know, personally, we didn't, we didn't have any ill feeling towards the blacks. Personally, I didn't.

EP:

Well, if I may ask this—once they'd gone in and sat down, I assume that what you're saying is that most of the theatre was empty. Could you describe what happened once they entered the theatre? Did they go on in and sit down, or were they stopped in the lobby?

NM:

No, there was no way to stop them. There was too many.

EP:

I see. And so what happened at that point?

NM:

Well, of course we had to have them arrested then.

EP:

I see. And they were removed by the police?

NM:

Right.

EP:

Did you, did you ever consider just going ahead and showing the movie, or not having them removed? I guess, in effect, to desegregate on your own initiative.

NM:

No. We couldn't do that as individuals, because, as I mentioned, my company was very large. I couldn't make that decision.

EP:

Where was the home office?

NM:

Well, Charlotte.

EP:

Was the home office?

NM:

Well, we operated—Mr. Kinsey operated theatres under contract for ABC.

EP:

I see. What was your opinion of the Merchants Association and the chamber's resolution that came out in the paper urging the businesses to desegregate? Were you—

NM:

Now, that's what—

EP:

—angry at them?

NM:

[laughs] No, no.

EP:

Were you—I notice that Mr. Bentz, who was the S&W [Cafeteria] manager and a member of the chamber, abstained from that vote. Did you—Mr. Sapp, in the paper, had made mention of the fact—he said, "Well, here they are urging desegregation of these businesses, but they're not desegregating their own." Was there any of that feeling on your part?

NM:

No, not personally. The only thing I objected to, of course, was the way they were paralyzing our business. But from a personal standpoint, I didn't have any ill feeling towards the black race before this happened. And I still don't, except it was such a trying experience for me.

EP:

Given the fact that this was crippling the business, did you ever suggest a policy of desegregation to your boss in Charlotte?

NM:

Oh, no. I left that decision up to him.

EP:

I see. Did you ever see any incidents of violence, or feel that there was a potential for violence during the demonstrations at the Carolina?

NM:

You mean before we integrated?

EP:

Yes.

NM:

No, no. It was, it was a peaceful—it was a peaceful demonstration from the very beginning.

EP:

What sort of advice did you give to your employees?

NM:

Oh, well, of course, they weren't interested. They, they didn't—they were not entering the theatre, so they didn't, they didn't care.

EP:

They were already on the inside.

NM:

That's right.

EP:

Were there any blacks on your staff in the theatre?

NM:

No, not at that—well, wait a minute. I did have a, I did have a projectionist. I sure did. One of the best in the town.

EP:

Did he ever venture any opinion about—

NM:

Oh, no, no. You know, he never mentioned it. I know one thing, though. My maid at home was frightened to death [laughs]. She thought there would be violence, but there wasn't. There was not any violence.

When I say they forced their way into the theatre, they didn't actually force their way in because there was no one to stop them. They just walked in.

EP:

Was that the only time that they ever actually entered the theatre?

NM:

That's right.

EP:

I see. Were you asked to testify against the people who were arrested for violation of the fire laws, or did you just testify against these—I have the number fifty-eight—who entered the Carolina and sat down?

NM:

Yeah. I testified against them. But as far as the fire laws were concerned, the police and the firemen were arresting them on their own, you know.

EP:

I see. So that you had really nothing to do with that.

NM:

Not really, no.

EP:

Do you recall any conversations you had with Captain William Jackson, who was in charge of the police?

NM:

Hold on just a second, Eugene.

EP:

Sure.

NM:

Now, was that after we integrated?

EP:

No. What I am talking about—

NM:

Oh, he was—

EP:

—at this point is from about the—the demonstrations began at the Carolina, to the best of my information, on May fourteenth and continued pretty much on a nightly basis through the first week of June.

NM:

Right.

EP:

So this is the period in which I'm talking about.

NM:

All right. Now ask that question again about the Captain.

EP:

Did you have conversations with Captain William Jackson?

NM:

I'm sure I did, because he was in charge of the, of the police force.

EP:

Do you recall what was said during these conversations?

NM:

No, I sure don't.

EP:

Did he ask you as to what your policy was?

NM:

Oh, yes, yes. But, as I said, we couldn't integrate. I, I didn't have the authority to.

EP:

So you said that you did want them arrested if they trespassed.

NM:

It was sort of a mutual agreement.

EP:

Do you—I've asked if you spoke with Jesse Jackson other than this, this one time when he said, “Well, see the, the girl that just went in was black, and you sold her a ticket.” Did you have any other conversations with him that you—

NM:

Not that I remember.

