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Oral history interview with Rosemary Roberts Yardley by Kathleen Hoke


Date: May 25, 1990

Interviewee: Rosemary Roberts Yardley

Biographical abstract: Rosemary Yardley worked as a freelance writer for the Greensboro Daily News during the 1960s and served on a committee addressing school integration in 1971.

Interviewer: Kathleen Hoke

Description:

In this transcript of a May 25, 1990, oral history interview conducted by Kathleen Hoke with Rosemary Roberts Yardley, Ms. Yardley primarily discusses Greensboro school integration in 1971, including her son's experiences at a formerly black Hampton School, busing, and work with Joanne Bluethenthal's committee to support the process. She also briefly discusses her work as a journalist, including her interview with Howard Fuller about the Malcolm X Liberation University.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.595

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 Rosemary Roberts Yardley by Kathleen Hoke

KATHY HOKE:

This is Kathy Hoke. It's May 25, 1990. I'm in McIver Hall talking with Rosemary Yardley, and I guess we might as well begin. Maybe you can start—just tell, tell me a little bit about yourself: where you were born, when you moved to Greensboro, how you started your, your work as a journalist, just a little bit of background information.

ROSEMARY YARDLEY:

Okay. I was born in Alabama, so I'm very much a child of the Deep South. I went to college and got my BA [bachelor of arts] at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and MA [master of arts] in American History here in Greensboro at the university [The University of North Carolina at Greensboro]. I graduated from Chapel Hill in 1960, worked for the Charlotte Observer for one year, was married, then moved to Washington, lived there one year, moved to New York where I worked for the New York Times from 1962 to 1964.

We came back to Greensboro because, by then, my husband and I had one child who was born in New York and we, we got a little tired of having to look over our shoulder to be sure we weren't mugged when we walked the baby carriage through Central Park. So anyway, we decided to come back and my husband—my then husband, we were divorced several, several years later—worked for the New York Times also, and we just wanted to come back to North Carolina where life was a little bit simpler and we had both gone to college. So we came back to Greensboro in August of 1964.

I worked on a rather freelance basis at that point for the newspaper. I was co-editor of the book review page and my former husband, Jonathan Yardley, was the other part of the co-editorship and he was also an editorial writer. We later had another child who was born in 1967 and our first child was born in 1964. And so, really, during those years I was doing what was traditionally done back then. I was staying home as a mother. I was also co-editing the book page, and also doing freelance pieces for the Greensboro— what was then the Greensboro Daily News. In 1973 I went back to work full-time, first as a reporter, then as an editorial writer, and now I'm an editorial page columnist. So that brings you up to date on me.

KH:

Okay. Could you talk a little bit about what your impressions were of Greensboro when you moved here in 1964 in, in regards to the racial climate and particularly the issue of school desegregation?

RY:

Well, when I moved to Greensboro in 1964, I think that the best thing to say is that by then—or at least that year—Congress would adopt the public accommodations act [Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964], [and] a year later the Voting Rights Act [of 1965], if my chronology is correct. By—and as I was not here in 1960 for the, the first sit-in; I was not here for some of the more turbulent times of, of the civil rights movement in the South. I was living in Washington and New York, so I was reading about it.

As far as what the conditions were here, by the time we got back to North Carolina, I think that because of the civil rights legislation that was being passed, that had been passed, that the movement was certainly not as—times were just not as turbulent. So I was not in on the sit-in era. I had gone. I was living up North reading about it.

My, I suppose, my more personal involvement with the civil rights movement, if that is what we call it at this time, was in 1971. On April 30, 1971, a federal court ruled that Greensboro's “freedom of choice” in selecting a school was not working, and that there would be what we called cross-town busing to integrate, desegregate the public school system in Greensboro.

That ruling came down on April 30, 1971 [coughs] and especially—excuse me, I have a cold—and it especially affected me in a personal way in that I had a son. My older son was a first grader at Irving Park School—and I have written about this in a column, so I can give you a copy just for the record—

KH:

Yeah.

RY:

—but it's rather ironic that on that April day that I didn't know about the ruling because on the side I was, in addition to being a mother, I was getting my MA here at the university. And that night I, I had a course from Dr. Allen Trelease and, of all things, the course that spring was called "The New South." And that night was my final exam.

