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Oral History Interview with Ezell and Corene Blair by William Chafe


Date: May 12, 1971

Interviewee: Ezell Alexander Blair, Sr.

Biographical abstract: Ezell A. Blair Sr. (1919-1997) taught in Greensboro Public Schools for thirty years. He is the father of Jibreel Khazan, one of the four participants in the sit-in of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter on February 1, 1960.

Interviewer: William Henry Chafe

Description:

This May 12, 1971 oral history interview with Ezell and Corene Blair, conducted by William Chafe, primarily documents Mr. and Mrs. Blair’s experience with school and business segregation and desegregation from the late 1940s to 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Ezell Blair provides a framework for understanding how the climate and culture of Greensboro in the 1940s and 1950s influenced the desegregation of schools in 1958 and the sit-ins of 1960. Topics of note include Ben Smith, Ralph Johns, Ed Zane, and other white leaders who were in support of desegregation; William Hampton and other school board members in the late 1950s; Ben Cone, Spencer Love, and other members of the white political power structure that did not take a stand on school desegregation; the local NAACP; and Blair's frustration at coming home to the segregated South after serving in WWII.

The Blairs also provide details of the token desegregation on 1958, including persecution of the Boyds and the distance some black children had to travel to attend an all-black school; the quality of black teachers in Greensboro; the effect of segregation on their children; Ezell Sr's attempt in the late 1950s to be served at the downtown Woolworth’s; and Corene's memories of learning about her son’s plans to sit-in.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: William Henry Chafe Oral History Collection

Repository: Duke University

Item#: 4.23.625

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 Ezell and Corene Blair by William Chafe

William Chafe:

—Ezell Blair of Greensboro. I wonder if you could say how—what kind of attitude, what kind of feelings you had as—in the late forties and early fifties. Did you think Greensboro was a community which was in the process of change or with the signs of hope, or were you pessimistic? This was before the Brown [v. Board of Education] decision.

Ezell Blair:

Really, personally, I thought that Greensboro had the right climate. But I thought the white population was more in fear than the black population. We had, so to speak, white leaders. And we would get together at the First Presbyterian Church during brotherhood week, but we never got together at any other time. It was one of those closed things, you know, after that Sunday. Colleges participated and what not. Blacks would go out and sing and possibly a minister would speak for awhile, and this was the end of it. But in talking with other white citizens, they were a little in fear of their status, I feel, in the community. However, we had many black leaders that I felt wanted to see if it would go, and I don't think they had any other decision to make but to see it go.

WC:

Were you both members of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] in the late forties?

EB:

Yes.

WC:

How large a chapter was that?

EB:

Well, I couldn't say. Greensboro had at that time, and still has, the largest chapter in North Carolina and many other Southern states and Northern states, even at that time. And then we had the Greensboro Citizens Association, too, which was a part of all the leading black organizations. We had a pretty good thing going, as far as being annealed together, togetherness in the black populations.

WC:

Do you see the white population as being split at all?

EB:

At that time?

WC:

Yes.

EB:

Oh, yes, they were definitely split, I mean due mostly to fear and what their peers would say. But we had some that we knew were ready to move. Of course, I could name them and enumerate. Some of them are holding positions today, which I don't think they particularly want to look back at it now, but they really stood out with us.

WC:

Could you name some of those people?

EB:

Oh yes, I could name many of them. First of all, I would like to mention Ralph Johns. I think he took a real beating in Greensboro and especially with his in-laws, the [unclear]. They still run the [unclear] clothing store in Greensboro. Ralph ran a store down lower on East Market [Street], below his in-laws. And he really helped the black students and people, even though he didn't sell the best materiels, see, as far as clothing. But he used his money to seed black objectives, as far as moving forward. [Now I might come back?] there's a Jewish fellow that worked at UNCG [The University of North Carolina at Greensboro] at that time, and I can't recall his name, but I think he was in the political science field. [unclear] but I think George Simkins could give you his name. Then there was a grassroots fellow I never will forget, Ed R. Zane. He retired from Burlington Industries. He really worked very fervently to aid the cause.

WC:

This was in the fifties as well as in the sit-in movement?

EB:

Yes, then there was Bill Trotter. He's on the [Greensboro] City Council now. He used to be mayor. He was owner of Southside Hardware Company here. And there's Charlie [unclear], and there are many others right now which come to my mind, but they were there. And when the crucial things happened, I mean, they were there. And they didn't mind letting you know they stood for what was right.

And now many other organizations were supporting the thing, but they were just biding the time to see how others felt. They just had to—then there was Sol Jacobs, who owned Jay's Delicatessen [unclear], and many others. We would have to sit down and think about them.

