Civil Rights Greensboro

UNCG Home > The University Libraries > Civil Rights Greensboro Home > Oral history interview with Ralph Wooden by William Link

Oral history interview with Ralph Wooden by William Link


Date: February 10, 1989

Interviewee: Ralph Wooden

Biographical abstract: Ralph Lee Wooden Sr. (1915-2003) was a member of the faculty at North Carolina A&T State University from 1947 to 1980.

Interviewer: William Link

Description:

This transcript of a February 10, 1989, oral history interview conducted by William Link with Ralph Wooden, Wooden describes his experiences as an African-American in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He also recalls the political struggles of blacks in Greensboro and his opinion of their status in the late 1980s. He recounts tales of the NC A&T spirit, and generally describes the contributions of Greensboro citizens to the civil rights movement.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.594

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 Ralph Wooden by William Link

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

WILLIAM LINK:

This is William Link and the date is February 10, 1989. I'm here in the home of Mr. Ralph Wooden. Mr. Wooden, I wonder if you'd mind telling me where you were born, when you were born, and how you came to come to Greensboro.

RALPH WOODEN:

Yes, I was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1915, Franklin County. And I came to Greensboro after completing high school at Central High School in Columbus. Graduated Central High School and [went] on an athletic scholarship to play football at North Carolina A&T State University [A&T], which was at that time North Carolina A&T College. I spent four years here on the football team, three years on the basketball team. We won one championship when I was here in basketball in 1937.

I came in 1934 as a freshman. I completed my training in '38, left A&T, and my first job was in Hagerstown, Maryland. I spent a year there, and then I returned to Greensboro in '39 and worked at Woman's College, which is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, for a year, from '39 to '40 as a laboratory technician with the Department of Physics—Psychology. And in leaving there I got an appointment to the city school system in Greensboro at Dudley High School as an instructor in industrial arts. And I stayed there a year and probably a month.

And [I] left in '41 to go to Illinois, Chanute Field, Illinois, because at that time they were just beginning to integrate blacks or to accept blacks into the air forces. Not as integration, but as a part of the air forces—but a black squadron they were forming at that time called the 99th Pursuit Squadron. And they were also training people to teach ground school personnel, and we were taking training at Chanute Field.

WL:

That was before—

RW:

In 1941.

WL:

—before Pearl Harbor.

RW:

This was before Pearl Harbor. I went out in September 1941. Another young man by the named Haywood Ware[?] preceded me out there. And there was—we were the first group that was trained as ground school instructors in the air forces at Chanute Field, Illinois, and Rantoul, Illinois.

WL:

How—why were you attracted to the [U.S Army] Air Force, what made you want to join?

RW:

We took—we went to the air forces, we were attracted because at that time, before that blacks hadn't had an opportunity to work in the air forces because of discrimination against them. And they passed the Executive Order 8802, which was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And this provided us an opportunity to help our economic situation a little better, too, because we were getting paid much more than we would have been had we been teaching in public schools at that time.

WL:

What kind of experiences did you have in the training camps and in the air bases?

RW:

In the air bases, well, I was trained at Chanute Field as an aircraft propeller specialist. And then I was transferred after that, after serving seventeen months at Chanute Field. Transferred to Seymore Johnson Field in Goldsboro, North Carolina, for about three months, because there the people didn't take well to blacks teaching the whites in the air forces, especially in Goldsboro. So that provided a different setting.

So we—I was transferred to New York, Rome, New York, Air Service Command where I stayed until I was inducted into the service. That was in May, and I was inducted into the service in September. The air forces, I was inducted into the Air Force after working as a civilian in the air forces.

WL:

You started out a civilian.

RW:

I started out a civilian, yes.

WL:

What was the attitude of the Air Force generally, [and] maybe specifically that the officers corps—toward having—

RW:

Well, now, we had some incidents that were—all right, for instance, when we were at Chanute Field, the time we were there we had more and more blacks coming into the ground school instructor program. And of course, the more you have, seemingly it caused a little more concern on the parts of whites.

So they had, they had one time a white lady posted at lunch hour and had one of our members who was eating his lunch and she said that he had approached her. And come to find out, they laid him off and investigated. They found out that she was kind of set up as a person to cause—by whites—to cause some confusion among the group. And of course, he was rehired, he was re-put back on his job, reinstated, and returned to his job and paid his back pay. Of course, she was discharged.

WL:

She was—

RW:

Discharged.

WL:

Trying to get, provoke the disturbance?

RW:

Yes. And in the meantime we had contacted the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] in Chicago. Aaron Brown[?] was at that time the head of the NAACP in Chicago. They wanted him [the man who was fired] to submit to a lie detector's test, but he did not have to do that because Aaron Brown suggested that he not do so, that they didn't have enough evidence to really provoke such a movement. So, and then the secretary of war had J. Ernest Wilkins, who was his assistant, who was out of Chicago—James [sic, Jesse] Wilkins, Sr. was assistant to the secretary of war, and [prominent African American lawyers] Charles Houston and also Thurgood Marshall, who was with the NAACP. So this caused quite a stir.

But the racial, subtle racialism, racism still existed at that time. And so they were doing anything they could to provoke a disturbance if possible to kind of allay the fact that we were going to be integrated.

WL:

What sort of people were doing the provoking? I mean, what, who were the people that didn't want this change?

RW:

Well, they had a number of people in the air forces and in the army and all of the services who were from the South. It happened to be that the commanding officer of the base at that time was from Texas, and he was removed from there and sent some place else and replaced with somebody else as the commanding officer of the base, you see. And several of the civilians who were there were transferred to other bases, you know, as a result of that incident.

