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Oral History Interview with Willa Player by William Chafe


Date: December 12, 1977

Interviewee: Willa B. Player

Biographical abstract: Willa Beatrice Player (1909-2003) served on the faculty and administration of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, from 1930 to 1966, including as president from 1956 to 1966.

Interviewer: William Henry Chafe

Description:

This December 12, 1977, oral history interview conducted by William Chafe with Willa Player primarily documents Ms. Player’s recollections during her presidency of Bennett College from 1956 to 1966. Player describes how Dr. David Jones’ leadership, the exchange program with traditionally white liberal arts colleges, and a focus on community involvement prepared Bennett students to join the local protest movement in 1960. Specific topics include her support of the sit-ins, the mass arrest of students in April 1960, enlisting the help of her faculty, support from the community, Governor Terry Sanford's actions, negotiating to have students released from jail without arraignment, student organization of and leadership in the protest activities, meeting with community leaders, and the response of Spencer Love.

Other topics include the visits of Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Bennett, the Homemaking Institute and Operation Door Knock voter registration drive, the controversial nature of professors Edwin Edmonds and Alice Jerome, Laura Cone’s philanthropy of Bennett, and leadership in the 1963 protests.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: William Henry Chafe Oral History Collection

Repository: Duke University

Item#: 4.23.669

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 Willa Player by William Chafe

William Chafe:

—who was president of Bennett College, starting in what year? I'm not exactly sure about that.

Willa Player:

In 1956.

WC:

And you were named president after Dr. [David] Jones had died? Is that right?

WP:

That's right. And I remained president for—I was in my eleventh year when I left in 1966. In reality, I was president in 1955, but they didn't have an inauguration, because of the sadness of events, until 1956. And then I left in 1966.

WC:

Had you been a graduate of Bennett?

WP:

No. No, I had gone to Bennett, though, when I graduated from Oberlin in 1930, as a teacher of French and Latin, and had the very interesting career of going from a teacher, to a director of admissions, to a registrar, to a dean, to a vice president, to presidency.

WC:

So in fact you—

WP:

So my total career was there until I left in '66.

WC:

Oh, I didn't know that. That's fascinating. So there really is a thirty-six-year period.

WP:

That's right.

WC:

Wow.

WP:

And, you know, I think to understand what could happen with the protest movement at Bennett, you have to understand something of the history of Bennett College, which made the protest so possible. And this happened because in the history of this school, from the beginning, it was founded by the northern white church. And there were always interracial activities, interracial participation, so that white people on that campus, either as trustees or as speakers or as students, were never strangers to the students, although the students may not have seen any in the communities from which they came, you see. So that is one thing you have to understand about Bennett.

Another thing is that during the administration of David Jones, he was a very courageous person, and so he stepped out into areas where nobody else would tread. One of these was the brazenness of inviting Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt to the campus and inviting the schoolchildren, you know. Well, this caused consternation in this community because the white schoolchildren wanted to come to the Bennett campus, too. And so we had a whole big crisis on the townspeople trying to get him to back down from the article that he wrote in the paper inviting just the schoolchildren, see. And he didn't back down. And, you know, these sorts of things were always happening.

And later on during my vice presidency, Martin Luther King was invited to speak. And there was no place, not even in the black high school, would they allow Martin Luther King to deliver an address. And true to the Bennett tradition, I said, “This is a liberal arts college where freedom rings, so Martin Luther King can speak here,” you see. So we surrounded the campus with police protection, and Martin Luther King came and spoke. That's another illustration of the, you know, outreach.

And then a third one was when I introduced the student exchange with white students from other colleges.

WC:

Mount Holyoke [College] and—

WP:

Mount Holyoke and all these schools, you know, using the places only where I knew the presidents personally from my association in professional meetings and all of this sort of thing. So this caused consternation. But we moved from the white students to the foreign students, and then when we got the students from China, this caused consternation. But always this is the kind of college that Bennett was, in terms of race relations.

Now, in terms of—let's see, there was—in terms of race relations, this is the kind of college it was. Then were was one point that I wanted to make—oh, in terms of the philosophy of the school, we were not a college that imitated, that wanted to be a Chicago university [sic—University of Chicago] or a Vassar [College] or a Holyoke. We weren't after that. What we were really after was a functional college where the students who came would be able to go back to their communities. So we had this community orientation from the very beginning, you know, and fanned out into the community to improve the homes, to improve—and this worked all up to voting, you see. And so this is how the students were comfortable moving out in the community, and so there was this community connection.

So when the protest came along, students were ready, you see. They weren't afraid, and they weren't backward about what to say to community people, or they weren't unaccustomed to expressing their ideas to whites, you know. And so it was a kind of natural thing for them to join with the [North Carolina] A&T [State University] students in expressing what they had been told and learned in the classroom all the time, that this is the way that you are supposed to do as a citizen, you know. And so they were simply carrying out what they had learned.

So I was in a particular position to say, “Well, you are expected to do what you've learned,” you see. So therefore, I was—the students were afraid at first and said they didn't know if I would send them home or anything, until I made it clear to them that they—I didn't tell them that they were supposed to join the protest. I just said to them, “You will be expected to practice what you have learned,” and that was it, you see. And so that reduced any tensions that the students had with me as the chief administrator. Then I had to explain to them that because of this, and because I was with them, I had to stay out of jail in order to be sure that—whether they were sufficiently understood. Somebody had to be out there, you know. Well, that was one thing.