WC:

You were both teaching in public school at that time, and you still are?

EB:

At that time.

Corene Blair:

Yes.

WC:

What was the—were people like Dr. [John] Tarpley [school superintendent for Negros], were they able to push for integration or desegregation?

EB:

Dr. Tarpley has always been a stalwart. He has never had any fear, even though he has been pressured. He was pressured at that time by the local administration and many of the state officials, but he has always been a man that stood out on a tangent. [If it was] something that he believed was right, he would support you 200%. And the late superintendent [Benjamin] Smith was the same way, and unfortunately he passed. I think this was almost pressure that he was under back originally that caused his death.

WC:

I've heard this from other people as well. You definitely thought that Smith was a friend?

EB:

Oh yes, with no doubt.

CB:

Very much so.

EB:

We know that. He wasn't a wishy-washy fellow. He was originally from Shelby, North Carolina, but he was for real. And Greensboro had the greatest opportunity of any school system in the South, if the local people there had gone along with it. The man was a deeply religious man, I know that. And I know his wife now, and his son was an engineer, Ben L. Smith Jr. And they were people like that, that even though some things they couldn't come right out and say [they were active in anything else?].

WC:

I've heard that, I think. I view very much from what I've read about—

EB:

I'd like to add that I think Greensboro failed under late superintendent Phil Weaver. It started failing under him, and it continued to go down under his successor, the present Dr. [Wayne] House. The pressures put on him kind of made him change his philosophy. Personally, I think he still feels the same way, but he can't display it with the [school] board he has now.

WC:

I had a conversation with Dr. House, and I couldn't agree with you more. [chuckles] I asked him whether he had any of the court cases on file there, and I had specifically in mind the Caldwell [Elementary] and Pearson [Street School] case, and he said he didn't remember that there were any court cases.

EB:

He's very evasive.

WC:

And I finally said, “Well, wasn't there a case over the Caldwell School?” And he said, “Oh, that case.”

EB:

Yes, the McCoys and the [unclear], I remember that.

WC:

When the Brown decision came down, did you feel that this was going to really mean something in Greensboro?

EB:

You know, I don't, really, as far as the Brown case is concerned, it was kind of irrelevant with me personally. With us, I mean, we felt that it was just something [that came by?]. We were more interested in local situations, because the late Dr. [William] Hampton—which was former city council and could have been mayor, if it had been today, just like [Howard Nathaniel] Lee in Chapel Hill. The council was ready at that time, and the people in Greensboro, even the middle-income whites and low-income whites, they had a lot of respect for Hampton. The climate was right, wherein the city council—the astute area of Greensboro, the northwestern quadrant and all, they would sit up and laugh at the small income white man. He'd come up and ask for his street to be oiled and they'd laugh at him. And Dr. Hampton would take it and say, “Well, what's wrong with it? This man lives on a dirt street, and he needs oil in the springtime and in the summertime.” And, of course, he was a maneuverer and he got things done, see.

And Ben Cone, which was retired from Cone Mills, I mean, he was mayor at that time, and George Roach won. And they would go along together on certain issues. Hampton's vote was important. He had the constituents of low-income whites and he had the constituents of the blacks, and he had the respect from many whites in the high income level. So that's why he just went over overwhelmingly. That's kind of like [Henry] Frye did in the last election. People began to change back at that time.

WC:

So you think Hampton was really a unifying figure?

EB:

Oh, yes, definitely so.

WC:

Who had appeal to whites as well as blacks?

EB:

That's exactly right. You can check through this Southwest quarter out here now by Four Seasons and all around out there, Vanstory Street, out High Point Road. Those same people, they just shifted by two or three miles, but they still [unclear].

Now we had a thing going which we don't think the power structure liked at that time, and we have it going now. That's the reason why this thing for mayor has changed around, because they know they don't have a possible chance with the northwest quadrant in charge of everything. And this is it and they begin to realize this. I do a lot of work with these people now, and we talk on grassroots level and vice squad guys. And they're going back to school and they realize where they're short. They can't compete with me because they don't have the education. This thing with being white is a thing of the past. You got to have something to go along with it; they realize that. [They didn't for a while, but they realize?] And they are not afraid to invite us into their homes. They're not caring about what the neighbors say. They know that we can qualify, and we're not out there to seduce someone. They're not afraid for us to be working there and their wives at home and their children, and so the thing has changed. It's changed. It's a revolution. But I want you to get to your specific question here.

WC:

Well, I'm as much interested in the kind of general things as I am specific things. When the school board under Dr. Smith's direction voted that night after the decision to comply and to set up the committee, did you think that meant that the change was coming in Greensboro?