And so when my husband came home from the newspaper where he worked, he knew that this ruling would effect our family very personally because it would mean that our son would not be going to the neighborhood school anymore; he would be going across town. But he didn't tell me, and I thought that was very thoughtful of him, because he knew it would be distracting and I was about to go into an exam.

Now, I think it's very important to know that those of us who have liberal persuasions—and certainly I was for integration—but that very—that we would be tested very personally. In other words, we would be asked to put our, our money where our mouth was, so to speak.

I had grown up in Alabama and had certainly grown up in the segregated South, had gone to Chapel Hill in the segregated South, et cetera. I knew it was wrong. I knew it had to change. But that night when I came home from my exam here at the university and my husband told me the news, I knew that morally, yes, it was right. I knew that personally, it would mean some real adjustments, because my own boy was then six years old. The court ordered busing would apply the following fall when school started—actually, the following August. And I knew that my son, Jim Yardley, age six at the time, would be bused across town. In other words, he would be the instrument that changed, the guinea pig, and he's only six years old.

So it test[ed]—it was a test. It really was. I had no intentions of, of fleeing to a white private school, unless—I always told myself this, that I would let my children be guinea pigs so long as the school systems, the public school systems worked. That if the school systems really seemed to be going down the tube, so to speak, that I would not sacrifice my child's education. I did make that rule for myself. I mean, despite my liberal principles, I was not going to do that.

To make a long story short, that summer the Greensboro school systems—school system went to work on preparing the community for cross-town busing. And I was on the committee that wrote a brochure. Joanne Bluethenthal, then on the school board was, I suppose, chairman of that committee and was very instrumental. The whole idea was to make it a peaceful, safe, successful transition of cross-town busing.

You must remember that we are now—this is 1990, we are looking at 1971. Or was it—it was '71, I believe, when the order came out. About that time, yeah. You have to remember that in living—first of all I just lived a few blocks from Irving Park School. It was a very simple—he could actually walk to school. And suddenly he had been assigned to go that following fall to Hampton School. I didn't even know where Hampton School was. That, that shows you how we all live in our own little worlds, and we don't know how other people live. I mean, we're divided not only by race but by class. And so Hampton School, to me, was the great unknown.

And I remember that my husband and I drove down a few days later, first of all, with a map to find Hampton School. And it was in southeast Greensboro, certainly in a, in a black neighborhood. At the time, the school was very modern, but in terms of its looks, there were a lot, lot of very poor, almost shanty-like houses; they're no longer there today.

But I mean, these are the things that weeded white parents, and particularly white parents in Irving Park. And I don't want that to sound snotty or arrogant. But I want it to be made clear that when the court ordered busing came, that a lot of people said, “Oh, Irving Park,” which is just regarded as, you know, sort of a high rent district—I don't live in a high rent district house, I just happen to live in Irving Park. In any event, a lot of people thought, “Oh, Irving Park will be given the so-called soft ride.” Irving Park was not. It was—the children were bused to the other side of town into a, a neighborhood that, at least back then, seemed extremely far and extremely poor.

That summer parents worked hard on, on the brochure. And the brochure would go out to all parents. It was a sort of “this is the way things are going to be, and we want it to be safe and successful and a happy experience for your child.” So I worked on that. As I said, Joanne Bluethenthal—and you should interview her.

KH:

We, we have.

RY:

Good. Anyway she was very instrumental in seeing that the transition would be a, a good one. So—

KH:

Were you getting feedback from other parents at this time? Was the committee getting any questions before the brochure came out?

RY:

Oh, yeah. Yeah. There were questions. And, and there were a lot of parents who decided to send their children to private schools. The ones that I knew were going to, I guess the Greensboro Day School, which was not very old back then. I don't think their motives were necessarily racial in doing that. I think that they foresaw a school system that would change drastically, because suddenly there would be children from underprivileged homes going to that school, and they felt that, either right or wrong, that it would lower standards. I realize this sounds somewhat racist and I don't mean for it to. I, I'm just trying to spell it out for you what was going on at that time and also to say look at it in terms of 1971, not 1990.

So I don't think all those parents went there out of racial reasons. I think they went there because they wanted—they thought going to a private school would assure their children rather steady academic standards, and those of us who were staying in the public school system didn't know what the academic standards would be after an influx of, of children from very different backgrounds. And the question is, would the kids be taught to the lowest common denominator, I mean, what would the standards be? Also, I think in—that a lot of people just didn't want their kids to be bused, you know, and so they went to private schools. So, I don't know whether you've interviewed any parents whose children did at this time. It would probably be a good idea if you did.

