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Oral History Interview with William Snider by William Chafe


Date: December 19, 1974

Interviewee: William D. Snider

Biographical abstract: William Snider (1920- ) served in editorial positions on both the Greensboro Record and Greensboro Daily News from 1951 to 1982.

Interviewer: William Henry Chafe

Description:

This transcript of a December 19, 1974, oral history interview conducted by William Chafe with William Snider primarily documents Snider’s recollection of school desegregation in Greensboro, North Carolina. Topics include a meeting at Snider's home following the Brown v. Board of Education decision; "collusion" with newspaper editors from Winston-Salem and Charlotte; the delay in implementation of school desegregation; token desegregation; backlash against desegregation, including having a cross burned on his lawn; white supremacy groups in Greensboro; local leadership; and Benjamin Smith and Edward Hudgins.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: William Henry Chafe Oral History Collection

Repository: Duke University

Item#: 4.23.679

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 William Snider 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 are a Greensboro native, are you not?

William Snider:

No, I'm from Salisbury.

WC:

From Salisbury?

WS:

Which is just fifty miles from here.

WC:

When did you come to Greensboro?

WS:

I came to Greensboro in 1951.

WC:

So you were coming into the situation which was developing in terms of where there was to be a change taking place in Greensboro.

WS:

Right. I had come out of the governor's office in Raleigh, secretary to first Governor [R. Gregg] Cherry, and then stayed on as the administrative assistant to Governor Kerr Scott, and came here in the summer of '51, which was just three years before the Brown [v. Board of Education] decision.

And I recall rather vividly the reaction to the Brown decision when it occurred here in Greensboro. There was a very fine man who was the chairman of the school board at that time, Ed Hudgins. You may know Ed Hudgins. And if you haven't, you certainly ought to interview Ed because he would know a great deal about this. At the time it happened, I recalled that we were very much aroused by the fact of the decision, and in fact had a meeting out at my home. I got concerned about it and decided it would be a good idea to get some people together and to see and—to talk about and see what we might do in Greensboro about it. And one voice, Mr. Hudgins—and I also remember [Edward Kidder] Kelly Graham, who was chancellor of The University [of North Carolina at Greensboro, then Woman’s College]. They were two of the persons that were there—a small group of people, and we talked about it.

And the school board initially decided to see whether or not it could begin the task of complying with the decision, and at the time we had no idea how angry and enraged the response would be. It’s hard in retrospect to look back and imagine, if you weren't part of it, the anger that was involved in the response of the average citizen, white citizen, in the community about the changes that were to take place. And I think that perhaps the school board, when it decided to try to comply in effect with the decision, to some limited token desegregation, which at that time was a red flag in many areas of the community, that the response was quite [unclear] and very decidedly controversial, as you can imagine. As a result of that, the school board of Greensboro and Winston-Salem and Charlotte decided to see if they could work in a coordinated way to perhaps take the same position and see if this would help them and strengthen and fortify each other by moving in the same direction. This was interpreted as—by some persons, who [were] opposed to this collusion—

WC:

Which, in fact, it was.

WS:

It was an effort being made by people who thought that perhaps they would have to decide how they could obey the law and what was the best way to deal with it, and so indeed they did. We had some meetings, the newspaper editors in the three communities at that time: Pete McKnight in Charlotte, and I was the one involved here—although I was not the editor of the paper at that time; I was the associate editor—and Reed Sarratt, whom you may know in Winston-Salem. And we got together and had some meetings, and of course, immediately they became newsworthy. And when they got out, we had lots of criticism from a number of opponents of any kind of desegregation at all.

WC:

Your meetings of the editors were—

WS:

Coordinated with those of the school board.

WC:

They became public, these meetings of editors?

WS:

Eventually they did. Then we of course were immediately faced with the problem of what does constitute news and how far newspapers should go in being involved in making the news or trying to influence to that extent by participating in activities of that type. I felt those meetings were helpful, and I think they resulted ultimately in the school boards being able to take a stand, which led in the direction of the first token desegregation, which took place incidentally in 1957, and was, by some irony as you think about it, to take place the same time as Little Rock. And that fall this was not—then didn’t seem to amount to a great deal in view of the great fuel raised by the Little Rock crisis. So what the school boards had tried to do in these communities, it tried to do rather a minor episode as those things go. But it always seemed to me, in retrospect, that it represented a rather sizable move at that time, and considering the climate in which it was done. Later, of course, it seemed to mean absolutely nothing in view of the events that transpired later.