EB:

Yes, if I interpret your question right. You're saying that you think that—rephrase that.

WC:

Well, that when the board passed that resolution that Smith and Hudgins introduced, that they meant what they said, that it was good faith on their part and they meant to go ahead and do something. Did you read that as being a commitment on their part to go ahead and do something to desegregate?

EB:

Yes, I definitely do. And there was another fellow at that time who was with—McLeod, I believe, and John someone else.

WC:

Foster?

EB:

Foster. Those fellows were dedicated. They weren't false people. Hudgins was chairman of the board. He was in the hardware business, I believe. Ed Hudgins I believe his name was. John Foster, he ran a business on what they call Church Street now, a leather company. There're somewhere out in the southwest quarter now. They were sincere.

WC:

What do you think happened?

EB:

Relative to what?

WC:

That what seemed to be their sincere commitment evaporated?

EB:

I just don't think that your power structure was ready at that time. You know, the power structure can condition the little man anyway he wants to, as they will do now, even in this better schools thing they had going on here when they had the busing of kids. You know, the power structure when they [feel?] right—when they stand right, they will bend a little. They have many ways of bending. They go seek him out where he is employed and everything else. They have ways of getting around to him.

But you see, his situation was a little different from ours. We're not fearful. We've been used to having things brought against us. So if it is, it just happens, and we care less about it, in a sense of speaking, because we're cohesive. We have a lot of respect for each other. You might get someone—five to say something against me, but I can get twenty-five to say something for me. It's a little different. It's like the voting in the Cone Mill division now. You got a voting coming up for the union. Well, they've been fighting unions for years and they always will fight unions. I have always said the Southerner in business always made more money than the Northerner, you see, because that cat hasn't paid any money for anything, no benefits or nothing else. Anybody retire from Cone Mills, they get a watch [laughter] and Social Security and then that's all, and I'll tell Ben Cone the same thing.

WC:

And a turkey at Christmas?

EB:

Yes, and he kept the company store for years. And the people thought they had [Jesus?] and they didn't have anything. It takes time to educate them. But you find the young white now, he runs from the textile plants in the South and he's looking for [diversified outfits?]. He knows this thing is not—he's going right where the black fellow went. The blacks now will be the employees in the textile plants, those who haven't gained anything as far as education. They will be the ones to run the textile mills, because the whites are getting out through occupational education, technical institutions and all, and they are bettering themselves and they are going into specific areas of occupations that pay some money. So it all bounces back to economics.

WC:

Who would you—when you say power structure, do you have individuals or companies in mind? I mean would this be Burlington Mills you are talking about, for example, or Cone?

EB:

Well, let us face it, they are the power structure. They were for many years. Cone was the power structure back during the time Sears [& Roebuck] mail-order house came. They didn't come into the city; they came outside the city. Cone was mayor and he would not permit them to come inside the city limits. That's why they are out on Lawndale. That was in the country then. He didn't want any diversity here, only textile. He closed down everybody over there. Well now, [he gets this kind of rap from us?], you know. I mean, he knows this. I mean the black man with any training at all will speak up to him a little quicker than [unclear]. And I can relate to him.

And I say, “Now, listen, fellow, I know the time when you couldn't put your foot into the Greensboro Country Club [due to his Jewish heritage].” I say, “Am I lying?”

[He said] “No.”

And I said, “I know.”

Until a billionaire came here from New Orleans and opened up Starmount in 1933, you all had to go to play at Sedgefield [Country Club]. That's the only place you all could go and play golf. Now come on around, you know. Who you are talking to? You might have money, but we have a little [sense?]. And your mother was one of the few—and John Boinier[?] ran the [unclear] at that time. He was Jewish. They would pick up any caddy, dirty or whatnot right in front of the [Greensboro] Coliseum and [take them] to the golf course. And then we have a lot of respect. I have rapport right now with a white fellow that I used to caddy for, and they are in their seventies now, and some have died. But I know those who were real nice. I know those who were bigots, even as a caddy. The late C.C. Fordham Jr.—used to run the Fordham Drug Store—[unclear] and it proved it out at his funeral. There were about as many blacks at his funeral at the First Methodist Church as there was white. He has his son, who is the head of the medical thing at the University of [North Carolina at] Chapel Hill now. And he's younger than I am. But I knew him when he was a little boy underneath.

