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Oral history interview with Ben Wilson by Kathy Carter
May 17, 1989
Ben Wilson (1924- ) was a professor of English at Greensboro College from 1958 to 1991.
In this transcript of a May 17, 1989, oral history interview conducted by Kathy Carter with Ben Wilson, Wilson primarily describes his participation with the Inter-Faculty Forum and their role and activities in the local civil rights movement. He discusses the general role of college faculty in Greensboro during the 1960s, planning interracial conferences during segregation, and how interactions with blacks helped break down barriers. He briefly recalls teaching the first black student at UNC.
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Oral history interview with Ben Wilson by Kathy Carter
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
This is Dr. Ben Wilson, Humanities Division Chair, Greensboro College. Ben, the purpose of this is basically to get people's best memories of what happened in Greensboro during the period of civil rights activity. And we just generally start by asking what your connection with Greensboro is, where you came from. You're not from Greensboro, so you were coming into this sort of as an outsider. Right?
Yes. I think I'd been here two years when any kind of, we might call agitation or stirring towards civil rights became apparent to me in town and on campuses. I think mainly it came through an organization called the Inter-Faculty Forum, which was a group of faculty members and not under any university or college sponsorship. A group of faculty members from the campuses in the city, which were then the Woman's College—sorry UNCG [University of North Carolina at Greensboro][laughs]—Woman's College, Bennett [College], A&T [North Carolina A&T State University], Greensboro and Guilford [Colleges]. Occasionally, we had visitors from such places as Elon [College] and High Point [University], but they really were not part of the Inter-Faculty Forum at first.
And the main idea of the Inter-Faculty Forum grew out of a group of people who met for a luncheon at the central YMCA [Young Men's Christian Association]. And it was the only place where people could have an integrated meal, and so faculty members met there. And then they decided, well, why not meet on the campuses and meet in dining rooms or meet in, maybe at first in, say, various department places. Like at UNCG, we met at the Philosophy Department. Here we met in the dining room. We [unclear—tape malfunction] that's where we met. Guilford was pretty wide open. A&T I think was open to us, and Bennett, too. There wasn't any problem. I think probably the biggest problem was WC [Woman's College] where I think you have a very strict division of white and black in the city at that time, although you had some little pockets of integration going on at WC.
The organization met about, we tried to meet as often as possible, but we met about once a month. And then when the students began sitting in down here at Woolworth's, a group of us, naturally being from all the campuses in the city, had a, I guess a good way of being on the spot to be in touch with our students and to be in touch also with the city people. The group of us met then quite often, quite frequently as this was going on.
And we decided—we had a meeting then at the YWCA [Young Women's Christian Association], I remember, in one of the rooms of the YWCA, which there were all—members of all campuses were represented. It was a very tense meeting, a very vocal meeting. Some members of the group wished to, right then and there, rally behind the students in a march and to show solidarity from the campuses.
Who would these members be?
I can't tell you who the militant ones were because I can't remember their names. I can tell you who the moderate ones were, however. These people were on the Inter-Faculty Forum from the start. I'll try to give you the names I definitely remember, because there are other names that might have come in later, and so on.
From A&T, Samuel Joseph Shaw, who became dean and later in charge of education, was the one I remember best. But L.H. Robinson and A.F. Jackson were, too, very strong in this. From Bennett, George Burthet[?], who was in sociology over there, was very strong; and J.[John] F. Hatchett, who was in English, I believe, or history. I forget whether it was English or history. I think it was probably history. And Rose Karpula[?] were the three from Bennett who were very strong.
Myself from Greensboro. Taylor Scott, who was in sociology, and Ken Taylor, who was in philosophy, were very strong in this. From Guilford, Ed Burrows in history, who's now retired; Carroll Feagins, who's now retired from philosophy; and Hiram Hilty, Spanish and French, I believe. Anyway, those were very strong. From WC, Warren Ashby, who's since died, in philosophy, was very strong in this; J.[Jordan] E. Kurland, who later went on to become an official in the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] headquarters in Washington, who was a historian and was very strong in this, a very outspoken person. And someone named R.[Robert] C. Hudson, whom I don't remember, but nevertheless was, you know, at the beginning of this.
