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Oral History Interview with Dr. John Tarpley by William Chafe
John Tarpley, Dr.
Dr. John Tarpley was the superintendent of black schools in Greensboro, North Carolina, from the 1930s through the 1950s, and principal of Dudley High School from 1931 through the mid-1960s.
William Henry Chafe
This transcript of an oral history interview conducted by William Chafe circa 1975 with Dr. John Tarpley primarily documents Dr. Tarpley’s memories as the principal of Dudley High School and aiding in the creation of the Hayes-Taylor YMCA in Greensboro, North Carolina. Tarpley describes his youth and education in Dallas, Texas, including incidents of racial discrimination, falsifying his age to enlist in the army, inequality in the military, and his job at a chemical plant.
Most of the interview focuses on Tarpley's experiences as an educator in North Carolina, especially instances of racial discrimination. Topics include his initial impressions of North Carolina, his job at Bennett College’s prep school, fighting for salary raises for the black prep school teachers, the use of racial terms such as colored and Negro, black public education in Greensboro, the required school curriculum for black and white students, his effort to secure equality in white and black teacher salaries, and the struggles black teachers went through to attend graduate school and obtain principal certification.
Other topics include R.C. Sharp’s election campaigns for the Greensboro City Council, the reputations of the KKK and the NAACP, and employment opportunities for blacks. Tarpley also describes at length the creation of the Hayes-Taylor YMCA, including Caesar Cone’s support in procuring funding.
Format of original:
William Henry Chafe Oral History Collection
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Oral History Interview with Dr. John Tarpley by William Chafe
I’m talking to Dr. John Tarpley?
John Tarpley, who was superintendent of the black schools in Greensboro for twenty-seven years, I guess it was.
Yes, approximately so. I don’t have the specific dates at my fingertips now, but it was between twenty-five and thirty years.
Had you grown up in Greensboro, Dr. Tarpley?
No, no, no. I was born in the state of Texas, in North Dallas—north of Dallas in Dallas County. We owned a farm there. Back in those days, like in most of the Southland, they didn’t have high schools for black folks. And by the time I had reached the culmination of what schools I could attend there in the county, I had the ambition to go on to high school. And my father, who was a farmer, made arrangements for me to go to the city. That was an excitable experience for me, because prior to that time, I had gone to the city. The City of Dallas was a pretty big place. And we lived about fifteen, twenty miles out from there, but every once in a while he would take us over to the city. So when I had a chance to go over there to live and go to high school that was a thrilling experience for me. And I went over to Dallas and spent three years in high school.
And by that time, WWI was approaching, and I picked up the information—I was always a sort of scrutinizing type of a youngster. And I found out that persons who were old enough to go into high school and to college, particularly those who were entering college, could volunteer and go into what at that time they called the SATC [Student Army Training Corps]. It’s the—that’s the—it’s what is now known as—not the SATC, pardon me. Yes, it is now known as the Honorable [unclear]. And so I had a little difficulty volunteering because you had to be eighteen years of age before they would take you. But since then I’ve learned to appreciate an old saying that you used to hear, that a thing has to be mighty bad not to have some good points about it.
They did not keep birth certificate records for black folks in the Deep South. I don’t know when they began to keep birth certificates, birth records, in the courthouses in Dallas for black folks. But after I was grown and moved into North Carolina, I understand—I believe I’m right about this—that they didn’t begin to keep the records in North Carolina until 1913 or 1914. Which meant, going back to Dallas, that they didn’t have any records of when I was born. But along with that ugly situation, as I thought of it—and I happen to know that they did make my father tell how many cows he had. He had to register that in the courthouse. He had to register how many calves were born each year. They kept a record of what he was raising, all except the children he was raising, and there were twelve of us. [laughs] But there were no birth records on us.
There was this other ugly thing that turned into my favor, and it was this: when a youngster that was white went to volunteer for the SATC, they got his name, address, mother and fathers’ name, where he lived, and they’d go straight to the courthouse and verify his birth. And if he were not eighteen, they wouldn’t let him go on into that army training program. But for black youngsters, they just asked your name and your address and when you were born. Whatever time you said you were born, they accepted it. And I had two older brothers, both of whom were in the First World War. I had the ambition that I wanted to go into the war for the reason that they were there. I loved the uniforms they were wearing. And while I was uncertain as to my specific date of birth, I did know what I had been told, and I was a little bit under eighteen. But my ambition to go into the army was so persistent on me that when they asked me how old I was, I said, “I’m eighteen.” And that ended there, no more questions.
Later on I found out something that I hope wasn’t the case—but I do have some reservations even about the hope—that when a black person wanted to join the army, they didn’t care how old he was because at that time most black folks went out on the battle front, front lines, and were not assigned to the types of positions that some of them are more capable of filling. But I wasn’t capable of doing anything except taking some training. Yet I had a brother that might have been a fairly competent officer in the army. But the highest that a Negro could be advanced in the army at that time, with a few exceptions, was that of being a second lieutenant. And I understood that when I completed this course in the SATC, that they would send me to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and there I could enter that army training school out there, and upon graduation from it I’d be a second lieutenant in the United States Army. And I thought that was the highest thing any black man could ever accomplish, and so I didn’t mind it.
But when I got back home I was torn to pieces over the fact that my mother and father and some of my older brothers and sisters were so disappointed that I had volunteered to go into the army when I could have been deferred until I was twenty-one before I was confiscated. But I told my ambitions that I want to go on through high school and into college. They wanted that for me, too, but they said I shouldn’t have paid such a price to do it. But that’s the background of my going in, and that’s a little bit of a historical sketch as it relates to the Negro situation.