This is the thing: you don't want to down the South. Most of what we call Yankee whites, they want to down on the South. But there is still a thing going with the Southern white man that there's no Uncle Tom-ing, because we could relate with each other then. And we know the discrepancies, too, with the Northerners, too. Because the black man was forced migration, and he finds out really he [kept them in the] ghetto, like Brownville, certain parts of Boston now. I know where a ghetto is in Boston. I know where it is in Chicago and all around, see, but he fooled them. And the Cicero case brought out a lot in Chicago area. And it's all economics. He thought the guy, these foreigners, they thought that they were infringing on their right to make a living, and the only person they had to look down on—like the guy that comes on on Saturday night—what is his name?—on TV.

WC:

Archie Bunker [of All in the Family]?

EB:

Archie, yes. I mean this is just not a reality, you know. People had their little brownstone houses in New York, and Cleveland had their little separate houses with their little alleyways between, which I wouldn't enjoy living in. My father has been living in Philadelphia for I guess forty some years, and I never liked where he lived, and don't like where he lives now. There's no freedom. [unclear] Having to migrate has taught us a lot of things. Some people in the forced migration and forced travel—armed service and you had to like it.

Now maybe you would like to know something about the original sit-in thing here in Greensboro. I don't think it was the first attempt.

WC:

I would like to come back to you and talk to you about that at another time, if I could. I would sort of like to concentrate on the fifties tonight and talk about the 1960 thing at a later time. When the board put through that initial—in 1957—that acceptance of, what, six out of nine or ten applications, what did you think was happening there? Did that give you reason for hope? Or did it—how do you view it?

EB:

Well, really, I didn't think too much of it, personally. But I felt like the white structure was trying to appease and some of them were trying to do right. And they wanted a token thing, you know, to say “We got it.” We—the “Gate City”, the gateway to the South, and, for a long time after then, an All-American City, you know. I didn't think too much of it, personally. We had hopes. In fact, we had confidence in some of the leaders that they were trying to do the right thing. We knew that they had to tread easy, you know.

WC:

Right after that, of course, Foster and Smith both retired after that.

EB:

So they were really up against something. I can imagine what they were up against.

WC:

There was a lot of intimidation, wasn't there, of—especially that first year—of the parents of the children who applied? I want to talk about your own situation a little bit later. But in 1957, didn't the Boyds and a lot of the other parents get a lot of pressure?

EB:

Personally, I would like for you to talk with the Boyds. But we were very close-knit in that ruling—the same PTA [Parent Teacher Association] out at [J. C.] Price [Junior High] School at that time. Mr. [Abraham] Peeler [up here on Benbow further up?] he was principal back then. Yes, they really did; they had it. Mrs. Boyd was chairman of our PTA out at Price School at that time, and she wasn't what you might call a learned person. And her husband was a cook at one of the local bakeries. But they stood their ground, you know. I mean, I was kind of glad that they were people out of the profession, [unclear] just simple people. They still live out here on Pisgah Church Road north of the city. But they did receive a lot of pressure.

WC:

Did Mr. Boyd have a business that was burned down?

EB:

He had a business on Cedar Street, right in front of Price School. Mr. Porter[?], who lives on the corner right across from Mr. Peeler, who was principal of the school, the corner of Bragg [Street] and Benbow [Road], he was the owner of the building. Yes, the building burned down. On several occasions I was passing along the street and the guys threw rotten eggs out [unclear], and finally the building burned down. He never—he re-established it. But they received a lot of persecution.

WC:

Having seen what they went through, what were some of the reasons that you applied to have Gloria Jean [(Blair) Howard] go to [Greensboro] Senior High in '58?

[EB and CB speak to one another]

EB:

You'll speak to that.

CB:

I don't remember [in fact what happened though?]. I know her application was not accepted. I think they used this for an excuse of why she was not accepted, was the location of where we lived at that time.

EB:

We lived closer there than we do here.

CB:

But this is what they used, I think, was the location. And you see, at that time the Boyd girl lived out in that area, yes, and she was accepted due to the area she wanted to concentrate on, and it wasn't offered at Dudley [High School].

[phone ringing]

WC:

It must have taken an enormous amount of fortitude to be willing to go through something like that, to be able to accept that risk.

EB:

I don't know so much about the fortitude, I guess you would call it that, too. I was raised by my step-great-grandmother and great-grandfather, and my wife was raised by her grandmother, and we've had certain religious principles. And the connection my great-grandmother had, she worked for some of the better white families in Greensboro, years back. The late Dr. Charles Robertson[?] used to live next door, used to live right where the new Bell Telephone Company is now, on the corner of Market and Eugene [Streets]. The McKnights[?] used to run Vanstory Clothing Company; he was the treasurer. The Sigmons[?], out in that time Sunset Hills was the adjacent [unclear]. And I could go on and enumerate. I mean they were fine people and they believed in the betterment of blacks, and they did all they could in a number of things, as far as they could at that time, to help the blacks advance.

