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Oral History Interview with Vance Chavis by William Chafe


Date: May 28, 1973

Interviewee: Vance H. Chavis

Biographical abstract: Vance H. Chavis (1906-1998) was a teacher and administrator in Greensboro, N.C., schools from 1929 to 1969. He was also an active member of the NAACP, Greensboro Citizens Association, Democratic Party, City Council, and Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro.

Interviewer: William Henry Chafe

Description:

This May 28, 1973, oral history interview conducted by William Chafe with Vance Chavis primarily documents Chavis’ recollections of equal rights activism in Greensboro, North Carolina. Chavis provides his views on the progression in rights for blacks and advancement of race relations in Greensboro, and explains why Greensboro was more receptive to protest and desegregation than many other southern communities.

Related topics include fighting the pay gap between white and black teachers, his admiration of John Tarpley, and encouraging voter registration and "race pride" in the classroom; the 1969 Dudley High School/A&T protest; presidents of NC A&T; leaders at Bennett College, especially Ed Edmonds; local NAACP leadership; the Greensboro Men's Club; his appointment to the Greensboro City Council; and Chavis' views on interracial marriage, young leaders in the black community, and Edward Zane.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: William Henry Chafe Oral History Collection

Repository: Duke University

Item#: 4.23.633

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 Vance Chavis by William Chafe

Vance Chavis:

Well, now if you go back to—you'd have to go back to the Governor [J. Melville] Broughton and [John C.B.] Ehringhaus age. A for a long time—see, for most of my life, I worked for a wage salary differential, that is compared to the white. And you will recall I think they had maybe the first case in Florida and have another case in Norfolk, Virginia, which went to the Supreme Court, and then these states had to equalize their salaries. Now in North Carolina we always like to—unlike the Oakland As [baseball team], we like to do all our maneuvering undercover without using the press. [laughter] And so this is the way it worked out in teacher salaries. And [Dr. John] Tarpley was on the committee, and they met with the governor. I think it was governor Broughton. And an agreement was made that we will eliminate this gradually. And he said, “By a certain year”—Tarpley will remember it—“we will have eliminated the wage differential, or salary differential, between black and white teachers.” And he kept his promise. This was done. And there again, I guess the teachers were satisfied with gradualism. And we were losing money all the time, but we knew that this was coming. But it was through him and James Taylor[?] and some other leaders in our [North Carolina] State Teachers Association that this was brought about. But now, these are things, you see, which the public never knew. These were done by the governor and by our representatives of the state teachers association.

But this is typical, you see, of John Tarpley. We'll go way back to fighting to get a black policeman here. I don't know whether that was in the forties or not, but I know he was in the forefront of that. And that knocked—because he was principal of Dudley High School didn't mean that he wouldn't talk to the [Greensboro] City Council or the mayor or the chief of police and express his opinion, in no uncertain terms, strongly, forcefully. There's nothing timid about him at all. I guess maybe I—some of that brushed off on me. At least it made me feel free to say—to do what I wanted to, because he has never reprimanded me. He never told me I could solicit memberships to the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], but he never told me I couldn't. But I mean he knew it. I'm sure he knew it, so I went ahead with it. I knew too that he approved it, but he didn't have to get involved. I got involved, but he didn't have to.

William Chafe:

Right. Did you know well the people at A&T during these years, people like [presidents] Bluford, Dr. [Ferdinand] Bluford, and Dr. [Warmoth] Gibbs? Did you—what was A&T [North Carolina A&T State University] like during those years?

VC:

Well, you asked me if I knew Dr. Bluford. And as you move around Greensboro, you'll find many people who knew Dr. Bluford. And this is not meant to be derogatory, but Dr. Bluford belonged to the old school. He was strictly conservative. And then, as many college presidents did then, and maybe some now, he lived in an ivory tower. Now, he and I belonged to the same fraternity. And I worked with him on one occasion and found out that once you were able to get to him, he was a wonderful man. He had a sense of humor. And I found out the reason he didn't affiliate openly with the fraternity was because he thought we would be drinking at the fraternity meetings and he didn't want to be a part of that. Of course, now we drank at all our meetings—the Greensboro Men's Club—and the college presidents were there. And when I called their names, some of them participated. Well, they had that freedom. But you see, in Bluford's time, this was not true. Maybe he was discrete in not doing it.

And I guess the best description is that he was more or less isolated, left to himself. And he didn't—in all honestly I don't think he wanted to—what is it—kick over the pot in any way. He was doing all right, and I think he felt that if he took the conservative point of view that he could get more done for A&T, because they did have to go down—and I say they, the college presidents, Dr. [James] Shepard and all of them—had to go down to the legislature and beg for a little pittance for our state schools. And maybe if he had taken the different attitude at that time, he probably wouldn't have kept his job long. And all of us want security, and being a president of a college is a good job. But I think maybe deep down, in his own conscious, he wanted to do what was right. I think he died early because things started to change so fast, and then the students and all jumped on him because his views were a little more conservative. But I think he was an honest, conscientious man and did a good job in his time.

