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Oral history interview with Warmoth T. Gibbs by Eugene Pfaff
May 17, 1977
Warmoth T. Gibbs
Warmoth T. Gibbs (1892-1993) joined the faculty of NC A&T State University in 1926 and served the school as president from 1956 to 1960.
Eugene E Pfaff
In this transcript of May 17, 1977, oral history interview conducted by Eugene Pfaff with Warmoth T. Gibbs, Gibbs primarily discusses the history of North Carolina A&T State University. Specific topics and events include the effects of the Great Depression and World War II on the school, a post-war building boom in 1955, and receiving accreditation in 1959. Gibbs also discusses the sit-ins and demonstrations of the early 1960s, especially his handling of A&T students’ participation. The interview also describes the history of and Gibbs’ participation in organizations such as the National Association of Collegiate Deans and Registrars in Negro Colleges and the Association of Negro Colleges and Secondary Schools.
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Oral history interview with Warmoth T. Gibbs by Eugene Pfaff
Our guest today is Dr. Warmoth Thomas Gibbs, President Emeritus of the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Dr. Gibbs was born in Baldwin, Louisiana, in 1892, attended Wiley College in Wiley, Texas, and Harvard University.
Marshall, Texas, excuse me. And served in the armed forces during World War I. Dr. Gibbs came to Greensboro in 1926 to become the head of the military service unit and dean of men at A&T State College. In 1928, Dr. Gibbs became the dean of the Department of General Services, now the Department of Arts and Sciences, a position which he held until 1956, when he was installed as the fourth president of A&T. Dr. Gibbs served with distinction in that office until his retirement in 1960. He is a member of numerous professional associations and is the author of the History of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College.
I'd like to welcome you to our oral history program, Dr. Gibbs. I'd like to begin, if I might, by asking, what were the circumstances surrounding your coming to Greensboro in 1926?
At that time, I had returned from the army. I'd done further graduate study, was married, had three children and was interested in becoming a teacher. So—the main points at that time.
And what various offices have you held during your tenure at A&T?
Well, in college, I went up the ladder as professor of, instructor in military science and dean of men. Then I carried on studies teaching in the field of education—in history, for the most part, American history, American government. And outside, outside of that I held positions in the state association of colleges, at that time the liberal state college, then later on the Association of Colleges and Schools, which was the, the, the black section of the Southern Association of Colleges of Secondary Schools.
I was president of the state colleges for a while and vice president at another time, and then various committee chairman, especially Programs Committee and Rules Committee and things of that sort.
I was also a member on the state—on the national level—a member of the Association of Negro Life and Study; but it had headquarters in Washington, D.C. I was also a member of the National Association of Collegiate Deans and Registrars in Negro Colleges and a member of the Association of Teachers, Social Science Teachers in Negro Colleges. Those are some of the positions that I held during the time I was dean at A&T.
I see. What was Greensboro and A&T like during the 1920s when you came here?
Well, A&T had—it was a campus of some ten or—well, fourteen or fifteen acres, if you want to speak of it in that way. It had about five buildings, five or six buildings, for the most part new. But there was two older buildings that—big buildings—that had stood since 19—1893, when A&T was first brought to Greensboro.
A&T really began as a part of Shaw University in Raleigh. That continued from 1890 until 1893. There were several old buildings that have been torn down now. But the campus had—well, had no, no driveways or walks—not paved at least. And they had just disposed of the dairy plant that was on the campus. It had—the year previously been moved to the farm.
The college farm at that time was the land on which the Myer Philip, the, the tobacco company is now located. That's Philip—
Would that be P. Lorillard?
P. Lorillard—yes, that's right. It's P. Lorillard. That was the substance of what it was at that time.
Did conditions noticeably change during the Depression? What was the Depression's effect on Greensboro and A&T?
Well, on A&T—I could measure that perhaps a little better, because the students were missing. The students—the enrollment when I came was around five hundred, I think, more or less, something over five hundred. During the Depression, the enrollment dropped around maybe as low as three hundred.
That was due, in part, to the fact that before that time, A&T had had the high school program. This was discontinued during the Depression. And the high school students went to Dudley after leaving A&T. After they were no longer admitted at A&T, they went to Dudley High School, which was built during— recently built it, or built just after I came here.