Then the other thing was that early in the game, when girls were first caught up and jailed, I summoned all of the senior members of the faculty and said, “Now, we have always here participated and have always become involved in everything, so I want to tell you what the girls are doing and that I go along with this, and I think you have taught them how best to perform.” So then the faculty felt involved, you see. So I had no tension from the faculty, say, being against what I was doing because I brought them in the very first night, and we all sat up all night long while the girls were in jail, figuring out what we should do.

And then, you see, by having the faculty with me, we set up an organization about how we were going to move through the city. And so we had a mail call every day while the girls were in jail. Somebody took my mail, and we had [laughs] just like the army, we had a mail call. We had assignments. The teachers made the assignments, and we had bearers of the assignments out to the jail for the girls, so they kept up with their work, you know. And the teachers were just great with this, the cooperation on this, you know. And we were approaching the end of the school term. What are we going to do about graduation? And they would sit in sessions, day after day after day, and plan the work of the students, so that the girls were comfortable and didn't feel like they were going to lose out if they didn't—you know, if they didn't give up on this.

One of the most interesting things about it was that I had a local trustee named Dr. [John] Tarpley, and he didn't help me at all, you know.

WC:

He didn't?

WP:

No. [laughter]

WP:

He just—he was the superintendent of the schools, you know, the black—principal of the black schools. He didn't help me at all. And so I was just out there, you know, battling with the faculty by myself, and the ministers who—like [A. Knighton “Tony”] Stanley, who would cooperate, and also the professional people, like the dentists, the doctors. These people helped me, you know. [I] never shall forget one of the dentists was out there when I first went to this hospital. It was an old defunct polio hospital where they jailed the girls. And when I went out there that night to speak to the policemen, and he told me I couldn't get in, and I told him that was just ridiculous, that I was responsible for all of these girls, and that he had to let me in so I could see what the conditions were and what we would have to do. And then one of the dentists here in town spoke up and said, “You must let her in,” to the policeman.

WC:

Do you remember who that was?

WP:

Yes, it was [Dr. W. Lloyd T.] Miller—the dentist Miller, who spoke up. And so that was the kind of support, you see, that I had.

WC:

Was that Captain [William] Jackson you were speaking to?

WP:

And I was speaking to Captain Jackson. You know, after I left—this is an aside about Captain Jackson—but after I left Greensboro, Woman's College gave me an honorary degree, and I went back to receive this. And who should be one of the first persons to come up and say, “I'm Captain Jackson, and I shall never forget the conference we had in my office when you came up to say that I would have to do something to release your girls.” And that was one of the high points of the thing out there, because you see, they put these girls in this old polio hospital.

WC:

Separate from the boys, or was it together with the boys?

WP:

Yes, separate from boys, but they were in these little buildings.

WC:

I see.

WP:

Well, I found out that when you use an old building, it has to be inspected, but I didn't know where the codes were, see. So we had this attorney, Stern[?], and I went down and I asked him where I would find the codes. He told me where to find them in the library. I went and read them myself. Then I went on to Captain Jackson and said, “You know, what I have found out is that you are illegal in putting the students in the polio hospital when the hospital hasn't been inspected.” And I said, “So if you don't let those girls go, I intend to do something about this.” [laughter] So I guess about a couple of days after that, you know they did let them go. But, you see, in between, something sad happened at A&T. Because the governor—I don't know whether it was [Terry] Sanford or not.

WC:

In '63 it was Sanford, yeah.

WP:

Sanford wrote [Lewis] Dowdy a letter and told him to bring his students back to the campus. Then Dr. Dowdy called—showed me the letter, called me and said, “What are you going to do?”

And I said, “If the girls want to stay where they are, they can stay, because I am not going to let a private school be dictated by a governor saying that you should take the students out.”

Well, a lot of people called me to me again and said, “We think you're on the wrong track. You should take—you know, you should recall the girls.”

WC:

These were black citizens or white citizens?

WP:

Black citizens.

WC:

Black citizens.

WP:

Yes. And I said, “Well, I will recall the girls under one condition, and that is that you release them from—” you know, what do they do when they jail them? They—

WC:

Arraign them or—

WP:

Yeah. You know, free them without going to trial.

WC:

Yeah, yeah.

WP:

Yeah, free them. And I said, “If you free the girls, then I will tell the girls to come home.”

Meantime, the girls got upset because the boys had left, from A&T, you know, and so I had to go out and explain to them. I said, “Now, A&T students have gone back to the campus, but they have not been released. They are still jailed students, so that makes A&T a jail instead of the polio place.” And I said, “Now I am not going to, and I don't think you want to, have Bennett a jail. It's a liberal arts college, you see. And so you just stick it out, or what do you want to do? Do you want to come back and have this hanging over your head?” And they said, “No.” They were all with me, and they got up and they sang the alma mater and they just re-stirred themselves, you know. And they stayed until they released them. And when they released them, then they returned to the campus.

And one of the people who tried to get me to release—to go along with this was Dr. Tarpley. And I said, “Dr. Tarpley, Bennett is not a jail and I'm not going to bring those girls back here under that kind of situation.” And I said, “And the girls want to stay,” and so they did. And so when they came back, you see, they were freed of all of this, and we had won our point that this is the way a college behaves when a tense situation like this arises, you know.

WC:

Would some of—would the other people who were trying to get you to go along with Dr. Dowdy have been business people primarily, or political people?

WP:

No, just plain citizens who were concerned and kind of afraid, you know. But what I had done was to—I had wired one night. All night long I wired all the parents and had them understand, and they said they would go along with the college and the girls. And so we didn't have anybody to back down or anything.