And then later on they said that they were going to integrate them in all the facilities, so then they broke up a lot of the blacks and sent them to different places. I was sent to Goldsboro, North Carolina, Seymore Johnson Field. Stayed there three, three months. When we first got there they wanted us to strip airplanes down for parts, but we didn't agree with that because that wasn't our job. We had a different M.O. spec [military occupational specialty]. So we wanted—

WL:

That wasn't your training.

RW:

Yeah, we had the training, we had the experience and teaching in the classroom. So we held out, and we eventually were put in the classrooms. But the people in the city heard about that, as well as some on the base. And of course, they didn't like that. So they were going to, they moved us out of Goldsboro. And I was one of the two or three of us who went to New York. Some others went other places—Wright Field out in Dayton, Ohio, some went up to Massachusetts, some went to Texas, different places over the United States. So we had, we had quite an experience.

Now I got back to New York and I was working up there in training. And I went down to Patterson, New Jersey, for a six-weeks training course in electric propellers at Curtiss Wright [Corporation], and after two weeks down there I was called into the service.

So I went back to base—my wife was also working up there—and reported. And I was sent to the reception center after a twenty-one day furlough. I had to camp up to Long Island, New York. I had nine weeks there, and I passed all, everything with flying colors, got my clothes sent home, and my G.I. issue. And after about nine days, nine to twelve days at the center, I was shipped down to Biloxi, Mississippi, for basic training.

And after completing basic training down there in, what, nineteen forty—that was in 1943. In 1944, January 1944, I was assigned to Daniel Field, Augusta, Georgia. And I remained at Daniel Field, Augusta, Georgia, not as an instructor, but just waiting assignment for a year and never did receive assignment until '44. I went to Atterbury Air Base and then was assigned to a bomb group which was supposed to have been trained in Columbus, Indiana, at Freeman Field. But we had trouble with racism down there in southern Indiana, which was equally as intense, and I might say, as equally as, it displayed itself equally as well in southern Illinois as it did in southern Indiana.

So southern Indiana, then we went to—we were transferred out of there because we didn't get along, we weren't compatible. And we went down to Godman Field, Kentucky, in the air base down there and we were going to form our 477th bomber group since we already had two fighter groups, the 99th pursuit squadron and the 332nd pursuit squadron.

And [General] Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., came to organize the bomber group which was going to the East. But the bombs fell on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and that ended the war. And of course, they deactivated the black bomber group, 477th bomber group, and we were sent different places. And I was one in the group that was sent to Tuskegee, Alabama, and I remained there in Tuskegee, Alabama, until I got enough points. At that time they would discharge you on based on points. I got enough points to be discharged in December, and also I was discharged into the veterans facility in Dayton, Ohio, which is near Columbus. I stayed there a month. Then I came out and entered Ohio State [University].

WL:

Did you consider staying in the air force at all?

RW:

I never considering staying in the [U.S] Army, in the air forces, not as—no. Not as a career. Not after the experiences I'd had as a civilian and in the air force.

WL:

So it was sufficiently negative?

RW:

Right. I wasn't sufficiently—because I was, I guess I was the type of guy that liked to be a little creative. In the air forces and in government service, everything is passed down to you. And you do what is passed down to you, you see, orders. And you can't do things on your own in terms of creativeness. And that kind of fenced me in. I'm not the kind of person who takes fencing in too well.

WL:

How did they handle the day-to-day kind of segregation having, you know, white air force people and black air force people, say for example, in meals and social activities? Did the air force—separated all the time?

RW:

We were all separated. The blacks were all on one side of the railroad track, where the coal yard was, and the whites were on the other side. And they had a white dining hall and black dining halls, white unit squadrons and black squadrons. It was segregated. And I took the examination for Officer's Candidate School and never did hear from them in Georgia. Never did hear from them.

WL:

Officers were white?

RW:

Officers were white.

WL:

Were there any black officers?

RW:

Had some black officers, but most commanding officers, top officers, were white.

WL:

How did white officers relate to black servicemen? I mean, was there—

RW:

Well, they always had a first sergeant that they could handle, and they always had him as a go-between.

WL:

Mediator.

RW:

Yeah, he was in between. And the officers, you didn't never see them. You'd see them, but you didn't never come in contact with them in terms of functions of the air forces or anything. You see, it was always passed down, the orders—they called them orders—were passed down. We—that was the way it was.

After, of course, after that, I went back to school, in '46. That was in '45 I got discharged. And in '46 I went back to school, Ohio State. Remained in school until I received my master's degree in education, industrial arts education, at Ohio State.

WL:

Did you—

RW:

And then I came to A&T in '47, January of '47. I went back to finish up my master's and came back to work with a former instructor who was ill at the time with terminal cancer. And he passed, I guess it must have been around April or May. April, I guess, of that year, '47.

WL:

Did you notice at this point, during the war and right after the war, let's say, you know, '42 to about '47, that there seemed to be any sense that things were changing at all, I mean in terms of race relations?

RW:

During that time the image of the two fighter groups was so popular, because they had done a terrific job in Italy and the European theatre, that the attitude of some people were changing at that time. Yes, to some extent. But that wasn't a general pattern, that was just in certain, I guess you'd say certain areas. But not a general pattern.

WL:

When you came back to Greensboro, did you notice any change? I mean as a student—I guess as a student you don't normally notice things as much as when you work at a place.

RW:

You don't notice, no. When I came back to Greensboro the pattern hadn't changed too much. I don't know whether you call war a normal situation or not, but attitudes were changing, but—for instance, when I went to do my graduate work, I couldn't go to a school in North Carolina because they weren't training blacks for terminal degrees. So I had to go out of state, and they paid me the differential between what it cost me to go out of the state and what it would to stay, which is about six hundred dollars for a calendar year.