But I think the people who were involved in it at the time that it was important—and this then was the beginning of—and, of course, most of those persons involved in it were subjected to the most heated kind of retaliation including all kinds of not only telephone calls but smashed windows and other acts of violence, including cross burnings and everything else. And they focused mostly on the school superintendent, Ben Smith, whom you probably know. I can recall that there was a place on my lawn that stayed brown for years later where a cross was burned, where I went out and got it up and pushed it away before my kids could see it, frankly because I was concerned about it. But these were times when the whole thrust was formed, the white community responding to the court's decision. And in later years, of course, this is turned all around and that became—it seemed to be a sort of minor part of the [unclear]. But at the time it was very important and I think interesting that it happened the way that it did in these communities.

WC:

Who were some of the—I know some of the names of some of the people who were active in the Klan—George [Dorsett]—but was there an organized Klan that you as a newspaper man were aware of and had reporters covering, things like that?

WS:

Yes, we—there was a house painter here named Webster who seemed to be tied up in the Klan. He seemed to be the person that I heard from the most. These people did come to the school board meetings. They tried to disrupt the school board meetings. They brought in their associates and they tried to interest some persons of some consequence in the community so that they could make their movement respectable.

WC:

Now, these are Patriots?

WS:

Yes.

WC:

In other words, there was a distinction sort of clear between the Patriots and the Klan?

WS:

This was difficult to know. It’s hard to know how much illusion there was there between the two, but quite definitely they sought to get respectable to take up their cause. And many of the respectable tried not to be associated with the Klan element but to make a more respectable case for what they tried to do, so I do not really know what the relationship was.

WC:

But on the surface there would be a different kind of class basis for the two groups?

WS:

I think so. There would definitely be.

WC:

Someone like Mr. [unclear] was associated with the Patriots, and he was fairly respectable, wasn't he?

WS:

Yes, he had been the campaign manager for Joe, you know, a person with political consequences. But it just simply infuriated them by the thought of any kind of desegregation.

WC:

So that would the Patriots use the fear of the Klan? Would they use that kind of threat of the Klan as one of their organizing—as one of their pressure tactics? For example, if [unclear] were coming to see you and try to put pressure on you, and the paper, too, not to support integration, would they hold forth the threat of the Klan as a reason to go slow?

WS:

I never heard that. I think that this was the unspoken, the unmentioned, thing. And I think that they did not want to be connected with this group necessarily. That they feared that this would—could bring their movement into disrepute. Again, I do not know what the connection was behind the scenes, and there may well have been connection. I had heard that there was, but I never knew.

WC:

You mentioned this meeting that had taken place, as soon as the Brown decision, at your house. Was this the same night as the Brown decision or—?

WS:

Either that night or the night after.

WC:

And it was initiated by yourself?

WS:

Yes, I made some calls initially and got these people together.

WC:

Because I know that when Ed Hudgins came to the school board, he brought with him a draft resolution, which had been prepared evidently, at least in part, by Benjamin Smith and himself. And I wondered whether that meeting at your house had anything to do with—

WS:

I don’t know. I do know that at the time he spoke of—that school board meeting took place at somewhat time later, did it not?

WC:

Well, actually the school board meeting came the night after the decision.

WS:

The night after the decision?

WC:

Yeah.

WS:

That's interesting.

WC:

The school board meeting was May 18, and the decision was made the seventeenth, so I was thinking—

WS:

That's interesting. You might ask Ed Hudgins about this, because my memory is not clear on what—whether it was that night or the night following. I imagine that he had been working independently with Ben Smith on this, too, and that perhaps this was simply a way of discussing. We did discuss this.

WC:

And it was yourself and—?

WS:

I wish I could remember. My wife might remember who was there. I'm sorry I don't remember the persons who were there.

WC:

You had sort of a connection here, which may seem tangential, that I would like to explore a little bit. You had been part of a luncheon group, had you not, an informal—maybe it wasn't a luncheon group, an informal conversation group—

WS:

Yes.

WC:

—with Ed Hudgins and some other people? Was that going at that time?

WS:

I can't remember whether that meeting—it seems to me that group could well have started. It was started by Tartt Bell and Marc Friedman[?]—who is presently at Yale University—I think, and I do not recall the exact time that that group began, but Hudgins was in the group as was—I don't think Ed Graham was in it; I'm not sure—but I do know that Tartt Bell, who is now with the American Friends Service [Committee]—you know who I'm talking about?

WC:

Yes, yes.

WS:

And you know Marc Friedman?

WC:

Yes.

WS:

I think they in fact began this discussion group, which in fact I just—we just had a meeting two nights ago. It’s still going on.

WC:

And you would have joined that almost as soon as you came to Greensboro, you think?

WS:

It seems to me it was begun after I came to Greensboro. I'm not sure. But I don't remember the dates.

WC:

Would that be—would you discuss in those meetings primarily ideas of books, or would you also discuss current events such as race relations and desegregation?

WS:

Everything.

WC:

Everything?

WS:

Very much school desegregation would be the big subject.