In the Warnersville section, which we were reared in, the oldest black section in Greensboro, really, I mean just about all the leaders come out of over there, and Randolph came out of Warnersville, Blackwell. [Valley?], the head of redevelopment in Fayetteville. I could just go on and enumerate. But we had good heritage, and most of the people out there, they were working people and professionals. Railroad workers, at that time, I mean, if you were black, yeah, pretty good income. My great-grandfather worked with the [unclear] which ran from Mount Airy to Sanford. He had an accident and he retired [unclear]. But he was pretty independent, he had pretty good property holdings. And most of the people, we just weren't raised in fear.

WC:

This is what Randolph Blackwell was saying last week, as well. Was there any consultation among those of you who were applying for reassignment for your children?

EB:

Yes, a little bit, not too much. I think we were all thinking in the same vein: the times are changing. Why should a bus—we had the bus routes up at school with little pins in them, [unclear] and we had identified the schools. And a kid rides all the way from the northern part of the city, he comes all the way down to what they call David Jones School, the elementary; he stops at Price, the junior high; and then they carry them on across way over here to Dudley, the high school. There was Brooks School, right there adjacent to Grimsley. And then there was—they didn't have Kiser Junior High then. [unclear] Then there was Grimsley, and all these things. You know, watching this, as they plat the routes of school, bus routes—

CB:

What about those children that were attending school that lived in the Pomona [Cotton Mill] area? [unclear] What was the name of the Pomona school?

EB:

Yes, Terra Cotta area. They would bring them on by schools up in that area and bring them all the way to Price and David Jones, and then they would farm all the high school students all the way across town to Dudley. It was all foolish.

CB:

We've have always had to ride the bus and pass schools to get the school so far from you. And yet now I notice how upset they are—I mean the whites—that their children now are being bused into this area and or in other areas in the black community.

EB:

Psychologically, I don't think it bothers the black kids or the white kids.

CB:

Oh, it doesn't bother the children.

[unclear—both speaking at once]

WC:

This is a difficult question to ask. Do you think that Dr. Hampton pushed as hard as you would have wanted him to push on the school board?

EB:

Yes. During the time, yes. I must say that he was a wonderful man, and he was a man that could get along with both sides. He would inform the blacks, whereas we have some blacks now that they felt so happy to be on these things, that they would never relate back to the community. If they had a meeting, Dr. Hampton would let you know what happened at the meeting. And Dr. [Ed] Edmonds, which is in—where is he now, in Connecticut? He was a minister; he was at Bennett College at that time. He got fired. This is what happened; it was too early a date for his thoughts. And Mr. Bailey, Franklin Bailey, who lives up the street here, he was right along there. And this other couple over at Bennett, Dr. Jarrett, I think they are somewhere up in that area now. And Reverend Julius Douglas, which was retired from the Presbyterian Church here—those people were just too far ahead in their thinking for a whole lot of people just afraid of their job jeopardy.

Of course, I never had any jeopardy. I never had too much animosity. I don't have animosity against whites now. I work with whites in my business—whites, Indians, black, and all. [Set up a contract to know them and they all get along?], because I started out in 1934 working with nothing but primarily whites [unclear]. They are still living out on Holden Road there in Starmount, Robert [O'Neal?]. And he's from Denton, North Carolina, down here on the border now between Asheboro and Troy, a farmer. He stood for right then. And when they talked about the students when they integrated UNCG, he belonged to this Methodist Church on the corner of Spring Garden and Tate [Streets]. And they brought the idea of black girls coming over and joining the church. And they thought it was so awful, so they had a board meeting. He told them, “Well, look, I got a black son.” And they were amazed. I was the black son; the black son was me. He said “He's a teacher in the Greensboro Public Schools. He's been with me since 1934. If I ever mistreated him, call him.” And really I was the head of most black youth, in that I had an income when I was two years in high school and four years in college, and then I could get whatever I wanted from him after that, because I helped make the fortune he has today. And he hasn't forgotten it. I could call him right now and he would come.

CB:

In other words, you were helping him, and he was helping you.

EB:

That's right. It was a two-way thing, no prejudice. And if he ever had any prejudice, I would like to know it. When his wife bought a shirt for him at Vanstory, years ago [unclear], she bought one for me. I had an automobile when many blacks didn't have automobiles. It belonged to the company, but I kept it and everybody knew that was my automobile.

WC:

Now when you said—to go back to something you just said a little while ago—that you were happy that the Boyds were not professionals—

EB:

Yes, I was.

WC:

—what did you mean by that?

