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Oral History Interview with Nell Coley by William Chafe


Date: October 15, 1974

Interviewee: Nell Coley

Biographical abstract: Nell Coley was an English teacher at Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, from 1935 to the 1960s.

Interviewer: William Henry Chafe

Description:

This October 15, 1974, oral history interview conducted by William Chafe with Nell Coley primarily documents Ms. Coley’s experiences as a teacher at Dudley High School during the 1950s and 1960s. Topics include the English curriculum at Dudley and relating literature to African-American youths; teaching self-worth and inspiring action in the classroom; some former students, including Ezell Blair Sr. and Waldo Martin; her opinion of fellow educators Vance Chavis, Ben Smith, and John Tarpley; Dudley’s inadequate gymnasium; the Pearsall Plan; and the importance of the colleges and good public schools in Greensboro.

Other topics include Coley's opinion on why Greensboro was different from eastern North Carolina; visiting Woolworth's during the February 1960 sit-in; participating in a silent march; learning to read; and being unafraid of taking a stand on issues.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: William Henry Chafe Oral History Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.23.634

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 Nell Coley by William Chafe

Note: This transcript is an edited version of an original transcript for which no audio recording was available. Therefore, CRG cannot guarantee that this transcript is an exact representation of the interview.

William Chafe:

You say you are a native of Greensboro?

Nell Coley:

Yes, and—well, I don't. I went a roundabout way, but I got back here, and I'm grateful that I did. I got back here because my husband was—he's from eastern North Carolina, and he said when he was a little boy, “Where did you want to go?” and he said, “Greensboro.” But, anyway, it's an interesting community because, you see, the colleges here have an impact on the [unclear]. And the kinds of things available to us here, I think, are unique. You have so many [unclear] of things. In a way—it's a community of transits, in a way, because they come and go to the schools. But they bring—and they seem to me that they come and sharpen and take, you know—that it's quite a whole lot of people here. We have so many colleges right here in the city.

WC:

Do you think that's as much true with the white colleges—what has been historically the white colleges—as of the black colleges?

NC:

I'm not at all sure. I think that there are at least a couple of major forces of blackness, and that is the church and the schools. And I think that a college—I believe that a college had to mean more to a black community that is denied entry into the mainstream. It had to make its world. And one of the day-by-day places in which that world is focused is the college. And these colleges have meant that to us. You see, we had—our Lutheran is not here any longer, but we had a Lutheran college [Immanuel Lutheran College] and A&T [now North Carolina A&T State University] and Bennett [College], and they had to bring—they brought to us—I'm a Bennett graduate—the kinds of cultural things that they brought, the kinds of people that came, the ideas that they gave us, these are major things. You not only had to try to teach in that area, you not only had to try and teach blacks the educational facets of it, but you had to offset the kinds of things to which they were daily subjected to. So, you see, you had to do more than just teach. You had to keep things going further, and sometimes you had to be the clearinghouse or the sounding board for them as they tried on ideas according to the things they experienced. It's been quite exciting.

WC:

What's it like as you look back on it? How would you describe what it was like to grow up in Greensboro as a young black woman?

NC:

Well, first of all, it wasn't an era in which you had as many things to play with as you have now, so that I think that what we had to do would be more or less after work and after school. School was focus. The kinds of things we did to entertain ourselves were more or less creative. We didn't have all these things to play with. So that I remember, for example—I'll just have to take home. I belonged to a family of seven children, and I'm number two in that seven. And ours was a poor household; my father was the breadwinner, my mother stayed home with us. But there were always books, and this is important. There were books that were brought in, and I can't remember when I wasn't a schoolteacher, because the books were there and we read to each other. And I had a hard time learning to read. And in the final analysis, schools weren't much worth—I went to little private schools, like Episcopalian school. I went to Lutheran school when I was younger, and then I came to the public school. And I was having trouble with this reading business, so my father took me and taught me to read. And after he taught me, I just couldn't understand it the way they were giving it. And after he taught me, then I became the reader in the family. And these books, they're the children's classics. But I was the reader to the family, and I would read and interpret. It was interpretation and acting out and all this, and this was the kind of fun that we had. Some of the fun was centered in church, the activities that we had in church. I'm a Baptist.

WC:

Which church did you go to?