EP:

I see. How about any other members of the CORE or the demonstrations—-some of the black ministers involved, or Bill Thomas?

NM:

No. No, it was sort of a cut-and-dry thing. They would surround the theatre and march.

EP:

How long did the demonstrations usually last on a nightly basis, a half-hour? An hour?

NM:

It seems like it would be about an hour.

EP:

About an hour.

NM:

I know it would start in the early evening around seven o'clock.

EP:

What was your observation about the behavior of the demonstrators?

NM:

They were well behaved.

EP:

No—Mrs. Bentz at S&W has told me that her husband told her there were times when he was shouted at, names were called at him—

NM:

Oh, no. I didn't—

EP:

Nothing like that.

NM:

We didn't have anything like that, no.

EP:

How about the behavior of the police?

NM:

They were very, very well behaved. It was sort of a trying experience for them. But there was no violence of any kind and no involvement.

EP:

Do you—

NM:

Even when they made arrests, the blacks would go quietly. There was no struggling or anything like that.

EP:

Do you recall the spectators that, that watched the demonstrations?

NM:

Yeah. I remember there were a few most every night.

EP:

Were there large crowds of them or just small crowds?

NM:

They were not large.

EP:

Were they—the paper indicates that they were across the street. Is that right?

NM:

That's right.

EP:

And they never got into an altercation.

NM:

Oh, no. There was no—there wasn't any violence or anything.

EP:

There was one instance where the paper reports, and Captain Jackson has told me, that there was a fistfight on Washington Street, and that this drew the crowd away from the Carolina, and the police had to set up a police line to keep them back. Do you recall this incident?

NM:

No, I don't. I certainly don't.

EP:

Do you recall any instance of, where hecklers or white counter-demonstrators, or counter-picketers—

NM:

No, not to amount to anything.

EP:

I see. I know that you were approached a number of times about the press. What was your policy in talking to the press and the news media?

NM:

[Laughs] Most of the time it was no comment, because we didn't—

EP:

Was this a policy decision on your part?

NM:

Yeah, both—yeah, both my part and my company.

EP:

Do you ever feel that this was a mistake, that maybe you should have made the position of the theatre made known more publicly?

NM:

No, I don't think so.

EP:

Did you adopt any kind of policy or strategy toward the demonstrations, or was it just to react to what happened on a daily, individual basis?

NM:

That's right.

EP:

Did you ever receive any threats in person or by telephone?

NM:

No, no, I did not.

EP:

How about supportive remarks, supporting your position?

NM:

I don't remember. I don't remember getting any.

EP:

Did you ever feel that your business or private telephone was tapped?

NM:

No. No, I know it wasn't.

EP:

How do you know?

NM:

I wouldn't bet my life on it, but I don't think so.

EP:

In other words, you never made inquiry to determine whether or not it was.

NM:

Oh, no.

EP:

The reason I ask that is, Armistead Sapp made allegations that his phone was tapped, the phones of the businesses involved were tapped, that they were under surveillance by agents of the Justice Department. Did you ever hear any rumors?

NM:

That was news to me. That was never mentioned.

EP:

You have mentioned the personal effect on yourself and on your life. Could you describe what tensions or strain you were under during this time?

NM:

Well, when you have that many blacks surrounding your theatre and the—I didn't really expect any violence, or any violence to erupt. But you can imagine how frustrating it was for me, because I was in charge. And I didn't expect any rushing of the door or anything like that, but it was frightening because there were such large numbers. Jiminy Christmas! And of course, all ages.

EP:

Did you ever think that any violence might break out between the white hecklers and the black demonstrators?

NM:

Well, there was always that possibility, I reckon. But there was always enough police to handle most anything.

EP:

Did you ever feel the need to have police protection or anything like that?

NM:

No, no, no.

EP:

Did this have an effect on your home life, on your family life?

NM:

No, no, none whatsoever, except my maid was worried to death [laughs].

EP:

Did your family express concern for your safety?

NM:

No, no.

EP:

They did not feel you were in danger.

NM:

No.

EP:

What, what was the—if you don't mind my asking, could you characterize what conversations you did have, either with family or friends, regarding this?

NM:

Oh, I don't remember. I guess there was a lot of curious questions about what was happening, that sort of thing.

EP:

But they weren't—they weren't worried.

NM:

No.

EP:

I see. Did you ever close the box office early or not show films?

NM:

After we integrated?

EP:

Well, while the demonstrations were going on.

NM:

No, no.

EP:

Well, you said the theatres were largely empty. Did, did you go ahead and show the movie anyway?

NM:

Oh, yes, yes. There's that old saying that the show must go on.