WC:

How would you talk—how would you characterize Bennett [College] vis-à-vis A&T, or by itself, for that matter?

VC:

Well, I guess a description of comparison of Bennett would be somewhat like comparing a private institution with a public institution. And I will digress again. At the present time, the trustee boards and the presidents of all the public institutions are against giving any money to the private institutions. But when I look at the leadership that we have from Duke University and Davidson [College], Johnson C. Smith [University], Shaw [University], Livingstone [College]—staying within the state, not counting Princeton and Harvard and Yale [Universities]—and all of them need money now. And then when I think if it hadn't been for [James Buchanan] Duke, there would be no Duke University or Johnson C. Smith. Probably Trinity [College] would've closed and Biddle [University], as Smith was known, would be closed. But there again, I said all that to say this: in the private schools, the personnel, from the president on down, and the students, always had more freedom. I think you follow me there.

WC:

Yeah, yeah.

VC:

So the president could be more outspoken, and that's why we've gotten so much leadership from them, because they really I think have had more freedom of speech and action. And this was true between David Jones and Mr. Bluford. David Jones was a man who I might say was impetuous, if no one has ever said that to you before. And he didn't tolerate a lot of foolish. And when he didn't like something, you knew it. And he was a member of the Greensboro Men's Club wherein Bluford wasn't, because he wanted to get out, and he wanted to work with the community. And he was forthright. Not overworking that word, he was a courageous man, too. And I think the same spirit, the same motif, could be seen between the faculties at A&T and at Bennett.

I remember one fellow that left here. Maybe he was too radical even for Bennett at the time. But he—I can't think of him. George—anyway, he left. But they've had several people that could be classified as radical at that time. There was a Reverend Edwards that works at the United Church of Christ up in New Haven [Connecticut], now.

WC:

[Edwin] Edmonds?

VC:

Edmonds, yeah. He was at Bennett. George Streeter[?], this was the fellow. He was very outstanding. He worked at Bennett. [Hobart] Jarrett was a teacher down there at—Retired now from North Carolina Central [University] named Dr. W. Edward Farrison. He could tell you something about Greensboro because he's got a very good memory.

WC:

How do you spell his last name?

VC:

Farrison, F-a-r-r-i-s-o-n. He has written several articles and some books, I'm sure, that pertain to some of the things we're talking about. But he was at Bennett.

WC:

Does he still live in Greensboro?

VC:

No, he lives in Durham now.

WC:

He lives in Durham.

VC:

He's retired. I would recommend that you talk with him because he knows a lot about Greensboro in the thirties. And he and I again worked with the NAACP.

WC:

Yeah. Great. I'll do that.

VC:

This brings up another interesting story, too, talking about working in the background. I remember when North Carolina Central was North Carolina College [for Negros]. They and they wanted to get us a graduate department. And wrongly or rightly we—some of us in the NAACP statewide—didn't feel that they had the capability at that time. We somewhat opposed it. Dr. [James E.] Shepard, of course, wanted it. And I remember our meeting in Raleigh once, talking with Walter White, which many people don't know much about now. But he made a lot of sacrifices and made a lot of contributions to the NAACP. He's one of the immediate predecessors to the present executive secretary. But I remember meeting there where we discussed this. And I'm saying all this just to show you how the NAACP statewide was concerned with the total activity as it related to black people.

WC:

Can you tell me a little about Rev. Dr. Edmonds' period with the NAACP? He was only here for a few years, wasn't he?

VC:

Just a few years. And I think he was maybe at the time too much avant-garde when it came to race relations and the type of system that we had at the time. He worked along with my pastor, Reverend Douglas, J[ulius] T. Douglas, who was another outspoken, impatient man, impetuous man. If he had any faults, probably they were faults. He wanted things to happen yesterday. But he too was in the forefront of all of this—a little man, but fiery and courageous. And I mean he didn't compromise with anybody. I was on the [St. James Presbyterian Church] session—with the session, or his members, or the white establishment, or anybody else—what he believed in, he preached it. I have great admiration for him. He's being—since he's died, he's being recognized. Not too much, of course, when he was living.

WC:

That's interesting. That seems to happen an awful lot.

VC:

Yeah, it does, doesn't it? And they don't know anything about it. I think the [Greensboro] Chamber of Commerce gave him some kind of award recently, at their last general meeting. I didn't go to the meeting. It's become too expensive for me. But at least he was given an award. And then the black group had memorial services for him, and all these things taking place since his passing, posthumously.

WC:

What now—

VC:

But Ed Edmonds, I think Edmonds is a strong man; he was a strong man. And then so often, one must have conviction and be able to express it. So many people have the same conviction but you don't know, and they don't know how to express it. But I would say that he was an activist, and I would think that's a good word. He was quite an activist. I think he was capable in what he was doing. But I think he—I believe he probably left because he wasn't encouraged enough, maybe by people—well, let us say his associates. Because a lot of people—a lot of black people didn't want to—“Don't shake the boat. We're doing all right. I'm living. I got my car. I got my home. Let's not shake the boat.” I mean in all honesty, some of them had that attitude. There's some maybe that disliked for people like him.