NC:

Providence [Baptist Church]. It's right up here now. I can look at it when the trees are not full, but it was then over near the Market Street area, and I grew up there. We had what we called—we don't have it—the Baptist Training Union, which would come say at six o'clock in the afternoon, before the regular services. We had two services then; we don't have but one now. But before the night service, we had this training meeting, and it was a lot of fun connected with that. So the church and school—

WC:

Was basic social—

NC:

Now, of course, my parents were very strict and very selective in the people with whom I associated, so in that restricted kind of set-up, we could have visitation, and different people could come and play with us. I remember, too, that my parents played with us in a vacant lot outside our house. It was this kind of home-based kinds of things, and the closeness that you have, and perhaps you wouldn't have if you had all these things [unclear].

WC:

It does make a difference when you get a chance to play with your children in a way in which it involves basic things like batting a ball, instead of some kind of mechanical—

NC:

My mother was not nearly as well-trained as my father, but she was long in I guess character training, things like that. And while we played, she was instilling principles. As I look back on and I recognize it, one of her favorite statements was, “Your word is your bond.” I didn't even know what she was talking about then, but I know now. So if I make a commitment, I try to keep it.

WC:

So you didn't really have a sense—or did you have a sense of the world out there being an enemy?

NC:

I don't think it was an enemy. It was big, and I wasn't as at home in it, as I look back, as I would like to be, as kids are now. But I didn't think it was an enemy at all. It was strange.

WC:

Did your parents vote, for example?

NC:

Yes. I actually cut my teeth in civic responsibility with my father. My father was a mover of things. I don't know whether he was a little man or not, a tiny man. I remember such things as, you know, if the community didn't have—we lived on dirt streets, and if there were mud holes there that needed filling and those kinds of things, it was my father that went to city fathers and said, “Put a load of this there.” In summer when the dust was rising up they put tar on the dirt and that would settle the dust. My father went to see about that. He was an avid reader and he kept up with things and all my life. I'm argumentative and he is, too. So we would argue with each other. And you sharpen your concepts.

WC:

Yes.

NC:

So my parents were—

WC:

I've gotten sort of the impression that, well, in the sense of the social structure of Greensboro, [it] was not as overtly oppressive as it was in other places, that a fair portion of the black population did vote without any interference from the white power structure. Is that true, you think?

NC:

I think so. I think that there was—back then when I was growing up, voting was more—it was a little struggle in it, and there were those who prized the privilege and kept it among their peers. It was the kind of thing that we talked about. I've heard my parents discuss—there was always a kind of intimidation of some people who wouldn't go, afraid to go to vote, but there was also a nucleus of people very much interested in it. As I think though, in Greensboro, the voting participation of blacks is pretty ridiculous. My husband is out there. I won't say he's running for anything, but he's a consistent civil rights worker—not so much rights, I say, but participation, precinct level, and this kind of thing. And so they say they want the black vote, and I say, for heaven's sake, there's no black vote to speak of, compared to what you could be. Because we have—I guess if you really want to compare it, it's been relatively easier in any era to participate in voting here than I think it's been, for instance, in the eastern part of North Carolina. Because I remember when I started teaching, I taught in eastern North Carolina, and it was done so quiet I didn't know. I said, “When do you vote down here?” I didn't know anything about it. That's never true here. I think that Greensboro has been ahead, but I don't it was fully taken advantage of. People are just lazy.

WC:

Let me just really jump ahead before I come back and pose a question which one might be lead to on the basis of your comment. You said that Greensboro was certainly less oppressive, more open. Would you then say that Greensboro was a place in which the barriers were almost minimum for blacks?

NC:

No, I don't think that. I think it was pronounced here. The barriers were real.

WC:

How would they differ from barriers you would have found in eastern North Carolina?

NC:

It's a difference in degrees. In the place of blacks—you know, much more prescribed than the place of blacks here. As I said, there's been a kind of liberal strand running through here. I don't know whether it's on the part of blacks or not. I guess it's on the kind of blacks you had here. They are not as blacks—the level of literacy is higher here in blacks than say in eastern North Carolina. Blacks were out of it and didn't even think about it in the east. They were out of it and they knew they were out of it. In Greensboro, there's a difference. It's a matter of offsetting twenty years. I think that—I do believe that the difference is in the school business, that school had to do more for us than the schools did for them. The schools had to be the cauldron in which things took place. And you are going to have a spin-off of the fact that something is happening at those colleges in particular. But make no mistake about it, Greensboro is not as—all that liberal.