And then we had this one—there was one white girl on the campus at that time, if I remember correctly, as an exchange student, and she got herself in the picture on the first page of the New York Times magazine sitting with the girls. [laughs] I assume she didn't have to do that. But her father—her mother was a missionary, but her father was a construction worker, and he was very, very angry about this and called me and all sorts of things. But I said, “It's your daughter's decision and we have to honor what your daughter does.” And so that—but that was quite a traumatic, interesting time.

But the girls were very anxious to do this on their own as much as possible. So every night the president of the student center and two or three of her cohorts would come down to the president's house, and they'd say, “This is what we're going to do tomorrow.” [laughter] They didn't say, “Shall we do this?” They would say, “This is what we're going to do tomorrow.” That's when they were missing the classes and sitting-in downtown. You know, they had these various schedules. “At eight o'clock to so-and-so, this group will be there.” And it was just beautiful because they worked it out themselves. And their whole schedule that they had was worked out by the students and the leadership in the student body, and then they would just come and inform me. And they said, “We want you to know what we're going to do,” you see. But that was also their way of saying, “Now, if you've got anything to say, say it.” [laughs]

WC:

Do you remember who some of those leaders were on the student body at that time?

WP:

I really, I really don't. I really remember one girl, who was Naomi Brown[?], who was president, at the time, of the student center. She was a girl from Brooklyn, New York. I think Stanley would know who she is.

WC:

Now, Stanley's future wife was involved in all of this, I gather.

WP:

Yes, she was. She was a participant.

WC:

Yes. I need to see her next time I go to Washington [D.C.]

WP:

Yes, she was there, and a very outspoken—Beatrice is her name.

WC:

Yes.

WP:

She would remember the girl by the name of Brown who led all—did all the scheduling with the girls—a very bright-minded girl from Brooklyn, New York. And she was just really terrific all through the sit-ins. But some of it escapes me now. But I did keep a folder of newspaper articles on it, which you've seen [unclear]

WC:

Yeah, most of them I have seen.

WP:

—the newspapers. But to me it was in the true tradition of a liberal arts college and what you're supposed to do, you know. And so when it was all over—the girls were released before graduation and everything—then I gave this chapel speech and commended them on their behavior and praised them for how proud I was that they had shown that they understood what it was all about. And then I remember this because the girls gave a tremendous applause and a standing ovation.

WC:

That's wonderful.

WP:

And it was, you know, it just ended at a great climax. And nobody was very critical of what we should have done or shouldn't have. Everybody was pitching in and making it work the way it should.

WC:

Do you, by any chance, have copies of that speech? Was that all written down?

WP:

No. [chuckles]

WC:

No?

WP:

No, I just gave it.

WC:

Yeah, out of your heart.

WP:

Yeah, right.

WC:

I've talked to Dr. Dowdy, but I haven't really probed him on that point. Was he distressed, do you think, that this message had come from Gov. Sanford?

WP:

Yeah. Oh, I think he was terribly distressed. I think he was under such great pressure that that was the only thing that he could do, you know, unless he wanted perhaps to lose his job, and there was that that had to be considered, I guess, by him. But so far as I was concerned, at a private college, I just had no fear and no distress about what was ever going to happen. Even if the trustees had thrown me out, I was ready to go, because I had such a deep conviction that all of this was so right, and that all of it was done in the proper manner. You know, like going down to discuss things with the chief of police. [laughs] I'd never had that experience before. And then going to jail to visit the teachers who were jailed—aside from there being business of the girls being at the polio hospital when the jail space gave out, you know. They had too much to manage, so in the tense period, they put them all there. It was just one of those things.

WC:

The other members of your board of trustees, were they supportive primarily, or were there others like Dr. Tarpley who indicated disapproval?

WP:

No. I think Dr. Tarpley was the only one, and I think he was in much the position that Dowdy was in, being a principal of a black high school. So I didn't fault them for that, but I didn't let it deter me from what I was going to do.

WC:

Right. Was Mrs. [Laura] Cone on the board at that time?

WP:

Mrs. Cone was on the board. She never stepped into it one way or the other. The trustee—chairman of the trustee board was Dr. F. D. Patterson from New York City. And he called and asked me if I wanted him to do anything, and I told him, “No.” And at the regular meeting of the board, when he came down, he wrote this article that he put in the newspaper which showed the town that he was supporting what we were doing, and this article came out in the news. But he told me afterwards that he felt a little bad that I held him out of it because it was so exciting, you know. [laughter] But I didn't want people to say that we were so insecure that we had rushed out to get somebody to help us, or brought in somebody with more power, or more—any of this.

I just didn't want this, because what I was really trying to do was to demonstrate to that whole community what private higher education is and what a liberal arts education is supposed to do for people. And so in this way it never got political, or it never got—it just stayed on the education track all the way through. And this was appropriate for Bennett because in everything that we did, with the community and everything, we stayed on the education track, even when we were doing voter education. It wasn't vote for this person or vote for this person. It's what do you do as a citizen to fulfill responsibility in voting. So we never got into any political entanglements.

Now, I don't know. I don't remember. I think we—I remember several meetings with the power structure, like [Edward] Zane and those people, expressing their disapproval, but I don't remember anything about them because I wasn't paying any attention. [laughter]

WC:

Who would have been there besides Zane? Do you remember who else would have been there?

WP:

Let me see. I really—it seems like one of the Cone men—Caesar Cone—one of the Cones was there. And let me see. There may have been a couple of bankers there. I just don't remember that group because I just sat there, you know, undeterred by what they were saying. And so I don't remember much about those meetings at A&T.

