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Oral history interview with Jo Spivey by Jim Schlosser


Date: December 14, 2001

Interviewee: Jo Jones Spivey

Biographical abstract: Jo Jones Spivey (1917-2003) a reporter for the Greensboro News and Record from 1951 to 1984, was a pioneer in the field of journalism for women and a reporter on local civil rights events.

Interviewer: Jim Schlosser

Description:

In this transcript of a December 14, 2001, oral history interview conducted by Jim Schlosser with Jo Spivey, Spivey recalls her coverage of civil rights activities in Greensboro for the Greensboro Record and her opinion on changes in local race relations since that time. She primarily recounts the sit-ins at Woolworth’s and earlier events such as the Gillespie Golf Course case and the Lindley Swimming Pool case.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.598

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 Jo Spivey by Jim Schlosser

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Jim Schlosser:

—pick up your voice. Let's see, what's the date? Today's the thirteenth?

Jo J. Spivey:

I'll be darned if I know.

JS:

Well, it's Friday, I think it's December thirteenth, so. And we're at Jo Spivey's house. Jo was a reporter for the Greensboro Record in 1960 and covered the sit-ins. Let's talk about what was going on in civil rights in Greensboro before the sit-ins. What, was there—I know Dr. [William] Hampton had been on the city council. And there had been what looked like some progress was being made, but what was the atmosphere?

JJS:

Jim, this has been so long ago. There were no close relations between blacks and whites. At this point, I've even forgotten how I got into the whole thing. But I think was, had something to do with, you remember the swimming pool cases, the [Gillespie Park] golf course cases?

JS:

Yes, '55.

JJS:

I think that's when I first got into them. Probably the files would tell you more.

JS:

What year did you come into the paper?

JJS:

Nineteen forty, I guess.

JS:

Was it that long? I thought maybe you had been in Asheville.

JJS:

Oh, I had been in Asheville, and worked in Raleigh, you know, before the—it must have been '50. Before, during the war, I was in Asheville, and then when John came back he went to State College [North Carolina State University] and I was on the paper down there. And then he came here as Guilford County forester, and I got a job on the Record.

JS:

Right. How did you get to know some of the people, key leaders in the black community—George Simkins, and George Evans, and people like that? You already knew them before the sit-ins, didn't you?

JJS:

Yes, I did.

JS:

Did you make it a point to get to know them or did they—

JJS:

No, you remember there was the swimming pool case, the golf course case, and all those things. I got to know them then, and we became friends. And it was just a natural progression that I would get into the sit-ins.

JS:

Did you know Ralph Johns at the time, before the sit-ins?

JJS:

I'm not sure when I got to know Ralph. It was along about the same time, though.

JS:

Right. And tell us, did you have any hint before any of this was going to happen? They tipped you off or—

JJS:

Yes.

JS:

About how soon in advance?

JJS:

Oh, it was not too long before. When they started to come uptown they called me.

JS:

Okay, that was Ralph who called you? According to one of the, [William] Chafe's book, [Civilities and Civil Rights], it seems to be—

JJS:

It could have been. It could have been.

JS:

They said they called a sympathetic reporter, that Ralph Johns did.

JJS:

Yeah, it must have been.

JS:

What did you do when you got that call? It was in the aft[ernoon]-tell me when—

JJS:

It was late afternoon, as I recall it, and I already had my daughter, my daughter had been born, so I took her to a friend and I came back downtown. And by that time, as I recall it, Woolworth had already locked its doors. But the first sit-inners, the sit-inners, the original sit-inners came out of the door, the side door—

JS:

The old Sycamore Street side.

JJS:

Yeah, and I was there, as I recall it—

JS:

Now Marvin Sykes wrote the story, the first story. Then you, I think you came in on the second one.

JJS:

Well, I'll tell you, I think they did not, I think, I believe Bob Register was city editor then. I'm not sure who was city editor. But they did not realized that I'd been there, so I went up and told whoever was on the city desk that this thing had happened, and that's when after that, all of the stories I wrote.

JS:

Did you know that this was a pretty significant event, I mean, or did it just seem like another event like Gillespie or the swimming pools or, I mean, did you say, “Hey, this is big.”

