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Oral history interview with Jack Moebes by Eugene Pfaff


Date: April 18, 1979

Interviewee: John G. Moebes

Biographical abstract: John G. "Jack" Moebes (1911-2002) was a photographer for the Greensboro Record and the Greensboro Daily News newspapers from 1946 to 1976. His most famous photo is the only one taken of all four of students who began the February 1, 1960 sit-in at Woolworth’s.

Interviewer: Eugene E Pfaff

Description:

In this transcript of an April 18, 1979, oral history interview conducted by Eugene Pfaff with Jack Moebes, Moebes primarily discusses the circumstances surrounding his photographing of the “Greensboro Four” outside of Woolworth’s on February 1, 1960. He also describes subsequent demonstrations at F. W. Woolworth and S&W Cafeteria.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.560

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 Jack Moebes by Eugene Pfaff

EUGENE PFAFF:

This is a segment of the Greensboro Public Library Oral History Program. I’m speaking with Mr. Jack Moebes, now retired, but in 1960 he was chief photographer for the Greensboro Record and took pictures for that newspaper during the Woolworth and Kress sit-ins. Mr. Moebes, I’d like to ask you how you first heard about the sit-ins.

JACK MOEBES:

I was out on assignment, and they called me and told me that something was going on down there because some students were sitting in, and as soon I finished the assignment, to go down there.

EP:

Did you speak specifically with anyone on the newspaper about the situation?

JM:

I, I just don’t recall whether it was relayed to me or just what kind of worked—chain of command. I, I don’t remember.

EP:

So what occurred when you arrived on the scene?

JM:

Well, the door was closed. And, of course, I, I for some reason knew they were in there. I may have looked in there and saw them at the counter, I don’t know. But I couldn’t get in.

EP:

Was there a crowd outside?

JM:

No, no one at all.

EP:

No one had taken notice of this mess?

JM:

No, no, nothing.

EP:

When did you next go back to the store? Or, or did you take any pictures that day, that first day?

JM:

Well, yes, I waited until they came out, and then I asked if they’d pose for me walking down the sidewalk. So they did, the four boys.

EP:

Did you speak with—

JM:

Men, rather.

EP:

Did you speak with them other than that occurrence?

JM:

No, I didn’t try to get a story or anything. I just, just talked—asked them to pose and they walked—in fact, they walked down once, and I shot one and I wanted to get another one, so they backed up and walked down again in front of the store.

EP:

When did you next go to the store?

JM:

I went back in the morning, in the morning when they opened.

EP:

And what was the situation at that time?

JM:

Let’s see now. I believe that I went back the next morning because, see, I was working the night, the late shift the day of the first sit-in. But I didn’t ordinarily work nights or afternoons. So I think that I went—was working days the next day and went back the very next morning. Of course, I know I did cover the morning sit-ins, but that particular day I’m not absolutely positive, but I think I did go back that morning.

EP:

What was the scene at the store at that time?

JM:

Well, there was a good many people there, and some policemen there, a whole lot more A&T [North Carolina A&T State University] students. And there were some young—either at this time or a few days afterward—there were some young whites there and which several of us thought might cause some trouble between the two. But nothing occurred between—that I saw.

EP:

Did you see any incidents of violence?

JM:

No.

EP:

Were the white bystanders heckling the A&T students?

JM:

No, no. They just were very serious and it looked like, it just looked like it might be an explosive situation.

EP:

Did you go—

JM:

I think it probably was kind of explosive but there was a silence—it just looked grim.

EP:

Did you go into the store to take pictures?

JM:

Yes, the next morning.

EP:

Were you prevented from taking any pictures?

JM:

Well, I don’t know whether you’d call it prevented or not. The obstacle, of sorts, [Woolworth’s manager] Curly Harris told me, he said, “You just can’t take pictures in here.”

And I said, “Well, Curly, they sent me down here to get some pictures, so I’ll have to get them.”

And he said, “Well, you just can’t do it.” So we talked back and forth like that. And finally, I said, “Well, Curly, you do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do.” I didn’t know what he was going to do.

