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Oral history interview with Marvin Sykes by Kathleen Hoke


Date: February 12, 1990

Interviewee: Marvin Sykes

Biographical abstract: Marvin Edwin Sykes (1915-2004) was a reporter for the Greensboro Record from 1946 to 1967.

Interviewer: Kathleen Hoke

Description:

In this transcript of a February 12, 1990, oral history interview conducted by Kathleen Hoke with Marvin Sykes, Sykes describes the Woolworth's sit-in of February 1, 1960, from his perspective as a reporter covering the story, including his obserservations of those involved and subsequent media treatment. Other topics include the general climate for change and race relations in the 1960s; contemporary journalism; and local politics.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.585

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 Marvin Sykes by Kathleen Hoke

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

KATHY HOKE:

[unclear] Today is February 12, 1990. This is Kathy Hoke and I'm talking here today with Mr. Marvin Sykes on the campus of UNC [University of North Carolina at] Greensboro. Maybe we can start, Mr. Sykes, you can just tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a reporter at the [Greensboro] Record, what your career was before you were working at the Record in 1960.

MARVIN SYKES:

Yes. I was a thirty-year newspaper man with the local paper the first ten years of the Greensboro Daily News, and the next twenty years with the Greensboro Record. At this time, in 1960, I was on the Record. I was a business editor, and covered the beat, the feature writer. And generally I had most of the activities pertaining to racial matters, because I was filling in at A&T College [North Carolina A&T State University] when they had special programs, and the real estate activities were mine. So the transition from, the racial transitions were in my category. And on this day when we learned of this overnight—it happened the afternoon before, but the morning—

KH:

The sit-ins on February 1, 1960?

MS:

The sit-ins. That's right, the sit-ins actually were stirred a little bit and got started the afternoon before. But the morning paper, the radio and television missed it entirely. There was no covert or outside activity to catch on to, unless you just happened to walk in upon it. The next morning bright and early we knew what was going on, and I was sent down.

KH:

Meanwhile, Jack Moebes, the photographer for the Record

MS:

Jack and I went down together. I always held his flashlight bulb. In those days the cameras did not have bulbs. So the two of us, and—

KH:

Jack did not know about it on the first, he knew about it on the second?

MS:

That's right. See, the News and Record had separate staffs that worked—the Record worked daytime, the News started at two o'clock [p.m.], worked into the night. So Jack was on the same paper I was, and therefore we both knew at the same time. Some reporters come in with information that's going on—Jo Spivey in particular had heard and started the ball rolling and sent me down about ten or ten thirty and, with Jack. Jack and I both went down together.

And of course we found the boys, the students there at the counter. And we found Harris the manager, we call him Curly, Curly Harris. And he, of course, didn't care for us making pictures, nor asking them questions, nor did he care for the students being there. But the ball had already gotten started and there was no stopping at that point. After about a half an hour, he, manager Harris, pulled us over to the side and more or less acquiesced to what was going on without chipping in on the conversation. So Jack Moebes just took his photographs and I talked to as many of the students as I could.

KH:

And there were how many there that day? The morning of the second?

MS:

I'd say a dozen to two dozen in that area. But there were only eight or ten milling around this particular spot, and six or eight actually doing right up to the counter. We watched them as they went over to the counter and attempted to buy other things. This presumably was the second time they'd done it, because they were bound to have made that same move earlier in the day and then came over to try to get service at the luncheon counter. The luncheon counter was busy at that time of morning, because they were preparing for a large luncheon trade that Woolworth does have. And they were not being served. But I don't believe anyone was being served at that time, I think they just withdrew all activity from [unclear].

KH:

Do you remember what the students had to say at that time?

MS:

Very little. I tackled the story as a matter-of-fact type of a story. In those days the reporter's opinion never was a part of the story. No conjuncture, no forecasting, no insight, no typewriter interviews. You asked the question, you got the answer, you developed the story from strictly facts, and facts alone. I talked to them as to their purpose, which was to make a—what we call today “make a statement”—and found out most of them were freshmen that were in the group, and their names and home addresses, and recorded just matter-of-factly the information I got without going into anything sociologically or opinion.

We were criticized thirty years later for not having realized the depth of it. But at that time, if we had have known the depth and they hadn't have said anything about the depth, it would be not a part of a news story, because it is not up to the reporter to forecast or interpret what he is getting. This is happening—it becomes a statement. If it is not happening, you don't guess what's happening, in the early days. There's no such thing as a opinionated news story in 1960.

KH:

“Just the facts” kind of story.

MS:

“Just the facts, ma'am.” That was it.

[both laugh]

KH:

How old were you at that time in 1960?

MS:

I graduated at the University of Missouri in '38 at twenty-two, in '48, '58, twenty-two plus twenty—forty-four.