I went for a calendar year rather than a school year. I went September to September, September '49 to September '50. I went and worked on my doctorate. And then I just did my research over a period of four or five years, because I worked. And so I just took the time to do my research within the time limit. And I completed that and I completed my master's—my doctorate in '56 at [Ohio] State. But at that time you couldn't go to a graduate school for a terminal degree in North Carolina and most of the places in the South.

WL:

How would you characterize the way things were in Greensboro in, say—

RW:

At that time?

WL:

Well, based on what you remember when you first came.

RW:

Yeah, well, we had separate facilities that we—and there was a lot that needed to be done. And, of course, you know about February 1, 1960, when the four freshman students from A&T went down and sat at the counter downtown.

WL:

Woolworth's.

RW:

But we had one mail carrier, black mail carrier. Now some places they had mail carriers a long time ago, but here—and that was Charles Fairley, who was the first mail carrier in the city. And so it began to move. He did a good job and then they hired some more, and like that. But it was a slow process, you know.

The eating facilities were still separated. You'd go downtown and the seating in the theatres was segregated, not only here but also in Illinois.

WL:

Oh, was it?

RW:

Oh, yeah, yeah. Anyhow, in Illinois, when we were out there as civilians, we went, three of us went downtown to go to the theatre. And we got tickets and we sat up, down on the first floor. And they invited us up to a balcony, we called it pigeon roost. And we said no. And so we went out and got refunds. That was Vincent Gill and his wife, and my wife, myself, and somebody else. I don't know whether it was Wade [Wayne?] Wilson or not. Wade eventually became president of Chaney. But there were three of us. Yeah, yeah. So it was segregated. You couldn't eat in a restaurant up there.

WL:

Just couldn't eat at all?

RW:

No. There was a lady who had a place that she would feed us in her place, a black lady.

WL:

And that was it?

RW:

That was it. But, yeah.

WL:

How—what kind of feelings did you have, you know, in facing this kind of situation as a young person, in movie theaters and—

RW:

I tell you what, it taught me that whenever you're in a situation like that and you have—especially in training—you have to be among the best. In other words, you can see that you need to have quality and excellence, and you had to work hard to do that. And you had to be better than a lot of people in the same situation. So you couldn't be anything but quality, because you'd wash out, attrition, moving away, you see.

WL:

Coming from Ohio, did you notice coming to Greensboro—what sort of differences did you notice?

RW:

Not too much difference. It was segregated out there, too. I couldn't go to the theatre downtown. I went to school downtown and I'd pass by theatres that I couldn't go.

WL:

But your school was integrated, was that right?

RW:

School was integrated.

WL:

High school was integrated.

RW:

Yeah. Well, the reason for that is we had more blacks than we had whites [laughs], and Italians and Germans and Irishmen. We were all there together and more of us than the others.[unclear] So we didn't have any trouble in school. You'd go downtown there and you—and my wife went downtown and they wouldn't let her try a hat on.

WL:

Couldn't walk in the store?

RW:

That's right. So we had segregation out there.

WL:

And nothing new when you came down here. Same thing here.

RW:

No. My grandmother lived in southern Ohio. I used to go down there, there was segregation down there.

WL:

Was—what kind of role did A&T play? I mean—

RW:

In my life?

WL:

Well, in your life [both laugh] or in the Greensboro community.

RW:

A&T always has played an important aspect in the Greensboro community to the extent that it's accepted. I guess they're playing a greater part now, because there's been somewhat, well, somewhat integration's taken over it. Not all together, even now. But economically, I think that's played a very important aspect of it. Because when you have these schools, they generate a lot of money in a community. Not only that, but you get a different kind of person, human being, too, and that's very important.

WL:

Leaders.

RW:

Yes, leaders and this type of thing, you see. And a lot of people from A&T have served on commissions and committees in the city and have served on the city council. They served on the—they were—Zoe Barbee was the first one who was supposed to have served on the county commission, but she was killed in an automobile accident before she got to serve. Katie Dorsett is on there now. And then they appointed Mr. Hall who is on there, Bert Hall who's serving on there.

You had a number who served on school boards, zoning commissions, selective service board, and on down the line. We've also had a number serving on political action committees. My participation was the political action committee and the Greensboro Citizens Association, which was an organization formed basically between the community and instructors and people from Bennett College and A&T College in the beginning. And—

WL:

When was it organized, first organized?

RW:

I don't remember the history of it. I don't remember. But it was, [both speaking] I guess it was organized around the fifties, later fifties, somewhere around in there, something around there I imagine. And of course, they did a lot of things in terms of [TV turned on in the background, recorder paused]—they did a lot of things in terms of lobbying against the grocery stores, in terms of employment, you know. In other words, don't buy here if they don't employ us—

WL:

Boycotts.

RW:

—don't spend your money.

WL:

Yeah. When was that going on, do you remember?

RW:

That's around the fifties, too. Reverend [Otis] Hairston [of Shiloh Baptist Church] was very active in that. Reverend [Julius] Douglas also was with the [St. James] Presbyterian Church at the time. And a number of ministers were active in that movement—I think Prince Graves [of St. James Baptist Church]. And [Dr.] George Simkins, of course, has been a leading—a leader in the community, a member of the NAACP. Before his time, it was [Edwin] Edmonds was before his time, and, of course, [Fred?] Battle since his time. But they were—the NAACP has done a job, a wonderful job, in terms of voter registration, education, these types things.

I was also precinct chairman—Precinct 8, which is up here at Gillespie Park School—for about five years. A pretty large precinct at that time. It went all the way over across [Highway] 29, over into eastern Greensboro, over in the Bluford area. But they cut it down later on, they made it small.