WC:

You went to Bennett, and you say you then left Greensboro and you came back.

NC:

Yes, I went to Bennett. And after I finished, I couldn't get a job. I was given a scholarship to study, but I didn't have enough money to manage to match it, so I lost it. I went to New York and stayed there for a year and worked at what I could get. I met a principal down in Columbia. You know, it was a long time ago. You know how much I paid a point? Seven dollars—no, ten dollars a point. [unclear] And I met my eastern Carolina principal down there. That's how I got into North Carolina at as a teacher. But—

WC:

We were talking about your reason for coming back.

NC:

Oh, yes. And then I went down there and taught for three years, and then I got a job in Greensboro, and I stayed here right straight through.

WC:

When did you come back to Greensboro?

NC:

Nineteen thirty-five, in the fall of 1935. And I came to Dudley High School, and I stayed there until I retired. I didn't get shifted.

WC:

Who was the principal at Dudley then?

NC:

Tarpley, Dr. J[ohn] A. Tarpley. And he's quite a person. He was at one time the supervising principal of the black schools, and then later the principal of Dudley.

WC:

I would like to talk about your experience teaching there. You taught English to which group, the whole freshman through seniors?

NC:

Yes, I have done it from freshman to seniors. I suppose in later years, my concentration was more seniors. Then, of course, the whole thing has evolved at so many different levels. We had once—recently—well, first of all, it was just tenth grade, eleventh grade and twelfth grade English. I would teach whatever was thrown at me. Then after a while I was teaching a senior. Then I would add another step to it, and I was teaching what we called the honors courses in English. And I got down to Waldo Martin [now a professor of history] and those during these recent years. They were in what we called honors English. And, of course, now we don't have honors; we have advanced English. And it's a whole new ballgame of the whole English spectrum. Now it's elected. It's fascinating. It's about fifty or sixty courses. They are not all offered concurrently, but what's offered is what's dictated by what the kids want, by what the teachers want, and what the teachers want to teach and feel confident in teaching. It's fascinating. It's a semester now; it used to be a whole year. You see, there is no age difference. A tenth grader can take it, an eleventh grader—there are some courses that specify tenth graders, that kind of thing, but you get an across-the-board collection of them now. And then, of course, you have advanced placement into which youngsters are invited. One semester may concentrate on one passage.

WC:

That's great. It's just like college.

NC:

Yes.

WC:

You had been saying earlier, in talking about church and school, particularly in the black community, the school must do two things: train you [unclear] and prepare you to develop the kinds of things to give you strength. I would like to—if you could talk a little about how you perceived yourself to deal with both those aspects in the role of the school.

NC:

You mean as I taught?

WC:

Yes.

NC:

Well, first of all, I know that I must impart knowledge in dealing with English, which is the language we speak, but which is a language that my youngsters do not speak. I mean that there have always been dialects, but I have to offset this. I have to inspire. I have to project this material that is the body of information. I have to do this in such a way that they will pursue it for themselves. So I have to try to impart to them a desire to pursue, and I found that this was—I had to make it attractive enough to them. I'll sell it. I would try to do this through—of course, it's very easy to do in literature, in the kinds of literature that you have. You can do a whale of a lot with youngsters through their literature. And at the same time, I had to school them in the basics. You know, there must be more explanations and clarifications than there would be true if you just naturally spoke the language that is used by—the dialect that is used by the majority.

At the same time, I had constantly to deal with who we are, so I would bring the world out there into the classroom to the degree that we were always talking about issues. You know, in other words, we might read this and this would be a kind of pivot, a part from which we would take off, and then there would be things that we would bring in from the community, that kind of thing. So that we were more or less a forum, and as a forum that is based in the literature and in the things that I'm trying to impart. But it is also—the literature is not a static thing, because there are parallels of this of where we live. And so I give a lot of that kind of thing I suppose in a way, a kind of rapport with our community as we pursue and adhere to it. When they knew this kind of thing was going on, they would bring in things and discussions.

