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Oral History Interview with David Richmond by Clay Carson


Date: April 10, 1972

Interviewee: David Richmond

Biographical abstract: David Richmond (1914-1990) of Greensboro, North Carolina, was one of the "Greensboro Four" who participated in the sit-in at Woolworth’s on February 1, 1960.

Interviewer: Clay Carson

Description:

This transcript of an April 10, 1972, oral history interview conducted by Clay Carson with David Richmond primarily documents Richmond’s participation in the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s sit-in on February 1, 1960. Topics include the influences on the Greensboro Four, Joe McNeil suggesting they sit-in, meeting with Ralph Johns, others who knew about their plan, Dr. Milton Barnes putting up bail, communicating with and organizing students, the march from Woolworth’s to A&T, and the boycott of downtown businesses.

Other topics include Greensboro's role and relation to the national civil rights movement, the shift in protest tactics, his work as a counselor, and his involvement in the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce’s sensitivity sessions.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: William Henry Chafe Oral History Collection

Repository: Duke University

Item#: 4.23.671

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 David Richmond by Clay Carson

Note: This transcript is an edited version of an original transcript for which no audio recording was available. Therefore, CRG cannot guarantee that this transcript is an exact representation of the interview.

Clay Carson:

We will continue the conversation about what really happened on February 1. What events led up to the first sit-in?

David Richmond:

I guess you're aware of how fellows get together and have rap sessions after class. Each day, the four of us being roommates, we always got together and talked about the events that were occurring across the nation and the world. There were things going on in Africa. Things had already occurred in India that inspired us, Gandhi, Montgomery, Alabama, and these things.

CC:

How specifically did these events get communicated to you? How did you find out about them?

DR:

Through reading certain books. One was The New Negro. The story of Gandhi—I can't recall the name. On a particular—I guess it was January 31, we challenged each other, really. We said that we were going to go downtown. So we met at approximately four o'clock and walked downtown and made a few stops and calls, because we anticipated being arrested. I guess we got downtown at about—pretty close to closing time. I would say a quarter to 5:00. We sat at the counter, and we were approached by a waiter and said that they didn't serve blacks there. And the counters—toothpaste and toilet items that we bought were just across from the other counter. I think it was Ezell, he said, “I beg your pardon, but you just served us at this counter. Why can't we be served at the counter right here?” They refused to serve us. And immediately they started closing the counters and the police had come. They stood there and watched but they didn't know what to do. So we promised them faithfully that we would be back the following morning when they opened.

Being freshmen, you didn't know all the people on campus. I know you're aware the time from February 1 up until the Easter weekend, all of the black colleges in this area were constantly communicating with each other. That Easter weekend in Raleigh, that's when SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] was formed.

CC:

The students in Greensboro never seem to have taken much of a role in the South-wide student movement. I just wondered why that was so.

DR:

We had quite a bit of static in Greensboro. There were a lot of other things that were going on. Like right after the sit-ins—we attacked the lunch counters first, then we went after motels, theaters, hiring practices, and housing, all that. After SNCC was formed there was a lot of static. They needed more in the southern towns. They needed more help there than we did here. We took care of this area. I'm not for any kind of national recognition or anything. I spent a little time in Mississippi with the voter registration thing in '64.

CC:

So your personal involvement after 1960 was basically that and what else?

DR:

Right here in Greensboro. I've been doing quite a bit of sensitivity training, the encounters, black and white encounters. We have a pretty good chamber of commerce here, and we've been working on attitudes, confronting people on a one-to-one basis, trying to get at these undertones, these undercurrent things. There's still a lot of undertones, the intangibles. I think that this is why the movement went from nonviolent to violent, because from '60 up until about '65, you could put your hands on some changes. You could see people at lunch counters. You could see them riding on buses where they wanted to. You could see them beginning to use hotel facilities and things like this. After '65, it's a brand new day. New tactics had to be devised.

I think the turning point in the movement, anyway, was that Birmingham thing when Stokely [Carmichael] said we're just tired of turning the other cheek, which is true. When you start thinking about strategies anyway, they're only a real powerless people. And there are only three ways to get power: you can request it, demand it, or take it. And the alternative was try and take it. But when you don't have any power, you have to use some strategy.

CC:

What happened in terms of going to school? I imagine it interrupted that quite a bit.

DR:

This was where all the coordination came. We did an hour-by-hour job. We had students to take each other's place at the counters. We had a carpool to transport everybody. We had a place where everybody would come and register for the whole week. We had planned it for the entire school year, but after they closed the counters, it was not necessary to make sure that somebody was sitting at the counters all day. And when we started picketing, we did it on an hour basis.