KH:

You were forty-four at that time? Are you from Missouri?

MS:

No, I'm from Greensboro.

KH:

Oh, you're from Greensboro and—

MS:

Yes. I went to UNCG in 1932, Guilford College in [thirty-]three, -four, and -five, and graduated in -six, '36. Worked a year at Pilot Life and then went to the University of Missouri. The main reason was—this is getting beside the point—but the main reason was the University of Missouri is the best journalism school in the world. It cost the same as Chapel Hill did in those days. It offered a two-hundred courses, compared to the few dozen down at Chapel Hill. So you can see why I went.

KH:

I see. And you knew from, at that time you wanted to become a newspaper man.

MS:

Oh, I had already been in the newspaper. And I wrote-I carried papers for seven years and doing it when I was fifteen years old, I wrote the annual news report on the star newspaper carrier. Then I went to Guilford College and was news bureau out there for a couple of years and was managing editor of Guilfordian. I was already into the newspaper so far I couldn't back out.

KH:

And your beat at the time was a general assignment beat that included racial matters?

MS:

I was business page, but I covered most of the racial matters. I covered a story ten years earlier that showed forty blocks off of Asheboro Street, including Martin Street and Douglas Street, transformed almost within months—the ownership from whites to blacks. There was no fuss there, because it was a tangible area. They slipped right in and the others tangibly moved right on out. There was really no great fuss over that. It was a harmonious and beautiful situation. The forty blocks there that were in the price range they were seeking. The folks in that area were generally older families who didn't complain too much about others being there. They were quite an [unclear] The transition was real smooth.

And then in 1967, I wrote a feature story on roughly the same thing that happening over again in Woodmere Park, which is a subdivision, oh, of one hundred and fifty or so homes up northeast Greensboro near the television station's tower right now, just below there. That transition went extremely smooth. And since I had been real estate editor, and covered the county courthouse, and business editor, I tackled that feature story from a business angle, showing that the transition did not hurt either side. The price of those homes was roughly 7 percent above the purchase price, which was the normal for homes elsewhere. Probably on the basis of that comparison I did, going back to the deeds of every house out there, going back to the economic side of it, and the transition from that angle, I won the state feature writing award with another fellow, Larry Cheek, for that year, among the larger newspapers.

And then again, I covered A&T for many years, because at that time A&T wasn't—didn't have full-time person. And at times when they had a big program down there, I would sit in as the young white man in the auditorium sometimes. One notable instance was when, I believe it was Governor Dan Moore made a speech down there. And that was at the time they were beginning to change from the word “Negro” to “black.” And Governor Moore was a Southerner, Deep Southerner. And he had a hard time pronouncing “Negro,” and some of the black students down there thought they misinterpreted his word. He tried his best to say “Negro,” but it came out as—almost as a slur, and there was quite a bit of fuss about it.

KH:

Stomping feet?

MS:

No, well, a little hissing. A little hissing went on. But nothing came of it. But we had a—the Daily News and the Record had a beautiful relationship with them. Later on there was a man by the name of Corbett down there who became their public relations man, so we didn't need to send a reporter except on major items. But I was down there many, many a time on the campus, and enjoyed that relationship.

KH:

Let's go back to 1960, and then we'll come, we'll go towards the late sixties as well. Tell me a little bit about what was going on in—I know you were on a tight deadline at that time and you probably didn't have a lot of time to, you know, talk to everybody you might have wanted to talk to—but what was the atmosphere like that morning that you were there? What do you recall—

MS:

It was not very tense. We had previously gone through a race situation at Gillespie [sic-Greensboro, now Grimsley High] School, where a little girl, a black girl [Josephine Boyd] was entered into the Gillespie school body. And we had—Jack and I also were on the team for that one, too. And there were a few, for lack of a better word, rednecks—white men in a pickup trucks who were going to cause some trouble, and one of them roughed Jack up a little bit. But the police had it under control and Jack kept his temper real well. That was several years before this.

And Greensboro was, I expect, the nearest good city in the state in this kind of thing. Greensboro people were extremely tolerant, more so than some other city. I don't know if Charlotte or Raleigh would have stood up the way Greensboro did or not. And in this particular instance—I don't know whether these boys knew or not—but they had a friend over at the police department who made sure that at the end of Elm Street and Greene Street, men fitting the description of the ones that previous caused the trouble were stopped and detoured around the situation. It went very smooth. It was very little problem.