KH:

Probably. I'm not sure.

RY:

Yeah. Because you know it, it's one thing to talk to just those of us who certainly favored integration and desegregation of the schools. And I think, you know, you might get some interesting twists from the other parents.

In any event, it—I suppose 1971, the court ordered busing was—it was a very hard time for us. And as I said, it tested all of our liberal principles, because suddenly we were being asked to put them into practice. And I remember my son that morning, and I should tell you also that the, that first day of integration that, that we had, at least in our school district in Irving Park, we decided we would have bus parents. And that meant that volunteer—parents would volunteer to ride the bus to Hampton School. Hampton School was about a forty-five minute bus ride from my front door. Not if I had driven it, but I mean—

KH:

With all the bus stops.

RY:

—as the bus meanders throughout neighborhoods and stopping and so on. As I said, it—Hampton was the unknown. That neighborhood was the unknown. And these were very small children. Jim would've then turned seven by the time he entered the second grade to go to Hampton. And so I was a bus parent and my husband was a bus parent in the morning, and all it meant was that you would ride the bus to Hampton School with children who've never been on a school bus before to be sure that all went well.

It also meant that there was, there was a potential that there could have been racial violence. I mean there had—busing was obviously not a popular idea, and it would've taken about one racist nut to fire at a school bus to, to turn it into total chaos. And you know it, it was all such an unknown. And so anyway, we had bus parents and this went on for several weeks until I think people realized that it's safe.

Julius Fulmore was the principal of Hampton before it was ever integrated. And he is, is—Julius Fulmore is black. He's a wonderful man, and I think did a superb job. And I think his teachers at Hampton did too. He is now in the school administration, the assistant superintendent of the Greensboro schools. My son had a very happy experience at Hampton. I think parents—

KH:

Do you remember what he said that first day?

RY:

No, no. I don't. I do remember that there were reporters from other places. There was one from the Boston Globe who came down to interview and to see if, if busing went peacefully in Greensboro. And I remember the reporter asking my son some questions [laughs]. And you know, he didn't, he just—my son just was sort of baffled by it all that he would even be asked any questions, because to children it's no big deal; it's to parents.

In fact, it was—I've, I've often told this story—in fact I think I've included it in a column—and that is that the first Christmas of busing that Jim said—wrote a letter to Santa Claus and asked for a little toy school bus “just like the one I ride to Hampton School.” So I've always thought that busing didn't bother the children, it bothers their parents. It's an inconvenience. They caught the school bus at 7:15, I think, in the morning and it was a forty-five minute bus ride. Everybody had to adjust schedules. And of course they got home later in the afternoon.

I believe in busing. Things have changed now. Some schools have gone back to pretty much neighborhood schools. But I, I still—I still believe in it. I still think that—I think obviously the “freedom of choice” system that was in effect before schools were integrated here, that it didn't work and I—we all love the convenience and so on of neighborhood schools. But how will, how will our children ever know each other, black and white, without it? And, and also for minority children, segregated schools were just woefully unfair. They were—the children were not getting the education, so often—there were exceptions—black children weren't—that they, that white children were getting.

So I guess that's really my, my primary experience with the integration and, and civil rights movement in this area. As I said, I was really in Washington and New York sort of looking at it in the early sixties until we came here in '64.

My—my children were bused, by the way, throughout their elementary school days, including my younger son. And finally when they got back to junior high days they went to Aycock. Still they were bused. And that would not have been where they would have gone. They would have gone to Sternberger—not Sternberger, what's the one over off—the new school?

KH:

The one near Page?

RY:

Yeah.

KH:

I don't know.

RY:

That's where they should have gone. But anyway, they loved Aycock. They were also bused—it was two years/two years/two years in elementary school. They went to Hampton first and then they went to—the next two years to the school out near Four Seasons [Town Centre], and then they were sent back to Irving Park the last two. And I, I thought it was a system that worked. They don't have that right now. But it was—anyway, they were bused all around. They came back to Aycock Junior High School and then finally ended up at Page, which is within, actually, walking distance, as was Irving Park. So anyway, that may or may not be helpful.

KH:

Yeah.