EP:

[Laughs] That's right. Did you ever receive any pressure from the federal government?

NM:

None whatsoever.

EP:

How about from the state or local government?

NM:

No.

EP:

Were you ever approached by the mayor or any of his representatives?

NM:

No.

EP:

The—there's one question in my mind arising, that you left the determination to desegregate up to your boss in the home office in Charlotte.

NM:

Right.

EP:

And yet, you met with James Bellows and Gene Street, and the manager of the National Theatre. Did you first get a decision from the home office to desegregate and then meet with these men to determine when each of the local theatres—

NM:

As far as I remember, we all agreed to integrate at the same time.

EP:

But first you had to get the approval of your home office, is that—

NM:

Yes.

EP:

Did you wait for them to make the decision and contact you before you then met with these individuals?

NM:

Yes, I did.

EP:

I see. Whose initiative was it to hold these meetings and determine a day for desegregation?

NM:

Whose initiative—I don't know. We reported to each other. See, Jimmy had—his home office was in Birmingham, I believe. Of course, Gene was an independent, Gene Street.

EP:

As I understand, he was under—there was at least a week of picketing by WC [Woman's College] students of his theatre. Is that correct?

NM:

I don't recall that.

EP:

Well, the theatre—I mean, the newspaper mentions that for about a week.

NM:

White, white students.

EP:

Yes.

NM:

I think that did happen.

EP:

Did you ever discuss that with him or—he seemed to have a little bit freer hand than, than either you or Mr. Bellows—

NM:

That's right.

EP:

—being an independent.

NM:

Because he was independent, he owned and operated his theatre.

EP:

Did, did you meet in person or just communicate by telephone?

NM:

Mostly by telephone.

EP:

Mostly by telephone. [pause] Did you attend the meetings with—there were reportedly two meetings with [mayor] David Schenck, on June thirteenth and fourteenth, of theatre, and motel, and restaurant managers and owners. Do you recall attending a meeting or any meetings with the mayor on those dates?

NM:

I think so, but that's very vague. It's been so long.

EP:

Do you recall what the mayor said to you?

NM:

No, I do not.

EP:

Did you ever—I'm sorry.

NM:

It was a discussion of integration, I'm sure.

EP:

Did you ever speak with the mayor?

NM:

You mean, personally and individually? I don't think so.

EP:

But how about officially?

NM:

If, if we were requested to do certain things, I'd always take it up with my company.

EP:

I see. So you don't recall these, these individual conversations?

NM:

No. I just recall the meetings.

EP:

Were you ever contacted by representatives of other organizations, such as the Ministerial Alliance or the Greensboro Community Fellowship?

NM:

No. McNeill Smith is the only one I remember calling on me.

EP:

I see. And when did the Carolina finally desegregate?

NM:

That's a good question. What did the paper say?

EP:

It was right around the announcement of the—May thirty-first, I think, was the joint statement released to the press. Was it around that time, early June?

NM:

I'm sure it was, yes.

EP:

What exactly happened, as far as the Carolina, once desegregation was, was announced and adopted as a policy? Were there large numbers of black patrons or just—

NM:

No. That was one thing that surprised all of us, because they, of course, wanted to attend the theatre. And so when we announced that we would accept them, they didn't come. And as a matter of fact—you won't believe this—but the A&T students used to come and sit in our balcony because the admission was a lot less.

EP:

Oh, the admission was less in the balcony?

NM:

Yes. You—all of us had to—not all of us, but most of us had colored balconies. Well, anyway, we had a lot more to attend that colored balcony than we did after we integrated.

EP:

You mean they continued to go up in the balcony?

NM:

No. They just—the attendance fell off.

EP:

I see. Did—was the balcony closed, or did you continue to—

NM:

No, we closed it. Once we integrated, we closed it completely.

EP:

Now you have mentioned that there were some incidents that occurred after desegregation. Could you describe these?

NM:

Yes. I remember two that are very vivid in my memory. We were having a late show, like all of us had late shows in those days. And the audience—it was a large crowd made up of about half white and half black. Well, before the movie ended, all the white people had left. The blacks were stationed in the restrooms and were—and that was violence.

EP:

Oh, were there fights?

NM:

Yes. They, you know, the white kids left. They, they—

EP:

Do you know who initiated the violence?

NM:

Oh, no, no, the young people.

EP:

I see. Did this happen regularly or just this one instance?

NM:

No, just that one late show, because you can readily see that pretty soon they stopped coming, the whites did. Now, there's one other incident that really sticks out in my mind. We used to have morning shows at the Carolina with a little combo on the stage. And it appealed to the pre-teens.