And the blessing that I see in it, that while at that time it was what we would consider one of the blots against our country that we didn’t keep the birth records of black folks—and incidentally we hadn’t been freed from slavery more than about thirty-five, forty years, and a lot of people throughout the Southland, particularly, had in their mind that they would never impart black folks citizenship rights, while they had to free them from the physical bondage of slavery. And I heard this said—I’m not so sure. But I have heard it said—I do know this. I’m sure of this: that Abraham Lincoln was one of the earlier presidents that stood mighty strong for the abolition of slavery. And he had advised that slavery be abolished, and there were folks who opposed him as vigorously as the people of northern Africa and there about are organizing to oppose the leader there.
And there was a great debater, Douglas. What was his first name?
Stephen Douglas and Abe Lincoln went through a series of debates that came to be part of the classic literature of our country. And it is said that in one of those debates that Abe Lincoln made this comment because he was trying to win the favor or favorable vote for him, and he knew there was such heavy opposition to according Negroes full citizenship, that he made a statement like this to help win the debate with Stephens. His statement was, “Yes, physical bondage is so inhumane,” or something to that effect, “that we can afford—well afford to grant them their physical freedom so that they cannot be taken advantage of, as you take advantage of beef. But in terms of politics and civic responsibilities, since we’re the ones that have the ballot, we can still see to it that they remain in positions of subordination.” I don’t know whether you’ve read that or not. Have you?
Well, something like that. Yeah, some of those same thoughts.
Yes, his—but I’ve always had the impression that he didn’t say it with the idea that America would launch out on another type of actual bondage, but that he was simply trying to let them see that this matter of exercising all the citizenship rights and responsibilities, you couldn’t expect for it all to materialize in just one split second, and that for the time being, until Negros made themselves deserving, through competency and reading and writing and backgrounds of training and other areas, that it wouldn’t mean that they would have to be forced into situations where they were known to be incompetent. And thus he made the statement. But some of the folks misconstrued it to mean that, “Put it on the books, but let it be a farce.” And so lots of it is still on the books, but in many respects, in my lifetime, I’ve seen that is just a farce.
Well you’ve lived through a great deal of that history. And—
And I’ve experienced lots of the heartaches. I’ve never resorted to violence or any organized efforts to breakdown the spirit of—fundamental spirit of America, one, to move ahead in terms of freedom and justice, although I’ve chafed many times because it seems that it was delayed and sometimes reported and given the run around and so on. And I lived through lots of it. And I’m thankful to see the day—which still has some ugly spots in it, dark spots in it—but I’m thankful to live long enough to see the day when it looks like a good many things that were pretty rough are beginning to smooth out. And I hope that democracy will continue to have such ideological concepts that the average man, with a decent heart and spirit in his soul, will find that it catches his fascination, and that he can afford to give honor to whom honor is due and recognition to persons of confidence without regard to race, his color, his creed, his previous background, or other circumstances that have nothing to do with the person being a good citizen. One can be a good citizen, even if he is ignorant, if he is given the right concepts for what good citizenship is. On the other hand, one can be a good citizen—can be a poor citizen if he has all the degrees that universities can bestow upon him, unless deep down in his heart he has a sense of appreciation for what Christianity, democracy, and most of religions of the world—
And I’m not saying that I’m for or against this one or that or the other, but I’m fairly certain that those of us who claim to be Christians, many of us don’t live up to the highest concepts of Christianity. I’m fairly certain that for other faiths—and you can name them if you have the time—but other backgrounds or religious faiths—church postulations, the Catholics, the Jews, and what have you—that the whole world would be better off if every person, regardless of which of these faiths he may be, would live up to the highest that these faiths pronounce. And I think democracy can go a long ways of encouraging folks to live to the highest of whatever their faiths may commend of them, without necessarily pushing and demanding that one be specifically identified with any specific or given racial concept. And that’s why I think all of these religious concepts in the world would have a better chance to living out their best, if we could drop the prejudice that many of us have towards this, that, and the other.
When you—when you came to Greensboro, you became principal of Washington High School[?]
No. When I came to Greensboro in 1922—that’s when I came here—I was just out of college. And during my senior year in college, the school—the college that I was graduating from, Wiley College, in Marshall, Texas, was sponsored by the Methodist church. And at that time, the Methodist church had I don’t know how many, but probably one or two—in most of the Southern states, they had one or two institutions that they call colleges, but most of them are nothing but secondary schools—prep schools, they used to call them, preparatory schools—but Wiley hadn’t been one that had regular college courses. And I finished college, and our central office of the Methodist church sent a representative, whose name was Penn, Dr. [unclear] Penn, around to the different colleges—Wiley College and the college down in Atlanta and all of the Southland—to interview graduates—students rather, seniors that were graduating that year, to find out if there were those there who wanted to go into the teaching profession and teach in some of their colleges in the Southland.
And I had had the ambition for going to medical school, and during my college days I took two years of pre-med work. But there’s a difference between having an ambition and having money. And I found out, when I finished college, my ambition was still there, but I needed money. And I decided—I didn’t know how captivating it was going to be—but I decided I was going to teach a couple years. And I have since found out it was a very shortsighted concept, but I thought teaching a couple years I could save enough money to go on to college. I’ve since then found that no man who devotes his life to teaching can ever save anything, because there’s always things that appeal to his senses of forward movement and social prestige and that kind of thing that will overdraw on the amount of money you can make in a classroom. But I came to Bennett [College] with that in mind.