I do not have any documents relating to the meetings and what occurred at these meetings. I wish I had, but we didn't keep any formal notes beyond just recording generally what was said there. Most of what we did was kept in our heads, for obvious reasons. We were not fools [both laugh] about this. We didn't know what our administrations might do, we didn't know what lawyers might do, we didn't know what other people, newspaper people and so on might do if we had anything written down. So most of it was in our heads. And most of what we assigned as meetings, after this meeting at the YW where there was much talk of militancy going on, from then on we contacted each other mainly by telephone, sort of a round robin. When things cooled down a little bit, we would communicate by written communication, but most of the time we talked by telephone.
What occurred at that meeting was a decision, which I thought was sound at the time, and that was, is to not involve ourselves directly in confrontation with the authorities with the students behind us, acting as sort of shields, but to go behind the scenes and talk with the city government and offer our help as mediators. And also offer our counsel to the city government about the students and their demands, and how really to handle teenagers who had a cause. I think this was probably the best way to describe it.
We then—I believe Warren Ashby, who was one of the best facilitators of this, Warren Ashby and Parker, I can't think of his first name, also a faculty member at UNCG and WC—Franklin Parker in history. Franklin Parker and Warren Ashby were very strong in making contacts of this sort, and very determined, bulldog people. And they were able—I think much of this depended on their expertise, their diplomacy, in order that these meetings be set up. I think if any one should be given, singled out for credit I think probably Warren and Franklin should be.
The rest of us were, I think, new to the scene. We hadn't been on our campuses long, we hadn't lived in Greensboro long, so we didn't know too many people. However, each of us elected a representative from the campus to go to the meeting with the city government, represented in this case by the mayor. He decided he would meet with us. We did not go to his office, he came to us, as I remember it. And I guess it was at the YWCA again, where we met. The Y's were the only neutral ground in all of this.
But we met at the Y with, I'm trying to think of his name, former mayor. It's funny, I can see his face but I can't remember his name. Anyway, we met with him and he didn't give us a great deal of hope. But he said to us, in effect, that he would like to keep the channels open, he would like to call on us if necessary. He would like to—I think it was more to help him than it was us. But at the same time, we were glad to have that interchange going on. George Roach, that's his name, George Roach.
Anyway, Mayor Roach was not a, I don't think, a dynamic person. He was a strong person, but he was not dynamic. But I think it helped the students and it helped the whole situation to have the city government aware of this and helping out. And I think the city government expressed a willingness to allow the thing to move along without either pushing it or suppressing it, and at the same time trying to keep the hotheads on both sides from taking over. In other words, they acted as though, you know, they acted just like most North Carolina politicians. They like to sit right in the middle.
But be that as it may, I think it was helpful. And I do not discredit or denigrate anything that the city government did, because they were facing a terrible dilemma. They had public safety to think about. They had to, not just the politics, but public safety to think about. But those meetings bore fruit. I think we had just one meeting with the mayor and he never called us back again, but things developed then from—I think the students then took it into their own hands, more so, and worked it out. I guess Mr. [Jesse] Jackson could tell you more about that [laughs], from his point of view and his idea.
But our role was a very modest one. But I think it was important that the city was made aware that the college campuses and the faculties on those college campuses that we represented were solidly behind the students. We were solidly committed to a more liberal interpretation of the laws. We were solidly behind, without coming right out radically at the time and saying we were civil rights advocates, we were all pretty well committed to the civil rights cause.
I think in years, as the years went by, and more and more, we had more and more assemblies and rallies, marches, and so on, I think that the beginning certainly established a trust between the city government and the colleges and universities that was stretched at times, but I think, you know, it certainly seemed to bear fruit. So I think it was an important move, even if it wasn't greatly significant at the time.
Were any of your colleagues aware that you were involved in this inter-faculty council?
Yes, we told every member of the faculty what we were doing, what we were meeting on. The Inter-Faculty Forum wasn't set up to deal with the civil rights crisis. It was set up more—the civil rights crisis sort of took over the agenda, and I think that was probably the best thing that could have happened to the Inter-Faculty Forum.
It was never a solid, card-carrying type of outfit. It was a very fluid outfit. A few of us on the campus had faith in it and saw it through year after year. And essentially it had to reorganize every year. It was somewhat cumbersome to get five colleges and five faculties together. But nevertheless, we established a clear meeting time and we tried to have at least one monthly meeting.