When we moved out here we got a letter under the door saying that they wanted to preserve this area for whites, so to speak. We still have a copy of that letter.

WL:

Who'd the letter come from? Who wrote the letter?

RW:

I think it was a guy named Hood. I believe it was some Hood, I forget now. But we have a copy of it. My wife can show you. It's in the file. And there were whites across the street, one black family on the other side who was out here before we were. She was a Hampton at that time, she's a Barrow[?] now. And then Mr. Merrill who lived in the next to the last house on this row here. But all across the street was white. But we got along with the people well. And the family who lived here were the Mitchells.

Now we could not get this house financed by a bank in Greensboro.

WL:

Because of its location? Because it was a white neighborhood?

RW:

Yes. But the Mitchells had a large family. And one of the sons, who is now passed—and he had a daughter who worked at North Carolina National Bank, who was a teller, a Ms. Wilkins—he was a dealer in Cadillac and Oldsmobile in his place on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. We got this house financed, after our down payment, through Atlanta. He got it, he arranged the deal for his family. And they wanted us to have the house, because Mrs. Mitchell liked my wife and my daughter at the time, and she said she would like for the house, for us to get the house. And we wouldn't get the house unless we got the lot next door too, incidentally. So that's the way we got this house.

Now of course, after the founding of the Greensboro National Bank and the American Federal Savings and Loan, then the picture changed. You could start getting them then. But you see, it took that to get it. So later on we had it transferred from down there to American Federal Savings and Loan. But we could not get this house financed.

WL:

Banks would just not accept—

RW:

—for a loan. And I think they had a limit on how much they were going to loan blacks, fifteen thousand dollars. You couldn't buy houses for that, you know, or you could some houses. But they weren't doing much.

WL:

So no matter where the house was, they just wouldn't lend a certain amount to you.

RW:

They wouldn't let—especially in a white neighborhood. Now when they integrated the schools up here, there was a man who marched with a KKK [Ku Klux Klan] flag on cross of an American flag, which made it illegal. And they integrated the schools. Our kids were one of the first ones up here at Gillespie Park school to integrate the school. They were one of the first blacks in that school at that time.

WL:

How did that go? What—how smooth was it?

RW:

It went smooth. There weren't any, there weren't—[recorder malfunction]—cooperation from the parents in the public schools. You may do all right, but you can do much better with the cooperation.

WL:

Why was there reluctance to participate in the PTA [Parent Teacher Association]?

RW:

Well, they were just apathetic, as they are now. Still persists, it still persists. You've got a lot of people, I guess they're tired or apathetic or something, who don't participate in the school programs, even though they have plenty of time. I don't know, but it seem like they are glad to get rid of the children and put them in the schools so they won't have to be bothered.

WL:

Won't be bothered anymore.

RW:

Yeah. But you still have a responsibility to your children.

WL:

Yep. Let's get back to politics a minute.

RW:

All right, get back to politics.

WL:

I wonder if you could say a little bit about how well the, how well or how badly the political system in Greensboro represented the black community back, let's say, in the fifties or sixties.

RW:

Well, in the fifties and sixties it was a matter of divide and conquer. They had the blacks divided up. We had some blacks who were for certain people and certain ideals and things they wanted, and another group. And later on it became a little more organized, but they still have these splinter groups, and that diluted the effectiveness of your vote.

WL:

What were the divisions based on?

RW:

Well, sometimes it was just on emotions. They liked the fellow or they knew the fellow back when, and he's running for office, so we—or at one time, it was all the blacks voted all democrat all the time. But later on it started changing and sometimes they would vote for the person rather than the party, you see. It's hard to get people to realize the strategy in that, you see.

So we had a mixture of political actions, reactions, and responses. We had a dense mixture that was really interesting. And we had different people emerging as a result of that, in terms of what you might say leadership—and they got out tickets and these kinds of things, you know, to inform people as to who to vote for, had to give them rides to the polls, and these type things, you see.

WL:

Was there a lot of voting? Were the numbers of blacks voting increasing?

RW:

Well, we began, we began to vote more, because the NAACP put a great effort in education and getting out and registration. We put a lot of work into that. A lot of work needs to be done now in that area. But they did a lot, a whale of a job in that, you see.

WL:

Any—was there much of in the way of problems in terms of registration—

RW:

Well, we had some problems, yeah.

WL:

—in terms of city officials or—?

RW:

Well, we had some problems in that, because they said that some of the people weren't registered as they should have been. But on the whole we had a very effective registration program. Sometimes we had it on the weekends, and we'd get students who, they could cover more ground than the adults can in a shorter period of time, you know. So we'd get students, and then we'd give them a meal or something, volunteers. But it was good training for them. And it gave them insight into the political system, you know.

And then we followed, we followed up, and we'd go to Raleigh sometimes. On a number of occasions I've been to Raleigh to represent the political action committee and some of the things that we were looking for there. But we didn't, we hadn't yet gotten enough commitment from people. We ought to get commitment from people on things that we are trying to do, if they're going to do it.

But now the money has gotten involved, so that they do for the people who give them the money. They're lobbyists, all these kinds of people, people feeding them, and people giving them drinks, and a little bit of everything going on. And so they are loyal to the people who seem to have the money. I don't know how that works. That works at all levels.

WL:

Yeah, that's the way the system works now.

RW:

Yeah. You almost have to be a millionaire now to get involved in this.

WL:

To run for office.

RW:

Even at the local level it's expensive. You run for mayor now and see if you don't have to spend some money.

WL:

Yeah, yeah. Does—how well did the city government represent the black community do you think, or serve the black community?