And the city of Greensboro, of course, was much smaller in population, much less developed. The streets, Market Street, for example, was narrow. And they'd had cars—streetcars—but they were not in use at the time when I came.
Was there much interaction between the city and A&T, or did A&T function independently?
Well, A&T had some connections, not official, but practical connections with the city in several respects. The most noticeable one that I saw at the time, and it had been very much a part of the city during the war, the First World War, in that A&T had a chemistry department which served many services for the city. That was during the time of prohibition, and many tests of the quality or the character of liquors that were illegal in the city were brought for testing. And A&T did a good bit of that.
A&T also had done a good bit of, of testing of the water supply. But that wasn't so strong at the time when I came here. That was just about phasing out. But, and the liquor problem, the prohibition problem—A&T had been very useful to the city in the matter of testing the liquors that were brought to the city or by arrests and matters of that sort.
I see. Did conditions materially change during the Second World War in the 1940s?
Yes, yes. The conditions changed there for—well, two main points. Employment was much better. Students had a chance to find employment, and the parents at home had a chance to find employment at better wages. Then, on the other hand, shortly after World War II began, of course, a number of the students were called to the service. A&T—
When I first came to A&T, girls were not a part of the regular student body. They had been, from the beginning down to 1901, but from 19—the last girls in the class was in 1903, I think. The girls who were admitted, who had been students at A&T before that decision had been taken by the board to discontinue them as students, they were permitted to remain and graduate. And after they graduated, they had no girls in the regular session until the fall of 1928. That was two years after I came to A&T.
But all along, the women teachers would come for summer school, a very good number of them in the summer school at the time. Well, that continued throughout the period. But the shift came with girls being admitted in the fall of 1928. The number was small, and it did not grow very rapidly until about the beginning of the World War II, when war booms and war services permitted many girls to come in that could not come before that time.
On the other hand, the war had called many of the young men away. So that the—during the war years, especially '42 and '43, there were more women students on the campus than men. That was the first time that had been the case, and it remained for about three years until the veterans began to come back from the war. And then they took the, the [unclear] position. And they let—A&T has remained predominantly a men's institution from that time straight on through, even until today.
Two of the most outstanding accomplishments in recent history of A&T were the admission to the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools and the admission to the American Association of Land Grant Colleges and State Universities. Could you describe how these came about, and what was the effect on A&T?
Well, it's a long story if ever. We took the admission to the Southern Association. That, of course, was very important to us because it was recognition of the quality of work that A&T had been striving to accomplish for a long time. And it was necessary, in a way, for the graduates who wanted to do graduate study from—for university professional schools, medical school, for example, dental school and law school. They had to be graduates from standard institutions. And the admission put—membership in the Southern Association had tested that fact. And we had some difficult times in getting our students to register in—for graduate study or for professional study because of those situations. And gaining membership in the Southern Association, that was no longer a problem. The problem was, of course, to maintain the standards of the Southern Association.
That was, by the way, that was accomplished during my administration as president. I'd worked with Dr. [Ferdinand D.] Bluford on the problem for a number of years, building up the program and building up the faculty and building up the library and the necessary laboratory equipment to meet the requirements for the Southern Association. That had been a problem. But it came about early in—after President Bluford had passed.
And the same was true with the—really with the admission to the Land Grant Colleges, Association of Land Grant Colleges and State Universities. Before, before the admission, the, the, the Association of Land Grant Colleges was organized and had been going on since—for years. But the black group, the Land Grant Colleges in the seventeen southern states, met, as—in separate groups. Their organization was called Association of Presidents of Land Grant Colleges. They would meet in their own organization and at their own time—usually, however, about the time that the, the Land Grant Colleges [did]. Sometimes it'd be in the same city, and sometimes they would not. But then they took action along lines that the Land Grant College took, especially with regard to the relationship with the federal government. That was the function. The Land Grant College Association spoke for the whole Land Grant College system. And, of course, the Association of Land Grant Presidents, the black group, also met for the black colleges. And—there was some of the years trying to come to the point of merging.
That, that merger came in 1955. It had been pending and had been growing along parallel lines with the, the Association of Negro Colleges and Secondary Schools alongside the Southern Association. They were merging. They were working toward merging. But it took a long time for those things to come about.