WC:

So that it’s possible that some of the things that came out of, or some of the roles played by the participants in that group, might have been partly influenced by the discussions you would have had in that group?

WS:

I would say so.

WC:

Do you recall anyone—is there anything in particular that stands out in your mind as you recollect those years?

WS:

You mean about these conversations?

WC:

About those conversations, any—

WS:

Not particularly. These conversations were all considered to be confidential, off the record, as far as the participants were concerned. It was an opportunity for these people to sort of let their hair down and talk about some of the problems we had. The school board superintendent, Mr. Ben Smith, was not a member, but Phil Weaver was, his successor [unclear]. But this would be the sort of place where you would get very frank and candid discussions about all kinds of issues, particularly the most controversial issues, and quite often problems centered on the professional jobs of the people who were there, which would especially apply in this particular situation.

WC:

When the school board—and this is going to be, I realize, a difficult question, because it involves trying to get—put yourself back in the immediate circumstances of 1954—but the school board had voted 6-0, against Howard [Holderness] abstaining, to comply with the law of the land. And Benjamin Smith made a very strong statement of the need to make democracy work. Ed Hudgins made a very strong statement also. And I guess one of the things I'm most interested in is what did people think that meant. And I wondered whether you can recall—putting yourself back if you can into that situation—what did you think in practical terms that unanimous [vote], with one abstention, meant in terms of the actual ideas in the minds of the school board? How was it perceived?

WS:

Who were the other members of the board that day?

WC:

Sarah Brown, John Foster, Ed Hudgins, Ben Hampton, Hal Holderness, Thornton Brooks—I think that’s it.

WS:

That’s interesting that that was a very strong board at that time, because most of those people would mean quite a bit in the community, as far as public opinion is concerned. I think that kind of leadership made a lot of difference. Increasingly, the older I get, the more I realize that the kind of leadership that is provided in this sort of crisis does make a difference in how people respond in the rank and file system. I didn't realize this earlier to the extent that I do now. And I think that while a great many people were perhaps shocked by the decision at that time, when the decision was handed down, it doesn't seem to me that the average person really understood what it might mean and they hadn't fully comprehended it. And perhaps initially the board’s view was seen as not as momentous as it came to appear to be later, or not as controversial as it seemed to be later, because, as I recall, initially it was accepted fairly well, but then later, as people began to see the implications of what it meant, that it then came to be more controversia, and particularly as the opposition began to organize, and that in itself made a difference.

And I would compare that with the kind of leadership which was formulated to try to make the integration work in the Greensboro schools more recently, in recent years. And the fact that it seems to me that it worked better in Greensboro after it—once it was started here, than it had, say in Winston or in Charlotte, but there are a lot of complicated ideas, reasons for that, as you probably know. The fact that we don't have a countywide consolidated school system, it was far easier to get our system coalesce on a citywide basis than it would be for a place like Charlotte, which had the whole county. But I had that definite feeling about this at the time that it was at first accepted maybe unknowingly, or for lack of information to what it fully meant, and then later it was more opposition than had been generated initially.

WC:

Did you yourself—if you can remember this—did you yourself expect that, say, within a year's time, that this vote by the school board meant that within a year's time desegregation would actually start? Did you contemplate immediate action to implement?

WS:

I don't. You see, it didn't really begin until three years later.

WC:

Right, no it didn't.

WS:

The decision was on, what, May 17?

WC:

Right.

WS:

May 17, ’54, which meant that you had the school year—the following year was pretty well settled for ‘55-‘56. Then you had ‘56 and ’57.

WC:

‘54-‘55?

WS:

[19]55 and then— ’55-’56, and then even ‘56 and ’57. It didn't start really until the fall of ’57, did it?

WC:

Right.

WS:

There was quite a bit of leeway there between.

WC:

Yeah, there was a kind of delay of a full forty months after the vote had been taken. One of the things that I'm concerned about—and trying to define in my own mind—is what people—did people think that when the board initially made that vote, that it was in fact talking about action twelve months hence or sooner?

WS:

That's very difficult.

WC:

I guess it’s really a question of putting oneself almost back into that time and remembering an incident which would trigger the exact recollection.

WS:

I do not recall anything that was really—

WC:

I’d gotten the sense that the black community did think that it meant immediate reaction, and that with good reason, I suspect, because the unanimous decision as seemingly an indication of decisiveness which would be followed by action [unclear]. And I think the forty month gap probably—well, it may have been necessary from some points of view. It seemed unnecessarily long from a black point of view.

WS:

I'm sure it did.

WC:

I wonder if you could talk for a little bit about some of the people involved and perhaps characterize them or think of some example which might help me to understand them a little better—people like Ben Smith?