They offered me the opportunity—they offered me a job in one of three or four schools. Philander Smith College [in Little Rock, Arkansas] was one, and the other two or three I can’t make any—don’t remember right now, but Bennett College was the other. And I had heard a great deal about Bennett, and I said I’d take the one at Bennett. It was North Carolina, pretty close to Virginia, not too far from Washington, but a great distance from the Deep South, and I thought it’d just be moving into a little bit better atmosphere. I was disappointed though when I got here. I found that North Carolina was just about as backward in my years of experience as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas—not very much different.
But I came to Bennett and I taught at Bennett College four years. And this happened to have been the thing that brought me in to public education. When I arrived at Bennett, Bennett had two divisions: its college division and its preparatory division. Its preparatory division was nothing more than high school folks. And the idea was that those who finished our prep school, as they called it, many of them would venture right on into college. It was sort of a recruiting station for getting more folks on into college. But most of the prep students that were at Bennett were black youngsters that were growing up here in Greensboro and Guilford County. After I was at Bennett a few months, they tell me that I’d made myself so active among the students in working with them in helpful ways, that I was called in the office in the morning and the president asked me if I would serve as the director or chairman of the preparatory department. And I asked him what it involved. He said, “Well, it will involve two things. One, you’ll have the responsibility of making reports to the city and to the county on the attendance and other information they call for, with reference to the students who live in the city and who live in the county, and who are going to Bennett College, and they are paying part of their tuition to Bennett College, since they don’t have a high school in the city and the county.” That was an eye-opener. I knew many of them were there, but I didn’t know the city and the county were paying a part of their expenses.
I said, “Well, I’ll do the best I can,” and I went ahead with it. But I’ve always been a nosy sort of fellow, and I began to nose into how much they were paying per week or per month or per year to attend Bennett. And as I recall it was a very, very nominal amount, something like four or five dollars a month, fifty or sixty dollars a year. And many of them, who couldn’t pay that much on the spot each month, would drop out and work a few days in order to earn it, and then come back in, and thus the attendance was very poor. Meanwhile I had to fill out the regular attendance report such as the whites had to fill out. We did it then and they’re doing it now, the average daily attendance, and that report had to go into the superintendent once a month. And when I had to take over that responsibility, or rather when I agreed to take it over, I became to be conversant with the attendance report and a good many other things as it related to public education.
And I went back to the president and said, “Well, now this is just about a full-time job, teaching my regular class load and handling all these records and reports that ordinarily school principals handle. And since they’re the records of public schools, city and county, I think I ought to be paid a little more for it.”
He said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to make the proposal that they will give me a supplement to our—to our salary, budget, and that that supplement will be used not only to pay you a little more, but everybody that teaches those preparatory kids will get a small sum.”
I don’t remember what the other folks got, but I do remember that I got ten dollars a month more. And that was the enormous salary that I—increase in salary, ten dollars a month, for four years, because I was working with those county and city teachers. But all of the faculty members who taught any of those folks—and I made up the record on every student that carried a course who his teacher was, and I certified to the president by the month what teachers were teaching those kids. And sooner or later the teachers began to want to teach some of those city and county schools—I mean county children, because they would get a little bit more. Their amount wasn’t quite as much as mine, but five or six dollars increase in those days was something to kind of look at with great hopes.
And at the end of four years I was appointed to the principalship of a suburban high school in Baltimore, Maryland, through the recommendation of a former college dean of mine who was the dean of Martin [Methodist] College. And Martin College at that time was a Methodist school. And I got on a train and went to Baltimore to see about it, and looked into it, and I tentatively felt that I would leave Bennett. And when I got back to Bennett and told the president that I was thinking of leaving the coming year, he was very much alarmed about it and called the superintendent. Mr. Fred Archer was the superintendent. And revealing the fact that I was fixing to leave to go to the principalship of this school in Baltimore, he also got alarmed. And he came out to the college there and made the offer that he would supplement me a great deal more than the five dollars a month that the president told me he was giving me, and his offer was one hundred dollars a year. [laughs] I told him frankly I didn’t think it was respectable enough to be regarded as—if my services were not worth more than a hundred dollars, I would just as soon—if I stayed, I would just as soon do it for nothing.
But he said, “We’re fixing to build a high school for Negroes.” And he didn’t always pronounce it with a long O, and that irritated me.
And I told him, “This is one reason I wouldn’t stay here, because the first time you referred to me in that term and cut the g-r-o so sharp until you’d think he said g-e-r,” I said, “I would hit you in the face as sure as I’m alive. Because that word n-i-g-g-e-r is almost a curse word, and you look it up and you’ll find out that anybody can be a nigger.”
And he looked me in the face and said, “That’s just the reason I want you to stay here. I want you to help me to get folks to respect the colored folks.”
And that was a substitute word for Negro, and for many a year throughout the Southland, the person who was afraid to pronounce it N-e-g-r-o—and a large number of the white folks were afraid to pronounce it correctly because the spirit in the Southland was that if a white man pronounced that word N-e-g-r-o as “Negro,” such organizations as the KKK [Ku Klux Klan] would start resentment towards them and sometimes create trouble within their own race group. But to refer to them as colored folks was all right. And my race accepted that, right or wrong. I kind of think they should have resented that.
They finally hit upon white and colored schools. North Carolina, in the records, will show that we had two divisions of public schools in the State of North Carolina: the white and the colored divisions of schools. They had two separate organizations from bottom—from top down. The state superintendent was head of the whole school system, and he had one man, the head of the white division, and another head of the colored division. N.C. Newbold was the man heading up the colored division. J. Henry Highsmith was the man who headed up the white division. And thus it were. The organizations were somewhat parallel, slightly so, but the curriculum was entirely—not entirely, but was largely different. There was a blessing in that. When I finally decide to take the principalship of the colored—as they called it—high school in Greensboro, I had already found out that it was left to the principal, in many respects, to devise his own curriculum.