Now in, in 1955, we had been growing at A&T. We had been—the war had just—well, the war was over. During the war, we could get no appropriations for building, could get no materials for building new buildings and things of that sort. All of that was stopped during the war. And they had to wait until after the war, and then they began to press for new buildings—a library, for example. A library, classroom buildings for engineering, classroom buildings for agriculture, classroom buildings for general studies, all of those had been waiting for, for a long time.
And then, after the war, when we could get materials and when we got appropriations, that came during the years after, after, after the war, after '46 or so. After '46 we acquired the—what we called the north campus. That was the, the war, war—the camp that was maintained by the army, that had been built by the army. We got the hospital section of that, which was about, I guess, around fifty acres. We acquired that and we acquired the buildings, and those were used, although they were—may have been wooden, they were frame buildings. They had been used for sick bays during the war and for administration of the hospital, camp hospital. And we converted them into quick classrooms when the veterans began to come back.
The enrollment of A&T jumped noticeably between '46 and '50. The increase was very, very rapid. It was rapid because of the veterans, the number of veterans, who came in, and the increase in the number of girls who came during the war and afterwards, so that we had to use those, those camp buildings for classroom purposes—for physical education, especially, and for—and also for dormitories. The veterans came, had been in some of those buildings as, as soldiers, and now they came back as, as veterans in those same buildings as students, being used—of course, at that time they were under the jurisdiction of the institution. So that they gained, we gained, oh, some eight or ten major buildings.
We gained the—they gained the library, the Bluford Library. We gained the health center, Sebastian Health Center. We built a home for the president. We built a chemistry building. We built the engineering building and several auxiliary buildings immediately after the war.
And that was one of the problems, speaking about the Southern Association. That was one of the problems that confronted us for gaining membership in the Southern Association. Before that time, we were all out of—our student enrollment had run beyond our physical facilities. And we were teaching them in the barracks over on the north campus. And we were sleeping them over there. So we were pressing for the dormitories and for the classroom buildings in order that before the Southern Association would come, they—.
They only sent a committee to study the college, to see its facilities and matters of that sort. So while we were in the course of, of construction of the—really, rebuilding the campus—we held them off. It was in 1955 that the construction of the major buildings was completed. They were dedicated in the fall of 1955. And it was then that we were ready to have the Southern Association come in.
And one of the strange—not strange, but one of the things that struck me at the time, very forcefully, was the fact that President Bluford had been president of A&T from 1925 down to this time. He had followed the growth of it. And he had followed the, the development of the, the relationship between the Southern Association and the, the Association of, of Colleges and Secondary Schools, which is the black organization. And he had also been a member of what they called the Liaison Committee between the land grant colleges, the black land grant colleges, and the American Association of Land Grant Colleges. He had been a member of the association of that. And the fall of 1955 was the year that the, the merger was to take place between the land grant units. The—and it, it happened that the Southern Association came at the same time.
We had, we had—that year, the fall of '55 was notable for a number of new buildings that were added. The campus was practically rebuilt. We had the dedication of all of those buildings in the fall of '55. We had Governor [Luther] Hodges to come over to make the dedicatory address for us. And he came and he delivered his address.
But during that fall of '55, there was turmoil also over the matter of integration. The Supreme Court had made its decision on integration in '54, but the implementation didn't come until '55, same year. And there was lots of discussion over that, over integration. And when the governor came to make his address, he made some, some mishaps, or made some slips in some sensitive language. [laughs] He mispronounced the word “negro,” n-e-g-r-o. That was a problem for him. And it was, it was a problem that the students didn't like it, nor were very few black people liked it the way he pronounced it. He had good intentions, but he just had misused his word. And the students, the audience really, responded unfavorably to him when he used the word “nigra,” n-i-g-r-a. They didn't like that.
But Mr. Hodges spoke on; he did a good address. And he had said some constructive things about the future of A&T. But he, he got bogged down in that, and he left the, the, that dedication program.