It was actually, on the surface, the only problem was between the manager and them, and they prevailed, because the manager saw it was futile to go on. And then Jack and I were sitting there getting a word in edgewise whenever we could. And being, happening 11:30 to 12:00 and my deadline being about 12:30, we asked quick, fast questions and got on down the road, because we had that—what's the use in having a story in your pocket if it doesn't get into the paper? We're going back, and there was a lot of conversation. No demonstrations, no cat-calling out on the street. There was—people were looking, but they weren't making any commotion or any noise either, I don't believe. I was later told that there was a radio or two men down there, but at the time, we thought—Jack and I thought we were the only people on site. There was no other—

KH:

Only reporters in sight?

MS:

It was our story all together, we thought. Later on somebody said there were some representatives from the radio station. And later in the day, now, the cameras came down—the videos and those. But at that time we thought we were the only ones around.

KH:

So when you came back with the story, what did your editors have to say about it? Do you recall what they thought about this story? I guess they knew it was going to go on the front page.

MS:

They sent me down there, of course—the city editor sent me down there—and the staff knew that it was going on. And there wasn't a whole lot of comment, because shoving[?] copy items as fast as you can, and they turn it loose into the—you know those days it went in long type, it took fifteen to twenty minutes to get it ready, and then you have proof of it, so the time was flying. They were happy to have it. The Record, in those days, enjoyed beating the morning paper; the competition was fierce in those days. We had about nine seemingly good reporters, they had about nine. But we thought we could whip them almost every day of the week. But that was neither here nor there.

KH:

Is it true that—this isn't really that important for this—but if the Record would break a story, the News would downplay it, and vice versa? There seemed to be this—

MS:

Not necessarily. If it was on a minor subject then they would downplay it and forget it. But—

KH:

Did the Daily News pick up on this story the next day?

MS:

Quite strongly the next day, yes. But a news story is a news story. Our paper didn't downplay except for little things, on those kinds of things. For instance, on the front page headline[?]—this is beside the point—but I had the front page for thirty days on the Record. I'd go look at the other eight or nine afternoon papers in the state to see what they did with the same story that came off the wire. Remarkably surprising, they played—all nine played roughly the same thing. We had no contact with each other.

There's a newspaper make-up scale that comes with playing a game where it belongs or playing the story where it belongs. We did not lay this properly in the light of things that came hence. But then 20-20 hindsight is perfect in the background. At this time, that possibly was where it belonged. I thought it belonged on the front page that day, they put it on the inside. At that time there was no inkling that it was going to be, what you might call it cradle of the civil rights movement. And some contest that it is not still.

KH:

It played on the front page of the local section, Section B of the—

MS:

Daily News.

KH:

—well, the Record.

MS:

The Record, that's right; front page local. At that time, rarely did a local story break the front, because that was world news and Washington news, really.

KH:

That was the basic style of newspapers at that time—to put national and international news on the front.

MS:

A good strong local one, but too big for the front local would go on the front. But in those days the public wasn't used to seeing the strongest local happening go to the front. They were used to the other headline on the second front, which is the local front. So it was played in keeping with the times. I could have been three times as long, if I had all day long to mess with it but we didn't. We stopped right there.

KH:

Now you covered this, these sit-ins as they transpired. It mushroomed, it got bigger and bigger and bigger—

MS:

This is the only one that might be called a sit-in, but coming up to the counter at the Mayfair [Cafeteria], for instance, ran into Boyd Morris's determination that he wasn't going to break the line. And it went on several months. Over at the K&W—S&W it was called then, on East Market Street, the first block of East Market Street—the students from A&T showed up there every once in a while and gradually I think they were accepted over a period of time. They gave in much earlier than Boyd Morris's did. The Mayfair later on closed out and S&W moved out of town, because that part of town was beginning to get to the point where luncheon was the only meal eaten uptown. And restaurants can't do much on just luncheons.

But it was over a period of six months, a year where there was rumbling. And a year later, I expect the full weight of this movement had overcome, and things were expected. I mean, it was open, reasonably open. It didn't take them as much as a year to get—the sentiment had swung all right. So a year later there was no [unclear].

KH:

How, how—just getting away from the newspapers for a minute, what are your recollections about how your friends and neighbors responded to this incident, and then the next few days after that when more and more students and others would be coming to Woolworth's and coming to downtown. I think by the fifth day there were several hundred people in downtown Greensboro.

MS:

It was extremely mixed. However, from the newspapering standpoint, you could see the type of person who was making the most fuss. It's a real old timer or somebody who's set in their ways. But the general public had—even before this—the general public, when they saw the child enter Gillespie school, that separated wheat from chaff even then. I'd say, oh, that was 60 or 70 percent, everybody was in favor of that. It built up to possibly 80 percent of the folks around. They were silently waiting for this to happen, knew it was going to happen, and didn't have a great deal of concern. It was time. The time was right. These boys had picked the exactly right time.

KH:

Can you explain why they picked exactly the right time?