And we tried to have all sorts of subjects that we were interested in as faculty. Sometimes these were interdisciplinary subjects, sometimes these had to do with higher education in the city or in the state. Sometimes it had to do with our own personal hobby horses. Oftentimes it depended on the guests, and we had various types of guests. We had [N.C. governor] Terry Sanford one time. And we had no money, you see. These people did it out of, just gracefully, out of their interest in what we were interested in.
So, we would—the only dues we would ask for is to cover expenses of a certain meeting place or something of that sort. We never had dues or any kind of formal membership card. We never wanted it that way. But I think the group was very effective for that very reason. We didn't have a structure that someone could either buy into or sue, or, you know. It was very fluid.
And all of the faculty on every campus knew this. And for that reason, some people didn't join because they didn't think we were serious, or they didn't know what to expect, or they couldn't identify with it, they couldn't put it on their dossiers, you know. So there were other people who were truly frightened and didn't want to be any part of anything that had anything to do with “those people,” as they would say.
Those people being the—
Those people being either blacks or being people who were interested in civil rights. And we did have people on campus who were, while they were not militantly opposed to civil rights, nevertheless didn't want to have anything to do with civil rights itself. There were other people who never made a commitment one way or the other. They just sat aloof and never said anything.
But I would say on the campus of the faculty here, probably one third of our faculty were very much interested in what the Inter-Faculty Forum was doing. And from time to time we'd have that much attendance in the meeting, especially when we'd met on this campus. We would have quite a few of our faculty come.
I think the people at the black campuses, you would expect there would be more of a representation, but I think they really didn't want to get us involved with it. They were very conservative about it. And I think it was the younger members or the members who were perhaps members of the Urban League or the NAACP [National Association of the Advancement of Colored People] and the Southern Christian Leadership [Conference] group, they were interested. But proportionately, it was rather small on the black campus until it began to gather momentum, and I think then more and more people joined in.
We had another period of, during the civil rights movement, that I don't think it involved the Inter-Faculty Forum at all. But it was around the time when we had, it was after the assassination of President Kennedy, and it was during the time we had the anti-war movement, which was mixed in with the civil rights movement. And I think that, at that time, we had a number of formal marches. Marching then became quite the thing for college students to do. Still, it was not quite as safe as they thought it was, and so many of the faculty who participated on an adult level in other ways without an organization, nevertheless wanted to be sure that students were protected.
And many of us joined in those marches, not for the reason that we were blindly following what the students said, but more so, that we kept an eye on what was going on, and that we became—and we made ourselves known to the authority that we were concerned and we wanted those students protected in the best way possible. Because there were still many people in the community who were upset about all this civil rights business, and they didn't care for the students marching through Greensboro. And some of them were very, you know, violent, so the students needed protection both ways.
I remember one gathering at the City-County Building up here, before this new complex was built. We gathered on the courthouse steps for a rally in support of civil rights legislation, I believe it was. And people marched that were delegates from various campuses—A&T, Bennett, Greensboro, WC, and Guilford.
And we marched in in two streams. Those from this side of the city came down West Market Street, and picked up delegations as we went by. They just started at Guilford and picked up WC, picked up Greensboro College, and then went on. And the same thing from the other direction. It started at A&T, picked up Bennett College people, and came in. And there was, I imagine, at the time, there were probably five or six thousand students in that group, [unclear—tape malfunction] representative. I think from Greensboro College campus we had, we probably had one third to one half of our students march.
No kidding? Was this at a time when Greensboro College was exclusively white?
Okay. That's interesting.
It is. Although I can't remember when that time was, there may have been some black students on campus, because I think what happened—we never had a confrontation about admitting black students here. We just admitted them, you know, without any fanfare. And I think many white campuses did that.
I was teaching at Carolina [University of North Carolina] when they admitted the first black student from Durham. It so happened that he was in my class, which was [laughs] quite an experience. But I found that the students were very open, openly, open about it. They were not secretive about it. I think they expressed their feelings about having a black student in class. They were not happy about it. But at the same time, they thought that it was just that he attend the university. Very few of them ever said, you know, that they felt it was the beginning of the end, the university was going to fall apart, and all that was nonsense. None of them said that. But they felt that it was just that he attend, but they were not too happy about it. They were the ones in the group that had the spotlight on them. And I think this is true, probably true of most students.