JJS:

I don't recall thinking that it was particularly—but I don't recall. It's been so long ago I don't recall exactly what I felt. Naturally I felt it was worth covering or I would not have gone back downtown.

JS:

But there had been other events, you know, where, like the Gillespie—that one—

JJS:

The golf course case, the swimming pools.

JS:

And then the schools had been desegregated to a certain extent the year, two years before, three years before.

JJS:

And I had become friends with George Simkins and—oh, I can't remember his name, he's a fellow over at Bennett College.

JS:

I might have his name. Is it Edward Edmonds?

JJS:

Yeah, he—that's not the one, but I knew him. I still hear from the one that was at Bennett College, but I'll be darn if I can remember what his name was right now.

JS:

You remember Edmonds fairly well?

JJS:

No, not very well. I just know him.

JS:

Reading, I understand that he was not particularly liked by either whites or blacks. The whites thought he was too militant, and so did some of the blacks, who worried that he would go too fast.

JJS:

I don't have any recollection one way or another. I just know him.

JS:

Did you ever get a chance to meet the four students during that time?

JJS:

Sure, sure.

JS:

Did you have the impression from them that it was a fairly—I mean, even though they talked about it, it was fairly spontaneous? I mean, that they didn't call George Simkins beforehand or—and know somebody else wasn't behind it?

JJS:

It was fairly spontaneous. I think, I think they'd been talking about it. But they—I think the fact that they went uptown that afternoon, that day was, I don't think there was any great advanced planning on that.

JS:

A lot of white people at the time said, “Well, there must be somebody behind this, the national NAACP [National Association of the Advancement of Colored People] office or something.” But as far as you could tell, these were four young men that, just doing what they thought was right?

JJS:

Yes.

JS:

And also, in recent years there's been some new revelations that don't really add up in my mind to some extent, but that the Bennett students had planned to do this, but told the A&T [North Carolina A&T State University] students to go ahead and do it. Did you ever get that impression?

JJS:

I have no recollection of anything along that line. I think that there was some interchange between the two schools. Naturally there would be, a girl's school and a boy's school.

JS:

Right next to each other.

JJS:

But, you know, all this stuff's in the files and probably it was fresher in my mind.

JS:

Well, we wanted to get it in your voice. It's a little bit more dramatic.

JJS:

Yeah.

JS:

What was the, among your friends and the people in the newsroom and just other people on your beats, what was the reaction? Can you remember? Was it sympathetic to these students, or was it hostile, or sort of in between?

JJS:

I don't remember that it was hostile or any—I think the city people were worried that it would, you know, cause riots and things of that sort. The police were pretty much on it.

JS:

And Paul Calhoun I believe was the chief and Mayor [George] Roach—do you remember talking to the mayor? Was he ever upset or worried? I got to know him later, but I didn't know what, I didn't know, was he a pretty calm mayor?

JJS:

Yeah, he was pretty calm. He—I think he wished it would go away.

JS:

I guess we could have, could have had—if [Mayfair Cafeteria owner] Boyd Morris had been mayor, who was mayor five years before—when you look at these things, we, the city reacted in a way, in a very nonviolent way. It let it play out. It could have, somebody could have been in office that could have—

JJS:

Yes, that's true. I think everybody just sort of let it go its own way.

JS:

Did you have a chance to talk to Curly Harris at all during that period? Curly was the manager [of Woolworth's].

JJS:

Yes. [pause] Mr. Harris and I did not get along very well.

JS:

And I think that's the way it's been, but now he's eager to talk. In fact, we got an interview set up with him, and it's one of the first times he's talked.

JJS:

Oh, I didn't know whether he was still alive or—

JS:

Yeah, he's at Abbotswood. And now I understand that, you know, he has a different feeling about it, but I'm anxious to find out.

JJS:

Well, I would imagine maybe he would after all, because it's progressed as a favorable event.

JS:

Yes. Does that surprise you that its come—and it didn't take that long. Within ten years they were having commemorations in the city and Woolworth's was sending somebody down from New York.