MS:

Well, the first one, the girl entering Gillespie school, took all the brunt of the racial burden. And the city—the city of Greensboro is more, for lack of a better word, tolerant than many other cities. And the groundwork had been gone over well. The city, loaded with churches and Southern Baptists, among other things, who are on the surface—and I say on the surface—tolerant to this. And Greensboro itself was ready, I believe for some [unclear].

Because here we had two extremely good, and possibly three at that time, colleges. Bennett was well known and well respected, A&T was an excellent college, and then Charlotte Hawkins Brown's Sedalia school [Palmer Memorial Institute] went out at that time but it was—she, particularly, was highly regarded. So we were right in the middle of enlightened properties. They knew. Those who'd bother to think about any at all would think it possible. I don't think their road was as hard here as it was earlier [unclear]. I know it wouldn't have been as easy in say, Alabama or even Georgia.

KH:

So you're saying this happened in the right place. But what about the right, at the time, 1960? What was changing in 1960? What made 1960 the year, the time, that these four young students from A&T could sit at the lunch counter and demand service?

MS:

You were too young to know what the sixties was, but I describe it—I'm seventy-four now—I describe it as the era of the “I can do what I design to do. I am paramount. I am it.” It's “me too” situation. The sixties marked that. It was an era of self-appreciation and self-timing, and self—I don't know whether you know that ringing through all that period. But that was the era where “I'm delightful. Everybody loves me. Or if they don't they should be. I'm paramount. I've got my place in this world.” It's more individualism than previously, and more of a atmosphere of not fitting into the mold; they were breaking free the molds in those days. And these boys are bound to be—students are bound to felt some of the sixties to make them stand out, I guess. Many, many student groups were starting new things, daring to do things. So this was the era that that was being accepted.

KH:

One could argue that these four students by their action on February 1, 1960, marked the start of the 1960s. I mean they—there were some other things going on a little before that, but I think a lot of people think that this event in Greensboro was the start of the 1960s.

MS:

It may have given a lot of impetus to the civil rights end of it, but I have my doubts that the national education philosophy started here. Because students in every schools were standing up as individualists and making statements that were new and everything. They were pioneers in a larger-size[?] environment, anti-nuclear [unclear], anti-ecology, appropriate ecology, that kind of thing. Also, individualism, that was breaking out everywhere, even before this came up.

I'd say this could very well be the cradle of the, part of the civil rights. I don't believe it has any other depth. Because the whole channel of college population in the sixties to seventies was in there with a feeling of individualism. But these boys had to have guts to do it. And they pulled it off beautifully. They were well-mannered and well-dressed. They knew what they had in mind. They didn't go into any emotionalism or any tactics that were overt. They came to do a job, and they did it beautifully.

KH:

How did—what was your impression of how white Greensboro viewed their actions? Did they, did—it's kind of hard to speak for a monolithic, white viewpoint—but you may see a variety of viewpoints. Did some people think that what these men did was outrageous, or did some people think, “Well, gee, you know it's not really fair that they can't sit at the lunch counter and get served just like we can”?

MS:

There was no uprise of dissent. I mean, the white population generally, except for the few who seem to be always around, and they [unclear] so outspoken they become hotheads of a sort. So there was no dissent. Now there was a segment—and maybe small at the time—spoke out favorably, and most accepted. Acceptance, but acceptance is not necessarily outspoken. I'd say it had the goodwill of greater Greensboro at the time. Not necessarily outspoken goodwill, but the goodwill.

KH:

Does that mean support? That people supported their goals? Okay, moving—

MS:

In a way, yes. The feeling of “it's about time” permeated it with many people who saw it in those days.

KH:

Moving through the sixties, how did you see things changing, say between this event in February of 1960 and the different sorts of things that were going on by the late 1960s? And did you cover much of that?

MS:

Yes, I've covered city hall and county courthouse, and the business, among other things. I was a general, all-purpose reporter. Even covered the social page for three weeks when everybody got sick over there. [laughs] I've been trained to do anything.

We had a black city councilman in that era. I can't recall now whether Dr. [William] Hampton was here before or after this. But he was an exceedingly good man to break that ice. He was a gentleman, and a scholar, and a physician, and a diplomat. And he led the ticket, incidentally, on the council register. I covered politics at the time, too, and I predicted that he would lead the ticket, even topping the mayor, Mayor [Robert H.] Frazier at the time, I believe it was. But he served four years and possibly into another term.

And then a little later a man by the name of Waldo Falkener, who was a bondsman at the county court—at the Greensboro court—that was before Guilford Superior Court took over all the courts. The Greensboro city court, Judge Reeves was the judge. Faulkner posted bonds for everybody—the little thirty dollar, forty dollar, fifty dollar bonds. He ran and he served several, two terms maybe. He's quite well accepted. And so was Dr. Hampton—was well accepted. And later on, a fellow by the name of [Jimmie I.] Barber served on city council.