EP:

Oh, yes. It was called Circle K.

NM:

Yes. And one morning we had three or four hundred white children in there. And I saw these same blacks that had given us trouble coming from the corner with their fists in the air saying, “Black power,” you know. I locked the doors.

EP:

Was this considerably after 1963?

NM:

I don't remember exactly when it was. It wasn't long afterwards.

EP:

I see. And did they try to force their way in?

NM:

No. I locked the doors. And that's—the police kind of got mad about that, but I wasn't going to take that chance again, not with three or four hundred of those kids in there.

EP:

You say the police got mad—because you locked the door?

NM:

That's right.

EP:

What, the police who were on the scene, or were they called to the—

NM:

No, they came down.

EP:

They came down. You called them?

NM:

And that same captain, it may have been.

EP:

I see. And they wanted you to open up the doors, is that right?

NM:

No.

EP:

What—but they were angry at you, but—

NM:

Well, the blacks left and went over to, what was the main street there?

EP:

Greene? I mean, Elm Street.

NM:

Elm Street in front of that big department store.

EP:

Yes.

NM:

It was sort of an exciting time there for a little while, but they all settled down.

EP:

Was that the only time that happened?

NM:

That's right.

EP:

So there were no sustained demonstrations—

NM:

No.

EP:

—after you desegregated?

EP:

No, no.

EP:

Now when you say the whites stopped coming to the Carolina, was this a slow—

NM:

Oh yes.

EP:

—transition?

NM:

Very slow.

EP:

And gradually the, the audiences became more and more black.

NM:

Right. And, as you know, the Carolina here in Charlotte, which was about like the Carolina in Greensboro, is locked up—lock, stock, and barrel. And, of course, the Carolina in Greensboro was closed, all the downtown theatres everywhere.

EP:

What was—why was there a decision made to close the Carolina?

NM:

The attendance had fallen off to where it wasn't profitable.

EP:

To what do you attribute that?

NM:

[Laughs]

EP:

Desegregation, the competition of the theatres in the shopping centers, or—

NM:

Yes.

EP:

Both of those?

NM:

That's right.

EP:

I see. Were there any other factors you thought contributed to it?

NM:

No. Of course there was a certain amount of misbehavior on the part of blacks—young blacks, you know.

EP:

Yes. Was the fact that the Carolina was so large, as compared with other theatres, was it substantially more to operate the Carolina than other theatres in terms of heating, cooling—

NM:

Oh yes, you mean the cost?

EP:

Yes.

NM:

Oh, yes.

EP:

Is there any kind of general figure you could give me on what an average daily operating cost would be?

NM:

Well, if we didn't take in five hundred dollars a day, we lost money. At least.

EP:

The fact that the Carolina was unique in its classical Greek architecture made it virtually the only one of its kind, as you said, between Washington and Atlanta. Was there ever any damage done to the statues, or the chandelier, or anything like that? Any—

NM:

I can't put my finger on any particular thing, but there was a lot of damage done to the theatre, period.

EP:

What, what sort of damage?

NM:

I remember over at the National Theatre when someone threw a wastepaper can out of the balcony.

EP:

But did anything like that ever happen at the Carolina?

NM:

I don't think so. Now after, after I came to Charlotte, I heard that they beat up the manager, a young fellow over there. Excuse me.

EP:

Could you describe that incident?

NM:

Well, I don't know. I was not there at the time.

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

EP:

—Carolina?

NM:

I've been back in Charlotte seven years. Nineteen seventy-three, I reckon. No, no, no. I moved my office out to the Friendly Shopping Center, the Terrace [Theatre] out there. [pause]

EP:

Were you ever a member of either the chamber or the Merchants Association?

NM:

Yes. I was a member of the Merchants Association.

EP:

Do you recall any discussions in either body regarding the desegregation issue?

NM:

No. No, I don't.

EP:

Were you present at any of the meetings of either organization when they made these resolutions ask—calling for desegregation in May?

NM:

I must have been, because I was on the board of the Merchants Association.

EP:

Do you recall that meeting?

NM:

No, not any specific meetings. But I'm sure they did.

EP:

Do you have any—I have heard it rumored that the members of the Merchants who operated segregated businesses downtown really wanted to desegregate to obtain black patronage, particularly when white patronage started being pulled away by the shopping centers. But they didn't want to be the first one to do that.

NM:

I think that's true, absolutely.

EP:

So you think they really wanted black patronage, but they were just afraid of losing their clientele?

NM:

I don't think there's any doubt about it.

EP:

Do you think this is a pretty widely held belief?

NM:

Oh, I think so. Yes.

[End of Interview]