WC:

Coming up more to the present, I wonder if you could talk a little about, well, the crisis in 1969 with Dudley and A&T. And you were on the city council at that point. You'd retired?

VC:

I wasn't on the city council.

WC:

You weren't on the city council at that point. It was after that.

VC:

Yeah. I ran for the city council and I came in eighth. In July I believe it was, or June, after about two or three meetings, one of the council members died, Mr. Folk[?]. And as soon as his funeral was on a Sunday, and a lot of black people in the community, and some white people, began to write letters and send telegrams and make calls to the mayor and the city council saying that I ought to be appointed because I was next. And I think that—well, apparently they were convinced, because they did what was right. Although Jimmie Barber, the other black person, had won and we hadn't had a black councilman in ten or twelve years, they still were willing to put this second black man because I had come in, of course, behind just behind the wire. But that's how I got up there. And I think that was in—must have been in July, because I retired in June not knowing that I would be appointed.

And then you ask about my retirement. I retired at the age of sixty-three. I could have worked two more years, but I've always felt that all I needed was security. And I had worked with Mr. [Guy?] Phillips and some other at the state legislature, and I found out that they were going to lower the retirement age where I could get full benefits at the age of sixty-three. I thought that I could get—I knew that I could get social security. And I can't take it with me, if I can just live. And I didn't foresee all this inflation. However, I'm not suffering yet, but I saw that security. And I think one should be happy on his job. And I had hinted retirement to Dr. [Wayne] House.

See, Mr. [Phil] Weaver just passed, too, and Dr. House was the new superintendent. And I'll just say that I wasn't in a state of euphoria, and one day I will write the complete story. But I wasn't getting so many of the things that I wanted. I had too many students with the facilities that I had. To contrast it, one year I had fourteen hundred and I had twelve hundred. Now if you go out there today, they got two assistant superintendents—I mean two assistant principals. They probably have an enrollment between eight and nine hundred, which is what that particular facility ought to accommodate.

Secondly, I was having so many discipline problems that I wasn't able to do the professional reading I wanted to do, attend the meetings, professional or civic meetings that I wanted to, or get the rest that I wanted to at home. Because then when you have discipline problems, then you get involved with juvenile police, the domestic court, the parents, and sometimes with the functionaries downtown, which didn't always understand or know anything about it. But some were more quickly intimidated by parents than I was, if you follow me. And those were some of the reasons.

Then when they had this disturbance down at Dudley and A&T [in May 1969], I was able to sit in my office [at Lincoln Junior High School] and observe it, and then some of it creeped over into my building, being near there. And that was always the disadvantage to having the junior high school very close to the senior high school, a definite disadvantage. They would graduate and they always felt that they could come back and walk through the buildings and come visit, and some were nice and some were nasty. And then our children would do everything they were doing, smoking and what not, because they were so close. And then I experienced some ugliness on the part of some of the parents and students at the time when they had that. So I sat down a day or two after that and told—wrote some of them and told them I made up my mind and I was definitely certain that I would retire as of June 30. And that's what I did. I've never regretted that, incidentally. [WC laughs]

I've missed the city council more than I do the school, because I—admittedly I'm just too old to tolerate it, if that's the word, or to adjust. I'm too inflexible to accept the modern mores or activities or behavior of the present-day junior high school students. The foul language—and they use them anywhere—and they of course use all kinds of—what do they say—deleted explicatives to the teachers, and I just couldn't tolerate that. I think I'm happier by doing what I have done since.

WC:

Did you have any involvement at all with the—did you have—well, with those problems, with the A&T and Dudley, with people like Nelson Johnson? Did you—were you a part of any of those negotiating sessions or did you have talks with them at all?

VC:

No, I was not involved at all. I had no involvement in that at all. No involvement at all. Let me see. Mr. [Franklin] Brown was the principal over there, and some people had some meetings and tried to advise him—that was Rev. Douglas and Rev. [Otis] Hairston and I think Mr. Brown's own pastor, Rev. [Howard] Chubbs, and of course George Simkins and some of the other leaders around here were involved. But I was not involved in that at all.

WC:

Let me ask you a question which may be—I'm not sure how—whether it's even a valid question—but when you have people like Dr. Simkins and Rev. Hairston and Mr. Brown, was there a real sense of conflict or division between Nelson Johnson and [Vincent] McCullough on one hand, and Simkins and Hairston on the other? I mean was there—how much of a gap was there, from you observation?

VC:

I don't know. I don't know. Nelson seemed to have been the leader. And I wasn't close enough to the situation. I wasn't on the inside in any way on the whole thing. In other words, I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know who was calling plays or anything. I saw some things, and I wouldn't be too definite that I saw them. For instance, they say [Howard] Fuller came from Durham up here to participate [phone rings]. I couldn't verify that. [phone rings] Excuse me.

[Recording paused]

VC:

—retired.

WC:

[laughs] That's good. That's good.

