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Oral history interview with Geneva Tisdale by Jim Schlosser


Date: circa 1998

Interviewee: Geneva Tisdale

Biographical abstract: Geneva Tisdale worked at the Greensboro Woolworth's store from 1951 to 1993. She was one of the first three African Americans served at the lunch counter when it desegregated following sit-ins in 1960.

Interviewer: Jim Schlosser

Description:

In this transcript of an oral history interview conducted circa 1998 by Jim Schlosser with Geneva Tisdale, Tisdale recalls the February 1, 1960, sit-in, the larger crowds during the following days, and the eventual shut down of the counter. She recounts the day the counter first re-opened to serve blacks and whites, and her experience as one of the first three black customers to be served.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.600

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 Geneva Tisdale by Jim Schlosser

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

[Phone ringing]

Geneva Tisdale:

Hello.

[Recording paused]

Jim Schlosser:

Okay, let me just give a little introduction here that I'm talking to Geneva Tisdale who worked at, who was working at Woolworth's, Woolworth's store on February 1, 1960, when the first day of the sit-ins took place. Where are you from, Ms. Tisdale? Were you a Greensboro native?

GT:

No, I was born in South Carolina.

JS:

Okay. And when did you come to Greensboro?

GT:

I'm not sure. It was in the forties, I can't remember exactly.

JS:

Right. And when did you go to work for Woolworth's store?

GT:

Nineteen fifty-one.

JS:

Nineteen fifty-one. And what was your job?

GT:

Well, I started out as a fountain girl, and then I had—I've done more than one job. I started out as a fountain girl, I worked on the sandwich board, I worked the steam table, I washed glasses. Then I was the salad girl. I'd go in and make up all the salads and stuff for the sandwich board. And then I did all the slicing of all the meats, and I made slaw. And when I start being a salad girl I made mayonnaise.

JS:

And what—the people that worked at the counter and worked in the kitchen upstairs—the kitchen was on the second floor, wasn't it?

GT:

Right.

JS:

Were they all black or was it an integrated workforce?

GT:

When I first started, they were, in the kitchen, they were all black at the time.

JS:

How about at the counter? The people that waited on the—

GT:

Well, they were mixed down there, because the waitresses were all white. They didn't have any black waitresses during that time.

JS:

What did the black people down there do? Did they do, the making of the sandwiches and so forth?

GT:

Made the sandwiches. Like I said, they worked on the sandwich board. They had one for washing glasses. They had two steam tables at that time, and so she had a girl on each steam table. Then the fountain girl, one on the fountain, she was black, and the ones that washed glasses were black.

JS:

Was it possible for a black employee to get a promotion, you know, to be an assistant manager or manager or anything?

GT:

Well, at that time I didn't know of any, at that time.

JS:

Was there a place at the counter or near the counter where black people could get something to eat?

GT:

No, it was not.

JS:

I was told that there was a stand-up counter or something.

GT:

Well, there was a snack bar out in the middle of the floor, and everybody could go there and order from the snack bar, you know. Anybody could go there. Anybody could come to the counter and order food but they couldn't sit down and eat.

JS:

In other words, a black person could stand at the lunch counter and say, “I'd like a hamburger,” and you'd fix it for him and he'd take it out, he or she.

GT:

Right.

JS:

What was your job on February 1, 1960?

GT:

Let's see, at that time I think I was on the sandwich board. Nineteen sixty, I think I was on the sandwich board. Either the sandwich board or the steam table, between the two of them.

JS:

Right. You were downstairs at the counter, in that area, though?

GT:

I was in both places, upstairs and downstairs. See, when I, when I would go in in the mornings, I would go, after I was switched to the salad girl, I would go in in the morning and prepare all the salads for the sandwich board, slice all the meats. And then I had to go down on the luncheonette and work the sandwich board.

JS:

Right. Had you had any indication that there might be some black people coming in and challenging the rules of the establishment?

GT:

At that time, no.

JS:

Okay. And where were you, do you remember—tell me about February first. Where were you and when did you realize that something was happening?

GT:

When it first started I think I was on the back, back there on the back steam table. I think that's where I was, and—when it first started. And we had a certain time to close the back, move all the food from the back up to the front, because they would be closing the back down and the front would still be going. And passing to and fro—

JS:

Right. When you say the back, you're talking about that, it was a L-shaped counter then, and the one end, the end against the wall was the one that would close down early, right?

GT:

In the back, yes.