Were there any repercussions of this or about his administration or—
Not so much from his administration as such, but lots of repercussions in the city, for example, and throughout the state and politically otherwise, because Hodges was running, really, for reelection. I think the election—this, this was in November of '55 and the election was coming up in '56, the election for governor. And he was running at that time for, really for, for his own administration. And that's the things that bothered Hodges so much. He, he hated to have this particular experience at that particular time because he was running with good support from the black voters. And his opponent—the man he expected—who did—yes, I think, [Isaac Beverly] Lake, Dr. Lake opposed him in this election. But Hodges won out anyway, so far as that's concerned.
But Dr. Bluford—Hodges felt pretty bad [unclear]—and Dr. Bluford, I think, felt worse than Hodges did, because he was presiding. He had, he had expected the governor to come—had invited the governor to come over to make this speech. But he—that had been the year before. That had—he had invited him and he had agreed to come maybe more than a year before the time came because of the delays in the construction of the buildings and things of that sort. It just had gone on and on. And we had to complete—we wanted to complete all of the buildings. Some had been completed the year before but a good many had not been. And we had the, the dedication of all of the buildings at the same time.
That was the highlight in Dr. Bluford's life—it was the highlight in the, the, the college—because we had completed construction of, I suppose, more than twelve, perhaps twelve to fourteen million dollars in new buildings. That was far more than anything that had taken place on the campus before that at one time—it was just far more. And he was looking forward to great things for the institution. It was ready to take a giant step forward. And the governor was, also.
And he was expecting to leave after the, the dedication to go for the meeting of the Land Grant Colleges and for the merging at Michigan State University up in Lansing, Michigan. But Dr. Bluford didn't go. He, he had his ticket—airplane ticket. He had his room reservations, and he had all—everything ready to leave the following week, one week after that, to go up to Michigan for the merging of the two organizations.
But that particular experience struck him so seriously he was downcast by it. He called me the day after the, after the dedication—the dedication was on Friday, this was on Saturday—and told me that he wanted me to go up there for it, because he didn't feel strong enough. He didn't feel like going. He didn't—he just did not want to face the situation up there that had been brought on because of this—
[End of tape 1, side A—Begin tape 1, side B]
—and the experience he had had on the campus. So that I had—I went for him. When I came back—the meeting was about almost a week—and when I came back I had to go immediately to the meeting of the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools down in Miami, Florida. And that was about a, a week. I then came to Greensboro and spent the night and next day there. Went down there—when I got, when I got back from Lansing, Dr. Bluford had gone to the hospital. And when I—I didn't see him overnight when I was going to Miami for the Association of Colleges—went down there and stayed a week. Then after that, when I returned back from the, from that meeting, I think when I, when I got back he had passed the very afternoon that I got back. So I didn't get a chance to issue a report to him, what we had done at Lansing. And neither did I get a chance to talk about what we had done, report at least to him about what we had done at, at Miami.
But the merger took place in Michigan. The, the two institutions were merged, and we, we just gave up our identity as the—as a separate organization and reorganized as the Committee on Cooperative Projects. That's the name we gave our organization and continued as a committee in the Association of Land Grant Colleges.
Well, Dr. Gibbs, at this point, I'd like to talk with you about another significant event that happened while you were president of A&T. I'm speaking specifically of the sit-in demonstrations of 1960, which went on to spark the most significant civil rights movement yet seen in this country. Could you describe these events and what the significance was to A&T?
Well, it was significant. It was unusual. It was something we had not heard of [at] A&T, in our administration—in the handling of students and question of relationship with the city, for example. It was just a new situation in that the, the students apparently had the thing well in mind as to what they wanted to do, but they hadn't made known very much—at least I hadn't heard much of anything about it.
And I don't believe many, if any, members of the faculty knew at that time about it. The students were freshmen who were new. They hadn't—they had been at A&T a semester because this happened in February. But they went down to the, the—
Yes, the Woolworth's five and ten cent store. And some of them bought some things that they usually buy, pencils and paper and that type, ink. And they turned to the table and sat there for service. They didn't get service, but they sat anyway.
I think the manager came to talk with them. But they still sat. Didn't harm anybody, didn't, didn't harm anything, but sat, until eventually they [Woolworth's employees] called the police. I believe the police didn't do anything. Since they were not harming anything, they didn't do anything.
But anyway, they, they closed the, the store after, I guess, the usual hour—around five or six o'clock in the afternoon. But they came—went home, went to the campus and came back the next day. Instead of four, the number had increased, I suppose, to three or four hundred. Before the day was over, it was far more than that.