VC:

—as chairman of the community health services. [In the meeting, an executive?]

WC:

We were talking about—

VC:

We were talking about the Dudley/A&T problem in '69. But as I said, I wasn't on the inside with that. I didn't work with it at all. And [pause] really I hadn't had any opportunity to make any observations on it. I attended part of the hearings they had here that—was it the North Carolina Council?—something they have there that Dr. [James] Cheek had [unclear] chairman at that time. They had some hearings here, and they called in the mayor. See, all of this happened before I got on the council, so I wasn't involved.

But I think that in retrospect that some errors were made. And I think that Jack Elam, who was the mayor, would probably admit that maybe the national guard was called in too soon. And we had a problem soon of what they had at Kent, which people mention. And they forget what happened at Kent and Jackson State and South Carolina State [Universities], all of which was similar. But you see, the main problem there I think is when they brought in all the young fellows in the national guard. They had never faced any war, and they were nervous on the trigger, probably frightened themselves, and they just didn't know how to handle the situation. Of course, the way the pockmarked the dormitory over there and some of the other things, they weren't called for. I think a lot of it could have been avoided.

WC:

This is the North Carolina Council on Human Relations?

VC:

Yeah, that's what it was.

WC:

That's Dr. Cheek was—

VC:

Yeah, that's the one. That's the one.

WC:

So their hearing should be available somewhere.

VC:

He's a former student of mine.

WC:

Was he?

VC:

Yeah. And I definitely helped indoctrinate him. Of course, he had a wonderful background. Another fellow named Rev. [Tony] Stanley that I remember—

In 1953, before the 1954 decision, I wrote a speech. I was invited to talk with the student chapter of the ADA [Americans for Democratic Action] at UNCG [The University of North Carolina at Greensboro], in the auditorium at the library. And I thought I should write it out rather than [unclear], so I wrote it out. And then I was working with audiovisual aids in school, and they were helping me, so we taped this and they listened to it and all this [unclear]. They asked me that time what I thought the court would do. I told them I couldn't see them doing anything else but eliminating that separate but equal clause, which they did.

Another question asked of me there—and the most interesting part, incidentally, came in the question after me. Of course you've got to use your questions. So someone asked me what I thought about interracial marriage. And I had heard that so often because I've talked with so many liberals, and they would go—you know, they believed in everything, but then somebody [would say] “How would you like a black to marry your sister?” You know this thing is routine. So they asked me and I said, “Well, that's a very dangerous question.” And I said, “I don't know whether I should answer it. But if I answer it, I'll be honest and I'll tell you how I feel.” Then I said, “I think I will.” I said—there was a song at that time that said, “It takes two to tango.” I said, “You know it takes two to tango.” And I said, “If I feel that if two people want to marry, that's their own business.” I said “In fact, I don't think—I don't even go along with certain church doctrines.” I said “When a fellow is looking for a girl to marry, he's not looking for a Jew or a Catholic, or maybe black or white. It's whether these two people can hit it off together.” And I said, “I think people ought to have freedom to marry whom they choose.” And that's the way I answered. That was in '52. And of course that was a liberal audience. You can tell it was ADA, because a white gentleman came up to me after and said, “You should have answered them as I heard someone else say once: 'Well, would you rather them live in sin?'”[laughter]

But I have some relatives, two nephews, both of whom are Presbyterian, Protestant, but they married two Catholic girls and the usual thing. Of course, they went through this education process and joined the Catholic Church. And they joined—I mean, they have all of their tenants you know, birth control and everything else. But I just don't see that. I don't see why it makes any difference whether a Catholic marries a Protestant or not, or a Jew and a Protestant. Of course sometimes they are pretty strong on both sides, you know. I think all that's kind of stupid. I think I'll live long enough even to see the Catholic Church change, because I've seen it change on so many of their things.

WC:

That's right.

VC:

Birth control and divorce, and they've come along. Take my own church. This has nothing to do with the record; I'm talking about my own personal beliefs. My wife has gotten on me and my assistant principal and one of my teachers. I wouldn't say the Apostle's Creed in church. And I said, “Well, I don't know. I think church is the last place to say you believe something.” You know, believe. You have to say, “I believe in the virgin birth,” and all this. And I just quit saying it because I didn't see where Jesus, whether he had a virgin birth—of course, scientifically, I didn't believe in the first place—but I didn't relate that to the philosophy. His philosophy is the main thing to me, not how he was born, you see. So nothing—our church we have a new creed now. We can say the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed, but we have another which has become more acceptable. Because there are a lot of theologians who have the same opinion that I did. But I think there's a tendency of people not to think about what they're saying, just get up and repeat things. And we've done this with children in the schools.

WC:

Right, right.

VC:

It's like I think about the Pledge of Allegiance, and the black people out in our schools used to say, “Liberty and justice for y'all.” [laughter] And since they've freed Mr. [Richard] Nixon, I think liberty and justice for some people, just a few, exclusive few. I'm getting off on politics now.

WC:

[laughter] If you—who are some of the people who you would list as being maybe leaders of the younger generation in the black community?