And Fred Archer, the then superintendent, who was followed by—
Guy B. Phillips. And particularly Guy Phillips, when I talked with him, he said, “Well now, the first thing to do—there’s only one thing we will insist on, so far as curriculum is concerned: you will have to offer what is called the required courses in the curriculum for colored students, and then the courses that are electives, a student takes them if he wants them or leave them alone.” And the required courses were these: English was required; American history was required; one year of high school mathematics was required; perhaps one or two others that I don’t think of right this minute. But you couldn’t be graduated until you had sixteen units, and a unit meant a year, nine months of studying, of classes, five times a week, for nine months. They’d give you a unit if you passed the course. That meant then history would spread—I mean English, pardon me. English would spread over the four years. You’d have to take English every year, for four years. You’d have to have at least one year during which you took mathematics. Oh, yes, and biology was one I didn’t mention. And during the sophomore year, you’d have to take one year of biology and so on. That left me free then to do some other things that my own way of thinking, background, training, and experience led me to believe the best thing for our children.
And so I followed to a great extent the state school manual of offerings, but in many other respects I put into the curriculum things I knew our black boys and girls particularly needed. I knew that after they had gone through high school and college and hit this twisted and difficult world we had to live in, that many of the things they learned in college and might be very popular for doing, they couldn’t get jobs like that.
For example, at that time about the only thing that a black person would be hired to do that had finished college with a large number of academic subjects in his program of study, was teach school. I knew that a good many of them didn’t have the personality, and some didn’t have even the academic strength, to be competent teachers, but there were those that I could recognize would be good workers in other areas where Negroes were important. A Negro could always get a job at some factory where there was nothing but pure manpower, manual labor, to be done, so long as the majority, in that particular field, were other Negroes.
I had come up with that. I had recalled that during my years in high school, the three years that I was in public high school, that I got a job with a big chemical manufacturing concern, the W. E. Greiner chemical folks. I don’t know whether they are alive today or not, but they’re W. E. Greiner of Dallas, Texas. They had Negroes in that warehouse there whose job was to take those big 150 and 200 pound bags and lift them from the incoming freight cars, put them on trucks, and take them to the warehouse and store them and so forth.
And I was such a small fellow that they recognized that I couldn’t manpower those things. But the thing that had given me a job at W. E. Greiner was that one summer I worked out at the manager’s private home as a house [boy?]. And they literally fell in love with me. They turned that whole house over to me. They said that I was so competent and reliable and I did so many things that relieved them of concern, and then by the end of that—during the end of the summer, I already knew how to drive a Ford automobile, and he had a Cadillac. I’d never driven a Cadillac, but by the end of the summer I had learned to manage the Cadillac. And finally his wife got to the place where she wouldn’t let anybody drive her except myself. The next summer when I came back from—when school was out, I was able to work fulltime in the summer. This manager gave me a job down at the W. E. Greiner drug company, and the job was his chauffer. And he said there would be other light things around the place there that he would want me to do, when I got down there.
So early in the morning, I would go out to his house, drive him down to the place, and then when he got out and went in his office, he would tell me to go down to the post office and pick up the bag of mail, which I did regularly. He had a young white woman there that would assort the mail. I had to take that big heavy mail bag, on my shoulder, and take it from desk to desk and she would assort. I would first take it to one big place and she would package up all the mail for one department and the next department and so forth. And then I would take her to these different departments, and she would put each department head’s mail on his desk. She found out—the fact is I had more education than she had—and she found out, and I was pretty confident in that kind of thing. And she told the man that I could assort the mail and distribute it too, because it kept her from having to leave her desk and go around with the mail every morning.
He said, “Well, I know he can.” [chuckles] “And he can do a better job of it than you. And I was just thinking that I was going to hire him, after he saw what was to be done, and let you do fulltime at your desk.”
She said, “That would be a wonderful thing. Now are you going to cut my salary?”
He said, “No, I’m going to raise his.” [WC laughs]
And to my surprise, and apparently to the surprise of everybody in that mammoth office, when they saw me coming around with the mail bag, they thought very little about it because the just figured that the girl was out sick or something and I was carrying on as usual. But after a few days, they asked where she was. And I said, “She’s down at her desk.”
“And she’s not bringing the mail?”
I said, “No. They said for me to bring it.”
And they began to whisper around. “That colored boy now working in the office?” [chuckles] The word perked around that they had a colored boy in the office and that he was handling the mail. They organized a little bit of a whispering opposition, because they did give me a little old backroom. It had nothing in there but a great big long table. And that was a table that was for the sorting of the mail. And they gave me a straight-back chair and they said when I was not handling the mail there, that’s where I would stay. And then when the president of the company had to go an errand, he’d push a button, and I’d answer the button. He’d push the button one time, it meant for me to come to the office; two times, something—to the assistant’s office; and three times, bring his car to the front door. When that button would ring three times, I didn’t have to do a thing but go out and get in that Cadillac and have it at the door by the time he got his coat on. And I said I handled that job for three years, and it paid me almost as much as they were paying the other office workers.
[End Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]
One of the things I was wondering about was you were on the executive committee of then North Carolina Teachers Association [now the North Carolina Association of Educators], and then you were president of it for two years, and vice president for two years. And the dates of that aren’t down here, but do you remember around when that was?