RW:

They were very, they were very, very difficult to work with. We—they didn't want black representation on the city council. And they had an at-large system, and we had to work on that. I worked on that for dividing the county into districts so we can have representation from the county.

And if you go back over a period of years, we didn't have anybody up there to represent, I guess you'd say the black community, but to represent Greensboro, because most of our people were broad enough people not only to represent the district they're in, but also to be interested in their city as a whole, the progress of the city.

We still have some difficulty in that. So we have now party differential, so we get more Republicans than Democrats or more Democrats than Republicans. They kind of rule the roost.

WL:

In the county government, yeah.

RW:

Yeah, especially in the county government. City government's not—it's supposed to be nonpartisan. But I imagine it's a little bit partisanship in that, if you look behind the scenes you can see it.

WL:

How about city services back, let's say, in the fifties? Did—

RW:

Well, we still need a lot of sidewalks over this way. We worked on that to some extent, we got it paved down Willow Road, and sidewalks, and that was when I was working with the—and Mr. [Vance] Chavis and all of us were working with the city on getting sidewalks and paved streets. We have gotten some, but we're still short on sidewalks. Kids going to school—of course, they been busing lately and they haven't had much trouble. But when they were walking to school, neighborhood school—

WL:

Walk in the streets?

RW:

Yes, they would walk in the streets, you see, which is a dangerous thing now. Somebody can come along and knock you out in a minute. Then, we didn't have drugs at that time to the extent that we have them now. I don't know, we may have had them but we didn't know anything about it at that time. Now we've got neighborhoods with sections of them infested with drugs. And that brings on another problem, and the schools are infested with it. And that brings on another problem that doesn't seem right to me.

The local level and the state level have enough money to do anything about the war on drugs, which is part of politics. And the people who have the money, buying the homes in the neighborhoods, polluting the neighborhoods with crime and so forth. People who have money, people who have money are people who are selling drugs.

WL:

Did—what sort of effect do you think the city—

RW:

And then, we—too, housing. Now all the housing projects are over here, most of them. Might have one out there, might have one going out northwest Greensboro. We have three over here I know about. And you get a lot of people living too close together, especially if they're low income people, you have problems, you know. And they get in a cycle and they never get out of it. And then here comes another children, another set of children. They get in the same cycle. It's self perpetuating.

So we need some other kind of a system that's going to help our people to get themselves out of poverty. Some kind of way—training, training, day care centers for children so they can train. And they can go into jobs, skilled jobs, that will—where they can earn enough to move themselves out of poverty. But they have this problem with the single family parents.

WL:

Do you think that city services have gotten better over time? I mean—

RW:

I think they have, the quality of them has improved. But I'm not so sure that what they're doing is the kind of thing that's going to help alleviate poverty and a lot of things in life. I think that sometimes it perpetuates problems. I think there's some things happening now in our system that's cosmetic, rather than remedial and having a permanent effect, alleviate the situation. I think that's— you take the more children you have, the more money you get for dependency. So having children becomes a big business. I can't get a job, I don't have any training, don't have any skills. If I do have skills, I can get a job.

I had the same thing in housing. We really don't have adequate housing for our people. And that is something that has to be addressed one way or the other. And all this ties in with politics, because the laws, and the policies, and the things that are set by politicians. The guidelines, the objectives are set by, primarily by, politicians. And of course, the politicians are not controlled by the people who don't have money. They're controlled by the people—and not necessarily by people who voted for them—but by the people who supported them in their campaign for money to run for office. That's the system. That's the cannibalistic system.

We do have some people who have empathy and compassion and want to look for, find a better society than Mr. Bush [unclear]. But we don't have enough of them. And the laws and the bills that they're passing will enhance the few at the expense [laughs] of the majority.

WL:

Let's—maybe we can talk about, a little bit about the activism of the 1960s. You mentioned already the sit-in at Woolworth's, and of course, a couple years later in 1963 you have massive demonstrations.

RW:

Yeah, Martin Luther King's movement.

WL:

Right. Did that come sort of out of nowhere or did—could you see it coming at the time?

RW:

Well, certain incidents did bring that about. Of course, you know, out in Arkansas, you know, they had the school desegregation.

WL:

Little Rock.

RW:

Right, Little Rock, if you remember. That was just a little drop in the bucket, but it made a ripple on the water. And then there were several other incidents, I can't remember all of them now. But I know there are some things happening that did make ripples on the water, and later on the water became disturbed. I guess they give Rosa Parks and her refusal to get in the back of the bus a majority of credit in that area. It just happened to, that that little seed began to germinate and it began to move into the civil rights movement.

WL:

It affected things here, too, as well.

RW:

Yes, it did.

WL:

People saw those things happening.

RW:

Well, when they got the law passed about transportation facilities and public accommodations [Civil Rights Act of 1964], it affected everybody. But you know some of the fantasies and some of the fiction that they wrote about what was going to happen after certain people got public accommodations and things didn't ever come about, because they said that—and for a location of your house, you know, where you live—they said if you put blacks in there, it's going to lower the value of my property. And it never come about. And sometimes they would raise the value, most instances.

And also these people said that they'd lose customers. In fact, one man closed his cafe down here, Mayfair cafe. Boyd Morris closed it down before he would integrate. They had a S&W up here and a K&W out there, and they had, of course, other places, too. But most of these people [unclear], they're glad to see you come, because of the dollar—all of them are the same color. They didn't know where it came from after they go through the cash register and the computer.

WL:

Did that sort of attitude change real quickly?

RW:

No, it was a gradual movement, gradual. People have to be educated, and they have to see. And strangely enough, they have to see what is it doing for me, you know, personally. They make it a personal matter. Not for my brothers and sisters, but what is it doing for me? And if it's making more money for me, I'm all for it.