JS:

Right. Okay, go ahead.

GT:

And passing to and fro, taking things around to the front. And that's when, you know, I saw—well, saw the two people, the people that were sitting there. Well, I didn't pay too much attention to it, because I didn't, at the time, I didn't realize what was happening. I just thought it was somebody here from someplace else who didn't know that they didn't serve blacks. So I kept on doing what I was doing.

JS:

Okay. And they were sitting in the area that was actually closed, right, the back portion? Not the front part of the counter?

GT:

Well, the time when I saw them they were on the front.

JS:

Oh, they were on the front, okay.

GT:

Now I can't remember them being in the back at that time. I saw them near the front.

JS:

Okay. That's fine. And were there any other customers at the counter?

GT:

Well, there was a few around, widely, because in the afternoons sometimes things would be slowing down.

JS:

So you figured that they didn't know the policy. Was the atmosphere getting sort of tense, though? Were people staring?

GT:

Well, I didn't notice it, not at that time, because like I said, when I saw them, I kept on, just kept on. I didn't pay much attention to them. Because like I said, I thought it was somebody that didn't know that they couldn't be served there. So I just kept on doing what I was doing.

JS:

And what happened?

GT:

As somebody passed by, they would ask if they could be served, I remember that. I think it was they would ask for, if they could have a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. And everybody just ignored them and just kept walking. So later on, I think one of the girls told them that, you know, they couldn't serve them.

JS:

Was this woman that did that, was she black or white?

GT:

Well, I think it was one of the black girls told them.

JS:

And then what happened?

GT:

As I can remember, that's all I can remember for that day.

JS:

Do you remember the manager, Mr. [“Curly”] Harris, coming over?

GT:

Yes, I do.

JS:

What did he do?

GT:

Now I don't know, I can't remember what he said to them or anything like that.

JS:

You could just see him talking to them?

GT:

No, I don't remember him talking to them, because I just standing there for a while and then I left and went upstairs.

JS:

And you don't know what happened after that or anything?

GT:

No, I don't.

JS:

Right. At that point, were you feeling a little anxious about this whole thing?

GT:

Not that particular day. Like I said, I didn't think anything of it, I just thought that they didn't know.

JS:

Didn't know. Did it—but it, you know, you being a black person, did it, you know, kind of gnaw at you a little bit, though, there here—?

GT:

After that first day, as it went on. It continued on and as they kept coming back, then it was tense to me, because I didn't know what would happen, and it scared me.

JS:

What were your feelings before then about not being able, you yourself could not sit at the counter. You could work there, but you couldn't sit there. Did that ever enter your mind, or was it just, you know, part of the—

GT:

Well, that was the policy when I went there, so I just—that's the way things were at that time. And I was used to that, so it didn't bother me until after all of that started. And when it got started, then I got to thinking about it. It wasn't no more than right that, you know, that we could be served, because we ourselves worked there. We fixed all the food that went down, and then we couldn't sit and be served ourselves.

JS:

And of course, the next day more than four students came in, and each day more and more came. Is that right?

GT:

Each day more and more came.

JS:

Right. And then also some white teenagers that were belligerent towards blacks came and stood around, didn't they?

GT:

Yes, but I didn't, like I said, I didn't see all of that, because I had a certain time to go upstairs. But I do remember the day when the whole counter was taken. They came in and took the whole counter. They actually—

JS:

These were black students?

GT:

Yes, right before they closed down. Because see, after all that happened they closed down for a while to decide what they was going to do. But when they took the whole counter, they closed the store early that day because there wasn't a seat for anybody to be served.

JS:

Was that after the store reopened after closing down for awhile, or was that what closed it down for awhile?

GT:

That's what closed it down. When they, the day they came in there and took the whole counter, they—well, they, anybody couldn't be served, because they had taken up the whole counter. And they wasn't going to serve the blacks, so they weren't taking any money in on the counter. But the snack bar was still open out there in the floor.

JS:

How about Mr. Harris? And I've interviewed him, by the way. I went out and talked to him. He's ninety-two now. How was he as a boss? Did he treat the black employees with respect?

GT:

Well, as far as I know he did. He was always nice to me. All of them was nice to me. I had no problem with the people that I worked with there. The bosses, I had no problems with them.

JS:

And also, on that first day, did you—John Erwin, who was a leader, I think he was vice president of the NAACP [Greensboro chapter] then, was in the store to watch to make sure nothing happened, that anybody got hurt, so forth. You don't remember seeing anybody or people kind of looking around the store in the background there?