Yes, roughly it was in the middle thirties. For specifically the years, I’d have to go lookup some records. But they ran in this order of succession. I was always a member, ever since I started teaching, of the North Carolina Teachers Association, just a full member. But after I went into public schools and became the principal of the Dudley High School—that’s the school that they finally named it Dudley High School—here in Greensboro, I was pretty active with the department of principals in the state association. And it wasn’t very long until they made me member of the executive board. That’s the governing board of that whole association. And that was sometime in the thirties, early thirties, maybe ’32. If I had to guess, it was 1932 or ‘33. And then they—I was made the vice president of the association, and I served that position two years or four years. I think it was two years. And then I was made the president of the association. This was taking place during those six or eight years.
North Carolina had come to the point where the black teachers were beginning to insist that they be paid on the same salary scale as the white teachers were paid. As a matter of fact, many of them—many of the black teachers—had superior training to the white teachers. Again I refer to the fact that sometimes, when you make a bed that’s rough to sleep on, you may have to sleep on it yourself.
For example, a teacher here in—a black teacher here in Greensboro couldn’t go out to Woman’s College [now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro] and enroll out there to do graduate work, couldn’t go to [the University of North Carolina at] Chapel Hill and do graduate work. They would have to bundle up and get on a train and go to New York to Columbia University or to Boston to Harvard [University]. In my own case, the principal out at [Greensboro] Senior High School—it’s what they called the white high school. The principal out at Senior High School could live at home, get in his car in the morning, drive down to Chapel Hill, and take two or three courses and drive back in the late afternoon, work in his garden until dark, and so on, be with his family, and the tuition that he paid to put in that summer studying was just a nominal sum.
I wanted to get my master’s degree, too, but there wasn’t a graduate school in North Carolina that would enroll a black man. I had to bundle up; make arrangements for somebody to look after my home; travel to Columbus, Ohio; rent a house, an apartment, for myself and my family to live in during that three months time; buy my food and other expenses; and then when the summer was over, come back to Greensboro and try to rehabilitate or refurbish the rundown things that had taken place in three months away. Pretty expensive.
But I wanted to be a competent principal, and I paid the price of it, both in money as well as in hardship, with the result that when I was ready to get my high school principal certificate, which is based upon a certain amount of graduate work, every course that I had taken at Ohio State University was recognized in North Carolina as a top qualifying course. And all I had to do was to ask them—which I did when I was out there—to send a copy of my transcript to our state certification bureau in Raleigh, and to give me a copy of it, a different copy of it. I had heard this: that there were certain people in that department down there that had made it a habit of displacing or losing [transcripts], and you’d go down there and it would take you a month or two sometimes for them to hustle up that record if you were a black man. [pause] And I decided I wasn’t going to be given the runaround on being certified and eligible for this salary on the grounds that they didn’t have my records. That’s the reason I had them give me a duplicate copy, stamped as being the same as the original. And when I walked in there and asked them about it, they said, “We don’t have it. We’ll look it up, and we’ll let you know.”
I said, “Well, I’ve got a certified copy here in my pocket.” As a matter of fact I had two copies of it, two certified copies of it. That’s what they gave me. I asked them for it. And I said, “I’ll leave one here for you, if you promise me that you’ll let me have it back as soon as you find the other.”
They looked at it and said, “Well, this is—it hasn’t been tampered with and has a stamp on it and so forth. We’ll accept this one, and we’d like to keep it.”
I said, “Well give me a receipt for it.” [laughs] And they gave me a receipt.
One month passed, two months passed, and I didn’t have my certificate. I wrote and they said they didn’t have my records. I wrote them back saying, “Yes, you have my records. You gave me a receipt for them.”
By that time the person that handled those things down there recognized what it was. He called me on the telephone—I’ve forgotten his name—and said, “We have the record here, and your certificate will be forthcoming in the next twenty-four hours.” And it was. But other folks, I suppose, had a whole lot of difficulty manipulating through to get their certificate.
Now that was in and about the time that they’d started this movement of paying the white and the blacks on a uniform schedule. If you had a registered principal certificate, you drew a certain salary, regardless of whether you were white or black. But prior to that, there was a 30 percent differential—30 percent! A white person drew a hundred dollars, a Negro drew seventy. And the governor was—was that [Joseph Melville] Broughton?
It’s in here somewhere. I think—
I believe it was Broughton.
Yeah, Broughton. Right, right.
When was World War II? That was in—
Forty-one to forty-five.
Well now—well, that was probably about the middle of [noise—recording volume reduced] because the legislature gave the governor a certain sum of money—I don’t whether that’s the man or not; it might be, but it can be found—and said, “Now no strings tied to it. This money is to be used in whatever respect you can find in North Carolina that will boost war morale. If you want to say to a farmer, ‘Will you grow more wheat to help out with the supply of food supplies—or more poultry, or this that and the other—and if you do, we’ll pay you—if it’s wheat, ten cents or more on the bushel or something. The state will give you ten cents more or give you ten cents above. Or if it’s chicken, so much more on the pound or what have you.’” And that money was available to the governor.
Throughout the Southland, or many places in the Southland, they also had this differential. They were being carried to court. I was the president of the State Teachers Association, been elected that year. I got a group of fellows: Jimmy Taylor, he’s dead now; Anderson [unclear]. Jimmy Taylor who was a teacher at [North Carolina] Central University in Durham; Anderson was principal at Winston-Salem, he’s dead; Heath Brown[?], I don’t think he’s dead. He’s been retired a long [unclear]. About six or eight of us went before the [North Carolina] State Board of Education, and they acted in really good faith. They said they didn’t have authority to authorize without the legislature saying so, and that they would make the recommendation to the forthcoming legislature, and if they so amended the law, then two years later it would be done.