And then at the same time, I had to tell youngsters that the way you find things need not happen in your pursuit of the way things are, and they won't let you do this. But make no mistake about it, there is such a thing as this happening here, and you can be a part of it. In other words, it's the kind of thing—“I'm limited,” they say. I never accept it for myself: anybody's estimate of where I was suppose to demonstrate at any one time. You know, I tell kids all the time, and I demonstrate it. I am the boss. And nobody can really inhibit me. This is why I have been able to move into integrated set-up without any problems whatsoever, because I deliberately put myself into the mixed schools after college. I pushed myself into mixed schools because I wanted to know whether or not I really wanted to know about me. I wanted to know whether I was good and favorite in a small situation, or whether I was really good. And the way to do that, of course, is [unclear]. And I fought it out and came out on top. So I had to tell kids that you must not accept. I don't care if they do push and shove you, you must not accept that. That you are who you are; it's dictated by your own concept. And make no mistake about it, you have a concept. You see, I had all that to do, and this is what I did with kids.

I remember when—you mentioned Randolph Blackwell. I remember when Randolph was coming through. That was when I was doing a lot of work with the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. Now my husband is a NAACP man now. But I was working with them because I felt that they were on. I knew that they were doing things for us that needed to be done. And Randolph was in charge of the youth group. We had the youngsters coming along, so we paid a dollar to join, and they could join for fifty cents. And they were more or less helping those kids to understand the nature of the fight. So it's no happenstance to me. It was a natural thing to those civil rights leaders. They started their sit-ins and up and done it. That didn't seem to me to be unusual at all because we had been teaching those kids those things.

WC:

I really want to get into that very much. [laughter] I don't know whether to go along with that chronologically. Why don't you just keep talking about that a little bit more, that Ezell Blair, Jr. [now Jibreel Khazan] and—?

NC:

Dave Richmond.

WC:

Dave Richmond. And you taught both of them?

NC:

Oh, I don't know. I think I taught Ezell. I know I taught his sister [Gloria Jean]. You know, it gets fuzzy. I don't remember. But you see, there is Ezell Sr. I taught Ezell Sr., his father. And Ezell Sr. has never had any question in his mind as to who he is. That Ezell Jr. is his father's child is significant, but then that they came from Dudley; they were freshman at A&T, and that they came from Dudley. I think they just did it as a gag. I don't think they had any idea it was going to [unclear] to what it was. But I think they were just daring during a gag session. But they would take the stand and that they would do this.

That was such an exciting time. I think it has been such a privilege to live in the span of the years that I have had, because there are so many different things that have happened. Now, I can never forget—I can remember going to the hairdressers on this Saturday, and these college kids were all downtown. Those black kids were down there. So I said, “I don't think I'll go down there.” Then something said to me, “Nell, get down there. You aren't ever going to see this kind of thing a day in this world.” So I went on down there and I went into Woolworth's, and I have never—well, I'm always happy that I did that, because I went through there and here were these black kids lined around this counter and they had books in their hands. [unclear] and they had Confederate flags in their hands, and they were just standing in the aisles. And the place was jammed and packed. And I just went through there and saw that. And in about ten minutes after I went through—and you could hardly get through—they had to close the store, put everybody out. And I was right there when the store was closed and when those black youngsters formed lines and said, “We won,” and they went back to the college. But, of course, that was a kind of a climax for me just looking at it.

But before that my husband had come up one Saturday and said, “Something is happening and I want you to see it.” And so he got me in the car and we went Market Street, and right in front of the line of blacks was [Tony] Stanley, who is a Dudley graduate, who was then a divinity graduate working at A&T. [Unclear] was working in religion affairs at A&T. And there was another minister there. I think his name was Brown; I can't remember his first name, but he's still at it. Here they are in their clerical garb, and I think Rev. Brown had a wooden cross over his shoulder. And those two were in the front of this line and all these college kids. There was no cigarette smoking, no laughing, no talking. They had perfect silence, and you heard nothing but the shuffle of feet. And they were walking. They had walked through [unclear] and they headed back down Market Street going back to the college when I saw them. And I was impressed.