JJS:

No, I'm not particularly surprised because it was the right thing to do! And people in Greensboro I don't think are necessarily mean people. Of course, there were some, but the majority of the people in Greensboro didn't—I mean, it was just a progression that came naturally.

JS:

And we also often overlook, there's another story involved, Kress [Five and Dime Store], that they sat in starting maybe a day or two afterwards.

JJS:

Yeah, and it always surprised me that nothing ever happened to Kress. I went to some of the Kress sit-ins and, of course, their lunch counter was in the basement. And it could be that maybe it wasn't as open there as it was—the lunch counter—at Woolworth's. So it could be that it was just harder to get to it. People didn't go down there or something. [laughs] I don't know what. I went down there and nothing, I never saw anything particularly down there.

JS:

But life went on as usual in downtown Greensboro. People—we don't want to leave the impression that the whole city stopped for all this period.

JJS:

Oh, no, it didn't.

JS:

I guess business at the lunch counter at Woolworth's ceased for a while as, while the sit-ins went, but elsewhere in the city life went on. The courts were held, and businesses open, and banks open, and nothing disruptive.

JJS:

Yeah, wasn't particularly. But this—there were always police officers there to be sure there was no trouble like there was at some places. I mean, some towns I think did have trouble. But—and Greensboro's not really that bad, was not that bad a town. We had all these colleges here. And there was interchange between the colleges before. It didn't just start with the sit-ins.

JS:

How did the newspaper then treat the black community? Did we go out of our way to cover the black community, or we just did what we had to do in a minimal amount? Or do you remember?

JJS:

I don't know whether we had any black correspondents or not. But they, I know a lot of them would come to me because I had been, I guess, I don't know—a lot of people in the black community that they had a story to go in, they would come to me. I guess it was because, you know, George Simkins and the stuff that I had written before.

JS:

Yeah, but I guess—and the paper was still about, I guess, nine years away from hiring the first black reporter, which was Fontina[?] Miller. I think she came in '69.

JJS:

I don't remember when she came.

JS:

And you ended up writing the bulk of the stories, because this thing—a lot of people think this was a one-day event, I guess, but it played out six months.

JJS:

Oh, no, it was months.

JS:

Months and months. And they'd have cease, sort of cease fires for awhile, or periods where—

JJS:

And they closed the lunch counter and a whole bunch of stuff.

JS:

But, you were writing all these—how did it affect your personal life? Did you have friends that say, “Will you quit writing about this?” Or, you know, didn't the Klan get on you at one time? Was this in connection with the sit-in or this was something else?

JJS:

The Klan was pretty much on me for several years, the swimming pools, and the sit-ins, and the whole bunch of stuff. This of course never bothered me, because I thought it was part of the territory. But it did bother me when they—somebody, whether it was the Klan or who it was—got my little girl on the phone and scared her to death.

JS:

Oh, what'd they say?

JJS:

I don't know because she, she was crying and screaming into the phone, and I came and took the phone away from her. And she said they said they were going to come and get her. And I don't know who—

JS:

Was anybody on the end when you picked it up? End of the phone?

JJS:

I don't remember.

JS:

And how old was your daughter about that time?

JJS:

Oh, she was just a little thing. It was before she ever went to school or kindergarten.

JS:

That must have been—

JJS:

She was born in—hell, I can't even remember when she was born now. But she was just a little thing.

JS:

What does she do now, by the way?

JJS:

She's director of parks for the Raleigh Parks and Recreation Department.

JS:

Oh great, she's the Bonnie Kuester [director of Greensboro Parks and Recreation] of Raleigh, sort of?

JJS:

I guess so. She has the parks, she doesn't do—she has community centers and the pools and the lakes and stuff like that.

JS:

But did that, did that incident with the phone call, did it make you gun shy? Did it make you fearful of going back and writing another story?

JJS:

Well, no. I just told her she wasn't answering the phone anymore. And I had a very good woman who, you know, stayed with her during the day. And so I talked to her and we made sure that the little girl would not answer the phones anymore. [laughs]

JS:

You didn't have trouble with any of the editors at the paper? I know one or two that I got to know after I came were not particularly sympathetic to any black movement. But you didn't run in to any opposition from them? [pause] Now I know, of course Bob Register wasn't one of those, and if he was the city editor, I can see you would—

JJS:

I never ran into any problem. And Bill Snider was, you know, an editorial writer, and he was pretty advanced. And I never had any trouble with anybody up there.