GT:

Well, no, because it got kind of tense to me, and I was too busy trying to watch myself. And it come to a point—I was expecting at that time, my third child, and when it got kind of tense—

JS:

This was days later, right?

GT:

Yes. As you can recall, [Rachel] Holt was in charge then of the lunch counter. She would always send me upstairs because she said it was too much tension for me, and she would always have me to go upstairs.

JS:

And Ms. Holt was a white lady?

GT:

Yes.

JS:

Is she still alive?

GT:

No, she died. She was the manager of the lunch counter at that time.

JS:

Right. Was she a good boss?

GT:

To me, yes.

JS:

It seems like she is showing some concern for your health there. And what was it like among the other black employees? Did y'all talk about this?

GT:

Well, some of them did. And we all, we all talked some. But we were nervous, all of us were nervous. And then we got to thinking about how it was that, you know, we worked there and we couldn't eat, so we thought it would be a change, you know. But, like I said, if—things were like that, so that's all we knew.

JS:

And when the store did close down, or at least closed, they closed the lunch counter for awhile, the rest of store stayed open, right?

GT:

Yes.

JS:

Did you all get laid off during this period?

GT:

Well, like I said, I was expecting. Ms. Holt told me to go home and stay there until things got, you know, to normal and she would call me back. Well, after I left, I had my baby. So when they reopened she called me and told me I could come back to work. And they had a decision to make. So she called all three—she called three of her girls out that was working behind the counter which was black—myself, Susie Morrison [Kemball] at that time, and a girl named Anita Jones.

She called all three of us out and talked to us. She told us that the lunch counter, they was going to open the counter to everybody. She says, “Now you all have to,” said, “You might be called all kinds of names, people might say something to you. But I'm just trying to prepare you for what to expect.” She said, “But when we open the counter,” she says, “I want my girls to be the first to sit at the counter.” So we were the three that were served first when they reopened the counter. I've been trying to get that story out. It was her girls. She called us her girls.

JS:

This was Ms. Holt?

GT:

Yes.

JS:

What was her first name?

GT:

Rachel.

JS:

Rachel Holt.

GT:

Yes. And she told us, she said now, she told us when it was going to open. And she said, “The day we open up,” says, “I want you girls, you come in to work, but bring you some dress clothes. I'm going to give you a signal when I want you to go upstairs and dress as a customer. Come and walk around in the store like you're shopping,” she said, “then come over to the counter.” She told each one of us where she wanted us to sit, because she wanted us to spread out, one on the front, one middle ways, and one, you know, someplace else.

She says, “And I want you to order your food.” And she had certain waitresses to wait on us. She said, “Now, if you don't want your pictures taken,” she said, “because I got a feeling when this gets out, the cameramen will be in. And I want you girls to order something, eat real quick, get up from the counter, and go back upstairs. Get in your uniform, come back on the counter, and go to work.” She said, “Let's see what's going to happen.”

So sure enough, we all went down and we ordered our lunch, something that we could eat real quick. And we flew, went and put our uniforms on, and we came back to the counter and started working. And sure enough, soon as we got back down there, the news had gotten out. Here come the men with the camera. And people started crowding in, because somebody had seen the blacks, I guess, sitting at the counter.

So then they start coming in. And we were standing back there looking at them. They never knew that it was Woolworth's girls that was the first to sit at the counter to be served after they opened it up.

JS:

Right. How did you feel about that? Were you proud?

GT:

I was proud of it.

JS:

What was your feeling when you went upstairs? Did you put on one of your best dresses?

GT:

Yes, she told us to dress.

JS:

So you wore your Sunday dress. And—

GT:

Yeah. And she said, “And have your bag, dress, you know, and come on in like you're a customer.” So we did that.

JS:

Where—did you sit between two white people?

GT:

No, when I got in there, I just, I don't think—well, it was around twelve o'clock, I think, when we served, and they hadn't started coming in too much then. So I sat there kind of near where the sandwich board was.

JS:

Did anybody say anything to you?

GT:

No.

JS:

What did you order?

GT:

I ordered egg salad sandwich. [both laugh] And I think I ordered a soda.

JS:

And did you eat it all?

GT:

Yes, in a hurry. [both laugh]

JS:

And did the, the other two women, did they have a fairly pleasant experience?

GT:

Well, yes.

JS:

Nobody got yelled at or insulted?