Then, of course, there were mass meetings, real mass meetings. And these mass meetings were at the churches. And all of us were there. I remember the first mass meeting I went to. I went to Old Zion church. We called it “Big Zion.” It had more space than others. That place was jammed and packed. And I remember going in there. This was a Sunday night. And I didn't know that they were getting ready to march then, but they decided that they would march that night. And I had on heels about yea tall, but I got out there. And I tell you, it seems that your feet had wings, really. And they marched all the way up Washington Street to Elm [Street] and back down Market and back out Pearson Street back to that church.

WC:

About fifteen hundred of them, wasn't it?

NC:

Oh, yes. And just marching, not singing or talking, just silently marching. Whites were lined along the streets, and it was really dramatic.

WC:

Who led that march? Who were the—?

NC:

Oh, I tell you, it doesn't come out clearly, but you know Jesse Jackson was at A&T then. And Jesse had—I think had focused as a kind of leader. I can't remember other names. Of course there were these youngsters who had started the thing. But I remember Jesse Jackson as the one who would go to the—there were two or three places that they were concentrating on. Boyd Morris' caf [Mayfair Cafeteria] was one of them. And I remember Jesse's conversation. “I have nothing against you, Boyd, but it's what you are doing here.” Then we would go around to the Carolina Theatre, and Jesse was the spokesman. I can't remember the others that were associated with Jesse in that level of it, but I remember Jesse. And then the S&W Cafeteria—he was always the spokesman. But the names of the others associated with him I can't remember.

WC:

Going back to the earlier period, when you first came and started to teach, was there—did you feel that your perception of what you had to do was shared by other teachers who—

NC:

Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. There were some who sensed and did about what I was doing, and there were many others who didn't. And they just did the routine kind of teaching. There are several things by which I operate that makes it possible for me to do what I do. I don't mind taking a stand on things. I am—and I think I got this from my father—I'm rather much alone in a way to this degree—if the way I feel about a thing isolates me from a lot of people, I'm not uncomfortable. I'm not uncomfortable in isolation, put it that way. I don't mind standing over here by myself if I have to so that I deliberately get into controversial things. I like this kind of thing. You know, I take a stand—not adamantly in the stand I take. If you can—if you have a better thing, I'm open-minded to the degree that I can move to you, too. The confrontation is what I like.

And my principal, Dr. Tarpley, he has been very, very analytical, as far as I was concerned. He used to have me laughing at myself because he would say, “I told her so-and-so, but do you think she would accept that? No, there she is out there trying it out.” It was fun. I don't mind pursuing things. You know that there are some other people who have to be loved more than I do. I like to be loved—make no mistake, I want to be loved—but I want to—maybe the desire to be respected for what I do is a little stronger than the need to be popular. So it's this kind of thing. So therefore I would deliberately get into things. And, you see, if I'm in things, if I'm out there dealing with what I call the good issues, that comes off with the kids, too. I had a feeling I had to do it that way, which is the way I am. I had a feeling that one of the reasons—if indeed I have had any impact on kids—is that I tried to demonstrate myself what I was telling them to do, because I didn't figure out that I could have them to do it or help them to do it if I'm not willing to do it myself.

WC:

You made no effort to hide, or I gather the fact that you were a member of the NAACP, which was something that was public knowledge in which you talked about in your classroom?

NC:

Yes, and I worked with the NAACP. And I know other people, for instance, my peers—I would be, of course, the person designated to collect any NAACP dues—and they would give all kinds of runarounds. For instance, my husband joined where he works, and I know he didn't—they just didn't join. I wasn't scared to let it be known that I was a member.

WC:

And some of the other people were?

NC:

I think so, yes. Sometimes I would have problems in determining whether they were scared or stingy, you know.

WC:

They were afraid that they would lose their jobs?

NC:

I think that maybe there was a little bit of that in it. I don't remember that there was any pressure put on me because I was a member. I don't know that was in the dossier about me. I never felt any pressure.

WC:

Someone told me that you and Vance Chavis were the two people who were strong leaders in the schools.

NC:

Well, yes. I don't know whether I was so much a leader, but I know that Vance was in particular. I know that Vance has been as consistent as his existence on how he feels about this kind of thing. And he has never waived from it. I mean, he does it now. And right straight through his teaching, his principalship, and council stand and all of that, he was consistently interested in the black cause. And I have been. We had a lot to do together.

WC:

Would you—Mr. Chavis was not teaching at Dudley?

NC:

Yes.

WC:

He was principal at Lincoln [Junior High School]?