VC:

Today?

WC:

Yeah.

VC:

Let me see, younger. [pause] Well, we have several leaders. I would probably put out there Walter Johnson, attorney Walter Johnson, as young. And Nelson Johnson was a leader. He has a lot of clout with a lot of people who have clout. [unclear] Herman Fox is another young leader.

WC:

I don't know—where is Herman Fox? What is his—

VC:

He's an engineer and he works at A&T, but he has an office uptown in the Southeastern Building. Whether he's still there or not, I don't know. But he's the present chairman of the Greensboro Citizens Association. [Henry] Frye, if he is not in on that, he has a tremendous amount of influence. And Nate McCoy, he's a paid employee of the city, but he is in human relations and I should think in that position that he has some influence. And as young people go—and I think young people in the early thirties [unclear]. Those are about all that I can think of now outstanding, as for young leaders.

WC:

How about—I've heard the name Barbara Kamera quite a bit. Is she?

VC:

She's a very [pause] outspoken person. She's an intelligent person. She's an educated person. She holds a very high position. And along with Nelson, they used to work in the same cause. And I wouldn't exclude her. I wouldn't exclude her because she has strong convictions about a lot of things, and she's able to express them orally and in writing. She—

[End Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]

WC:

—about the Greensboro Citizens Association. And he's mentioning to me the meetings that he and Mr. John Leary and Mr. [Charles?] Fairley had with Mayor [David] Schenck during one of the sit-ins, and has been talking about the Greensboro Men's Club and its long history going back to 1935, as well as the Citizens Association. Mr. Chavis has been commenting on the fact that the Men's Club was more—some people would have thought it was more conservative than the Citizens Association, and it had a duel function, both social and civic.

[Recording paused]

VC:

—junk, you know [unclear]. Now in retrospect—I was talking about Jo Spivey. When I was on the city council, she'd call me, unlike the other reporters. They'd call and sometimes they'd want you to give an opinion right off the bat. “The Supreme Court did so-and-so today. What do you think?” Well, I spoke very honestly. I'd tell them what I think. And I still don't regret it. But occasionally, even when they attended a meeting, you know—you're familiar with reporters—it isn't always correct. And secondly, sometimes when you say a thing, when you see it in print it's different.

WC:

Right.

VC:

And she'd always say, “Vance, let me read back to you what I said.” Or sometimes I'd go up there if I had a long statement to make, and we'd go over it. The reason I said that, in talking I'm so honest that sometimes it's better probably discretion to take the Fifth [Amendment]. [laughs] Yet I want to be honest, and I think you realize that, having talked to me before. But I don't want to do anything that would actually hurt me.

WC:

Right.

VC:

Some things maybe I shouldn't say. But overall, I think that you've found—you've chosen Greensboro—Is this running?

WC:

Yeah.

VC:

I would say that Greensboro is one of the best places in America to live. I have been able to make the [unclear] and I wish some of them would do it, and maybe your book will bring this out. We have one or two Negros on all the boards and important commissions in Greensboro. We have several who are chairmen: Walter Johnson is chairman of the school board; we've got the chairman of the ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control] board, and some others.

WC:

Well, that's relatively recent, isn't it? The ABC board in particular.

VC:

In the last three years, yes. Until Jimmie Barber and I got on the city council, they didn't have a black on the board, because it's unique. It's the only board where the members receive any monetary reward, remuneration at all. But due to your seniority in the system we're using, he was the person who was next up. And the council had to follow its policy, so we appointed him chairman, and I think he's done a very good job. Of course, Walter was chosen by the board itself as chairman of the school board. Then we made a lot of progress and we got to the police department, if you discovered that. I hear less and less about police brutality.

And there again, in seeing recent figures in Buffalo [New York] and Atlanta and many other of the larger cities where you do have—well, you must have a larger portion of blacks now because since World War II they're moved in, as you have in Newark, [New Jersey], and New York, and all the larger cities. But I would dare—hazard to guess that we have a larger ratio. I know I saw the figures on Buffalo, and we have a larger ratio of blacks. And in the last two years we've had some promotion.

Now there's some [for whom] this, of course, will never be satisfactory, just like with students today. I mean it doesn't matter how much the trustees or the faculty or you give in to them, they never get enough. So there are some people who nothing will ever be totally satisfactory. And I guess I shouldn't condemn them, because, well, we never will have a utopia or perfect conditions. But I'm conservative enough to be satisfied when I see progress being made, when you're moving toward—in the right direction. Not that one should drag his feet, as we did in the integration of schools with all deliberate speed, whatever that means, but I mean if there is obvious and visible tangible properties, then you get some satisfaction.

WC:

And you feel strongly, or you do feel that that has taken place in Greensboro?

VC:

Yeah, I feel so.

WC:

When do you think—when would you date—is there a turning point in your mind, in you memory, of when things got very visibly better?