JS:

I think the ones that I'm thinking of were not—they were mostly copy editors. And I'm just—in meeting them years later, I got the impression that they would not have been sympathetic.

JJS:

Well, I'm sure there were probably people up there who were opposed to it, but they never—Jim, you know, I never put up with any of that foolishness.

JS:

As you look back on it, I mean, does it just flabbergast you that this is now considered one of the foremost events of the American civil rights movement?

JJS:

[pause] I don't know, because at the—you know, this is so long ago I don't recall really exactly my feelings. I never thought it was right that they were, that the counters were segregated. And, of course, I had a number of black friends by virtue of contacts I made in the black community in covering news stories because [of], as I said, the Gillespie Park Golf Course and the swimming pools. And I was covering city and those would come up. And I got to know George Simkins and a fellow at Bennett College and I can't recall that man's name to save my—

JS:

I'll see if I can dig that up. If you wanted—of course, Greensboro was a very segregated city still then. And it was impossible for you to go somewhere and meet with a black source for coffee in a public place, is that right?

JJS:

[pause] You know, I don't remember. I just don't remember whether I ever went to Woolworth's and sat down with a black person and had coffee or not.

JS:

Well, later you might have but before—

JJS:

Oh yeah, later, but I mean before, I don't—

JS:

But prior to 1960 it would have been impossible.

JJS:

I don't remember.

JS:

Do you think, as you look back now, you think we've made—of course, we have made progress from, Woolworth's was probably the most integrated place in Greensboro when it closed here recently. But do you think we—how do you feel about race relations in Greensboro? [pause] I know you're not out like you used to be, but—

JJS:

No, I don't get out. I mean, I've had this problem with walking since I had that accident on that bird watching trip, so I don't get out an awful lot. But I think, I don't think people think too much about race relations anymore, do you? I know you're not—I'm not interviewing you.

JS:

Yeah, well, I don't know. I think people, I think a lot of people are disappointed that here we are two years away from the fortieth anniversary of the sit-ins and it still seems such a monumental issue, the race, and that we, that hadn't gone away. That we aren't a colorblind society like everybody kept talking that we would be someday.

JJS:

Well, I know, the black people, most of them live on the east side of town. And there's a black community and white community. But I don't know, the people that I know, that I'm friends with, don't have any feeling about it one way or the other. When we have parties—which I haven't been able to do lately—but when we had parties, there were blacks invited and whites invited and nobody ever got in a fight. [laughs]

JS:

As you look back on people like George Simkins and George Evans and well, I guess, Dr. Hampton—

JJS:

I never knew Dr. Hampton too well.

JS:

Right, but Simkins is—I don't know if the younger generation of black people and white people really appreciate or really understand all he did. I mean, we think about these four young A&T students, but here was George Simpkins—

JJS:

George Simpkins almost went to jail, you remember.

JS:

I mean, he did some high profile things that were very dangerous.

JJS:

He sure did.

JS:

And also he had a lot at stake, too. He had a career, he's a dentist. I don't know if there was anything the white community could have done to hurt him, but I've always—

JJS:

He had a family too, very, most intelligent wife. Very intelligent. And of course, his daughter. And he was a, he is a very smart guy.

JS:

George Evans, was he more behind the scenes?

JJS:

I never knew George as well as I did George Simkins, but I guess you would say that. I mean, he wasn't there in the forefront where people could see him and pictures taken of him leading marches and things of that sort.

JS:

And, of course, in those days, well, there was, Waldo Falkener was on the city council, I guess, then. Hampton had gone off and Falkener had come on. Maybe there'd been a lapse of two years or so, but he got on there. But there was really no black involvement other than Waldo Falkener in city hall, was there? There weren't any department heads that were black or even anybody with any supervisory authority at all, right?

JJS:

Not that I recall.

JS:

I think that's one of the great changes that you see. Now you see there are three black people on city council, and black police chief for the last eleven years, and black fire chief. The city's really changed a great deal.