WC:

They would have been held at A&T?

WP:

They were at A&T.

WC:

Let me go back if I can and ask questions leading up to this period. First of all, do you remember what day it was that Eleanor Roosevelt came, by any chance?

WP:

I don't remember that date, but that date would be in the library, the Bennett College [Holgate] Library. There, by the way, you might want to look into what's in the Bennett College library.

WC:

Yes. I, at one point, talked to someone in the history department there, Dr. [George] Breathett, I believe, and asked him—

WP:

Really? He was one of the key people during the sit-ins, too, on the faculty. I think he chaired most of the faculty program planning, assignment planning, for the girls.

WC:

He didn't think there were any papers available, but I haven't been to the library—I mean in the archives—but I haven't been there myself to find—to ask whether they might have something he might have forgotten about.

WP:

Yes, and the person who would be able to tell you that is the retired librarian, Constance Marteena.

WC:

Constance Marteena.

WP:

She knows it all.

WC:

M-a-r-t-i-n-a?

WP:

M-a-r-t-e-e-n-a.

WC:

T-e-e-n-a. Okay.

WP:

Constance Marteena. She is the retired librarian there, and she would remember. And I think the papers—aren't Dr. Jones' papers at Duke [University]?

WC:

I haven't—at Duke?

WP:

Aren't they at Duke?

WC:

They may be. I have never even thought of that before.

WP:

I think they are deposited at Duke.

WC:

My goodness. I'm sitting on a gold mine and don't know it. [laughs]

WP:

I think they are.

WC:

I will definitely look at that. I'm embarrassed about not knowing that.

WP:

Well, now, I may be wrong, but I believe they are at Duke.

WC:

That would terrific. My recollection I guess was—I thought that Dr. King came when you were president in '58. You said, when you were talking about it, that you were vice president.

WP:

I guess it was when I was president.

WC:

I was hoping that I hadn't gotten that wrong.

WP:

Yeah, I was president. That's right.

WC:

Not even Providence Baptist [Church] would let him speak there, and you were the only one who would find a place for him to speak.

WP:

Oh my god, only one.

WC:

And you piped the speech into all of the auditoriums as well as the chapel.

WP:

That's right.

WC:

That was a very—at least for some of the people that took part in the first sit-ins in 1960, that seemed to have been a very, very decisive moment in their lives. They were in high school at the time when Dr. King came.

WP:

Oh, yes.

WC:

It seemed to have been a very major event for—as far as the whole community was concerned.

WP:

The whole community, because, you see, they had gone everywhere before they came to Bennett because Bennett had the smallest chapel, you see. And they had gone to all of these auditoriums and everything, and then when everybody refused them, then that's when they came to Bennett.

WC:

Who would have been the sponsoring group for this speech? Do you remember?

WP:

Let me see. I don't guess I remember, but it surely must have been the [Southern] Christian Leadership [Conference, SCLC] people.

WC:

Yeah. I was just wondering why they wouldn't—why, in that situation, they would not have made their own churches available.

WP:

Well, I guess it was because the tenseness—

WC:

And the fear of violence.

WP:

—and the fear.

WC:

Back in the thirties, when you first came to Greensboro, was there an active NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] at that point? Would you or friends of yours have been involved?

WP:

No.

WC:

Not at that time?

WP:

Not at that time.

WC:

Someone has told me that during the thirties there was a [Marcus] Garvey movement in Greensboro. Does that ring a bell at all?

WP:

No. See, when I went there in '30, I was twenty years old, and I was so busy teaching French I didn't know what was going on in the community. [laughter]

WC:

I know what you mean.

WP:

Until I got up a little—been there a little and people began to know me and I began to associate with the administration, but in those early days, the only thing that I can remember is that we—because we were so anxious that there should be student involvement and that everybody—everything should be open to everybody, that my main concern then was being sure that the girls understood why they didn't have sororities, you know. It didn't fit the Bennett philosophy. And so that was—that was my community activity, as I remember.

WC:

What kinds of things would the students have done in the community? Would they have been involved in kindergarten programs or health care programs, anything like that?

WP:

Yes, they would be involved in teaching children, tutoring, and all this sort of thing, helping—going into the homes with our home economics department, showing people how to repair their furniture, how to paint their houses and fix them up. In those very early days, that was one of our major concerns. And later on, the girls went into housing projects and did that sort of thing. And then teaching children and helping teacher aides and all this, as time went on, those sorts of things they did.

WC:

I think there was a tutoring program that was sponsored by the education committee of the Greensboro Community [Fellowship]—Kay Troxler and Louise—not Louise, Anna Simkins and—

WP:

Yes, that was later on.

WC:

Yes, yeah.

WP:

I think I had even left then. Or it was in the—

WC:

The last period.

WP:

In this period, yes.

WC:

Do you remember the first occasion when a black person ran for public office in Greensboro?

WP:

No, I don't remember there ever being a black person.

WC:

Dr. [Julius] Douglas—Reverend Douglas ran a couple of times, I think, for [Greensboro] City Council.

WP:

Yes.

WC:

And I guess that was in '48. And Mr. [F. A.] Mayfield—I'm going to go back and check the records on this; I just haven't done it yet. But I'm wondering whether—there was a guy named Sharp, I believe, also.

WP:

Those names are familiar to me, but what they were doing, you know—[chuckles]

WC:

Right.