So politics had already changed by that time. It was several years later before the districts were changed to guarantee that a black man or woman was put in there by way of district. But even then Greensboro had already turned, and there were several schools headed by black principals, and there were many black teachers at the time. So Greensboro was on the edge of revolution, if you want to call it a revolution.

KH:

Some would say that Greensboro was, despite these noticeable, these noticeable changes, that Greensboro was moving terribly slowly to truly integrating the schools, that there were a few schools that had a few blacks students in them, but by and large, the schools in Greensboro were among the last in the South to become desegregated.

MS:

I don't know about that ratio. I know that many of them changed at that time the federal government made the decision—

KH:

In 1971?

MS:

—[unclear] and made the busing decision; they go hand in hand. Many wondered if there wasn't a way to do it without the busing. But there's no way, apparent way, because even though the housing market at that time was such that blacks and whites could move where they wanted and thereby choose their school that way. The other way supplanted it, and the purchase route was never carried out.

This was accepted in many of the schools. For instance Page [High] School, I remember very definite around twenty, twenty-five years ago, elected about a dozen cheerleaders. And they elected ten and two were appointed. To make diversity, that two black girls were chosen. So that was well ahead of today, well ahead of this last month's problem at Page. That problem, incidentally, was kind of minute.

KH:

This was back about the late seventies did you say, that a dozen years ago? I'm sorry.

MS:

At least '70, '75, in that area.

KH:

And the students there would elect cheerleaders, twenty-some cheerleaders, and then the school would appoint at least two?

MS:

A portion of them were, to break that thing. Because the majority ruled—and at that time, there were about 60/40 over there then. And you know the rule of minority, you can't elect. Just like in the legislatures, you've got 51 percent, you're going to carry every issue that's there. And so the school—Page one of the very first to choose two or three blacks to make it even up a little.

KH:

So the two or three blacks who would be chosen would be the only blacks on the squad? No blacks would be elected? Is that—

MS:

How could you, with 60/40?

KH:

Well, I don't know, maybe if you [unclear].

MS:

Apparently not. Because that was a cherished position, the cheerleaders, other than being president of the student body, in those days. I don't know what percentage was, it may have been even more, percentage-wise, than that. Today its evened up [unclear]. But there was sentiment all over that was gradually growing. And there were letters to the editor quite often taking exception to any people yelling out any racism. Many letters to the editor in that period saying we ought to get on with it, and integrate thoroughly, and show our area of—Greensboro was, well, with all these colleges, you got persons who read well and studied well and think well. You've got a population which knows the background of everything—or should, after all that study.

KH:

But what do you remember about the period between, say, '68 and '69, when there were a lot of things happening nationally and locally? Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and—

MS:

That's when I left the newspaper in '68. So maybe I'm unqualified to talk about it.

KH:

Well, you can talk about it as a resident of Greensboro at that time, and someone who knew him, having worked in the newspapers for many years, knew the community very well.

MS:

It was—each situation was played up individually in the newspapers, television, and radio as it come along. I didn't give a great deal of thought to it, because I wasn't in the middle of it anymore.

KH:

Do you recall the incident in 1969 when the National Guard raided A&T campus and one student there, whose name was [Willie] Grimes, was shot and killed? And there was, you know, there was a lot of tension that night.

MS:

We called that the night of the riots. I participated in that only by reading the morning, the next morning paper. Except that I owned the building on the corner of Cottage Grove[?] and East Lee which was heavily damaged. But I shrugged my shoulders [unclear] about that.

KH:

What kind of building was that?

MS:

It was a grocery store, and now it's a dry cleaner on that corner. At one time it was a Arnold Palmer dry cleaning building. But I had no resentment from that, it was just—I saw it as an outburst and there's nothing you can do about outbursts. That was quite a nightmare, man.

KH:

Yes, I guess I was wondering what you and your neighbors, friends may have—you know, what thoughts were going through your minds at that time about the state of relations in Greensboro and the progress or lack of progress of the civil rights movement at that point, and how things were changing?

MS:

There was—see, I was getting a little old at the time, and the younger ones would know about the later progress. To someone young, fifty, time is not as rapid as to a youngster. Many in town I expect thought it was moving alone about as well as circumstance could stand it. There are all kinds of good example around town.

But this was tangible only for a week during that riots. I don't think it had a major effect overall. When it died down it was dead. I don't think people started locking doors and barring doors two days, three days later. Because it was just looked upon, I think, as just an explosion of spirits. [pause] It's interesting the way things have developed down to now. One side says it hasn't progressed far enough, and another side said it's progressing as far as the general atmosphere will allow it. And your two best national columnists—[William] Raspberry and the other one[?] in the Daily News—quite often take the over-eager people to task.