WL:

Do you think that's what people like Boyd Morris were most concerned about, that they were fearful—

RW:

They were fearful that—

WL:

—lose all their business?

RW:

If blacks would come in, no whites would come, and the blacks couldn't support the business. And they'd go out of business, because they didn't have money, you see, to support it. But, though whenever you did have money, if you're going to spend it, it didn't make any difference. I go out to K&W and other places now, to the motion picture theatres and sit where we want to, to the parks, to the golf courses. It doesn't make a bit of difference. Nobody pays any attention, and because life goes on and those storms and life goes on.

Even the church is trying to integrate. That's a remarkable thing, because at one time, you know, that was the most segregated hour—on Sunday, at eleven o'clock—in the history of the world. Eleven o'clock services, all white, all black. My church is all black, and now we have people, white people coming to our church, some joining. And black people go to other churches and they're joining.

WL:

You think that's changing?

RW:

Now there's certain things that integration did, and that was it did not provide enough slots for blacks to assume leadership roles. When you got in there you were just there. You, at that time, you didn't—when it first started out, you were not student body president of a school. In fact, you did well to be on the student council. If you're on there, you'd be probably the only one on there, or two or one more.

And they have a lot of that going on now. They have a lot of places where they point to one black and say, “We're integrated.” Oh no, you aren't. You're a tokenism. You're not integrated, by any means. But they try to hide behind that, and that isn't good. I think we need to open up—

WL:

You think that's happened at all?

RW:

—our values, our value system. We need to get our value system lined up. Now if you're going to have war, and let you get out there and fight, and get shot, or go and come back, we ain't going to let you get to that dollar. And they aren't going to let blacks get too much money. If you get too much money, there're going to try to find out something and some way to get you out of that money, either accuse you of something or something, you see. But they aren't going to let you get but so much.

Now you know the wealth of the country is in the hands of a few people, most of the wealth. There ain't but a few people. That's the reason they don't like the Jews, because the Jews have the skills to accumulate funds, money. In a capitalistic society [laughs], that counts a lot.

WL:

What—going back to the late 50s and 1960s, what kind of atmosphere did you have at A&T? It must have been a kind of an unusual place to be.

RW:

In the fifties and sixties?

WL:

And sixties. Here the four students at Woolworth's are all from A&T, a lot of the leadership in the 1960s, all of the leadership really, I guess, or most of it was from A&T. Jesse Jackson's at A&T. It must have been, you know, kind of a dynamic place, a lot of the things going on.

RW:

There was a lot of things happening and—but they tied in with the community, too. The community supported them as much as they could in the marches. And the attitude of the people began to change to a great extent, too.

Now all the white people weren't against the civil rights. There were a lot who were for it.

WL:

Such as?

RW:

Well, you had fellows down here in Philadelphia, Mississippi. There were only two whites down there and one black, and there was a white woman killed down there too. There were a lot of ministers, white ministers, who fought for us, see. So we had a lot of—and we had that here in the city. Yeah, we had a lot of white people that marched with the blacks for civil rights.

But the majority of who were in office and power structure weren't for it. Kind of shook up the power structure. People got arrested, had so many of them they couldn't put all of them in the jails. So they put them down here some place on East Market Street in a little abandoned [polio] hospital down here. So—they went to jail for it. A lot people lost their life. Of course, we had the Ku Klux Klan, you know, it was out here. Most of those guys were white, who were fighting the Ku Klux Klan.

WL:

You mean by the shooting? [at the November 1979 KKK-Communist Workers Party riot]

RW:

Yes, by the shooting. Yeah, they had a shooting out there, you see.

WL:

Was—were you at A&T during the famous visit of the Governor Luther Hodges?

RW:

Yeah, I was in there, sure.

WL:

Were you, do you remember that?

RW:

He couldn't pronounce Negro. He got mixed up on his pronunciation and enunciation. And Dr. [Ferdinand D.] Bluford was the president at that time.

We had a hectic year, that year was 1955. My wife was president of the faculty, ladies faculty club. And we lost a bursar who was found misplacing veterans funds. We lost a lady, Jean Spinner, who was the dean of women, who had an abortion and died as a result. And eventually the bursar passed. He lost [unclear]. Went to Goldsboro. He had sugar diabetes and he passed, Mr. Webster.

Then we had the incident in the fall at our Founder's Day, when Governor Hodges came to speak and the students rumbled their feet, rrr-rrr-rrr. And he stopped and looked at the president. They had told the president not to bring him there.

WL:

The students did?

RW:

Yes, the students, student government. And students stood behind him, and “rum-rum-rum-rum.” And he stopped and looked around. You could tell he was very much disturbed. And then he would speak again and he used the word negra— I don't know he said negra or negroid—whatever it was, it wasn't right. And the students didn't go along with that. Rrr-rrr. They went rrr-rum. So he managed to finish up, but when he finished up he walked out and he never did come back. And the president tried to write an apology, a letter of apology for him, but I don't think he accepted that.

And so the president passed in December of '55. So we had a very, that was a very, that was the roughest year of my thirty-three and a half years at A&T that we had. The roughest. I was a pallbearer for Dr. Bluford. And so, yes, I remember that. And, well, we didn't have, we weren't in good favor with the governor at that time. Of course, he wasn't in good favor with us either. [laughs]

WL:

Well, I guess there was some perception that you were a bunch of troublemakers there, I guess.

RW:

Yes, in a way. At that time, yes. But A&T has always been a school where we get a mixture of people from all over the country and out of foreign countries, too. And it all depends on who's looking at it as to whether you're a troublemaker or whether you're not just going to let somebody come in and walk all over you. All that. It's in the eye of the beholder, you know, the perspective that you have. And so I always looked at it as we're not going to let anybody—being a graduate of the institution, too—we aren't going to let anyone walk over us.