How about his response? Did you get any sense of—
He stonewalled it the whole way. He just became a private individual without voicing any opinion one way or the other. And there was nothing you could do to draw him out, either. He just wanted to go to class, he wanted to do his work, and he didn't want to bother about the implications of this, sociologically, politically, anything of that sort. He wanted to be a student, and it was strictly business. So I think it worked out to everyone's satisfaction.
But it was, as you say, it wasn't a confrontational sort of thing, at least once, in your experience, anyway.
No, no. I haven't seen any [unclear].
How about the administration's response to all of this?
[both laugh] Almost exclusively aloof, unless there happened to be—there'd be isolated instances where, say, the of dean of students somewhere—probably they would be the most likely people to do this, anyway—the dean of students somewhere would voice support for what the students were doing. But administrations were not at all vocal about this, and not at all setting down policies, not at all making any kind of opinions about what was going on.
They were sort of—they took, all of them took the tact that, after all, it's occurring off campus and why bother with this, you know. Why stir up trouble. As far as I can see, the administration never persecuted anyone for being either on one side or another. I think they were being very fair about it. And I think that the faculty never felt that the administration would force the issue or persecute them. So I have to give them credit, that while remaining silent [laughs]—
[laughs] Credit—credit for their silence!
—they still didn't do anything to precipitate what was going on. And I guess we have to be thankful for those small favors and just go along with it.
It's hard to think of specific instances. You know, it's like being in a war and suddenly things flash back on you. You know, when you get the key word, the key idea, and I wish I'd kept a lot of documents, so, you know, it would be easier to refresh your memory on dates of when these this happened.
I do remember one thing vividly. This has nothing to do with the student movement, but this has a lot to do with [unclear—tape malfunction] on campuses. During the, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I was in the student union over here, the student center, and I stayed after lunch that day. I think the news came on in the morning, I believe it was in the morning time. I stayed on after eating lunch. We rather, we were talking about it in rather somber tones, and people said, I think the best thing to do is go back to class and just conduct things as normal. [laughs] Things were not normal. You know, thing were very highly charged.
So I sat over in the student center and I think the— you know, we were watching television, and there were two or three maids, black, and Mr. Reid, black, who was the grounds man, groundskeeper, the landscape man, whom I knew well, and I knew one of the maids well. And we sat there, stunned, and listened, and I was the only white person in the building besides these black friends on the campus.
And we just looked at each other, and tears were rolling down our cheeks about this whole thing. And the thing that really bothered me so much about it was that the administration didn't—because we had other people besides my myself who felt this—that the administration didn't then and there say we're going to have a brief period of mourning and just say classes will be dismissed, or we're going to have a memorial service, or a vigil, or something of that sort. Instead they ignored it entirely.
I don't think that it would have cost them anything at all to recognize this, especially for the employees who were black whom had worked there for years in a loyal capacity and were considered our friends, and who [unclear—tape malfunction] be sensitive for what was going on. That memory always sticks in my mind as being one of the strongest memories I've had of the civil rights movement.
Then the days that followed were just days of great tension. I know I sat in this office and I looked out on Greensboro. There wasn't a pedestrian, there were very few cars moving. Very—everything was quiet for several days after that assassination. It was as though everything had just stopped and people were waiting for an explosion or storm or something. It was an eerie feeling. But fortunately, in Greensboro, we didn't have any real [unclear—tape malfunction] kind of things happen, but we didn't have any strong things as they had up North, you know, in the burning of cities, of Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, and Detroit, places like that. We didn't have any of that. It was tense, very tense, for a long period of time.
Was any of this addressed in the churches? I assume that you were a member of a congregation and still are.
Not in our church. The only way it was addressed was possibly through prayers or after an event, say an assassination or something that would have happened, then there were concerns expressed. But nothing in my church that I can remember except in the Sunday School classes perhaps. But the church as a whole never had, say—this was a white church—our church never had any kind of strong, say discussion of [unclear—tape malfunction].
As the movement went on, it became sort of fashionable to discuss it. I mean, in the early days, where there was a lot of tension and where people really didn't know how black people thought, acted, felt, or anything else, and white people had no idea what to expect from them, I think those were the days where a meeting of whites and blacks, or a meeting in a white church, or a meeting in a black church really meant something, because it was right at the leading edge of the sensitivity toward this whole movement.