JJS:

Well, they're recognizing capability, I think, because certainly the police chief and fire chief are both capable people.

JS:

Yet, there seems to be just the feelings that there's just so much more to do. I guess, in a way, I guess, maybe, the sit-ins and the desegregation marches of '63 with Jesse Jackson and them, that might have been the easy part in a way, I mean, even though there was potential for violence. But now we're at, everything is integrated now, but still there's that feeling that there's still inequality out there and it's hard to define.

JJS:

Well, since I'm, you know, since I retired and everything, it's not a thing that I encounter. When we have people in, we have black friends and white friends, Indian friends, anything. [laughs]

JS:

You grew up in the South, where, in Asheville? Were your parents real tolerant? How did this, your feelings evolve toward, on the race question? It seems that a lot of—

JJS:

Well, Asheville didn't have a lot of black people. I don't recall that I ever had too much exposure along that line.

JS:

You went to [The University North Carolina at] Chapel Hill. There were no blacks when you were at Chapel Hill, is that right?

JJS:

No, there weren't. Now I say that, because I don't recall getting—

JS:

Floyd McKissick [civil rights attorney], I think, was first, if I'm not mistaken, maybe one of the first blacks to ever go there, and that was law school.

JJS:

I don't recall having any exposure to black students, faculty.

JS:

So your first real exposure to black people was when you got to the paper and started dealing with George Simkins and people in the civil rights movement?

JJS:

[pause] Well, we always had black, well, you'd have to say, black servants, but they were very friendly. And, I mean, I would climb on our maid's lap and hug her just as much as I would my own mother. My mother was an artist, I don't know whether you knew that.

JS:

No, I didn't know that.

JJS:

So she had classes. See all that stuff up there she painted.

JS:

We're looking at the china. It's pretty.

JJS:

But she did do oils as well. She taught classes in china and oils.

JS:

And she later moved down here?

JJS:

She died at the Presbyterian Home. I mean she was at the Presbyterian Home when she died in the hospital over there, in High Point.

JS:

Do you still chat with Simkins and some of the old people that—

JJS:

Once in awhile. I don't have, as I said, I don't get around very much anymore.

JS:

How about Ralph John? I want to ask you—Johns—I got to know him, I knew him even in the fifties as a kid. I used to go in his store. I really got to know him better at the paper in the late sixties and seventies, and even into the eighties. And, you know, he was always bragging—I hate to use the word bragging—but taking on a great deal of credit for the sit-ins. And I'm still confused to this day how much credit he deserves. I mean, do you have an opinion on that? [pause] I know it's a tough one. And I think some people out of appreciation for his sympathy have sort of, you know, just say, “Yeah, Ralph was a great friend and helped us out and—”

JJS:

Well, he was a friend and he helped them out, but I'm not sure how much, what role he had in organization of the whole thing and, you know, pushing it.

JS:

I guess that's going to be sort of a mystery. I remember interviewing David Richmond and maybe [Franklin] McCain, I'm not sure, back around the fortieth anniversary—not fortieth, thirtieth. And I came away from that interview feeling that it was really these four, these four kids. And they did stop at Ralph Johns' store, and he did give encouragement and so forth. But Ralph sort of acts like he got them to do it. And I've always wondered about it.

JJS:

I think probably it was the four students who cooked it up themselves. And I wish I could, I wish I had a clearer picture in my own mind of exactly what, where I got into it. And there was that fellow over at Bennett College and I can't remember the guy's name.

JS:

Yeah, he's still alive and I think he's—

JJS:

Yeah, and I get Christmas cards and I send him Christmas cards, but I don't have my Christmas card list right here and I can't remember his name.

JS:

Well, anyway, I think that's all we need to do. Was that, that was one of the highlights of your reporting career, wasn't it, by far? I know you did some other things too, but this was—

JJS:

Well, it was a highlight, I mean, but I mean, there was, as you know, there was a new news story every day. [laughs]

JS:

You retired about what, 1984, in that area?

JJS:

Yeah, I guess so. I've been retired about ten or twelve years.

JS:

Yeah, time goes by.

[End of Interview]