We had two or three strikes when I was in school—food strike.

WL:

Oh, really?

RW:

Students, yeah. Oh my goodness, we went away, the football team went away to play ball. We'd gone on a northern trip up in Pennsylvania at the Lincoln University, and Howard [University], and Hampton [University], and we went away for one week. And came back and the students were seen going home. Some of them had gone home already, because there weren't satisfied with the meals they had been receiving in the dining hall, so they struck. And they didn't let us stay there that night. They took us out. And one of our coaches from up here, South Boston, Virginia. I don't know if you've ever heard of South Boston or not.

WL:

Yeah, sure. Halifax County.

RW:

But you go to go up that way, you go up to South Boston on up to Richmond that way, [U.S. Highway] 360, around there. Okay. And we spent a week up there before we played our Thanksgiving game, because we played North Carolina Central [University] and we were great rivals at that time, and we always played on Thanksgiving. And we didn't do anything but practice in the fairground. They got new tubs, and cooked up that good country food and we got strong as bulls. [both laugh] We, we slept. You couldn't get out any place, because there wasn't any place to go. And the crickets were hollering and going on around there.

And we stayed at different homes in that community, because he had been principal up there so he knew the people that accommodated us. And we'd take the old bus. We had a bus, the door wasn't on too well, we'd just take some haywire. And they called us the little country boys, farm boys, because A&T was an agriculture school, you see. [laughs] And they'd see us coming to some of these urban schools and they'd be hollering out the windows, “Farm boy!” I don't know, but when we left they knew we weren't all farm boys! [laughs]

So we came back and played on Thanksgiving day at A&T, down at the stadium. And we beat, we beat them terrible. [laughs]

WL:

But this was after the school had been closed?

RW:

This was after the school—well, this was—well, the school was half closed, because some of the kids could go home at that time. But the boys would go out to the city and hustle up food and money and bring those girls food and stuff at the dormitory. Oh, yeah, yeah. One guy, we called him Roast. He went in some lady's house and she had a roast. He put it under his hat and walked out [unclear]. Took it to the girls in the dormitory, feed them, oh yes. Yes, that's A&T. That's the A&T spirit. That's the real spirit. Of course, A&T is known for that.

I wasn't surprised. I was right across the hall from the newspaper, and the newspaper knew what was going on. I knew they were going to go down there February 1, 1960, that these four boys were going down there.

WL:

You knew about it in advance?

RW:

Knew about it, yes. One of them's father lived right around the corner.

WL:

Did they receive a lot—obviously they received a lot of support.

RW:

Oh, they got all kinds of support, yeah, yeah. Ideas too. Yeah. We had some faculty members, sociologists, that'd work with them. They'd come back for consultation. And then after while it just picked up momentum. What do you call it when you roll those balls and it picks up stuff as it goes along?

WL:

Snowball.

RW:

[laughs] It just snowballed [laughs] to a big movement. They heard about it other places and it started here and here, and it went all over the world. We had people calling us from California who were our friends wondering what's going on in Greensboro. “It's on the news this evening that Greensboro's in an uproar, there's something terrible going on.” We'd say, “We're doing all right.” Well, they said, “It's on the T.V.”

Mary Esther[?] who's up in Canada now—we hear from every Christmas week—she's the one I heard from that we made friends with out in Illinois, and she called. She had moved. She was a principal up there. She moved down to California, and she called us. We had relatives in Mississippi and in Detroit, all over the country calling us wondering what's happening, wanting to know how we were getting along.

WL:

If you're surviving.

RW:

We were out—

[End of Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 2, Side B]

RW:

One of the things—of course, a lot of the civil rights leaders were lost. But I think it can, it served to some extent to get us unified, to see—especially Dr. King's movement—to see the power of unity and nonviolence, and that you don't always have to have money to have power. I think sometimes it's better not to have money, because you get so concentrating on your money so you forget about what you're about, you know.

So I believe that you don't have to have power, you have to have a spirit. Maybe you call him Jesus, whatever you want to call it. I believe that has to be there, because you can't kill that spirit. You can kill the individual but you can't kill the spirit. Because you can't see him, he's everywhere, you can't get at him. So I think you have to have the spirit, a spirit of good over evil.

And in some religions, of course, they call it, they said the good will win over evil, because man has within him battleground. He's constantly fighting evil with good, good with evil. Whichever [unclear] wins, there's got to be some good or it can't win. So I don't know. There's a spirit.

And I think that's true of A&T.

WL:

How long did that—

RW:

It's unique to A&T, because you don't have guys coming out there like—and girls, too. We've got some women who are very, very—Elleree[?], I don't know if you know Elleree Alexander Rossi[?], she was the first black woman graduate of Columbia University in law. She's an A&T graduate. She's here in the city. She's a republican, an interesting person. She's got a book, What It Means to Be Free. That'd be an interesting piece of literature to read. She's one of our friends. My wife and she talk until two o'clock in the morning, I'm sleep [unclear]. She's a graduate of A&T.

They've got some outstanding people. At one time you wouldn't have known they were going to do what they're doing. When I was in the air corps you didn't hear about any of them. You didn't hear about Jesse Jackson. But we got some other people, too, across the country doing great things.

WL:

Did—you mentioned that there was a great sense of unity—

RW:

Yeah, I believe that's one of the things that came out, but we haven't explored it yet, we haven't developed it to its fullest maturity. We need unity as much as anything else.

WL:

I was going to ask if you thought it had survived.