EB:

Well, they couldn't charge it up at that time you'd want to say the “smart nigger.” You know, Mrs. Boyd was a Dudley High School graduate. I don't know where her husband graduated, but she went to Dudley the same time that I did.

CB:

But she was a very intellectual person.

EB:

Yes, a very intellectual person. She didn't get a chance or opportunity to go to college, but they were no dummies. He was just a hustler and she was working right along with him. They just believed in lifting up their families. It wasn't a thing of any showcase.

CB:

I think they were really sincere.

EB:

They were. I know of some criticism she used to have in PTA, because she couldn't preside like some professional people. But I could set over here and run interference for her when they tried to get too smart. I mean I know how to maneuver and shut them up. “Don't make the lady feel bad, at least she's got more guts than you have. She took the chairmanship, and you wouldn't take it. You qualify, and you didn't take it. You were hiding behind something.”

WC:

One other thing you just said: when you were talking about yourself not having any fear, then you talked about people like Rev. Douglas and Dr. Edmonds being way ahead of their time and other people being in job jeopardy. Was there really a split based upon fear in the black community?

EB:

Oh, yes, definitely so. A lot of blacks didn't show that they had it all until we started marching in the streets and they felt like they knew their bout. But those people like Rev. Douglas and Dr. Edmonds and Bailey and George Simkins and many others I could name, Rev. Hairston, when he came to this city, Dr. Smith, J. E. Smith just retired from [L. Richardson?] Hospital—all those fellows, I mean, they were there. And I can name the fellow that worked at Cone Mills. What's the fellow's name that collected your NAACP [dues]? They really put something on him out at Cone Mills—Irvin [Erwin?].

CB:

Irvin, yes.

EB:

They really put something on him at Cone Mills.

CB:

And Mr. Douglas.

EB:

The late Julius Douglas, who worked for Ralph Price, the comptroller at Jefferson Standard [Insurance Company].

WC:

Were companies like Jefferson Standard and Burlington Industries, were they the ones that really, you think, put the brass knuckles on the change which might have taken place?

EB:

Let's put it like this: S&W and—and what's the name of this other cafeteria that Gordon [Carey?] marched in—

WC:

Mayfair?

EB:

Mayfair. They were the toughest ones in the city. And when—now Burlington Industries allowed us at that time, Charles—not Charles F. Myers, he's comptroller now—who used to be?—Love, Spencer Love. He and Ed Zane were working down there.

He said, “You all have access to our planes leaving out of here to go to New York to negotiate with Woolworth, [unclear] come back same day or stay.” [unclear] Ben Cone—Caesar Cone owned the building S&W's in on Market, right behind the dog pound. They finally told them, “You come under or get out of our building. We will accept any penalty from your lease.”

WC:

So in other words, Burlington and Cone Mills were positive forces, rather than negative forces?

EB:

Very positive. J. P. Stevens [textile company] wasn't at first, but they finally fell in line.

WC:

Well, if they were positive, the thing that makes me confused is if they were so positive, why didn't they do something in the fifties to back up Smith and Foster?

EB:

I think that they regret that they didn't. But I don't know why they didn't. I couldn't answer that. But I think they reconciled the whole situation and found out they made a terrible mistake. And Spencer Love, he was one of the first ones to give the go ahead sign to Ed Zane. Ed Zane was one of his chief comptrollers.

And of course, many things have happened after that. And I think Charles F. Myers Jr., who is the son of the late Dr. Myers of First Presbyterian Church, I think he's probably [unclear] other things after the [unclear] confrontation at Burlington Industries. There's been a lot of things to help out since then that I know about. They don't publicize it, they just do.

WC:

That's really interesting, because one would think if they were as positively inclined as they seemed to be, especially in the question of the sit-ins, that they would have made their feelings known to people like Weaver and to the people like [Richard] Hunter, who was on the school board.

EB:

Well, Hunter came in later.

WC:

Yes. But I mean after Smith retired, there seems to me to have been a sharp change with his retirement. And whatever commitment had been there seemed to have pretty much evaporated. And I'm just wondering why they would've not have made known their dissatisfaction that more wasn't happening.

EB:

Oh, I don't know. I think it's—see, Hunter, to my opinion, was a bigot—my personal opinion, being in board meetings. I think I was about the only black in all whites that attended board meetings that raised questions. He just wasn't [unclear]. He's not the man that Al Lineberry [school board chairman in 1971] is. [unclear] He was against a lot of things. I think he was primarily just trying to ride the fence [unclear]. And you just can't ride the fence; you have to call a spade a spade. You are going to fall off one way or the other. He was a fence rider.

WC:

So really it took the sit-ins to get them off the fence, to get Burlington and Cone Mills off the fence.