WS:

Well, Ben Smith was a very devout and religious man, and I think he was the sort of man who felt that a person ought to live his religion, and that these things—I would say he would be similar to a person like Lillian Smith today—I think appears to be very much the same kind of person, as far as commitments are concerned in his life, and therefore it seemed to him that this was the right thing to do because it was the Christian thing to do. And therefore, there was no doubt in his mind that it ought to be done here. Therefore, he had great strength and great faith that it could be done, because it ought to be done. And I don't think he ever wavered on that decision. He was an extremely strong man in this regard. He was a kindly man, not as charming as Frank Graham or as magnetic as Frank Graham in personality, but he was a man who seemed to radiate his ideas. And he was a humble kind of man in the sense that he didn't radiate a sense of strong self-pride. And people generally—he had a touch with people so that he could communicate with people, even those who disagreed with him, which is always a good quality in an individual. And people I think liked him because of the strength of his convictions and because he, in one way, radiated the kind of idealism that many people who don't live their religion profess to radiate but never do. Therefore, these people even might be able to see in him some of the things they ought to be doing but they aren't.

WC:

So he was in many ways an ideal person to be in a leadership position?

WS:

I think so. I think that having a man of that strength and character and lacking in the usual self-righteousness that you sometimes find associated with these people—that is, it wasn't a tinge of fundamentalism in him in the sense that he was going to tell you how you had to be. He radiated this sense of selflessness and of unselfishness; you could see it pretty well.

WC:

Would you say that he represented the school board, or was in advance of the school board in his own position on this thing?

WS:

He certainly was not in advance of many members of the school board. He certainly wasn't in advance of Ed Hudgins, because Ed Hudgins was another very strong person on the school board and a man of I think tremendous intellectual power—although, at the same time he was able to live his life in the conventional, conservative community of Greensboro, and yet hold views which were certainly ahead of its time, and nevertheless argue them effectively among his friends—several who were on the school board, including Howard Holderness and Thornton Brooks, who would not to the same extent by any means represent that particular thrust.

But having someone in the corporate structure of your largest corporation in Greensboro in the most influential areas of the community—having that man serving as your school board chairman at that particular time was a great break for Greensboro, to me. To have had that kind of leadership available—because he was a man who had been a Rhodes Scholar, and who was the most sophisticated and probably cosmopolitan kind of person, who yet was sort of like [senator] Sam Ervin in that he was a sort of down-home person—that he wasn't out away from his community at all in that sense, but he was still a part of the fabric of North Carolina. And this, to me, is the strength of the best that North Carolina has to present.

Matter of fact, I just wrote Sam Ervin a note to this effect today. He had just written saying please transfer his subscription to Morganton [North Carolina]; that he would be leaving Washington [D.C] soon. And I reminded him of what has cousin said one time—Bill Polk, who is associate editor here—when I came to Greensboro. In fact, the reason I came to Greensboro—he had been a lawyer, and he was the great nephew of President [James K.] Polk—one of the most remarkable and interesting men I have ever met. But he said that North Carolinians were too proud to be proud. And I told Sam Ervin I thought that he was that sort of person. I mean by that that this sort of person who has a throwaway personality. For many people it confuses them because they don't really understand, and yet to North Carolina he is an indigenous type of person that you find, and at the very best you don't find the best anywhere better in the world. And I think Ed Hudgins was this sort of person, not nearly as homespun in the sense that Sam Ervin was—in fact, was a close friend of Ervin's and was from his hometown. They both came from Morganton. And so it was very lucky that you had a man like Ed Hudgins on the school board, and chairman of the school board at that time.

And Sarah Brown was a fine person, represents the Quaker string of the Greensboro community that has meant a great deal here—because the Quaker influence, I think, is powerful and enlightening and disturbing to the conventional wisdoms—and she was the person who stood by her convictions. And, of course, John Foster came to be another one who stood very firmly later during all the time—trouble after he became chairman of the school board. I specifically remember some really [unclear] episodes with him. Have you talked to him?

WC:

Yes.

WS:

You've already talked to him. I can remember when John Foster had to really—when they were beating on his door steps, when he had the Klan just crashing all around him, he really told them to go to hell. He said, “If you come out here, I'm going to shoot you.” He had a rough time.

WC:

He is a remarkable man.

WS:

But he's an interesting fellow and a rather unexpected kind of person. So you have there some people—I didn't know Mr. [unclear] very well.

WC:

I think he had—David Jones had just retired. And actually David Jones' name may have been on the board at that point, and Dr. Hampton took his place very shortly thereafter. But that was essentially the composition of the board during that period of time. Did you know [John] J.D. Tarpley at all?

WS:

No.

WC:

I got the impression that, at least in some ways, as informal superintendent of the Negro schools, that he was at least a person of some significance in the administration of the school situation.

WS:

I didn't know.

WC:

Well, we have done a good job—

[End of Interview]