VC:

[pause] I'm trying to think. I think things got visibly better, of course, after the sit-ins. What I'm seeing now that Greensboro never was as bad as a lot of other places. In fact, it was due to the fact that Greensboro was fairly receptive, see, that these people were able to sit-in. I know a lot of places they wouldn't have done that because they still would have been thrown out or had their heads beaten. So they had to pick the place where it was, let us say, [fair weather?] and where they would get support from their black community, because in some communities, even the blacks wouldn't have supported such a radical move at that time. They would have said, “These young whippersnappers, they don't know what they're going to do, and they're going to make it bad for everybody.”

So Greensboro, like Chapel Hill or maybe Durham, are places where one could initiate new movements. But I would think that started a change.

And of course following this, the 1954 decision, we had a lot of ill feeling between the races. We never had it as bad as they had in Boston, though. And I can't recall that anyone was extremely hurt. Some people were spat upon and they were ignored, but outside of that we didn't have any problem. And I must say again that the police supported these—they were on the side of the law, and when they thought there would be trouble they were present, and in many instances prevented any trouble. So I think the integration transition passed very relatively smooth.

Of course, for a long time—I think we talked about this before—the school board and the superintendent, Mr. Weaver, believed in the policy of freedom of choice. And as long as they had that, why, there were quite a number of black people—including me, though I was working the school—that didn't go along with that policy, because it didn't bring about integration. And then what integration you got was all a one-way street. I'm happy to say now again that I think Greensboro probably has an ideal school situation; in most instances, the ratio is balanced as the court directed and as [Julius] Chambers, who was representing the NAACP and Greensboro, had asked. And I think they've implemented as well as any place that I've known.

I think any group that you see you see some salt and pepper, as I call it. And this is not true for many places in the Northeast. I watch these bands in the football games, and I don't see many black people in them. In Greensboro, if you see the band or you see the chorus or you see the cheerleaders or you see the majorettes, you see all the people represented. And this isn't true throughout America, and that's why I think it's unique. Although I haven't travelled a lot, as I said I watch television. I always look for these things. I'm sensitive about them. But in many instances you have to look very hard to see a black boy or black girl in a band from some high school in Ohio or other areas.

WC:

Did you teach Ezell Blair [Jr.—now Jibreel Khazan] and David Richmond? Were they students of yours?

VC:

No. I taught Ezell's father.

WC:

Oh, you did?

VC:

Yeah. And I had left Dudley High School. When Ezell got to Dudley, I'd moved over to principal of Lincoln. David Richmond was at Lincoln while I was working there, and he was the president of our student council. I knew them very well. But his father has always been very active, too; this is where little Ezell got it. He [Ezell Sr.] hadn't gotten the limelight, but the boy had to get it from his background. And so I taught his dad. And as with a lot of other students that I taught, [Randolph] Blackwell gives me credit for helping him, and some of the other people who are out now fighting for the cause, I think I inspired them.

Because as a teacher I taught physics, and there again I did a lot of things probably—started to say I shouldn't have done, but maybe I should have. Somebody had to inspire race pride and respect in the students. And just by teaching pure physics and science, I don't know that I could do that. So I think I'm guilty of injecting my bit of philosophy. And I always encouraged them to—when they got older, to register and vote, and also urged that they get their parents to register to vote. And I know many times I used to tell them to be sure and have their parents get a receipt whenever they paid their rent or anything else, and to require—this was a big deal then—but to stop just saying, “My mother's name, Mary Jones,” or “Deborah Johnson,” particularly to the white insurance people, a man coming around to sell or collect for some furniture bill, or any instance of that type. All of this was to make them feel that they were as good as anybody else Because you see, I think our environment can influence really the way we feel. As a man thinks, so is he. And if you've come up where you've always been treated as an inferior, regardless, psychologically, I think that you will get to the point where you feel that “I'm not as good as others.” And I think this is why maybe the black people accepted these indignities as long as they did.

WC:

Did you—how—you mentioned urging your students to vote themselves when they got older and have their parents vote. What other ways were there that you would have communicated this to your students? How else would you have given them—beyond the physics you were teaching—a sense of self?

VC:

I don't know, except they could live by example. As you go over the Greensboro Men's Club, you can—they would be able to see, in those instances where our names got in the paper, they could see that there were some people interested in them and were fighting. As for race pride and race history, I remember the [1936] Olympics when [Ralph] Metcalfe and Jesse Owens and others were participating. And at that time the New York Times had wrote a review section, and I recall that I would place these on my bulletin board along with science news and other instances like that. Marion Anderson [singer] I recall vividly and other people who were doing things.

On one occasion, at the time that—before Paul Robeson had reached the lower ebb in the opinion of a lot of people, Paul Robeson, I invited him. I met him and I invited him to come out to speak to the Dudley student body. And being the humble person that he was, very easy to meet and talk with, he agreed and he came out and spoke to the student body, because I wanted them to see a man. Of course, Paul Robeson—as the younger generation would say—he's my man [WC laughs], long before Martin Luther King. But Paul Robeson really was more versatile then Martin Luther King. There again, Paul fought for the same things that Martin Luther King did, but he was ahead of his time.

WC:

Generation, yeah. His time.