And I know in the black churches this was—they would have meetings all the time and rallies all the time. And we'd invite, say, people interested in the movement to the churches. So various organizations would send out things, just like the forum kept the communication open, meetings of this sort. So the black churches were really the hosts or hostesses, whichever you prefer—
[End Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 2, Side B]
—can remember especially campus ministries. They were very much involved in this.
I think it's because they, their contacts with each other was strong through their denominations. Say you would have a Methodist minister, of course, on this campus, but you'd have one on the WC campus, and you'd have one on A&T campus. I think through their denominations they kept in touch with each other very much so. They were much more tolerant and open to these ideas. And also they communicated very quickly. I think this helped a lot. And they were in the position of counseling students all the time. So you had so many contacts, you see, through the minister.
And the ministers, in turn, if they knew the faculty members, especially in the religion departments and philosophy departments. [unclear—tape malfunction] perhaps through people who were traditionally affiliated with liberal, from political movements, like the left-wing democrats. They are always in North Carolina, in a minority, but nevertheless they're around. Many faculty belonged to the left-wing democratic [unclear—tape malfunction]. The right-wing used to call us cells.
Anyway, I think a lot of information got around that way. A lot of contact was maintained that way, through political [unclear—tape malfunction]. I don't want to downplay politics or historians, because I do think that sometimes can function very well. [unclear—tape malfunction] work for compromise and work for understanding, and sometimes, bless it, works for progress. Not always, but sometimes.
You can't fault politics all the time. You know, it's—well, I won't get philosophical about it. You know, politics is a compromising thing. So it works well, in some situations as this. You don't get what you want, but at least you get something better than you've had, hopefully. And I [unclear—tape malfunction] you know, through our affiliation [unclear—tape malfunction] politics, as members of faculty who were registered democrats [unclear—tape malfunction]. This made for a very good, very good way of acting in a community spirit, community [unclear—tape malfunction].
So you had a sort of intuition about who your friends were and whether you could trust them. Because this was a very tricky period in American history.
And there were plenty of opportunities for betrayal and plenty of opportunities for backstabbing and things of that nature going on. People were using the typical statement, pretending to be liberal by saying, “Some of my best friends are black,” which became very quickly a key way to use to identify yourself with any kind of liberal cause. And it didn't mean anything to most liberals who were really liberal.
Right. So often followed by the word “but.”
“But.” “Oh, well.” “Yes—but.” I think it was a very fascinating period in American life and certainly you felt a part of history, more so.
Even at the time, yes.
Oh yes, at the time. You felt that you were gonna some day be, maybe in some history book, you know. But at the same time it was very exciting. You think about it, sad times, terrible times for a lot of people. But at the same time very exciting, very lively.
[unclear—tape malfunction] I think a great deal of energy in the students as well as faculty. The energy in this cause also caused energy in other areas, which I think helped to prove to us that you never can be too busy. We always say we're busy, but I think, you know, many of us didn't take the time away from our classes or our duties or anything else to be part of this movement, but we found the extra time to be part of it. And we found the extra time by, I think, the sheer energy of it energized all of us. It excited all of us, it gave us a sense of we were in a conspiracy for the good and made you feel virtuous in a way.
So I think there's a great deal that can be said for personal gain in this whole [unclear—tape malfunction]. And I think those people who fought against it, or tried to stem the tide of what was going on, destroyed themselves in the process. They, they—I think that they lost their will, they lost their—their world was shattered, and for some they could not put it back together again, and they have never been able to put it back together.
Talk to me a little bit about your impressions. First of all, I know you're from up north, you're a Yankee, just like I am. Talk to me a little bit about your impressions, first coming to North Carolina and you were at Carolina for a while. And you went from there and ended up living in Greensboro. In terms of the community, in terms of overall race relations, segregation, what were your impressions?
Well, both my wife and I have lived in West Virginia in Morgantown, and it's, it's sort of a border between, I guess, the North and the South. And Morganton still had pockets of what you might call southern attitudes, although, you know, more of a northern enclave. But when we came to Chapel Hill, we came to what was, at the time, the most liberal and radical place in North Carolina, and perhaps in all the South. So we really got a different type of picture of things.
But yet, if you would go, say, to Raleigh, or Durham, or Greensboro—outside of Chapel Hill—I think then you could witness some of the, what was going on. And we would do that if we—we would shop in Durham, shop in Greensboro. But I'm sure if we had lived there, we would have had a totally different impression.