RY:

I—it, it—

KH:

How would you rate the committee's role in that transition?

RY:

Well, I think that the committee was essential, because there had to be some sort of publicity, there had to be some sort of brochure explaining what was coming. And so I think it was—and I think it was, you know, essential. It was a—it was for educational purposes and preparation. And I think Greensboro accepted busing actually very well.

KH:

After it finally got started [laughs].

RY:

Yeah, you know, the fear of the unknown is, is what bothers so many people about, well, all the racial changes. It could be public accommodations. You know, having—it, it, it's just the fear of the unknown in race relations, and, and I think we proved, certainly in the case of busing, there was nothing to fear. So.

KH:

How would you describe the local press coverage of, of 1971 and, and the busing situation? How would you characterize the, especially the Greensboro Daily News' coverage of that, that whole period?

RY:

My memory—I, I—to really give you a better answer, I would have to go back and really look at the clip files. My memory, was that it was very adequately done. I know that the editorial page supported the idea of busing, felt that it was right. And so my memory was that the newspaper played a role and a, and a positive role in seeing that busing was, was done peacefully and so on.

KH:

Okay, I'm running out of questions to ask you [laughs].

[pause]

RY:

I, I always—I can't even remember what we've—you can turn this thing off—[the recorder]

KH:

You, you were saying—[both speaking at once].

RY:

My memory of the civil rights era was mostly from afar. I mean, I could actually go back and tell you a little bit more, I mean, but it doesn't pertain to Greensboro. For example, how in 1954 I was in the tenth grade I think, the eleventh grade, in Albertville, Alabama in a history class. It was right after lunch and the teacher walked in and said, “The supreme court has ruled that schools will be [de]segregated.” That was of course the Brown v. Board of Education case.

And I remember—this just shows you, in our all white high school—anyway, I was sitting in this history class and, and we—I mean, the kids in my class looked at each other startled, because the white mentality was such, at least in that class, that we said, “Oh, I'm sure that the black kids wouldn't want to come here to school. They like their school better.” I mean, that's very hard to believe now, but that's the way a lot of people thought, including myself. And I, you know, that's just how we had these certain mindsets. And that was 1954.

[laughs] I also remember that somebody said in my class, “I'm sure that the black students wouldn't want to come here, because they have a better football team than we they do.” So, I mean, to me—today it's incredible to think that—you look back and think, “Oh, they don't, they don't want to come to our school. They like their school.” This was in Albertville, Alabama, by the way. And I know this is not what this interview is about. It's just that the—that during the, the more turbulent era of the civil rights movement, I was in—I was not here. I was in the North looking down—

KH:

Well—yeah.

RY:

—or looking at the South from a very different perspective.

KH:

You were here during the National Guard invasion of the A&T [North Carolina State A&T State University] campus. Do you, do you remember that?

RY:

Only in reading about it. What, what was the date?

KH:

It was '69 I believe.

RY:

Oh no, I wasn't here.

KH:

Oh.

RY:

No, we went to Harvard University for a year.

KH:

Oh, okay.

RY:

My former husband was a Neiman Fellow. And so we were gone—

KH:

That year.

RY:

—during that period, yeah.

KH:

Yeah. Yeah, there was a, an incident at, at Dudley High where a student was denied his post as student president.

RY:

Yeah.

KH:

And that spilled over. The, the students protested that and, and I guess there was like an infectious kind of—

RY:

Yeah.

KH:

—sentiment. That there—

RY:

In things throughout.

KH:

Yeah.

RY:

Yeah. I, of course, remember reading about it, but again, it was reading about it from afar, because we weren't here.

KH:

Do you remember much about what was going on around the A&T campus, the Greensboro Association of Poor People, GAPP, Malcolm X University?

RY:

Yeah, in fact, I did a feature on Malcolm X Liberation University. I don't know whether—if you all want a copy for your files, I've got one.

This was during the time I was, you know, the mother and, and was not working full-time, but I went over to Durham when Howard Fuller had the Malcolm X Liberation University. My purpose was to do a feature story for the Greensboro Daily News, which I did. I remember being very uncomfortable that day, and if I'd have known you were going to bring this up I would have certainly refreshed my memory with—I've got the story somewhere, at the office or at home.