Well, we debated and said, “Well, two years later they’ll come up with something else and another way of putting it off. And so if we carry to the court and the court says that it’s—the Supreme Court says it’s illegal, they’ll have to do it.” And that always left a bitter taste in mouths of wherever it’s going on. And there was a committee of three or four others who went to the governor and said, “This is the best time to go ahead and do it, in the spirit of wanting America to do away with anything that will keep people from feeling that they were subordinates to things that good citizenship would normally confer upon them.” He hemmed and hawed a little bit, but he said he didn’t have enough funds left to do the whole job. And he did away with 15 percent of [unclear], and said with a forthcoming legislature the following year, if they would do away with the other 15 percent and authorize—forward that, there would be no differential. That would clear it up. Now you’re talking about helping out in the spirit of professional folks. Some of the whites got kind of peeved, chafed under it a little, but the Negroes said, “That’s the spirit.” And that was one of the things we pushed along, the Negroes.
When I went into public schools in Greensboro, I don’t believe there was more than three or four Negros who had bachelor’s degrees from these normal schools. There was no white or black that had a master’s degree within the first ten years that I was there. Every teacher was [unclear] for the whites, but every teacher in the black schools had a bachelor’s degree, and oh, I don’t know, 8 or 10 percent of them had a master’s degree.
The thing is—
And I had a master’s degree before [A.P.] “Red” Routh had. Do you know Routh?
He was the principal of Senior High School. I think I got a master’s degree before he did.
Now at that point you were already in charge of the black schools.
Yes. I went in charge of the black schools in 1931.
Yeah. That means the thirties were a very busy time for you professionally, and in terms of your affiliations across the state. Do you remember Reverend Robert Sharp’s campaigns for office in the thirties?
Sharp here in Greensboro?
Yes, I do. I don’t remember many details about it, but I remember it very well.
Was that a striking thing, that he ran for office in the 1930s?
He was one of the first to run for—What was the office he ran for to begin with?
It was city council, wasn’t it?
City council, I believe it was.
I think so. Yeah.
Yes, that was an exceptional sort of thing. It’s R. C. Sharp.
R. C. Sharp.
R. C. Sharp. I know of his whole family.
Would you have been a close friend of his? Would he have talked to you about that decision to run for office?
I know I would have been. I was a very good friend of his. And I did a lot of things within the limits of what you expect a school principal to do. School principals were not expected to go out on political extremes, but in terms of saying to friends of mine, “We ought to support Sharp, and pass the word along to your neighbors and household”—and he got fairly good support, too.
Do you remember Randolph Blackwell, when he was a student at Dudley High School?
That name rings a bell, but I can’t quite place it on him.
Well, he came—He grew up in Greensboro. His father was a railroad worker. And when Ms. Ella Baker came through in 1943—she was the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] field secretary—he heard her speak. And then right after that he started a youth chapter of the NAACP, which I think started at Dudley. Do you recall that by any chance?
I don’t recall the details of it, although it sort of rings a bell. It sort of rings a bell.
Was there a lot of participation by teachers at Dudley in the NAACP, in the thirties and forties, or was that something that came later?
I think generally speaking, there was a reasonably high percentage of them who belonged to the NAACP. But let me point this out: [pause] you know what attitude the whites had toward the NAACP, generally, in the South.
Negroes had the same attitude towards the KKK, in terms—now I’m not saying there’s—well, I don’t—I’m not trying to compare them in ideologies, but I am comparing them in the sense of showing how each one held a particular place according to whether they were blacks or whites. If you wanted to make a black man hate you—If I’m a black man and want to make black folks hate me, I would say something commendable about the KKK. On the other hand, in the Southland, in many places, if you were a white man and wanted to make other white folks hate you, you say something commendable about the NAACP. Blacks and whites were in the same boat if one was named KKK and the other was NAACP.
Now a black person that was in a public office often wouldn’t parade around the fact that he belonged to the NAACP. As a matter of fact, there were times if you were applying for a job—not only a public job, but if you were applying for a job out here at the graveyard—somebody would ask you if you belonged to the NAACP. If you said yes, [unclear] they said, “Well, we’ll let you know.” You would never get the job.
Right. So it was the sort of thing that wasn’t all that overt.
Yeah, that’s right, and so forth. Now then, going back to your question, how many belonged to the NAACP? You would never know, because they never—they didn’t parade it publicly. But if you knew them personally, you would about just know they were supporters. And many of them did support the NAACP. They support it now even.
Right. Tell me a little about your involvement in getting the Hayes-Taylor Y[MCA—Young Men’s Christian Association] started. I know—I guess I’m particularly interested in—I know from talking to David Morehead how you were instrumental in helping to keep him on staff when he was about to be hired away by someplace else, and also that you were probably very instrumental in securing some of the financing which made the Y successful. I wonder if you could just talk about little about that.
Well, here’s the situation: as I told you, I’m a Methodist. I was a member of the St. Matthew’s [United] Methodist Church—which wasn’t called then United Church, St. Matthews United Church. And we had a boy’s club out there in our Sunday school. I was superintendent of the Sunday school at our church, and we had youth clubs, and we had a boys’ club there—a very energetic club for these eight-, ten-, twelve-, fifteen-year-old youngsters. I think David Morehead was probably a member of one of those clubs. I think he was. But anyway, our church—the old church; present church is [adequate now?]—our church didn’t have any place for those boys to meet for the type of activities they wanted to engage in. And we had a fellow here whose name was Jeb Johnson, who used to—Has anybody ever mentioned him?
He had the ambition to publish a paper, and he did a pretty good job on [unclear]. I’ve forgotten the name of it. But he would take those boys down to the city library, the old library down there, on Sunday afternoons. The library was closed on Sunday afternoons, but they would let him use a room about as big as this—maybe a little bigger than this room—in which he could have meetings with those boys. They couldn’t play physical games, but they could play some of these other sorts of games: checkers, dominos, storytelling, and that kind of thing. And it kept them off the streets and it gave them something to do. It was difficult [unclear]. That went on for several years.