WP:

I don't know, because as I was saying, my main concern was not who was running for office, but understanding—the students understanding the educational implication of getting the right people in office, you know. And I had to keep telling myself this to keep my thinking straight, what it was that we were teaching and wanted the girls to learn.

WC:

I've talked to Professor [Hobart] Jarrett.

WP:

Oh, yes. In New York?

WC:

Yes. He talked very warmly of his relationship with you and of his experience at Bennett. And he talked about his involvement in a voter registration campaign, I think, very early after he came here, and I was wondering if you had any recollection of that. He seemed to imply—say that it had occurred if not on the Bennett campus, then very much as an outgrowth of Bennett activity.

WP:

Was he talking about Operation Door Knock?

WC:

He may have been. He didn't use that phrase, but it may have been.

WP:

He may have been talking about that. I don't quite remember the date of Operation Door Knock, but this was at Bennett. We had every year a week which we called Homemaking Institute, and at this time we would emphasize something to improve community life, because we didn't believe in the separation of town and gown sort of thing. But we wanted to bring people to the campus if we could, but they were reluctant to come, so we had to fan out in the community. And Dr. Jarrett, I think, was chairman of Operation Door Knock, if I'm not mistaken. And this was organizing the students, getting rid of the classes completely, in terms of traditional classroom things, for a week, and fanning out into the community in teams and instructing people and then coming back for seminars. Oh, that was a terrific thing that happened on the campus, Operation Door Knock.

WC:

I must go back and check the dates on that.

WP:

Now, you can find Operation Door Knock programs in the library, I'm sure.

WC:

Okay. He—

WP:

And that might be a good thing for you to do. Go to the file in the library, in the Bennett library, and look up the kinds of things that were done in the Homemaking Institutes, because this really was a demonstration of the community goals that Bennett had.

WC:

Yeah, that would be very—I must do that. He said about that campaign that there were people lined up to register to vote, and that there was registration taking place in the local community rather than downtown.

WP:

That's right, all over in the communities.

WC:

So that—he said it was something which they had not—the dimensions of which had not been seen before in Greensboro.

WP:

That's right.

WC:

It seems to coincide, at least somewhat, with the election of Dr. [William] Hampton to city council. I'm not sure if it came that early or not.

WP:

I'm not sure. I'm not sure about that. But Dr. Jarrett was right. We set up registration booths all over town, because we didn't want to take a chance of people not going down to the regular places, you know, and getting the correct information and all that sort of thing.

WC:

Did you know Dr. Hampton well at all?

WP:

Not too well.

WC:

I guess one of the questions that I've wondered about in terms of his political life and his personal life, there seem to be—I've heard two different perceptions of Dr. Hampton and I guess what they tend to suggest is that he too was caught in the middle in some ways, because as the lone black representative on a city agency or city body, he had to go along sometimes in order to getting something done. On the other hand, he was also working as much as he could for change. And I just didn't know if you might have any ideas or perceptions on that question.

WP:

No, I didn't have very much contact with Dr. Hampton, but I do know that he had the respect of the community. And it seems to me that he was buried from the Bennett chapel. But at any rate, you're right about it, I think. He did as much as he could, and I think he—

WC:

It was very difficult, certainly.

WP:

Yeah. So I never remember blaming him for not getting things done.

WC:

I've also, I guess, gotten the sense that in the fifties, Reverend [Edwin] Edmonds was a volatile figure.

WP:

Right. [laughs] You've covered some territory haven't you?

WC:

[laughter] I wondered what your sense of that was and—

WP:

Well, as I recollect, he was a sociology professor on the Bennett campus during the administration of Dr. Jones. And he was a very smart person, a sociologist, who wanted to get things done faster than they could be done in that community. And Dr. Jones, on the other hand, was a kind of referee to see that he didn't go off the deep end to make the things impossible that he saw could be done in a more organized fashion and not impulsively. And this was Dr. Edmonds' way of doing things. He'd just go out and get all upset and everything. Well, this is away also from the discipline of a liberal arts tradition, you know. You have these people do this, but you have to contain them within the structure, you know. But he was very smart. He was a good teacher, an excellent teacher.

WC:

I've heard it said from three or four people—I'm not sure who they were; maybe Vance Chavis was one, maybe Ezell Blair was one—that his leaving at the end of—or not really the end, but toward the end of the fifties, was at least in part because he had been trying to go too far too fast. And I wondered whether that corresponded to your—

WP:

I think that's probably true.

WC:

[unclear] situation. Do you recall any pressure placed on the university from anybody to get rid of him or to have him—

WP:

At the college?

WC:

Yeah.

WP:

No. No, I think it was just a determination that the president made in terms of evaluating the faculty for rehiring.

WC:

But that some of his political activities—

WP:

I didn't see any of the rest of the people involved in any pressure [unclear].

WC:

He seems to have certainly been a thorn in the side of much of the power structure.

WP:

Yes, he was.

WC:

Both by his involvement in the NAACP and—

WP:

Yes, that's right. He was very much involved in the NAACP.

WC:

He seems to have been frequently present at the school board meetings.

WP:

Yes.

WC:

And creating some consternation among them, because he wasn't going to stop.

WP:

No, I don't think the power structure, though. He's just one of these people, you know, ahead of his time in a lot of ways. And I just think, for the small liberal arts college that we were trying to do, you see, that this was a little bit more than the administration could stand at that time.

WC:

Do you remember when Herbert Aptheker came to Bennett, by any chance?

WP:

No. I do remember, but I don't remember what went on.

WC:

That's interesting, because, of course—

WP:

Part of this time I was out raising money for the institution. I wasn't always there when they had the lecturers.