But those were very [clears throat], those were very—it was a difficult day when I went over. First of all Malcolm X Liberation University was considered extremely militant. It, it was—I certainly got the feeling that white people were not very welcomed. But I, I went with the purpose of finding out what is this place all about, and I, I didn't know Howard Fuller, but I called him. And he said, “Yes, come over.” And so I spent the whole day. And those were very, very strained times. I was the only white person there. Obviously, it was in a black neighborhood of Durham. It since—it, it later moved, as you know. But, I mean, in its most publicized times, publicized era, it was in Durham.

And anyway, I felt—it, it was strange. I felt as if I had gone into a foreign, a sort of foreign area, a foreign enclave or principality, which sounds very ridiculous today. But these were very, very strained racial times, and there was such a militancy to Malcolm X Liberation University—or at least it was perceived that by whites. You know, they'd be—it was a black power—the emphasis was on black power, almost a kind of a segregation in reverse as I understood it.

So anyway, I went, and it was—I remember spending the day. I remember that Howard Fuller had—we went to one of the cafes or restaurants, soul food restaurant in the neighborhood. And I remember, I remember feeling very out of place. I was the only white in a clearly black, militant, environment. And I remember at the, at the cafe, you know, I got lots of stares. And I remember thinking, If I feel out of place in their world they must feel out of place in mine. You know, it was, it was not like going and interviewing the local branch of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. This group was on the fringes, very much so. And—

KH:

They were generally young people?

RY:

Yeah. Yeah. And there was a sort of—a bravado about it, I remember. There were—I don't know whether Howard Fuller had bodyguards or not, but there were a couple of men who sort of stood like this with their arms folded, and, you know, it, it—there was this sort of tone and atmosphere about it that was uncomfortable. As I said, it was—you know, its emphasis was on black power, and I—it was, it was a very fascinating day. I wish I had known we were going to talk about it, because I would have refreshed my blurred memory with looking at the story again [laughs]. Again, I have a copy, as I said.

I'm not sure that I conveyed in the story what the Malcolm X Liberation University was trying to do, and I'm not sure it knew what it was trying to do. There were all sorts of, as you know, various responses to, or fringe groups in the civil rights movement, and that was one of them. It was, it was a very interesting day.

KH:

Sounds that way. Do you recall covering any other stories that touched on, on racial situations or specifically covered an aspect of the black community?

RY:

I'm trying to think. As I said, I was not a, you know, a daily full-time reporter. I, yeah, I remember doing a piece about that time on Palmer Institute down in Sedalia. And—

KH:

While it was still running, or was it closed down at that time?

RY:

I believe it was closed, and they were hoping to—

KH:

Reopen?

RY:

—reopen it, yeah. But that piece, I think, is not particularly relevant. It was more a feature story about Palmer Institute, its roots, its contribution to society, and Alice Freeman Palmer, so.

But I think because—I think I wasn't doing civil rights stories very often because I wasn't working everyday. You know, I had two very small children at the time. And certainly the story on Malcolm X Liberation University was the most unusual of the stories I did during that era.

KH:

What was it like for your younger son when he started school? Was it quite different than it was for your older son?

RY:

Yeah, it was—nobody was in the least bit apprehensive about busing or anything like that. I mean, it had been established that it, it worked. And it had been free of, of any kind of violence. It had been—really, been no picket lines that I know of. The Klansman had not come riding through town. So, it was very low key, it was very relaxed. It was just that that first year my son happened to be—my older son happened to be the, the vanguard or the, the guinea pig. That was the guinea pig generation.

So once it was established, everybody was relaxed about it. It, it didn't have any—well, that's overstating it. I started to say thereafter it was not race, it was inconvenience, but I don't think that's true. I mean that, that would be wrong of me to say that. It had never been race in my case, you know. It had either been inconvenience and the fear of the unknown.

And one thing that always interested me, and studies show this, is that, is that although there's school desegregation, there was not very much after-school socialization among blacks and whites. And I remember once saying to my—one of my children, he'd mentioned some friend who was black and I said, “Well, why don't you bring him home if you'd like to.” You know, kind of casually. He never did. I don't, I don't think it—first of all it was very inconvenient. I mean the black people lived in one side of town, we lived in another so I don't think it was—I think that was a factor in this lack of socialization. But be that as it may, I, I felt that busing has worked, and has, and has been a necessary tool of integration.

KH:

Okay. Well, thank you for talking with us, and I guess we'll wrap it up here.

[End of Interview]