For instance, this last week Raspberry was criticizing Jesse Jackson for not—no, it wasn't criticizing, going with him—for having said in public that the door had been opened for you; it's up to you to go through the door. What you really want is not for the door to be blocked, but you don't want to have the door opened, and then have them passed the things back out through door to you. You've got to go to through the door. Something like this. There is sentiment nationally, along [unclear] Jackson and Raspberry [unclear]. It's good sentiment nationally, where they want many of these enthusiasts to back up their enthusiasm with education. I think Raspberry was saying, “Take your sit-in to the library one of these days, instead of somewhere else.” He was talking about Page, I believe.

There's a black speaker that came to town that week and his comment in public—Jim Schlosser called me about three days ago, about what the man said, and I read it. It was tangled because I heard what he was saying. He was saying, talking about not being on the Key Club, and the Phi Beta Kappas, and those. Those are positions to be earned, not granted. And if you want to get on those, take your problem over to the library. [unclear] that feeling perhaps among the—we of the generation that's been through all this more or less realize it is going about as fast at the atmosphere will take. Because [unclear] a lot of students at these universities that are working through hell to pull themselves out of this situation.

KH:

I'm sorry?

MS:

Students are working hard. You've got students all over here getting an education as best they can to make their own way out of this situation.

KH:

And what does that have to do with the 1960s? I'm sorry, I missed something.

MS:

I may have been—this, the situation over at Page the other day is partially likened to this.

KH:

That those students are frustrated with—

MS:

Lack of getting anywhere at Page, like these were frustrated, I guess.

KH:

Okay, let's see. You grew up in Greensboro in, I guess you—

MS:

Since seven years old, yes.

KH:

And you were born in what town?

MS:

Gatesville, North Carolina. [laughs] Northampton—I mean Gates County.

KH:

That's western North Carolina?

MS:

No, eastern. Way down near Norfolk.

KH:

Okay, okay, just south of the state line.

MS:

Yeah, about eighteen miles from the state line. Just on the Chowan River.

KH:

And your family moved here?

MS:

When I was—in 1922, when I was seven. I went to the old state normal school down there where your library is, and then over to Curry. [unclear] boys went to Curry.

KH:

And were you a teacher for a spell before you came into—

MS:

No, no, I started out in newspaper.

KH:

Okay. Would it have been possible for, for students at A&T to have done what these four students did in 1940 instead of 1960? What might have happened?

MS:

I think the time was right.

KH:

What was different in 1940 than in 1960?

MS:

There hadn't been enough time working on the mind of the generations. For instance, over at Curry, we were wide open to anything I guess over at Curry, because it was, put it bluntly, a higher level of education than some. We were taught these things. Many of them, I don't think probably, generally—long time[?]. Also, in Greensboro in the 1940s, the percentage was 16 percent black. At that time, 28 percent. Something like that. It's moved up.[?] That makes a difference. [unclear]

KH:

The Brown decision of 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

MS:

Except for the front pages, I'm not sure anybody would remember that. Folks[?] kept referring to it, but it was scattered among so many things that hit the front page in those two decades. Only the very educated would ever single that out.

KH:

Because nothing I guess had really changed after Brown. Schools were still the same basically, except there were maybe one or two black students in one or two schools. The schools were still the same.

MS:

It was slow to change.

KH:

Life is pretty much the same.

MS:

Now there was a sentiment around town, since I was [unclear] many of the black families did not want to go to Dudley [High School], to those other schools. That was their school, and they loved it. Dudley being the major black school, or J.C Price and Dudley, some of those. They had a good school over there and they loved it. They were against the one hour bus ride, but when Uncle Sam speaks, [laughs] they took the bus.

I don't know, the sentiment changes yearly, changed yearly from '40 to '60, and changed even more from '60 to '80. Today, so many things have changed. County commissioner is black. The city councilman is black. Neighborhoods completely gone—the colleges are real well integrated, all of them, and schools, real well. I think major emphasis now on every student, black or white, being traveled too, too many miles. There ought to be a solution to still integrate without getting all that mileage; that's an hour's worth of riding—morning and afternoon, including a billion dollars worth of buses which could go into education. And drivers, and so forth. Efficiency dictates it. There ought to be a solution somewhere without that tremendous hauling of youngsters.

KH:

Tell me something about the newspaper, about the Record back in the late fifties and through the sixties, up until the time you retired. I imagine—well, I know that the staff was all white at that time, do you recall the first black staffer at the Record.

MS:

Here is—front page of the Record looked like in those days.

[pause—looking at memorabilia]

KH:

Jim Schlosser.

MS:

He's the only one left of that era, just about. Greta Tilley if you ever knew her. She was excellent.