GT:

No, no. Like I said, we done it in a hurry, so, you know, before the crowd started coming in. I don't know of anybody saying anything to either one of the girls.

JS:

When did you see the first black customer who did not work for Woolworth's take a seat?

GT:

I'm trying to think, I don't know. I believe it was that same day, that same afternoon.

JS:

Were they sit-in type students that came back in?

GT:

I don't remember if it was the students or not. Like I said, it was still on shaky ground, and we all were kind of nervous because we didn't know what was going to happen. And of course, I don't know. But that next day, I remember people started coming in, blacks and all.

JS:

And was everything pretty peaceful?

GT:

Well, as far as I know. But I remember some of the white people would get up and move, but I don't remember any accident, not at that day.

JS:

Right. And did it take, was it a, did a long time pass before it became pretty routine for blacks and whites to sit together there and eat?

GT:

Well, now, I don't know how long, but to me, I don't think it took too long. Because like I said, whites had been eating there all the time, so I guess they would try to get in there before anybody else would start coming in. But I do remember some of them getting up moving when somebody would sit near beside them. They would just get up and move.

JS:

Right. I remember when—I came to work for the paper in '67, and I ate over at Woolworth's some. And it seems like there were always blacks and whites hanging together by then in there, and there was nothing, nobody thought anything about it. But it eventually got to that point where it was pretty natural and nobody, you know, made an issue. And you continued to work there, right?

GT:

Yes, I did.

JS:

And when did you retire?

GT:

When they closed Woolworth's down.

JS:

Is that right? You worked to the last day then.

GT:

Yes, I stayed there. And so I went out to Friendly and helped them a little bit until they closed up. So that was that.

JS:

Okay. How many years you put in all together?

GT:

Forty-three.

JS:

Forty-three. And I take it they had a pension plan and everything, and you're retired now, right?

GT:

Yes.

JS:

Well, that's good.

GT:

If they hadn't closed I guess I'd still been there, because I had no intention of, you know, retiring right then. But when they started closing down I just decided I'd go ahead and take my retirement.

JS:

What was your job when you retired?

GT:

Same thing, I was working the sandwich board and still making salads.

JS:

Right. After the sit-ins, did there eventually become a point where black employees were promoted to management positions?

GT:

I don't know of any of them being management, but they were—I don't remember any of them, no, none of them becoming management. Not out of that store.

JS:

Right, it was still the staff—the managers at the counter and in the store itself were white.

GT:

Well, they did, later on they did have a few, they had one black girl, as I can remember, took over for a while as assistant manager.

JS:

In fact, when the place closed I believe Ms. Edwards was the manager, is that right, Ima Edwards?

GT:

Yes, she was.

JS:

In fact, she was manager for a number of years.

GT:

Yes.

JS:

I'm going to try to get up with her, too, because she was working the bakery counter, I believe, when—on that day.

GT:

Right.

JS:

Do you keep up with her?

GT:

Yes, I, once in a while, well, I try to keep in contact with most all of the old girls, because we were the older ones there. I was working, I think, about a year or two before she started there, and so she and I was the two oldest ones there.

JS:

Right. And when it closed you all were the only two left from the sit-ins, if I remember correctly.

GT:

Yes.

JS:

Where does Ms. Edwards live? Does she still live in Greensboro?

GT:

Yes, she lives out in Glenwood.

JS:

Glenwood. What street? I'm going to try and call her. Do you know what street? I can look up her number, I can spot her—there are so many Edwards in the book.

GT:

Well, I really don't know what street, but I think I have her phone number if you want to hold a minute.

JS:

All right. I appreciate it.

[recorder paused]

JS:

How do you feel as you look back now after all these years, that the sit-ins have become one of the major events of the American civil rights movement? Does that—how do you feel about that? Does that thrill you that you were a part of history?

GT:

Well, yes, because we've come a long way. I think back over some things and, you know, it—well, we've come a long way, I can say that.

JS:

How about your children, have they gone on to good things?

GT:

Well, yes, I have one in California. And I have my daughter, which was the middle child at that time, she passed in '93.

JS:

Oh, that's too bad.

GT:

Yeah, and I have one granddaughter.

JS:

And the child that was born during the sit-ins, what is—

GT:

He's here.

JS:

He's here. And he's okay?

GT:

Yes, he's fine.

JS:

Good. And they've had opportunities you've never had, I take it.