EB:

Well, you know, I don't know about this thing. In a sense, it's very puzzling. When this happened it kind of pulled on the conscience of the people that were so much wrapped up in Christianity. In many churches we had in the city, the church people weren't speaking out. And any time the church doesn't speak out in America, there's something wrong, you know, to my opinion, whether black church or white church. We had a lot of black ministers who were just as sheepish as the white were. But we just forced them up. Either you do or you get out of your pulpit, because we are going to ride you until you get out. We are going to work on your membership. And that's what we committed ourselves to, educate their membership. A lot of them had these people beating tambourines all night and all like this and no economic anything. We would come in and say, “Either you get with us or you get out.” [unclear] A lot of the black ministers, some of them in the big churches, we had to boil them out, let them know, put them up to the altar. “You're no good and we want everybody to know.” We had one undertaker here who was the same way—politically hung up downtown, the county and the city, and we put him up to the altar, too. We all are going to live together and we are going to die together. It's one of those things.

WC:

Maybe we could talk a little bit about your son. He was in Dudley during this whole period of '57, '58 and '59. What do you think was working within him to eventually prompt him to go down to Woolworth's that day?

EB:

I must go back to the faculty at Dudley, the administration. We had political science teachers at Dudley that, I think, were doing a very good job. The late Mrs. Esther Holloman Jenkins[?], Miss Nell Coley.

[End of Side 1, Begin Side 2]

EB:

This was the case of knowing that you had a good home base. You know you're going to be supported at home. And the type of instructors you had—Greensboro City Schools always had a good quorum, I think, of black instructors. I would compare Greensboro City Schools at that time, black instructors, with many other areas of the state superior, white or black. And Dudley High School was superior to many white high schools in the state. But it just wasn't a mixed thing then. You couldn't evaluate. So I think it was the teachers, the quality of teachers they had. Even though they didn't speak out in public gatherings, they would do their thing in the classroom. They would do their molding there.

WC:

I've heard so many people talk about Nell Coley.

EB:

Oh, she was a whip. She taught me in high school. She was very good, a very outstanding person, as far as I'm concerned.

WC:

I'm sure you two had a great deal to do with it as well. Wasn't there an episode where you took your daughter downtown?

CB:

I think it wasn't true then.

EB:

What do you mean?

CB:

About you going into the store. Woolworth's, I mean at that particular time. Even though you had students there that—yes, there was a place there where you had to stand to eat, but you weren't able to take a seat and be served, at that particular time.

EB:

I wasn't served, but we took a seat. A student attempted to serve me. What happened, we had been to the Christmas parade and we were on Greene Street, one block west of Elm. And I was standing in front of Gate City Savings & Loan, and the fellows in Gate City knew me because I had been taking loans there for homes. And they knocked on the window and asked us to come in. So we went in, looked the parade, and it was one of those things. I felt like I was welcome the whole time. Mr. Jack Stevens, head of the board, Mr. Charles Hines, who used to be chairman over at [North Carolina] A&T College, he was chairman of the board and he was secretary and treasurer. Jack Stevens was the fellow that invited us in. So it was a very cold so we decided we wanted some food after the parade. So we went on down to Woolworth's, and they had one place there where you could get it and go. So I said, “We are going to sit down. I want some hot soup,” or something like that. I didn't want this sandwich. So we went back there and sat down. And this lady, Mrs. Holt—she's still up there—she almost had a fit. [unclear] Come get it.

CB:

But you all weren't served.

EB:

No, we weren't served. And he came down from upstairs and wanted me to go upstairs to talk with him. But I didn't have anything to talk about. “If you won't to serve me, don't serve me.”

[He said] “So we're going to build a place in Southgate, that's right around the corner here.” [unclear]

I said, “Well, if you're going to build a place there, and you are just going to have all blacks working there, don't do it, because we are going to break you before you start it. So just don't do it.” I almost threatened him there. I said “Well, we will eat in here one day.”

WC:

What year was that? Was that '58?

EB:

Yes, that was about '58 or '59. I said, “And we will eat in here one day, and I hope you'll be here.” He's still there. Well, this wasn't the intent. You know, I mean really, I didn't have anything personally against the man, but I didn't like it. But when the idea came up, the boys came home that Sunday night and told us what they planned to do, I told them go ahead.