NC:

He was teaching at Dudley when I came. I found him at Dudley. And he and I were there together for a long time. Then he was moved to principalship at Lincoln High School.

WC:

Would you and he be an identifiable—would other people think of you and he in the same connection?

NC:

I don't know whether other people would even think of us of—you know, kids might think of us. And this is one of the things; you're having me talk about what I did because kids have led you to me, but you really have to talk to the kids because I don't really know their estimate of me. For instance, when I was nominated for teacher of the year, Waldo wrote something. I have some things like that which kids have written, this kind of thing. But you never know how you impressing people; you can't tell. But I don't believe anybody would look at Vance and me as being people who were structuring kids and who were actually leading them to do this, that, and the other. We were leading to be the best person that they could be, and if in that pursuit of the best person I can be, this comes up, then I must be over there. But I wouldn't think that we were black leaders and pushing the black cause per se.

WC:

You were being yourselves?

NC:

We were being ourselves, being ourselves in the context of the times in which we were living. And if the spinoff leads to kids who are going to be leaders in this way, so be it. But I don't think we were deciding it that way. We were just trying to inspire young folks, and we were trying to make them realize their potential. We had a good batting average, too. We had some great kids. I mean they are leaders in this world, no strings attached. And they came from Dudley and they came through those of us who were there. So you have to think that maybe you had one or two who would think about it, clusters of them. And they are making a whole lot of difference in this world [unclear], and you feel good about the fact that you had a brush with them.

WC:

Right, that you were part of their process.

NC:

One of the things: I have loved teaching. I didn't like; I was simply crazy about it. I think it's so important, and it was always a fun thing to me, just great. It was exciting. I remember one time that the exchange for the kids is what I looked for. I grew on, too. After all, I'm not over here. I believe Vance felt that way, too. I didn't look upon myself as being educated. I don't think that I'm educated even now. I think that life is a process, a coming, a direction in the only thing that is worthwhile. I think that you need to grow at all times. And it's this kind of pursuit, and I'm pursuing it. Perhaps not as avidly, but I'm pursuing it. Not as structured, but I still pursue because I don't know and I'm trying to learn, too. So that if I started ahead of you it's because I got here first, but that's all, so that you have as much to teach me. Well, another way to put it: I say to kids all the time, “I don't know this world,” especially these late ones. “I don't know your world, so suppose you teach me how to move around in your electronic world. I don't know this. You can teach me that world, and I will teach you the world that never goes out of style. I'm familiar with that world, so we're going to have to exchange.” That's exciting. You take the class I got when Waldo Martin was in; I never had such a good time.

And, you see, what I was doing after the black movement started was everybody crying for black literature and everything—we didn't have this kind of thing that we're doing now in the English setup—but in the context of that honors, I was doing a great big block of black literature. I could do that because it's a matter of exposing kids to a lot of things.

I don't even know your name.

WC:

Bill Chafe.

NC:

Chafe?

[Redacted introduction of Chafe to Mr. Coley]

NC:

I don't even remember where we were.

WC:

We were talking about the exchange process.

NC:

Oh, yes, the kind of things that I learned from kids. I would throw them out and they would read books and things about blacks. Because I figured, you have the spirit to make a difference in our behalf, but you don't really, because you see in this curriculum that I'm projecting, you're not present. I got to put you back in there, because you belong in there. So I would have them do things like [read] Lerone Bennett's Before The Mayflower [:A History of Black America], and like Louis Lomax's book. What is it? You know, it's historically accurate.

WC:

The Negro Revolt?

NC:

The Negro Revolt, yes. And books like that would give them the factual set-up and then, of course, the pursuit of the literature. James Baldwin was one of my favorites. And not James Baldwin as a novelist, but James Baldwin as institute. To that this kind of thing is what we would read. I even had those kids read—what's that controversial thing?

WC:

Another Country?

NC:

No.

WC:

Giovanni's Room?

NC:

No, I've never read that.

WC:

The Fire Next Time?

NC:

Oh, yes. I wasn't thinking about Baldwin now. I had gone to somebody else. I was trying to—it was a very controversial thing. It's the Bible—

WC:

Soul on Ice?