VC:

Yeah, ahead of his generation.

WC:

Yeah. You were talking earlier about when the sit-ins happened. You said that you'd gone into a meeting at [Edward] Zane's office in Burlington. What was that meeting about, and what was your impression of him?

VC:

Well, the—as the student were getting the limelight, and as they were marching and sitting-in—and I say “as they were marching” because some of us joined with the students in marching and the mass meetings—but there naturally had to be—well, I don't know how to describe it; I don't want to be immodest—but there had to be a meeting of the power structure and the black leadership, and maybe a lot of this had to be behind doors, and as I indicated some time ago, where the mayor maybe called the three of us in, expecting us to say what he wanted to hear, and he was disappointed. In these meetings with Zane, there was an exchange. And since he represented the white establishment and was respected for his own leadership in the city, we were able to talk with him, and we were able to be honest with him and tell him what we were going to have or what we wanted, what we would agree to. And of course the history will show that many of these things came about, and they came about before 1964. Many of them in Greensboro, they came about before it was a national law.

WC:

Now who would you—when you went to see Zane, who was there beside yourself and Zane?

VC:

My memory is hazy. I would guess that Dr. [George] Evans was there, Dr. W.L.T. Miller, a dentist. And this may have been the time that I said Jarrett was out of town, and I can't recall the others at this time. They were not very big meetings. The group was about maybe about five of us who would go to these things.

WC:

What were your feelings about him, about Zane?

VC:

Well, I thought that he's very objective, very intelligent. One with prejudice, if the first thing you find out is a man came from Tennessee, sometimes you form an opinion quite early. A lot of people, a lot of black people who found out a man, “He's from Georgia or Mississippi,” you form an opinion. And then someone else—sometimes we feel very favorable toward somebody because of their religion or where they're from. But in this instance, I think that Mr. Zane proved to us that he was intelligent and that he was objective. And that he was willing to go along much further than the traditional people of this community, probably not all the way because there, too, he—I think so many people couldn't—what is the word—at least predict, envisage, what was really going to happen, because it was such a radical change. Not even I—and I was asking for them—I didn't realize at the time that we would have all these changes. Things had been taking place gradually, but you see, this was almost precipitately, this radical change.

WC:

So that did you feel you could trust Zane?

VC:

What?

WC:

Did you feel you could trust Zane? Was he the kind of person—

VC:

I had confidence in him, and I think the rest of us did. We had confidence that he could lead the others. He didn't totally agree with us, but we felt that once he was convinced that these principles were right, he would use his influence to help to bring the power. And I think he's fairly well trusted in the black community because he's worked very hard with the [L.] Richardson [Memorial] Hospital with the problems they've had. And occasionally he's called upon when we have problems of this nature. Of course, he has respected by both communities.

WC:

Did you have any sense at all—did you feel that he was representing more than himself? I mean, who was he representing?

VC:

Well, if there is such a thing as a power structure, the chamber of commerce, and I don't know whether we have a chapter of National Association of Manufacturers here or not, but at least the industrialists and the people who have influence, I felt that he was representing them. I might inject here that I think some of the success that we had in the school integration was due to the fact that the chamber of commerce and the—maybe I'll say the bourgeoisie, and the white group went along with it, because if they had hesitated or disapproved, then this would give an impetus to the less affluent—economically, socially, and educationally—to come out and demonstrate it and even probably to have violence. But with this leadership which we've had, I think we've prevented the violence some cities are having, and unfortunately in Boston now—similar to the statement the president made off hand just by saying that he didn't approve with the court or he still believed in forced busing. I think he—to use a word they use a lot now—exacerbated the violence to some extent, because it had become relatively quiet, I think.

WC:

I think you're right.

VC:

But I don't think this helped the situation.

WC:

In some ways it almost seems as though the “power structure,” the white power structure, had learned the lessons of the first years when desegregation was supposed to have taken place. And that when it actually did take place, they did things which they had not done ten years earlier, and this time made it more peaceful.

VC:

Well, I think this is true. But you see, in any cause or any change—let's say a great social change like this—I think many of us didn't realize what had been done so far as race and discrimination and justice had taken place. And a lot of us had to be educated, white and black, and it had to be pointed out to us. And I think that when intelligent people face the facts, when they realize that so much of this was wrong, then there's such a thing, you know, as inertia. There's always an inertia to change. I told you I taught physics, but you get this same inertia in society.

And to give you an example, many people told us—and this wasn't just true about Greensboro or where else—if you put a black clerk in this store, then all the others would quit. Or if we put a black teacher in this school, or two or three, or appoint a black principal over white teachers, they won't work with them. Or if we let a black person sit down—these are actual statements that were made. If we let a black person sit down here and eat, then all the white people will move out. And I think what Greensboro learned [is] that this did not happen. Well, now once this did not happen—of course now it took some courage on the part of the people who were in authority, in charge, whether the manager of a store or whatnot, to tell the employees in no uncertain terms, “We expect you to cooperate.” There again comparing it to the present again, they couldn't be namby-pamby about it or let them know, “I don't want this, but we've been directed to do it.” But I mean they had first of all to have the courage to and the conviction that this was right or this was going to be done. And so it worked out all right.