RW:

It has survived to some extent, but we still have a long ways to go in unity. Now the whites don't get too much concerned until they get blacks working together. Then they get concerned. If they can keep you divided up and arguing with each other and fighting each other and that kind of thing, then they are happy because they've got you then. You're weak.

But if you can unify like Malcolm X said—we need to support ourselves, and we need to stop crying so much about what the other guy's going give us all the time. Let's get out and work for it and get it. Let's not look for everything to be given to us. We want our share, but let's work for it too. And let's work together to get it. No, we aren't concerned about who's going to get the credit and all that kind of business. That don't amount up to a hill of beans.

Who's—what going to be the results overall, over a long period of time. And I think that's a much more viable program and movement than going at it individually, a little bit here and a little bit there.

WL:

What do you think that the most amazing—

RW:

And another thing, we need to get involved, too. We need to get involved. We need to get people in Congress, positions all up and down the line or across the board.

WL:

What do you think the best way will be for blacks to increase power? You mentioned that one of the things that needs to be done perhaps is to diversify political affiliation with one party. What other— [unclear—both talking]

RW:

Well, that's one possibility there, but we need to get our people more interested in voting, going to the polls, and voting and voting their convictions. They have to go there and vote intelligently, you know. Vote for the ones who are, who say they're going to get it right, do right, and if they don't do right, vote them out.

At one time, I remember I was teaching up in Maryland. They used to give them a drink of beer and tell them—a guy used to put a beer party on and tell them to vote for him. And after the beer party was over and they voted for him, that was it. They didn't get anything as a result. No remuneration at all. So you've got to watch that kind of business. You can't sell yourself down the river for a slug of beer or a sandwich.

WL:

Do you think—I talked to a number of people in Greensboro about race relations in the last thirty or forty years. Some people are very optimistic, they think things have gotten a lot better. Some people are pessimistic, they think things have stayed the same or gotten worse. Other people are sort of in between. Where would you put yourself?

RW:

We still have to fight for what we get. We still have to fight in Greensboro. Everything blacks get in Greensboro, they have to fight for. Everything. I can't think of one thing that has been improved that we didn't have to go down there and fight and fight and fight.

I wrote a proposal for the county district system and they turned it down, but they finally had to come back to it. Mr. [Forrest] Campbell was the chairman at that time. It didn't please him so he didn't even bring it up, he just ignored it. He was the one that appointed the committee. [laughs] He wanted you to do something that he, he approved of and we didn't do that. I didn't. So he didn't, he just ignored it. But finally he had to come back to it, because the Justice Department [unclear] said we had to have a kind of district system that was going to ensure that we had a black on the county commissioners. We had to fight for it. Everything we got, we had to fight for.

Now it looks like civil rights is being set back a little bit by the decision of the Supreme Court in terms of quotas. They don't like that quota business. I don't know, but we did make some progress with quotas, but since they're not constitutional we had to find a way to keep balance with our quotas. I don't know how, but I believe there's a way. Where there's a will, there's a way.

I believe there is a way that we can keep surveillance on the picture of employment and other things, too, to the extent that we can tell how much is going here, how much is going there, and how much is going here, and so forth. And we've got computers now and technology to do that. And if they want to be fair, then they can keep an account—I guess you call it accountability. There's not a difference [unclear], on the overall picture, accountability, what's going on, and we want to keep balance as much as possible.

They claimed that they awarded somebody the food stamp appropriation even though they were hired [unclear] somebody else, but that doesn't mean anything if you're going to get that quality. Now if you're going to bid low, there's less quality. I'd rather pay a little bit more and get quality if the program's that way. I don't know, but somehow or other we're going to have to—and everybody's going to have to measure up. I don't care what color you are, you're going to have to measure up. So in other words, whatever you offer, it's going to have to be the best. I don't care whether it's education.

I've got a pet peeve about education, too. I believe that education is everybody's job and not just teachers, the principal, and the school. I've got a friend who's the assistant superintendent of schools in Gary, Indiana. And I've stopped through there on the way to Chicago a few years ago [unclear] program they have out there. They've got a supplementary program to the education system out there, where they have pretty close to a million dollars every year, because they have organized the parents, the teachers, the students, the community organizations, the industries, all are a large community of about twenty something[?] members. Even the unions are a part. And these companies contributing, individuals contributing, and in the next ten years they hope to have ten million dollars to supplement and enhance and enrich the program of the school.

Now I presented that to, down here to the—and asked them to explore and see whether or not it would be feasible here in the city. The lady, that'd be—I forget who—what's the name of the lady who was—Sarah Beale[?]. She was the chairman of the school board. She wrote a letter to the person who has charge to the city publicly. I couldn't ever get in contact with her and she never did call me, so I don't know what happened. But I believe that's one way of getting parents, teachers, and all going in the same direction.

[unclear] about us, we go all in different directions, too. Blacks have a tendency to do that, and other groups, too, as far as I can see. They said at one time they had a circus in Chicago and it was twenty-five cents to get to see something you've never seen before. But when they opened up the curtain there was about ten people from the state [unclear] each one holding the rope, pulling at the state. They all pulling that one thing, all at the same time, pulling at the same thing. And that's something they hadn't seen before. [laughs]

There's a fable, too, about the mystic knights—had two rooms, and in those rooms was a big pot with food in it, but they all had long-handled spoons. And in one room, the guys were just falling off, they'd get so thin. But in the other room the other fellows were looking healthy and getting better all the time. What was happening? Those in the other room who were trying to feed themselves with the long handled spoon couldn't get it in the mouth. But in the other room, they had developed a technique. Each person was feeding another person with the long handled spoon. So they had developed a technique of cooperation—

WL:

Working together.

RW:

—and compassion and working with cooperation.

[End of Interview]