Then it was apparent that we needed somewhere for those boys to have some [outings?]. And there was a man here in the town. He’s still here; he’s still alive. He doesn’t know how much fun we’ve had [unclear]. He’s one of the Cone exports. You know the Cone industry—Caesar Cone. I think he’s junior, but the dad before him was Caesar. And he is of the Jewish faith. But he also was big enough to not close his mind to any church, civic organization, religious organization that was trying to do things for the man that needed help. And so we’d got a bright idea that—
Oh, by the way, we went over here on Market Street, and Market Street in that day was nothing like that Market Street you drive down now. The Market Street you drive down now is an open boulevard. I wish you could have seen the Market Street of that day. I can’t picture a street that you would know now that I could compare it to, but I’m sure you’ve been into some towns where there’s what would appear not to be so much a street as an alleyway almost—old rundown shacks and shanties. Right here is a church, and two doors from there there is a beer joint. It’s in an old rundown shack. The street over from there is an office, a dentist has his office there. Next door to that maybe it was bootlegging. Streets were not paved, muddy and what have you. That was Market Street. The houses in that neighborhood: run down shacks and so forth. Market Street goes all the way across town as you crossed [unclear], was fairly—no fairly to it, it was acceptable as any other kind of street you find in any town, until it got to where you turn off to go—Do you know where the old railway station is? You may not know that area.
Well, you know where Elm Street is?
One, two, three blocks this side of Elm Street, if you’re coming out this way from downtown, three blocks on Market Street, go two blocks over there and there’s a railroad track there and a railway station. Market Street [was] well-paved and kept up all right to that point. You turn after the railway station, it ain’t. From there on out to the outskirts of town was one of the worst sections of any town I have ever seen, and I have gone almost all over the world. And that was a story.
We found a big old two-story house over there on Market Street, where Hayes-Taylor stands now, that was abandoned. This fellow Johnson got the owner of that house to let him bring the boys in there and clean it up, fix it up a little bit, just enough for them to meet there. And he gathered unto himself boys from all the churches in the neighborhood. It ceased to be a Methodist concern. At first he was just working with our Methodist boys. The next thing we knew he had fifty, seventy-five, a hundred boys meeting there every Sunday and during the week, doing constructive things.
Nobody had—We didn’t have enough money to buy that piece of property. And I had been working with Mrs. [Laura Julius] Cone—that’s Caesar Cone’s aunt—at Bennett College. She was a member of my—I think she was—no she wasn’t [unclear]. She was on our trustee board, and I was the chairman of the executive board of Bennett College. She was one of our best members and used to give us large sums of money. And she heard me talking about what Johnson was doing, and she said to me, “Caesar would be interested in that.”
Well I already knew Caesar, so I went out there and talked with Caesar personally. He said, “Well, I’d be glad to help out if—.” He had a knack of knowing how to make folks do certain things for themselves. But says, “Don’t think—.” He’s very blunt. If you didn’t know him, you sort of think he just— “Don’t think you can make a fool out of me and pull money out while you folks sit around and do nothing down there. What would it cost to build one?” [laughs] Right out of the bat. We were trying to get him to help us rent that old building over there.
I said, “Mr. Cone, we haven’t talked about building.”
“Well, I wouldn’t put my money in an old shack like that. I tell you what I think I’ll do. I think I’ll get my architects. It won’t cost you a dime now. It won’t cost you a penny, this architect won’t. We’ve got to keep him busy. We’ve got him hired year-round. And I’m going to tell him to draw an outline of something, not the details and all that, of a building, and maybe we can tear that old one down and put this one up to get you started.”
Well, that was—you should know that Caesar Cone was interested in that in saying he’d get a plan drawn. We didn’t have no electric, no [unclear]. So he got this man to sketch just the floor plan, had the recreation room, had an office there, had a library room, and two or three other places. Then he said—We said, “Well, that will be fine, but now financing it—.”
He said, “Don’t you worry about financing. I’m trying to get something so—I know what I can do. Don’t you worry; I’m going to leave a certain amount to you folks to do, too.”
So a few days later he called for us to come to meet him over there at that old place. He said, “Now who owns this land?” We told him. It was a widow woman [unclear]. She’s dead now. “Would she sell it?”
We said, “We think she would.”
“What would she want for it?”
“We don’t know. We’ll find out.”
He said, “I’ll tell you what you do: don’t mention my name. If she knows I’m interested in it, the price is going to be marked up. You all tell her y’all want to buy it and what you want to use it for. Then she might [unclear] and she’ll sell it to you.”
So we went to her and told her what we wanted.
“Oh,” she said, “that would be a wonderful sort of thing.”
[unclear] He served as our chairman, and he knew the family pretty well. And she let us have that old building and the ground on which it’s located for a very reasonable sum. Went to Caesar, met with Caesar Cone, and he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what you do—” that was probably back in the early summer—I mean late summer, “Now if you folks will buy that land and the old building,” he said, “I’m not interested in the old building. I’ll tear it down the first day the deeds are made over to it. I’ll build the—I’ll build this new Y,” and said, “The one I have in mind is a two-story affair.” And then he showed us the details of the plan, which is that present building over there. And at that time—that was way back yonder. It started for that now, but at that time I believe it cost us $65,000. I believe that’s what it was. He said, “Well now, y’all pay for the land and get it deeded to you.”