Speaking of my scientific background, I've always been willing to experiment, and this is what we had to talk in some of our meetings. We said, “Well we don't know whether it will work or not. Let's try. It may not be as fake or negative as you think it will be.” And the results proved of course that we were right and they were wrong.

I remember talking with the chief of police here, he resigned. And we talked on several occasions. I was talking to him about upgrading the police that he had and also increasing the compliment of black police. And his belief at the time was, “If we upgrade these blacks, particularly over some of these people who have been here, then it will bring about a very poor morale in the police department,” which they have moved too rapid in that area, but I don't know whether this bothered morale or not. Of course, when I think of the police department in High Point compared with Greensboro, I think we have a very, very good police department. It doesn't mean that I trust all of them.

Of course I didn't trust all the teachers. I mean in any group, if you have a group of ministers, someone's going to digress or deviate from what is right. But I mean totally, I mean from positive [unclear], I think we have a very good police department.

WC:

You were just talking about teaching again. Would you say that you were exceptional in your teaching and your willingness to take to be identified with protest activities or—

VC:

Not as a teacher. We had—in our school I think we had a very enlightened group at Dudley High School. As I told you, no one ever told me that I couldn't solicit for memberships in the NAACP, but we had a large number of people who would join NAACP. They were further called—now many of them probably wouldn't put on an exhibition, but there were teachers that I talked about the Greensboro—I mean the Citizens Association with. There was another teacher there at the time named Ms. Esther Palmer[?]. Later she was Mrs. Jenkins. She taught history. And there's a teacher here now, Mrs. Angie [Angeline] Smith, and I could mention others who were willing to get out into the ballot.

This fellow Leary I talked with you about, he left Dudley much earlier than I did to assume a principalship, but he had the same convictions that I had. And at one time we taught Negro history there at Dudley. It was dropped and I don't know why, because some of these young blacks think we never had it. But we taught a course for one semester in black history at Dudley High School.

And the principal, he's a member of Greensboro Men's Club. He ought—he's a very courageous man, and I've never seen him pussyfoot about any cause. And I can say this because I've heard him talk to the superintendent when he didn't agree with him. And then he would tell the superintendent, “Well, Mr. Smith”—I believe he was superintendent at the time—he said, “If this is what you tell me to do as a principal, and you're superintendent, I'll have to do it. But I do want you to know that I don't agree with you.”

WC:

Can you tell me—I'd like to hear more about that kind of thing, if you can recall conversations and issues around which they disagreed.

VC:

These are probably some issues concerning discipline or sending a child home—

WC:

Oh, right.

VC:

—or a mother would call or something. The principal really being on the case and being closer to it, in every instance knows more about it than the superintendent who's sitting in his office uptown. This was one episode. Of course sometimes, I've known some other policies maybe didn't get [unclear] a matter of acquiring buildings and asking for facilities, this was true.

WC:

The principals who—Mr. [Abraham] Peeler was principal—

VC:

Yeah.

WC:

—is that true?

VC:

Yeah.

WC:

Of [J. C.] Price [Junior High] School?

VC:

Price school, yeah.

WC:

Is he still around, Mr. Peeler?

VC:

Yeah, he's still around. He's not in the city now, but he's still here.

WC:

And you were principal of Lincoln from what—when did you become principal?

VC:

I was assistant principal in 1955, and I think it was three years later that I became principal. The other one retired. I think it was. And I left there in 1969, June.

WC:

When did Mr. Tarpley resign or retire?

VC:

I think he retired the year before, '68. I'm not certain. It was either '67 or '68.

WC:

I've gathered that although he seemed to get along very well with Mr. Smith, that Mr. Weaver was a different story.

VC:

You've been talking with some other people.

WC:

Yeah.

VC:

[laughs] Well, I'll let you keep that story, but I think so because Mr.—Dr. Tarpley, as we called him, had a lot of clout with Mr. Smith. And maybe because he had a lot of clout at that time—in many instances we had what we called a Negro supervisor. They didn't call them assistant superintendent, you see. Mr. Tarpley had the unique distinction of being both the principal at Dudley High School and the supervisor of the black schools. And superintendents in various cities would leave all the black problems to this supervisor, which meant that he was the one who employed the teachers, he was the one who assigned the teachers, and he had a lot to do with the teacher load and even with appointments of principals at various schools. And he had a lot of clout with Mr. Smith. And I might say, with the advent of Mr. Weaver, there was slightly different philosophy. Of course Mr. Tarpley, being the man that he was, every time Mr. Weaver thought he'd talk down to him, that he was just an assistant superintendent—and I don't know whether this was carried over or not, but I don't think it was the same rapport—I know it wasn't—with Mr. Weaver as it was with Mr. Smith. But generally I think Mr. Smith would after discussion—I won't call it debate, but after discussion—I think a lot of times he would agree or at least concede or acquiesce to the—

[End of Interview]