WC:

What strikes me as fascinating is that he—I did a paper in New Orleans at the Southern History Convention about three weeks ago, and he was in the audience. I had not met him before. And he began to talk about Greensboro and the fact that here this Leftist, this person who was an avowed Communist, had nevertheless been invited to lecture at A&T, he said by Dr. [Ferdinand] Bluford, and at Bennett. And I believe he stayed in the home of Dr. Jones.

WP:

[laughs] Yes, it's possible.

WC:

And he found this quite striking, that at a time of political repression over the [Joseph] McCarthy issue, he would nevertheless be welcome and given full hospitality by these two institutions, A&T especially, being vulnerable to political reprisal, and Bennett much less so. I just didn't know whether you had any memories of that event.

WP:

No, I don't think that caused any flurry of any kind that I remember.

WC:

He was fascinating in talking about it. And he was talking the Scales [v. United States] case, also—the Junius Scales case. I think there was—wasn't there a big thing about the Communist Party affiliation of one of your white women teachers?

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

WP:

—much, and that's how this all happened, because they had a picture [in the Mark?]. And somebody—let me see. Who are these people who investigate? Not the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigations] people, but there were some people—I guess they are FBI people. I don't know. But this person called and said, “I can't tell you who I am, but I want you to know that this lady is affiliated with the Communist Party. And I'm telling you this because we respect Bennett College and its community, and we don't want to see it get into any difficult situation, and that's all I can say. But if you go to Washington to the Library of Congress and look up this magazine, it will verify what I'm saying.” So I made a special trip to Washington to the Library of Congress and looked it all up. What he said was all true, and I never—I don't know who that person was to this day, but that's how we got a hold of it.

WC:

Probably Captain Jackson.

WP:

And then—I don't know. And then we went—oh, I presented this to the trustee meeting, because we were then going to have trustee meeting, and I didn't know what to do with this kind of issue. And so I said, “I have got to have support from the trustees on down,” and so I went to the board and saw this—told them about the situation and everything. At the same time, she knew that we were going to have board meeting, so she asked to—for a hearing with the board. And I believe they gave it to her, if I'm not mistaken. Yeah, they did. And they made the decision—we all did together—to ask her for her resignation.

WC:

And that was publicized by newspapers, too, I believe. I think that's where I first saw it.

WP:

It may have been. It may have been. But there was one point, you see, between the time that this was all going on, she went to the Sunday school—we had a church school—and got the students all upset, you know. And so we had a thing there that we had to straighten out with getting the students all calm, you know. This is the way it is, and we just had to have the students to understand. And when they understood it, they then concluded that she had exploited.

WC:

The—I can't think of what I was going to say. I know; I was going to start talking about the 1960 sit-ins, and of course, there were no arrests in 1960 until April. I think there were a few, but during that—the sit-ins lasted only for one week, and I think on the second or third day, Bennett students joined the initial four. And I just wondered whether you had any particular recollections about that first sit-in in 1960 and that week-long period of demonstrations when Ezell Blair Jr. [now Jibreel Khazan] and Joseph McNeil and some of the others had started.

WP:

No. I think, if I'm not mistaken, Dr. [Gordon] Blackwell was president of the Woman's College.

WC:

Yes.

WP:

And we had a meeting over there—Bennett—and they were trying to explain to us why the girls from Woman's College [now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro] could not participate in the sit-ins. And I accepted what they had said because they were their own students, but they never asked us to stop or anything. And it just went on like that. But we tried. We wanted the Guilford [College] students and other students. It ended up where there were just a couple of Guilford students. And the student from Woman's College whose father was from Mississippi, on a Mississippi contract, blew up, so they had to withdraw her from protest. But I don't remember anything untoward that happened during that period. It just kept building up and building up, you know, after the whole—after the Bennett students found out that I wasn't going to send anybody home for going down there. Then it started building up until we got huge crowds participating. But we had some meetings downtown, though, with Ezell Blair and some of the power structure. But Ezell was very eloquent in explaining why he was doing this, and so we were just supporting him down at these meetings where he was.

WC:

You became very much involved, I think, in the campaign against Meyer's [Tea Room]. Didn't you send in your charge card and take part in the economic protest about the Garden Room?

WP:

Yeah. I surrendered my charge card to Meyer's. I had forgotten that. [laughs]

WC:

And you never took it back, did you, I think? Someone told me that you never had—

WP:

No, I never took it back. Yeah. I had forgotten about that. There are so many things that happened in there, in that period, you know.

WC:

Let me remind you of this letter that—It's a fascinating example to me of the way some people thought things would work in Greensboro. This was very shortly after the first sit-ins in 1960. And the students had voted a moratorium after the first week of the sit-ins, and Mr. Zane had been very instrumental in arranging that. And Spencer Love, I believe, right—either at the very end of that week of demonstrations or afterwards—wrote you a letter in which he—it's a fascinating letter. I should have brought it with me, or a copy of it. He said, “I know that you are concerned as I am with maintaining the good race relations we have in Greensboro, and with continuing to make Greensboro an enlightened and progressive city. I'm writing to ask you for your advice and your concern. Those of us who have been involved for a long time in this issue know how important it is not to go too fast lest we lose the progress we've already made. I would be willing and anxious to hear from you about this.” That was basically the letter, and it's almost an exact quote, I think. But I always—when I read that letter, I had a sense that here was the head of the power structure in Greensboro really, I thought not too subtly asking you to intervene to stop the sit-ins.