So I put my camera up to my eye and began to take pictures. And Curly put his hands in front of the lens. So I moved over a yard or two, and he jumped over there with me. Then he put his hands up. When I put my hand, my camera to my eyes, he put his hands up in front of the lens. So then I held my camera up above my head, arms extended, and clicked the shot. Now, I don’t know whether I got any pictures or not, but Curly thought I did or thought I was getting pictures. So he just walked on back to the back of the store. And, and I, I got some more pictures.

EP:

Were there a large number of people in the stores at this time?

JM:

Yeah, a great, great many people, yeah, spectators and—

EP:

Were they all jammed around the lunch counter, or were they spread out throughout the store?

JM:

Well, I think most of them were just—now these young whites were [worked?] at the counter. But as well as I remember, there was a good many people just standing around, maybe a few at the counter. Of course, the counters were pretty much covered by A&T students. There wasn’t much, a whole lot of room, I would think. Now I can’t—this has been a good many years back.

EP:

Were you ever spoken to, jeered at, threatened or any action taken toward you or directed toward you by the white spectators because you were taking pictures?

JM:

No.

EP:

How about the black students?

JM:

No.

EP:

No one interfered with you after this incident?

JM:

No, not that I remember, no. Of course it’s pretty common for people to holler bad names—I mean, in situations of this sort. And it probably wouldn’t have made an indelible impression that would have lasted down through the years had they done that, because it happens pretty often. It did happen.

EP:

Did you return repeatedly to the store?

JM:

Yes, yes, sometimes outside when they had some demonstrations outside, and sometimes inside.

EP:

Did your photographs appear repeatedly in the Record?

JM:

Yes.

EP:

So then, you would have a pretty good vantage point of the day-to-day action of what occurred in the store. Could you describe that first week what happened?

JM:

I don’t know of anything to add.

EP:

The newspaper said that as early as the second day, large crowds were there and that the A&T students did sit at the counter. But very quickly there arose a group the paper describes as young, white toughs that conducted a counter sit-in.

JM:

They were at the counters, yeah.

EP:

And were trying to sit there and hold them for other white patrons and not let the A&T students—

JM:

I don’t know what their, what their objective was.

EP:

Did you ever work with a reporter in covering the stories?

JM:

Yes, yes, we worked but I don’t remember who it was.

EP:

I see. But your sole function was just to take pictures, not to conduct any interviews or—

JM:

No. No. It kind of seems to me, like, maybe it was Marvin Sykes who covered some of those with me.

EP:

Did you happen to observe the policemen on the scene? What were their actions?

JM:

Well, I, I don’t recall them arresting anybody. They were just sort of observers waiting to see what they were going to do, what would happen.

EP:

Did you see them restrain anyone from anything?

JM:

No.

EP:

Did you, do you recall when the first instance of the students spreading the sit-downs to the Kress store?

JM:

No, I can’t—I don’t remember. I do remember going over to the S&W [Cafeteria] and I got in there without them seeing me with my camera. And I’ve forgotten who the manager was but Sonny Sherrill [Frank O. Sherrill, Jr.] was assistant manager. And, oh yeah, I did shoot a picture. I shot a picture. Got in there and got my picture and was getting out, and they stopped me. And they said, We don’t want you to use this picture. And I said, “Well, I’ll do—well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do.” I said, “I’ll call Floyd Henley and you can talk with him,” and so I did.

EP:

Who is Floyd Henley?

JM:

He was managing editor. I called him and they talked with him. And I don’t remember what transpired, but I left with the pictures. And I don’t know whether we used them or not.

EP:

Now would this have been '60 or '63, because I don’t recall the S&W being picketed or, or—

JM:

It could have been—it could have been several years later. I don’t know.

EP:

Did—you have stated that you did not take any pictures, rarely worked at night.

JM:

Yeah.

EP:

Does this mean you did not cover any of the marches that took place?

JM:

No. I did not.

EP:

Any of the marches that may have occurred in the late afternoon?

JM:

No, I usually got off around four o’clock, something like that, along in there. I didn’t cover any of that.

EP:

Did you cover the Woolworth when there was a bomb threat that Saturday of February sixth, I believe?

JM:

No, I wouldn’t have been working on Saturday. If I did, I’d be covering football. What, what month was it?