And it had flowed, overflowed at Bennett College and also at the university—UNCG [University of North Carolina at Greensboro]. And I think to a certain extent the—Guilford College. By at least two days after it, it had gone through— all, all of those students from all of those institutions were taking part. Rather than wanting to handle the situation, nobody had a cut-and-dried remedy for handling the situation.
The mayor of the city at the time was Mayor [George] Roach. And the city manager was General [James R.] Townsend. Mayor Roach and General Townsend came over, over to my office on the campus and we had a conference. In substance, they called attention to the situation, which we acknowledged was a new situation for all of us. And they asked, what could the colleges do?
And my suggestion was that we, we had rules and regulations printed in our catalog and in our, in our materials that we send to students concerning class attendance, concerning college appointments and college regulations and things of that sort. And I told them that I thought we could handle that all right. I don't believe we would have any problem in handling that type of situation.
The problem of coming into the city, coming down to the Woolworth—that was more than I, that was more than we, the college could do, I told them. And they said, “Yes, we, we recognize that. And so, how can we work this?” I told them that we'd hold our end. We'd hold them [the students] to every regulation that we had to meet all our requirements there on the campus. And when they got to the city and they got out in the streets, we'd let the, the police force, the mayor and the manager, and the police department take over there.
And that's what they—that's, in general, was the situation—understanding between the mayor and the manager and myself as president.
Do you think there was a spirit of cooperation between the city government and A&T?
Oh, yes. Yes, I think so. Yes, I, I think so. I think the, I think the mayor knew. The mayor nor the manager asked any more from the campus [unclear]. They didn't—they handled the situation—the police department situation—they handled that themselves. And I think they handled it as fairly as they could under the circumstances, especially with this first situation.
Do you think this enhanced A&T's reputation as being the site of this first significant civil rights demonstration of the sixties, 1960s?
Yes. That has, that has—that's recognized as such, and is carried as such everywhere[?]. Yes, I think it has gone a long ways in that. And, of course, the students, the A&T students, had—they'd had some problems in the city over civil rights before, but never to this extent. [Unclear] had had in '37—it had some complaints about the, the theatres, segregation at the theatres and things of that sort. They had, the students had, really the campus had had problems with that, about the students going down and not being admitted or having to go upstairs. That was a problem that had caused some concern. But it, it had not reached this proportion such as the one in '60.
Do you think this eased breaking down the barriers to segregation in Greensboro? Did it significantly improve the conditions of blacks in Greensboro?
Oh yeah. Well, not—I wouldn't say the—this was in February that this affair came on. The businessmen played a part in their way, played a significant part in really removing the barriers. They, several of them privately—I don't know if I can remember the men, I wouldn't want to name some without trying to name all of them—but many of the businessmen and even the Chamber of Commerce looked favorably with it. They didn't press to force the, the businesses to change their policy, but things began to change. And it changed following this particular situation.
During the summer—after summer of '60—then the walls began to fall. Many of the places, many stores and shops began to move on their own in breaking down and taking a stand and encouraging others to change. So that by the end of the year, a good many of the things that had been traditional here in Greensboro had gone away.
And I, I don't know of any hostility on the part—racial hostility—that followed it. I don't, I don't remember any. There may have been some cases, periodic cases but I don't remember many that came to interfere with the progress of the students on the campus or institution as such. And it had no trouble really in later demonstrations in '62 or '63 than they had in '60.
I see. Well, I'd like to turn now to another topic if I might.
What changes have you noticed in black education over the years? This would—I'm thinking in terms of A&T, but also perhaps nationally.
Well—well, historically black education was devoted to training teachers and training ministers. Black education was, to a large extent, the same, I'd imagine, as early colonial American history in general—training teachers and ministers. Well, the black education of training teachers. We called them leaders and ministers.
They were contributing, for example, during the Reconstruction period, when many of the black colleges, such as Fisk and Atlanta University and maybe Shaw in North Carolina—they were concerned with trying to get political leaders as well as teachers. And many of the institutions were founded on that basis: the training for teachers, leaders in civil political life, and in ministers. Shaw University had a medical school, had a, a ministerial school, a school of theology, and many of the earlier institutions had that.