WP:

Slow up.

WC:

To slow up. That does not seem to me an unfair interpretation of the letter, at least as I read it. I wondered whether—do you recall that letter at all?

WP:

I really don't, and I don't recall what my answer was.

WC:

Well, you made a very interesting answer. You, first of all, you did not reply right away. I think your reply was three weeks later. And your response was that you appreciated his deep concern, which you certainly shared, and hoped that he would take the opportunity to express to his associates, and to the political representatives of Greensboro, his concern that all facilities be open to all people. What you did very politely was to tell him to go away, and if he really want to help—

WP:

Open the facilities. [laughter]

WC:

—open the facilities. But it was—both letters were delicately phrased. I mean neither one of them would represent a mail fist approach. Yet I found them fascinating, as what he thought he could get away with, and then the way in which you told him, “No, it's not going to happen that way.” And then he wrote back to you and his tone completely changed.

WP:

Really.

WC:

When he wrote back to you, his response was, “Oh, of course we must work toward this.” No longer, you know, will we try to ask Dr. Player to intercede. I just found that a fascinating exchange, and I didn't know whether you might—

WP:

I don't remember that.

WC:

—recall. It was very, very interesting.

WP:

Spencer Love, if I'm not mistaken, made an annual contribution to the college, if I remember correctly.

WC:

Did you have much contact with him?

WP:

I went to see him occasionally about contributions to the college, but mostly I went down to his offices down there because he had a man there in charge of giving for colleges.

WC:

What was your impression of him? I found him a fascinating man, but I don't have very much of a hold on who he was.

WP:

Well, as I remember him, he was very—he was cordial. I have the feeling that he was a moderate and that he would do things for the community and he wanted to advance the community. But I never got the impression that he was too anxious to move ahead.

WC:

Move ahead. He would wait for other people to set the—

WP:

Set the tone.

WC:

—the pace or tone, and he would go along. Would you say that the Cone family was the same, or were they different than the Loves?

WP:

Pretty much the same. Pretty much the same.

WC:

And Mrs. Cone, being on your board—

WP:

Mrs. Cone was on the board, and she was a very interesting person because she always wanted for the Bennett girls the best sort of environment, you know. So the parlors and all—she never did anything cheaply or anything like this. She would say, “Well, I have these drapes in my bedroom, and I think they are gorgeous. What about putting them in this dormitory?” She worked very well with the Jones', but when my administration began, she saw to it that the president's house, which was new, had everything that it should have. She went to town shopping with me for silver, for everything for the president's home. And then when the sit-ins came around, she said, “Now I am seeing you. I want you to know that I am supporting you, but I don't feel that I can make the same contribution to Bennett that I made during the Jones administration, because this is such a new day.” And so she wanted me to understand that, and she was going to submit her resignation very soon. But she didn't when he died, you see. She stayed there to see that I had everything and that everything was going all right. But I felt like she moved out because she couldn't quite take the way that things were developing at Bennett with the students, you know, freedoms and all the race relations. Now she never said that, but I had that feeling that that was why she was giving up.

WC:

That's interesting. Because it does seem that—I mean it wasn't only in Greensboro, it was in Chapel Hill as well—the sit-ins challenged many of the assumptions of white liberals and the ground rules, which they were not ready to see set aside.

WP:

Yes. You see, I had a feeling that as long as the white community—the same old thing, you know, that as long as the white community was doing everything and making your decisions and planning for you and all, you know, Greensboro and North Carolina had people believing that they were [unclear] of the state and [unclear] of the city. And then when these things start emerging, then they began to show their real feelings about it, you know. They weren't nearly so liberal as they were cooked up to be.

WC:

Or as they wanted to think of themselves.

WP:

Right. They really weren't.

WC:

Captain Jackson—

WP:

But it is a very interesting place. It is a very interesting time because you could see progress, you know, and you could see things tumbling down. When integration came about, of course, I thought it was very interesting that the teachers—Bennett College had more teachers in the integrated situation than A&T or anybody. When they first started out they said that the Bennett people are prepared. And so these girls did—made all sorts of inroads into white schools as teachers.

WC:

Yeah. But, of course, Bennett had a national student body. It was far less—I've gotten the impression that A&T had a lot of Greensboro people, but Bennett would be more likely to have a national [unclear]

WP:

Yeah, because there you see their connection with the national church. So you had people all over, from the white churches in the North sending girls to Bennett, and they would not then just be all girls—they would just pick them from the various communities. They were well prepared.

WC:

Did you have much contact with Nell Coley?

WP:

Nell?

WC:

Yeah.

WP:

Yeah.

WC:

She is someone whose name—I've talked to her, and she is also one whose name continually comes up as a model for men and women.

WP:

She is a bright person.

WC:

David Schenck, who was the mayor in '63, do you remember having any images or impressions of him?

WP:

I didn't have any impressions about him.

WC:

And Terry Sanford, only the letters sent to Dr. Dowdy, or were there other—

WP:

No, he had a meeting. He called us all to the mansion for a meeting while the sit-ins were going on. [chuckles] And it was a very interesting meeting, because he was showing the moderate that he was, you know. And [he] wanted to slow things down, because this business was spreading to eastern North Carolina and western North Carolina and these were tense little segregated communities. And so he had this meeting, but he didn't get anywhere in this meeting because the people just didn't buy any backing down, you know.

WC:

Would these have just been the Greensboro people, you and Dr. Dowdy, or would—

WP:

No, these would have—

WC:

—there have been people from all over the state?