CB:

I think the whole feeling about the situation was this: Over the years, during the time when we would go downtown to shop, the children would ask questions about, “Why can't we go over there and have a seat? We're shopping in this store. Why can't we go over here and have lunch like the other people?” Well, see, they knew that they were black and that the other people were white, but in our house we never talked about the white are supposed to do this and you're supposed to do that. We always talked that we're human; we're the same as they are, the only difference is the color of the skin. And it was that type of thing I think that led this about. And I had no answer as to why you can't sit there. It wasn't because we didn't have the money. But this is just the way the situation is at this time. And I think as they grew older, they thought a great deal about this. And they would get together at times, when a group would come to our house for parties, just a little gathering, because they had no place go.

EB:

It was just a tough psychological thing. And just to think back now, I went fourteen thousand miles or so away from home, training to kill or be killed. Then I come home and I can't eat. I go all over the British domain, China, anywhere in Europe, Italy, Africa, Egypt, Palestine and eat anywhere I want to, when I want to. I come home and then I can't go where I want to go. This is a terrible [unclear].

CB:

And the same situation was happening when you go to the movie. If you go to the movie, regardless of which movie you would go to, you would always have to get upstairs. And it was really a tough thing when you would think about it. And I think the children really felt this: that now is the time to do something about it. When they talked with the parents—well, I don't know, some of the parents might have said, “Don't do this.” But the night that these boys decided to do this, our son didn't talk with his Daddy about it. He and these other fellows, they were his classmates at A&T. Joseph McNeil was his roommate at that time. They came over that Sunday night. And usually when they would come, they would always have a snack and maybe they would ask me to fix some food for them to take back on campus, because they were up, they would say, having “bull sessions” at night. And he mentioned that they had been talking about this thing for quite some time. It wasn't one of those things that was a spur of the moment type thing. He asked, he said to me, “Mother, we are going to do something tomorrow that—we are going to shake the world.”

And quite often he would say little things like that. And I said, “Well, what is this that you are going to do that's going to shake the world?”

He said, “We are going to go downtown tomorrow. And we are going to go in Woolworth's, and we are going to shop. And then after we buy little items, we are going to go over and we are going to be served.”

I said, “Is that so?” And I made a joke of it, because so many times he had said different things, and frankly I didn't really believe at that time that he was very serious about it. Then I laughed. And he says, “Mother, this is not a laughing situation.” He said, “You know, you're in school and Dad's in school. How would you feel about it?”

And I said, “I've always said this, that you have a mind of your own. And if you feel that this is the right thing to do, then you should do it. And we are 100% behind you.”

So he said, “This is all I wanted to know.”

So the next day this happened, of course. I feel that they felt that this was just a little something that was going to blow over. But I knew this—I had this much confidence in my son and the other three—I knew them too, because they had been at my house quite often. I knew that once he said something and he started out to do something, he wasn't going to back down. And this was something that I knew that he was going to continue to work at.

EB:

There is one unpleasant thing about the whole thing. This fellow Miles Wolff Jr. wrote a book [Lunch at the 5 &10], and if you can get that book, read it. I started to take him to court about it. He said that we were fearful—this is the gist of it—we were almost fearful. That was a lie. And I called him up and told him that. I said, “I should bring a court case against you. It was a bad quotation. But we will let it pass. But I just don't think you have a valid book.”

WC:

It's a book which is a little bit superficial.

EB:

Yeah. Dr. Stroud[?] has a book and we have it now. He's on the staff at A&T College. Personally I think it's pretty profound documents, but he has never been given any credit for it.

WC:

On Greensboro?

EB:

Yes.

WC:

I would like to see it. I'm not sure if I have seen it before.

EB:

He put a lot of money into getting the book published, just didn't have any push. It was mostly documentation. [unclear]

[End of Interview]

Comments by William Chafe

At the very end of the interview, after the tape recorder was off, the Blairs talked about two things worthy of note. First, they mentioned that during the sit-ins, there were a large number of adult white people who went out of their way to be helpful, and who gave money to help the students to do such things as transport themselves, pay for their placards, et cetera. Indeed, one of the themes of the entire interview was the idea that there were white people in Greensboro throughout who were acting almost as closeted integrationist, and who were doing their best, without being overt about it, to try to do something for black people. One other little interesting anecdote concerning Ben Smith is that Mrs. Blair worked in their house and testified again to what she said was the complete honesty and dedication of the Smith family to the goal of integration.

Finally, there was a description by them of responsive black people with NAACP membership, and the number of blacks who would pay their dues but then insist that no receipt be given and no listing be made of their contribution because of their fear that someone would find out that they were members of the NAACP and would seek retribution against them. In other words, while there were closet integrationists among the whites, there were also closet militants among the blacks. There was one woman in particular, or one person in particular, the principal of Mrs. Blair's school, who every year gave twenty-five dollars to the NAA but always insisted that her name not be used and that there be no record made of her contribution.