NC:

I think so. I think you could call him a political person. First thing I would say is that he had a very, very good mind. He's sharp. He was sharper then so that he could—one thing that he had done, he had stood on the cutting edge of the black situation as far as the school's concern. He had put the fear of God in the hearts of everybody, and really they didn't fool with him too much. They didn't because they knew they would run right smack into a man and he would stand, he would confront them, he wasn't afraid of him. And you know all this separate but equal bit? He knew it was a myth. Of course it was a myth.

But John Tarpley was there where the myth operates, and he always let them know in no uncertain terms that he knew it was a myth and that we didn't have this, that, and the other. We have done this thing with practically nothing. And that was the way Dudley looks today. The way Dudley is today and the way it was then is just not [unclear]. It's contrast. So he could stand like that. And I'll tell you something else: he stood between us as a faculty and the community. You know, they always lay people who are going to come in and run the school, and he would stand right there and meet them. Now, when they had gone, he just might give us the devil, but he stood for us. And you knew you could depend on him. He didn't buckle and run at all, and you needed somebody to stand for you because it got rough at times. And I'm talking about stand between the black community and the schools, because the black community does not always understand what's going on in the schools. They would stand right there for us. And when he's a liaison between this school community in a way, but he stands there and defends what's happening at that school in terms a community can understand. But if the community can't understand, he stands there for it.

WC:

Can you give me an example of that? Can you think of an example?

NC:

Let me see if I can think of one. It all runs together. Maybe I'll take this illustration: we had a place on the end of the main building of Dudley that we called the gymnasium. We call it now the girl's gymnasium, but that was the only gymnasium we had. And we had to play games in there, basketball games in particular, and the kids would have to—well, we had a few bleachers, but you had to stand around because the playing court took up all the space, and so we played like that. So after awhile—I can't remember how it came about, but I know that it came about. It was so inadequate, why can't we take our games out to Grimsley [High School—then Senior High School] to play? Grimsley had a big gym out there, so John Tarpley was there when those games were taken to Grimsley. We went out there. In other words, for this night it was a black gymnasium, not this—the taking of our games out there was a hazardous kind of thing, because the white community hadn't given in a bit and they were standing out there ready to start something, but we were there. And as a result of that, they came and built us a gymnasium that won an architectural award [unclear]. And we got that gymnasium because we, you know, with him, just made a case out of it. [unclear]

WC:

I remember reading about that in the school board minutes. There seemed to have been a very important item.

NC:

But now in the things based in idea and confrontation and ideas—I wish you could talk to him.

WC:

I'd like to.

NC:

He may be a little fuzzy on some things because he's got to look back, but he certainly would remember some specifics because he was in the middle of it.

WC:

He was supervising principal?

NC:

I think that's what he was when I came here in '35. He ran all the black schools then. He got cut back to just being principal. Now, the way he would tell it, you might assume it was his idea, but they cut him back.

WC:

Whose idea was it?

NC:

I'm pretty sure it was their idea. You know, we had a—when I came here, Guy Phillips was superintendent. Guy Phillips was superintendent. Then Ben L. Smith came, and Ben L. Smith learned a whole lot [unclear], so much so that when the controversy first started, Ben Smith was here, and I think that he was much more liberal to equality [unclear]. Well, John Tarpley tells we never saw at all, so [unclear] you had. I believe it was in—was it late Smith or early [Phil] Weaver that John was reduced to just principal. I kind of have the idea that it might have been early Weaver. Yes, I think so.

WC:

Because I have been through the minutes of the school board, and he was still supervising principal.

NC:

I think it had to be in Weaver's time. Weaver despised him, and I think it was mutual. But Weaver feared him. As a matter of fact, you know, there was the rest of the school system, then Dudley. Make no mistake about it, Dudley was an entity. It was an entity because at the head of Dudley was John Tarpley, and they could not push John Tarpley around, and they knew that. So the idea was to let him alone and we will bide our time, and they did that. Because I think that Weaver pulled the stopwatch on John [unclear]. The way John would tell it would be that it was his idea. You know, people do things with their age. They drop off a little bit and add a little bit as it's convenient, so that according to what John would say [unclear]. But I think that Phil Weaver—the way I heard it, that Phil Weaver did research on John. He went back to Texas and looked John up, and when it was just time, he threw the book at him. And I remember the very day, because Dr. Tarpley came and called a meeting of the faculty immediately, and he was more upset than I had ever seen him. And he announced that he was retiring, and it was just like that. We knew it was close to time, but the way he did—I think that he had been down there and they had given him the axe, and he just came back and he knew he had to tell us, and so he just did it. That man was upset. Anybody could see that he was upset.