Well, now, A&T started largely as a teachers' training. We had agriculture and mechanic arts, but that was largely for training of teachers of agriculture and teachers of mechanical arts. It, it gradually developed into programs for lay people, but it started as that. Now since the, oh, I would say, largely—well, before World War II, before World War II, A&T was called on, to a large extent, in the matter of training— war training programs. A&T's program curriculum was broadened on a, on a shop course basis for the—preparing people to go into the war industries. For example, the development of, of electronics, we had shop courses in that. And shipbuilding, we had a lot of students who went into that. And then in architecture, we had students who [were] shipbuilding who went into that. And from World War II on, A&T's program has broadened greatly.
During the war, we had two officer training programs: for Army ROTC and Air Force ROTC. That came during the war, and after the war those continued with accelerated space. Home economics came in; that has broadened. And the matter of specialties in agriculture—that has come along and has developed since then.
So that A&T's program—primarily a teacher program in special fields, mechanics and agriculture—has gone now into engineering as such, into poultry development, in animal husbandry as such. Not just a general course in agriculture, but specialties in those fields.
I'd like to turn to a more, perhaps, personal aspect of black education: your part in it, and what programs did you initiate, of which you are most proud, during your tenure at—both as dean of men, instructor, and as president at A&T?
Well, my teaching. One course that I developed—we call it black history now, but at the time when it was put in, we called it, we called it blueberry [Newberry?] history. That has—from the students who attended, took the courses. I taught many of them, thousands of them through the years. They had—and they're all over the world now. They studied everywhere. And they tell me that that course, which they took more out of curiosity, I think, than anything else, it has served their purposes well.
[Note by Helen Snow, Greensboro Public Library staff, 2004: It sounds as if Gibbs said, “blueberry history,” but I could not confirm the term or, if this is incorrect, find what the correct term was. Many sources were consulted, including Gibbs' book and archivists at A&T]
There was not much black awareness of black history at the time?
No, no, no, not—well, we had, I suppose we had, I guess, ten or twelve different courses in American history and European history, modern European and ancient history, medieval, and colonial history and western history, Southern history, [but] very little dealing with the Negro part in it. And we had one textbook, which I think has served a good purpose, and that was written by Carter G. Wilson.
Carter Wilson was also the founder of the Association of Negro Life and History, which I told you about earlier. He wrote a book, The Negro In American History. He had tried to take American history, run through from the earliest years down to the time current—on showing that every stage of American history—[the] part that Negro, the black man played.
In the war, for example, in the, in this, in the Revolutionary War, in the Revolutionary War there were lots of black soldiers. And in the War of 1812, lots of them. And in the Mexican War. All through [history]. He had—he brought that in his book.
Well now, my course in American—in Negro history brought on a specific, with more instances than he could cover in his general book, his [was] for general reading. But I think that has made a good contribution. And then following that, while I was president, I was interested in—after, after World War II, when Africa began to show signs of movement toward independence, I felt it was a fine thing if we could extend the course in Negro history to put in more about African history. And we attempted that in many ways. But one specific way was to organize a program of African history, African studies we called it. And we invited an African who had been educated here in the United States, a Mr. Broderick from Sierra Leone. He had had his undergraduate work at Otterbein College in Ohio, and he did graduate study at Columbia University. And he wrote for two years with me here at A&T.
He came, he came—as a matter of fact, he came to A&T a year before I got here. And when I got here, he was here and we became acquainted. And we worked together at A&T. And then he went back to Sierra Leone in time. And I became president, and after things had changed and the program developed, he had been over to Northwestern University, had come over to Northwestern to introduce a program in African studies at Northwestern. And while he was over here, we had him to come to A&T a summer before—two years before he came, he came as teaching a summer school at A&T.
Excuse me, Dr. Gibbs. I'm afraid that we're running out of time. But I thank you. You've certainly shown your philosophy toward education, your contribution toward black higher education, and in that respect, your contribution to Greensboro as a community. And I want to thank you for participating in our oral history program.
I thank you very much. I found that it's a very interesting [unclear].
Well thank you, sir. This is part of the Greensboro Public Library oral history program. It was filmed at the library on May 17, 1977.
[End of Interview]