KH:

Wilson Davis is now—

MS:

Wilson Davis is over at the News[?]. He resigned. He looked at money instead, instead of news writing. But here's, here's the transition story I won the feature writing on. The whole community there just translated within six months without any real busting, blockbusting anything else, just like it should have gone.

KH:

Okay, this looks like a really interesting story. But back to my question of a minute ago, what was the Record like at that time? The staff was, I imagine, mostly men.

MS:

No. We had Dorothy Benjamin, Jo Spivey, Dede[?] Taylor. We had—on the news side it was about four or five women or girls, and about six men, about ten total. And then the desk was three men, and there was the city editor, and the city editors were both men. And the entire social department, of course, was women. In those days they called it social department instead of women's department. And now it's about been eliminated except for Martha Long, because the feminist movement eliminated what's known as the social page. That in itself eliminated that.

It was a carbon copy of the Daily News, except that we covered the morning hours up until two o'clock in the afternoon. And if you recognize, there's more happening on the local level in the morning hours and up to two than what was happening in the evening. So we could quite often put out more readable paper. We had forty thousand circulation compared to their eighty at the time.

But gradually the price—television came in, the radio came in to the point where people aren't reading either one of them really carefully, and they merged our staffs long about, oh, 1979 or '80, somewhere along in there. Because at one time, we were rewriting each other, years later. And that didn't turn out very well, because still you go out and get a new, fresh lead and we still could have more time to get it there. But that was a national move. All the two-paper cities folded in the early 1980s. We had full staff, and one-third of the people they did. They had about two-thirds and we had about one-third. Gave them a good, stiff run until the day [the company that owned both papers in] Norfolk decided to cut corners. And in the long run you can put out a much better paper if you are putting out that one.

KH:

Do you recall if there were any—

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

MS:

No, the first black reporter we ever saw was 1940.

KH:

Nineteen forty?

MS:

Yes. And that wasn't on the staff of the Greensboro News or Record. It was the staff reporter from Bennett College came in. She'd bring us coffee to the Daily News the first ten years I was there. We all looked forward to her coming, because she was a delightful girl.

KH:

She wrote for the student paper at Bennett?

MS:

Wrote for the school. I don't know whether she's on the paper—I presume she was on the paper as well. But she covered Bennett items and brought them to the Daily News.

KH:

Oh, I see. I see. Okay.

MS:

And then a A&T person would come once and a while, but it wasn't until—

KH:

Stringers.

MS:

Stringers, yes.

KH:

They're called stringers because their copy would be measured by an editor's string.

MS:

Measured by string. I did it two years at Guilford. [laughs] And if you want to cut that off I'll tell you a story about Guilford.

KH:

Well we can talk about that in a little bit. So up until '68, there wasn't a single full-time black newspaper person—editor or reporter?

MS:

No. No.

KH:

So it was sometime after that—

MS:

That's right. They were getting and we were getting all of ours out of journalism schools, and they weren't turning any out. Even in Missouri, which had a student body of about four hundred, I say there were only three dozen were in training in 1938, when I was there.

KH:

Three dozen?

MS:

Out of four hundred students that were taking training at that time. It's a specialized field where you have to know English grammar backwards and forwards, and there weren't too many taking journalism in those days.

KH:

Do you think that helped or hurt coverage of Greensboro? Well, you know, what impact—I should rephrase my question—what impact did the lack of—

MS:

It shouldn't have any effect on coverage for this reason: a good newspaper that's worth its salt, is absolutely unbiased. Absolutely, unless you're writing for an editorial page and asked for his opinion. If he's writing any other page, unless he's a columnist, sports columnist, or editorial page, his opinion—you're not supposed to be able to discern who wrote it. And that's why I covered much of the black news, because I was absolutely—University of Missouri taught me that, if he taught me anything else. There are two things it taught me. That, and if you use a word a sixteen-year-old can't understand, you are wrong, instead of he, unless you can put it in a text that he can understand it without going to the dictionary.

I don't believe there's any biased against. But I'd say some of the newsroom [were] more liberal than the persons they were getting the news copy from. One or two would fuss about this old guy, Harvey[?], over there, but they quoted him verbatim, because that's what the newspaper wants. Not your own opinion—what the story said and what the people said and what the meeting said. Not what you thought, or its impact, nor its future. I doubt if it's as much bias there as it was in the public. In fact, I, we often claimed that Chapel Hill made both these papers rather liberal, because they got most of the young ones and their trainees at Chapel Hill. And their training perhaps was on the liberal side. [pause] But I don't have any doubt that the coverage was right straight down the road. Unbiased.

KH:

Okay, Mr. Sykes, maybe there's something else you might want to mention about things that were going on that we might not have covered.

MS:

Have you talked to Bill Jackson, Captain Bill Jackson?

KH:

We either have or we will. I'll jot his name down.