In Chapel Hill, there was still segregated areas of the city. I mean, you lived in segregated areas of the city. And that, I don't think that really annoyed me very much, because it seemed that in Chapel Hill the attitude toward black people was, at worst, patronizing, but at best, sharing. I mean, people shared with each other, and people didn't mind working alongside of each other. People didn't mind being in the same stores together, and doing things together, and being on the street together. Although there was still this separation there that you were aware of, more so than it was in the North, I think at the same time, you felt in Chapel Hill there was more sense of family, both black and white, than in the North. As things developed in the few years we lived at Chapel Hill—
Now when was that?
That was '51 through, lets say '51 through '54. We were in Davidson for two years, which is just north of Charlotte. That was totally different.
Because the attitude toward black people in Davidson, by most people in that town were, you know, you didn't talk about it, in the first place. In the second place, the few black people in town were either pets—I mean they were long time retainers—or they came around and did your grass or something of that sort, and they were really non-entities, you see.
The only person I can remember in Davidson who was treated in any way as a human being was the barber. He was black. He would cut gentleman's hair, students' hair. He cut gentlemen's hair for many, many years, and was established right in the middle of town, right between white establishments. And it was a sort of pocket of black business right in the middle of white downtown Davidson. [laughs]
Did he serve only white customers, or was he—
No, I think, no, he didn't serve black customers. I think he served them at other times, you know. I mean, he served the white customers in his regular hours, and I believe he served black customers at other times. But not in that building, I don't think so. I don't think so.
Nevertheless, the attitude in Davidson was, I think by the students it was liberal toward black people. But at the same time I think custom dictated, you know, that the black race really was the servant class. And although some black people had risen to professional status and should be honored for it, they are rare exceptions and one should not consider that as an indicator of what the black race could do.
But I think in Chapel Hill, there was more and more of the feeling toward equality and toward giving the black man some of his, some room and some room to grow, and to admit him to various things like theatres and things of that nature. There were at times, I think, without being formal about it, there were groups meeting, talking about this type of thing, and a mixed group meeting, talking about this thing.
And when you say admitted to theatres, are you talking about separate entrances and those sort of things?
Yes. Separate entrances. They always had separate entrances, or separate theatres. In fact, in Chapel Hill they had a black, black movie house at the time. But if the theatre had a balcony, they had a black entrance to it. Or if it had a place you could, you could cut off, they had a black entrance to it. In fact, I believe the Carolina Theatre down here in Greensboro, originally the balcony was the black, was the place for the black people.
That's right, I've heard that.
It's been so long ago. I think we went to the Carolina Theatre. I'm sure we did when we first moved to Greensboro, but I can't remember whether we sat in the balcony or not, or whether there was any, you know, restriction on that. But I do remember in Belk's and Meyer's, which then became Thalheimers, they had signs above the [water] fountains, “Blacks,” or “Colored” and “White.” And they also had restrooms, “Colored” and “White.”
But I believe the first year we were here, '58-'59, those signs started coming down. I think people made some protests about it, and slowly those signs went away and there were no divisions made. It was very odd, though, to come into a store and see identical water fountains, one marked white, one marked colored.
And you wouldn't have seen that in Chapel Hill?
I don't remember seeing it in Chapel Hill. I saw it in Durham. I'm sure I saw it there.
I'm sure you did, too, having lived there.
I know. I do remember one thing. I belong to—when I came to Greensboro, I was invited to become a member of the Danforth Associates. It was a group of faculty people who liked to have dialogue with students at times. And the purpose of it was to foster, I suppose, a more, a consideration of the total life of the students, and at the same time to get students and faculty to react on a social as well as an intellectual plane. And we were given a certain amount of money each year to entertain students, for instance.
But we always had a convention, a meeting, once a year, and it was on black campuses as well as white. Now the problem was that, in 1959, when I first got into it, was to find a place where black and white could stay in a motel together and eat together. There was no place in North Carolina that I'm aware of, or that anyone else in the organization was aware of, where we could go and black and white could stay. No place.
How did you solve that?
So what we did was to call on colleges, either black or white colleges. In this case, the one I remember going to was Montreat-Anderson College, up near Asheville. And a group of us went up there and I roomed with a black artist, Jim McMillan. He's still around in Greensboro. Jim and I roomed together. My wife didn't go. She was invited, but she decided she wouldn't go because she was too busy with the baby. We had a small baby at the time. And Jim, I believe, and his wife, too, was busy at the time.