GT:

Right, they have. Things have gotten better for them. She had a chance to come up and eat and bring my granddaughter up there, you know, during the, they had certain things going on in town and they had a chance to come and sit down at the counter.

That's what I was hoping for. I was hoping—I didn't know the store was going to close—and I've always had in mind, if I could live to retire and go back to the store with my children and sit down and eat, that's what I've always wanted.

JS:

And you never got a chance to do that?

GT:

No.

JS:

Even while you were working there, y'all couldn't get together and go on your day off or anything? You never got a chance to do that?

GT:

Well, I knew on my day off I had so much work at home to do I never would go back to, you know, to sit down.

JS:

Right. Do you feel any bitterness about your own life, being denied certain opportunities, or do you just—

GT:

No, I don't feel any bitterness about that. I love my work and I've always worked hard and do my best job, regardless of, you know, fixing food for people. I've always tried to fix my plates neat and nice, regardless of who they were. Because that was my job.

JS:

Are you doing any work, any part-time work now?

GT:

No, I'm not doing anything right now. Like I said, I got my granddaughter here and she's in school. So I keep busy around the house, and in the summertime I have a garden and all like that. So I'm not working now.

JS:

Great. Do you keep up with Mr. Harris?

GT:

Well, when I was out at Friendly I had a chance to see him, because he used to come in the store. But since they closed, I haven't got a chance to see him anymore.

JS:

Right. Was he, did he, he remained friendly, I take it, through—

GT:

Yes.

JS:

Right. It's the first time I'd ever had a chance to talk to him. I don't agree with, altogether with his point of view on things, but he seemed to be a guy who took a great deal of pride in that store and wanted it to be the best in sales, the best in this. And so he was, he's sort of from the old school of the South.

GT:

Yeah, well, I can imagine that. Like I said, I never, I never knew how he felt about anything, and I didn't get into that part of it. But as far as treating the help, you know, fine, I don't think anybody had any problem out of him for that.

JS:

Right. Well, I take it you'll be available when they have the fortieth [anniversary], you'll be back over there for whatever ceremonies they have, is that right?

GT:

Well, if they have it downtown, maybe I will.

JS:

Right. Well, it doesn't seem like it's been that long ago but it has and time passes on. How old are you now?

GT:

I'm sixty-five.

JS:

Sixty-five. Well, you're still a young retiree. You've got a lot of years left, and I hope you enjoy them. I really appreciate you talking to us. And this will be part of our permanent archives. Have you been on tape before with anybody?

GT:

I think I have, but they had a—well, they did a write-up on me, because I've had several people calling me every, you know, ever since then talking. And they made a book. I talked to one of the reporters from, let's see, where he was from, New York, I think. He did a book, a part in a book on me.

JS:

Oh, is that right? What was the name of the book? Do you remember?

GT:

What's the name book? Let me see if I have it over here on the table.

JS:

All right.

[recorder paused]

JS:

Okay.

GT:

—by Dave Isley.

JS:

Hold On, by Dave Isley[?]. And is it about the sit-ins, the whole thing?

GT:

Yes, well, not the whole book. But it's about different ones during the time, during that time. But they have a good writing.

JS:

Right. And I guess, you know, we've always emphasized that you were on duty that day, but we've never emphasized that you were the first black person to eat at Woolworth's counter.

GT:

A lot of people doesn't know that. And every time I would talk to reporters, whenever they would come in at the anniversary, they would be talking. And I've been trying to get that message out. It was important to me for them to know. I mean, you know, I wanted them to know that it was three of Woolworth's girls that were the first.

JS:

Right. And the two other women, what do they do now?

GT:

Well, one of them died, Anita Jones died. And Susie Morrison, she's still living.

JS:

Is she in Greensboro?

GT:

Yes.

JS:

Is she still called Susie Morrison?

GT:

She is, no, she's not Morrison now. I'm trying—yes, she's a Morrison now.

JS:

Okay. She didn't stay at the store forever like you did?

GT:

No, she left.

JS:

Right, okay. All right, well, listen, Ms. Tisdale, I really appreciate this.

GT:

You're welcome.

JS:

We'll put this—I'll let you know eventually what we're going to do with these tapes. It will be before the fortieth. And we might even use it before then, but we're not sure yet. But I'll get back with you. I appreciate this very much.

GT:

You're quite welcome.

JS:

Thank you.

GT:

You're welcome.

JS:

Bye.

GT:

Bye.

[End of Interview]