WP:

All over the state of North Carolina—principals, presidents of colleges in North Carolina.

WC:

And had you gotten together with them beforehand to plot any kind of response?

WP:

No, no.

WC:

You just all came?

WP:

Just all came. And so the interesting thing was that I knew Terry Sanford better after he came to Washington. I guess he was secretary of [the U.S. Department] Health, Education, and Welfare [HEW] for a while, wasn't he?

WC:

No, but—

WP:

What was he? He was something in the government for a while [U.S. senator]. But I met him on several occasions, and he would always remember, “You're that one from Greensboro.” [laughs]

WC:

He also hired Jesse Jackson in '64. Of course, that one of the ways he worked effectively, is to hire your—[laughter]

WP:

Yeah, that's right.

WC:

[unclear] opposition. That's interesting. He also—of course, Dr. Dowdy received an honorary degree from Duke last year.

WP:

He did?

WC:

Yeah.

WP:

That's interesting. I wonder if Dowdy preserved that letter that he wrote him.

WC:

Well, I'm sure—I've not done the '63 file on Sanford yet in the governor's papers. I'll look for it, because it should be in the material there on that, which should be interesting.

Now, you remained in Greensboro for three more years after the sit-ins—after the second sit-ins in '63. What was your—there seemed to be far less—there seemed to be not as much student activism in those three years. The Civil Rights Act [of 1964] being passed took care of the public accommodations issue, and the [National] Voting Rights Act [of 1965] took care of at least some of the political questions. But were there other things going on that just doesn't appear in publicity about that period after the sit-ins that you can recall? Were things, in your sense—do you have a sense that things were pretty quiet also?

WP:

I have a sense that they were pretty quiet, and that the students—I had the impression that the students began to turn their attention to the goals and missions of the colleges in terms of what they could offer them in new careers and new opportunities. And so if I remember that period, we were very hard at work on curriculum revision and bringing new things in field experience that extended the education of the girls. We tried to get things going like combined degrees, and we didn't get very far with that because most of the institutions, with the exception of Duke, were in the North where we could get exchange relationships—I mean degree relationships, you know. But I remember Duke particularly because when we wanted to upgrade our science division, Duke—under the leadership of the president who died—sent us a whole team of scientists to work with our people and to inspect our laboratories and to write to us what was needed as we went out on a campaign. And I think it was around that time too that we were trying to get this, or had already gotten, the Ford [Foundation] grant. And so we had these new challenges that we were concentrating on in that time.

WC:

I think that there was an interesting hiatus of four years or so of periods of real local protest activity and student activism. I suppose, you know, there are some places like Berkeley that were already starting to explode with student dissent, but it didn't really come back east until the later 1960s.

There is one question about the '63 sit-ins I'd like to ask your impressions of, at least. One hears different people take credit in different ways for being the organizers of those demonstrations. I wondered who were the people that you perceived as being most responsible for planning and coordinating. You mentioned students at Bennett who would come to you in the morning and outline to you what the plans were for the next day, or for that day. Who were some of the other people?

WP:

Well, really it was mainly the leadership of the students in those colleges, plus somebody they told me afterwards that I didn't know about at all. They had a New York connection, but I was never able to trace that down. But in my thinking, it was the leadership of the students and the faculty who would have undertaken it at A&T, and the leadership of the students and faculty at Bennett, but mostly the students because the faculty was just supporting the students. Now where the students were getting this from, I don't know, except from them themselves.

WC:

I guess that—certainly the names Bill Thomas and Tony Stanley are talked about very often as being the behind-the-scene planners and organizers. And I—

WP:

I don't think they were necessarily the organizers. I think they were a part of this whole group activity that you couldn't really pinpoint who is responsible, because I think everybody was so concerned and so involved that you had leadership springing up wherever an idea seemed worthy of working, you know, and of working on. And so it was—it was kind of like psychologists say that leadership moves around, and this is what it seemed like to me more than—but I know there were people who would like to say, “I was responsible for this, and I was responsible for that,” because it was such a dramatic period, you know. But as I saw it, the leadership spread around, and there were certain things that we did, certain things that the churches did, certain things that Stanley supported, you know. But he was a key person.

WC:

Did you have the sense of the adult community being heavily involved?

WP:

No.

WC:

Would there have been a point in which the adult community became more involved as this six month period of demonstrations [unclear]? Was it largely a young person's—?

[phone ringing]

WP:

It was largely young people and faculty involved. The churches—I don't remember that the churches—I remember some meetings being in the churches, but I don't think—I didn't have the impression, for example, that the ministers involved were all solidly behind you.

WC:

I guess Reverend [Otis] Hairston and Reverend Douglas are people who talk about having been involved. They probably would have been more likely—

WP:

Rev. Douglas and Rev. Hairston were also people who were very much more involved than a lot of the other ministers in the smaller churches. I think they were perhaps the most courageous of the ministers.

WC:

Well, it's an incredible period, because so many different things come out. I mean we are talking about just the fact that some churches respond and other churches don't, and some people feel free to respond, and others do not feel free to respond because of the pressures economically and politically—Dr. Tarpley being one example. So it's—I think that one of the things that does strikes me all the time is how this—in some ways, a microcosm—just says everything there is to say about the larger situation, in terms of the real issues that are at stake.

Well, I think that I've probably taken enough of your time. I may well think a lot of some other questions, and perhaps I will write you if I do think of some other questions.

WP:

Well, do, because I haven't gone over this in my mind since I left. And I've had eleven years in government in between.

WC:

[laughs] I should ask you about—

[End of Interview]