So the two of us were put together in a room, and Jim and I had a lot of good conversations. We also—Jim had an art exhibit he took up there, and I had a, I was in charge of a book exhibit, I believe, so we had a lot of time together, just to sit around. We were sort of guarding these things. We were in this big lobby.
And so we talked about—I always remembered that was the first time that you saw blacks and whites eating together in the South. And I'd never seen that before, you see, in the South. I'd seen it before in the North, but never in the South. But you see it, at that time, you saw it mighty rarely in the North. So it was an interesting experience.
And what was more interesting was to see black women and white men, or white women and black men speaking to each other as friends, you see. That's startling to people who haven't, you know, who hadn't seen the myth of the black man with a white woman, or white man and the black woman type of thing going on. To see, you know, academics who naturally today wouldn't have any problem with that, but to see them for the first time come together that way and speak about something other than the weather, you know, talk about their common interests, common disciplines, or focus on a subject of some sort, or to meet in a group of people.
That wasn't generally done.
It wasn't generally done. It wasn't easy to get started, even as academics, to get started and to build a trust this way. But the more often we met every year, the more we became acquainted with each other, the more we got interested in our families, the more we got interested in the health, well-being, and progress of the other person that, you know, they became—we became friends. It took longer than if we were white or black, you see, but it happened, and it happened over a period of time. But you know, we only had one day, or at the most two or three days a year to do this. It developed amazingly quickly.
Outside of your activities with things like the Inter-Faculty Forum and then this Danforth thing you just described, I'm getting the impression from what you say that it would be unlikely to come to know any black people in Greensboro as friends if you didn't meet them in these sort of groups. It just wouldn't be done. Is that pretty much it?
Exactly. That's pretty much it. Although, although I've had—I remember going to, what is it, Joe's house, I'm trying to think. The thing is sort of blurred, so I couldn't say for certain. But I'm sure I visited some black friends in their homes, and had them visit in my home, just for informal talks about mutual concerns or just a friendly visit. But I don't know whether they were always faculty. There might have been other types of people, like professional people. I'm trying to think. I do get the distinct impression that it was no big deal, in other words, but I do get the impression that we did visit there.
Oh, I had a good friend with whom I had gone to school at the University of Pittsburgh, in the masters program. We both got our masters in English together. And he was teaching at Alabama A&M [University], which is a black school. He was an organist, a very fine musician. And he came by one time on his way from, I think it was Washington or somewhere, and he stopped off to see me. And I know my neighbors were a little bit disturbed to see this jet black person walk into my house, and for us to sit in the back yard together and have a drink. I imagine that it certainly did disconcert our neighbors quite a bit.
Did anyone ever say anything to you?
No, but they looked at me in sort of a funny way, like who is this and what is he doing here? Were we safe while he was there, type of thing. And James was one of the most gentle people you'd ever run into. Besides that, he was an artist who had much more interest in Bach than he had in anything else. [both laugh]
And you know, I thought this was very strange. But during that time I think people just looked at the color and nothing else. They had no idea of the quality of the person. And I think what we began to see in the civil rights movement is more and more the quality of the person. And once that was established, I think the rest came easy, more easily. There weren't any, you know—how do you do this, how do you integrate, how do you break down the barriers? Well, that's it. You get to know people well, and you also know the quality of the person so well. There's no question.
You wonder to yourself, did it ever really happen? I mean this was twenty, let's see, twenty, thirty years ago.
Yeah, getting on to thirty.
Did it actually happen in my life time? You wonder, because things are so different these days, although you still have some barriers there. And I'm sure the black person feels it much more strongly than we do—barriers to employment and social things and all. The difference is so vast it's hard to think about. You know, there were days when just to shake hands with a black person was a real accomplishment.
So I think that this oral history's important, and certainly people who were much more involved in it, I think, especially from the black campuses, would be good people to interview. I don't know whether Samuel Joseph Shaw is still at A&T or not. I haven't seen him for a long time. I don't know whether he retired, but he certainly would have a lot of material, and certainly would like to talk.
Okay. I'll need to write his name down.
Okay. I'll see if he's still in the phone book—
[End of Interview]