MS:

He was an excellent source. He's Captain W.H. “Bill” Jackson [contact information given]. Nancy O'Hare Blue. She was in charge of about forty detectives, and I mean in charge of in the secretary realm. [laughs] She was good. When I would go cover that beat, I'll go to her first, and ask her where anybody was. [contact information given]. I don't know if you've ever run into the story of Captain Jackson or not. He was a friend, close friend of Jesse Jackson. Knew him well. And Jackson was alleged to be, and probably was, an informant for the detective division. You'll find that to be very [unclear] in some places.

KH:

What makes you—what evidence do you have to support that?

MS:

It was an article in the library of Greensboro Daily News, if you can get somebody to dig it out for you.

KH:

Who wrote it? When was it written?

MS:

Ask Schlosser, he might know, but I doubt if it was in his time. Several years down there Captain Jackson would use Jesse Jackson to get the feel of the situation down there. And Jesse was regarded as a very intelligent man at the time. He and Jackson would go somewhere sometimes.

But the detectives [pause]—this category at this time was a little smarter than they were a decade earlier. We had a police chief who wouldn't hire anybody who had a year of college, because he didn't want anyone on his force who was smarter than he was. But in 1942, '43, and '44—the war years—when he came back, everything changed. All of a sudden we had radio, and all of a sudden four men with two years of college were appointed. And the next year two with fulltime college were appointed, and Jackson was in that group. And they were [unclear] and about two others, and later on—and then chief later on was one of those four who changed the department almost overnight.

But Jackson and Jesse Jackson had a close friendship. And because of that friendship, Captain Jackson was alleged to have kept those roughnecks from entering the situation and messing it up. In other words, he made, may have made the [unclear] without doing it publicly. Just stationed a couple of his men up this end to make sure this particular Ford truck to get into that part of town.

KH:

This Ford truck carrying white protesters or black—

MS:

White protestors.

KH:

How would Jesse Jackson know anything about the white protestors who would come here?

MS:

He met the same ones and he had known them at Gillespie School. That boy has been around so much, he knew dozens of white protestors. And he had a way of—if they were around, try to keep them out of the action.

KH:

He might recognize them, but I can't imagine that they socialized a whole lot.

MS:

No, no, just recognized from their—from police contacts with them. See, you meet them over there and you meet them somewhere else where stuff was going on. You meet them somewhere [unclear] and after a while, you know a dozen of them by sight and their cars by sight.

KH:

So when you say Jesse Jackson was the source for Captain Bill Jackson, he was the source of information—

MS:

Information.

KH:

—about what?

MS:

Anything going on down in the college and in that area.

KH:

But less so about black students at A&T?

MS:

If necessary, yes. Mainly about their opponents or their antagonizers. He definitely knew the names of most of them who were antagonizing the students or that were seen, white men seen around the college. I kind of believe that if the truck of any of these known folks was anywhere near campus, Jackson got word of it very quickly. Actually, Jackson was in [unclear] as a—

[Recorder paused, audio malfunction]

KH:

Jesse Jackson led the silent march in 1963, I believe it was, the—

MS:

Three years later, yes. But at this time—some of us made of point of asking—we'd heard his name by that time and asked he was involved. [pause]

Have you gone to the library at Daily News at all? They are loaded with stories. It would be under one heading, probably. The entire outlay would be there.

KH:

Yeah, there are files there on some things, but not on everything. The real filing system didn't get underway until, I believe, '69—a fairly systematic filing system. And reporters kept a lot of files before that.

MS:

Each one kept his own until that time. But Bob Farley was later on made head of that filings. But chances are some of that's still in there. Because the major stories, they kept up with—had to, because if things broke at eleven o'clock at night and your deadline's twelve [a.m.], you've got to have a source other than phoning somebody. That particular story, I think I remember it in print. So it probably is there. It was several years after that.

KH:

Yeah, I'll see if I can't, if I can find that. Well—

MS:

If anything, I've got a notion that news reporters haven't seen everything in their lives, they'd be more tolerant of most things than their readers. But there again, in those days, there was no opinion expressed. It's like our choir director at Guilford said, “If I can hear you out of the other forty, you are wrong.”

KH:

Yeah, I think, in general, newspaper people are somewhat more open to change than the population at large.

MS:

Oh sure, because they handle so many situations where skills and decisions and accomplishments are there that others don't see. For instance, not too many, except historians, would regard Sedalia as having a wonderful place in this world, but newsmen would. [unclear] And they had a—all of them, without exception, had a high regard for Bennett, for instance. The rest of the time barely—you knew it was over there, and that was it.

KH:

Okay, well, I appreciate you talking with me here—

MS:

You're entirely welcome.

KH:

—and I'll just turn this off.

[End of Interview]