WC:

Did that have anything to do with Ezell Blair Sr.'s retirement?

NC:

I don't think so. I think Ezell Sr. wanted to be—he wanted to get this principal groove, and I guess he was just as qualified as anybody else. They don't want these teachers. They wanted the principals, and Ezell never got the run on that. And then Ezell is a builder, and Ezell got mixed up in some materials, and I think he got out of it—some stolen materials or something he got out of it. But I think Ezell just stayed to demonstrate that he was out of it. Because I think he was always leaning, and in as much as he didn't get the principal [unclear].

WC:

I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about Smith, Ben Smith. You talked about his—what you thought to be his growth.

NC:

Yes, I think there was a mellowing about this man. When he first came—he came from Shelby [North Carolina] to Greensboro—when he first came, I think first of all those Phillips—and that Guy is Craig Phillips' father, I believe.

WC:

Yes.

NC:

That's a family of educators, you know. And it's tough business filling shoes left by Phillips. And Guy Phillips had been particularly effective. He left and went to the University [of North Carolina] in Chapel Hill.

WC:

Yes.

NC:

Those were some big shoes to fill, and I think that Mr. Smith coming from Shelby was not quite big enough for this situation. But, you know—and I can't be specific. He was a gentle man. And I think that at all times he was feeling his way, but he was feeling his way in the traditional manner. In other words, there was this black and white world, make no mistake about it. We had to look at in terms of where he was and his place and all. You know, it's a black place and a white place, and they are not the same. And he went on in this way until it seems to me—I can't remember years. I know that something about this racial—the racial thrust had got to be a little more than ordinary because I remember that Smith took some stands where the racial business was concerned, because I know some window lights in his home were broken out because of the stands that he had taken. They weren't earthshaking, but they certainly were leaning toward fair-mindedness. And it was this thing that they were paying the price for. I watched him grow. And as I said, he was always a gentleman and he was always—he was easy to know and to have communication with. You didn't feel the height of his position bearing down on you. So that I think that he was a very human, very humane kind of person. But I believe that he grew in his humanitarian approach to things.

WC:

I certainly have gotten that very strong impression from some private papers as well as—

NC:

I think Mr. Smith was a Christian, and I think he was working at the Christian concept on things. I believe that made a difference. He was a great church man, and I think he believed it. And I believe he was applying Christian principles in what he was doing. His growth was that phenomenal. I can't be specific, but he's a great man.

WC:

He's the only white leader in Greensboro who opposed the Pearsall Plan.

NC:

Now, you see, I knew it was something, yes. I thought I should remember the Pearsall Plan. I remember when [N.C. governor] Luther Hodges pointed his [unclear] finger at us to accept the Pearsall Plan over television. And I tell you the truth, if I had thought it would have helped, I would have torn the television up.

WC:

[laughter] Were you at the session of the North Carolina Teacher Association when he came in and asked the black teachers if they would support voluntary segregation?

NC:

Yes. Oh, yes. And then, of course, he came over there at A&T, and the kids took care of him. And that killed Dr. Bluford. Well, the kids are right. You know, they call us Uncle Toms if we don't do right, and Dr. Bluford was an Uncle Tom. He stood right there with the white man [unclear], and those kids took [a sign?] and I think they put on his new house over there "Uncle Tom's cabin," and all this kind of thing. And that man [unclear], and those kids standing up and keeping noise and not accepting Luther Hodges' concept of what blacks ought to do.

WC:

He went to the hospital three days after that.

NC:

[unclear]

WC:

I've always had this urge to go and talk to Hodges, but I also always had the sense that if I talked to him, he wouldn't tell me anything that he hadn't already written down somewhere in defense of himself and what he had done.

NC:

Yes, he [unclear]. You see, I couldn't be but so enthusiastic because I remember what he was trying to do with us. You can [through?] on fame. They thought he was famous by the way he handled things. Well, he infamous as far as I'm concerned.

WC:

I would like to come back and talk to you again.

[End of Interview]