EP:

February.

JM:

Oh, I wouldn’t, couldn’t cover football, no, not in February. I was thinking maybe it was—no, I, I—but I don’t recall that at all.

EP:

Did you—do you recall taking any pictures down at the Kress store?

JM:

No, I don’t. I probably did, but I just don’t remember.

EP:

Well, what sort of things were you looking for in taking your pictures?

JM:

Well—

EP:

From a photographer’s point of view.

JM:

Well, I, I think most photographers are trained to see something unusual, but they really don’t go in there with a preconceived idea of what, what they’re going to shoot unless somebody tells them. And I don’t recall anyone telling me to look for a certain thing.

EP:

So you just started shooting the students at the lunch counter.

JM:

You play it by ear, yeah.

EP:

Did you receive any specific instructions?

JM:

No. Just do the best—I want to do the best I can without getting my head busted in, you know.

EP:

Did you think that sometime that you were going to get—

JM:

Oh sure, yeah. You’re always at risk.

EP:

I see. But no one made any [unclear] to you.

JM:

No, no. I do think it’s significant that this picture that I took on the outside was not used for ten years, in the newspaper.

EP:

And why was that?

JM:

And that was the picture of them walking down the sidewalk that I took the first day.

EP:

Why was that picture not used?

JM:

It wasn’t used because the Record—I shot it for the Record, so the Record didn’t come out until four in the afternoon. And four in the afternoon, we had pictures of them at the counters. So we had pictures at the counters, so there wasn’t much point in using pictures of them walking down the sidewalk.

But then, ten years from then was the tenth anniversary. And the men who started the sit-in—then that picture had a great deal of significance, particularly since no one had ever been able to get the four of them together. So on the tenth anniversary, actually, it did have, have some value.

EP:

Do you recall what your personal feelings were at the time of the sit-ins, the entire scene?

JM:

Well, I don’t know. We all, most all of us, have broadened on this business. I, of course, I always felt like it was very bad, very—I felt sympathy for blacks going downtown and they couldn’t get anything to eat, they couldn’t go to the bathroom. And, in fact, I remarked to my wife that, that I just didn’t like it. But I don’t know just what my sympathies were.

Of course, I knew the man operating the store didn’t want to see his business ruined. And if it ran the whites out, then his business would be ruined. So I wouldn’t know just what—it’s hard to go back and see what, just what your sympathies—it’s just, just how you look at it.

EP:

The A&T students very quickly started picketing and, and, of course, the black community initiated a boycott. Did that continue on a daily basis? There was a period there when there were no—nine weeks when there were no sit-ins, from the second week in February through the last week in March. But do you recall—when the picketing did start up again on April first, was there day-to-day picketing?

JM:

I don’t remember.

EP:

Did—there was a—one incident which seemed to be potentially dangerous is when some white female students from University of North Carolina at Greensboro, what was then Woman’s College of the university, sat down with some of the students. Did you take any pictures of that?

JM:

No.

EP:

So you wouldn’t know what the reaction of the crowd was to that?

JM:

I didn’t see that. It must have been some time that I wasn’t there.

EP:

Are there any other impressions that you have of, of the sit-ins which continued through the end of July, or at least some kind of activity?

JM:

The only thing that I can think of that I had covered is something sort of related. They, they were beginning to integrate, or attempting to integrate everything mostly. And our golf course was along in that period some time in there—

EP:

The Gillespie Golf Course.

JM:

I don’t remember where they started. I guess it was Gillespie. And I know I, I’ve got a picture there at home that was taken up there in the city jail. There’s a whole bunch of them in there. They looked very proud. It looked like a good crowd.

EP:

The black leaders who attempted to integrate Gillespie Golf Course?

JM:

Yes.

EP:

This is when they were arrested and arraigned?

JM:

Yeah. I don’t remember what course it was, but I do remember just those things all came along about the same time.

EP:

Well, I want to thank you for coming up to the library and sharing your observations with us, Mr. Moebes. And I think that we’ve gained some valuable insights from your recollections of the 1960 sit-ins.

JM:

Okay. Well, thank you, Mr. Pfaff. I enjoyed talking with you.

[End of Interview]