Well, we have a little bit of a problem in buying land in the name of the YMCA, because you had to get—that name was already registered and chartered as a national organization name and we had to we had to get it either in another name or the YMCA name. And Caesar Cone was interested in building for boys and girls. Well, that had that legal case of it. He said, “Well, I’m inclined to say we ought not to call it a YMCA anyway.” Well, I saw where he was headed. The Jews and the Christians, you know, get it at odds every once in a while. I’m glad the day has come where they don’t fight about it so much now. And he was never one of these hard [unclear] type Jews. He was the first Jew that I met that was just born that way. That delayed us. We got on by that year and didn’t get it done, but by the time we came to another year, we got established that we wanted a YMCA. And we got the Central YMCA to agree that we could buy it in the name of YMCA, but that Central YMCA would not participate at all in it, that we’d have to operate under the provisions of their main charter, but in terms of property, they’d have no part in it.
Well, a little movement started then to buy. Some of us gave as much as we could. Got on down around about October and November, we were still—we still owed four or five thousand dollars on the property. I’d already given as much as I could. I sneak off downtown and borrow $1,500—I believe it was $1,500—from one of these commercial banks, and turned and gave a thousand dollars of it toward to the Y. The other five hundred dollars I just put on my account to use to live on. Reverend [unclear] did a similar sort of thing. One or two others gave a few dollars on it—several dollars on it. And about November fifteenth, Caesar Cone [unclear] said, “How are y’all getting along on getting that building and that grounds paid for?”
I told him what had happened. I said, “But we’re going to keep working.”
He said, “Well you haven’t got much time because I’ve planned to get that thing off my hands before December thirtieth, because it’s going to go into my income tax returns.” He said, “Sixty-five thousand dollars is a lot of money to be wasted around and not made use out of.” He said “If you don’t get ready for it then, I’m going to have to give that money to—.” He said, “I’ve got a lot of places that want it.”
I said, “Well, we’ll do the best we can, Mr. Cone.”
No, that was when I told him—The following week is when I went out there and told him what I had done. You’d have to know Cone to understand when I say he’s very blunt. When I told him I’d borrowed $1,500 and given an thousand, he looked at me and said, “You’re the damnedest fool I’ve ever seen. You mean to say you went and borrowed $1,500 and gave a thousand of it away?”
I said, “Mr. Cone, I’m [unclear]. If I’d have had $1,500, I would have given all of it. I didn’t have it; I borrowed it, $1,500. I gave a thousand of it; I just kept five hundred. Help me with the payments and I’ll pay you back on a monthly basis.” And I told him Reverend [unclear] had done a similar sort of thing. And I said, “We’re just pooling. Can you get your whole group together, whatever—.” It was two or three days, two or three nights after that. “Can you get them together and tell them to meet me over at that building? I want to tell them something.”
He got over there and he didn’t call my name or Rev. [unclear] name. He said, “I know what some of you are doing.” One fellow here—I told him he’s the damnedest fool I’ve ever seen—goes and borrows $1,500 in order to give a thousand of it away, and that is going [unclear].” Some of them knew I’d given that [unclear] and on and on. He said, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to pay for this place the day after tomorrow.” No, he asked how much money we had in the treasury. And he already knew it by the penny. It seemed like it was four thousand that we had to put on to it [unclear]. “I’m going to pay for this the day after tomorrow. You meet me down at the courthouse there and we’re going to—you can have my check for the remaining amount, and you bring your check for the amount you have, and we’re going to clear the whole thing. It’ll be done in a legal manner. And then when that’s done, we’re going to let a contract for this building. But we can’t let a contract until we’ve got the lot.” I thought those fellows would burst their hands in [unclear]. By that time he’d stepped out and said, “Well, I’ll see you guys the day after tomorrow.” [WC laughs]
All right, he went on down, they met him, and they said—Dean was the woman’s name who owned this place. She went and they paid her off there. I believe they—He might have given the whole check, and they just gave him the other—somehow, anyhow, it was cleared. And from that point on it was our house. But the next time we got those fellows together, we said, “It’s a shame to let that man down. He told us if we paid for this thing, he’d put the building on it. Here he’s putting this building on it that we hadn’t dreamed of.” We got some more money with that sort of thing, but we didn’t get all of it—We didn’t pay for it all by ourselves. Went to Cone and said, “We’ve got this additional money.”
He said, “No, keep it. Just keep it. Don’t let them waste it, because when that building is through you have to have it furnished.”
Well, we kept hammering and kept hammering until the building was through. He turned around and got us all the furnishing. But he still insisted that the building would be used as a building for boys and girls. Heck, it was his building. We had to then get a kind of a loose cooperative arrangement with the YWCA [Young Women’s Christian Association] so that girls could use it too. No girls ever lived in the building. The dormitory was almost—it was a dormitory situation. But we had a room there that had girls’ activities, too. And so they went there, and we got it.
Then after that the morale among Negroes just [snaps] went to the top for that Y. Every year when we’d lay out our budget, we’d pass the word around to the churches, fraternities, sororities, civic groups, “The budget calls for so-and-so much this year. We want to operate it ourselves without having to call on Mr. Cone, because he came to the rescue when nobody else thought about us.” They all knew it anyway. “Give us this much of the budget—Tell us how much of this budget your organization will underwrite, and we will give you until such-and-such a date to pay it.” And they would underwrite it. And we operated that way until the main Y took it over. And now it operates [unclear] from the main Y. it didn’t cost them a penny, not one. We paid David Morehead’s salary. We take [unclear—noise] That’s the way it happened. [noise]
What’s happening with my machine here? Oh, it’s okay. That was in the 1930s, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was in the thirties. I would say it must have been between ’35 and ’40. [unclear—noise]
[End of Interview]