We had so much support and it wasn't difficult at all. I think I lack about eight hours without a degree. I don't have my degree. Plus I got married, family, so I dropped out and continued to work and go to school. I got personally involved with a lot of things that occurred in this city. For example, in April when [Dr. Martin Luther] King was assassinated, we had a riot here. We've had several riots at [North Carolina] A&T [State University]. I'm sure you've read about them. I've tried to—speaking for myself—one black caucus, mediate things, because I'm still a believer in the nonviolent route. We can't kill everybody, but I always tell them that social change isn't going to come until a whole lot of people die. A lot of these racists-folk are going to have to die. We might as well face it. I came to work up here about two and a half years ago. This is New Careers[?].

CC:

What do you do right now?

DR:

I am a counselor. It's a training program, a half-and-half work-study program. We have a small staff. I job develop. We have a thing called core sessions where we talk about the world of work, interpersonal relationships, how to maintain a job and keep it. I'm an advocate. I mediate employee-employer disputes, because we have fifty-two women. Anytime you have that many women together you're going to have a whole lot of little petty things going on. So I mediate those. I'm on call twenty-four hours a day. We offer a lot of supportive services.

CC:

What happened to the other three people involved?

DR:

Frank[lin] McCain lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. He graduated from A&T a couple of years later also. I think Joe [McNeil], and Ezell [Blair Jr.—now Jibreel Khazan] were the only ones to come out on time. Frank is a chemist with Celanese Chemical Company in Charlton[?]. Joe McNeil is in New York with IBM. Ezell is in New Bedford [Massachusetts]. He works with OIC [Opportunities Industrialization Center]. In fact, he's changed his name. He's a Muslim now.

This is part of the rap session. We talked about this also. At home we constantly heard about all of the evils that are occurring and how black folks are mistreated and nobody was doing anything about it. We talked about that quite a bit, and I guess we had just come of age. The masses of kids our age during that time, eighteen, nineteen years old, similar things had occurred in their households. I guess that was one of the reasons it spread so.

CC:

What do you mean in terms of your parents giving you a certain understanding of the world and the things that are wrong with it?

DR:

Yeah, we used to question like why is it necessary to go to the back of the restaurant to get something. Why is it that you have to sit in the balcony? Why do you have to ride in the back of the bus or stand up? They were very protective. When you start growing up, your environment expands and you start observing what's going on. Then you talk about it at home. In '59, '60—I don't know how many black babies were born eighteen years ago, but I guess everybody was pretty well fed up at the same time.

CC:

Going back to that first day, according to the book I read, before you went to Woolworth's you went to [Ralph] Johns to get money or to talk with him. What happened?

DR:

We went in. I think we got about two or three dollars. We bought toothpaste, shoe polish, and deodorant.

CC:

McNeil seemed to indicate that this was something he had preplanned with Johns. Did Johns know you were going to come in that day?

DR:

No, he didn't know.

CC:

You just surprised him? Just came in, and he gave you the money?

DR:

Right.

CC:

How did you know he would give you the money? How did you know he would support you?

DR:

Ralph has been involved around this community for years and years. He was located right here on Market Street, which was at that time two blocks from “nigger town.” He ran a clothing store and offered credit. He always contributed money to A&T and always gave some people a break, but it may not necessarily have been a break after all. But I'm not questioning that or his motives or anything. But the only thing I'm glad of is that it did happen. I don't think it should be too important who does something, because we get hung up in this game of notoriety, seeking recognition for something, and you lose perspective of the problem. I don't understand it.

CC:

That's just it. You say that a lot of students had come to the conclusion at the same time, yet no one really made the step. It's an important question. Why do you choose a particular tactic, why it happens on a certain day? And that's what I'm trying to get at.

DR:

We had talked about it. In fact, we started talking about it during orientation. We would all come back to the room and sit around and talk. One day Joe said, “Well, let's do something about it.” This was on a Sunday night. And we decided to meet. I guess all of us were afraid, but we went on and did it.

CC:

Before you actually walked into the store, how many people knew about it?

DR:

I would say three people really knew that it was going to take place.

CC:

Who were they?

DR:

Dr. [Milton] Barnes, he's a dentist, George Simkins and Ralph Johns. Dr. Barnes later would play an important role in bailing a lot of students that were arrested. He went bail for us.

CC:

In the other history I've seen, Ralph Johns is given credit for the idea of the sit-ins.

DR:

I don't know whether or not he approached Joe. McNeil was the one who sold the idea to us in one of the rap sessions. We began to discuss techniques. Being from Greensboro, a lot of Northern students would always approach and say, “Man, what kind of town is this?” So we talked about the conditions in downtown Greensboro, and we came up with this idea, and we decided to do it.

CC:

So McNeil was really the impetus, and you don't know whether before that time he was approached by Johns?

DR:

I don't know.

CC:

In terms of the events of the first day, you went in there and stayed until closing time and then you left. How did the news get back to the students on campus?

DR:

The news media was there, TV. And after that six o'clock news program, the interest of the entire student body developed. And we began to approach students because we wanted to be very disciplined and organized. The second day we were downtown by nine o'clock. There were about thirty of us. I think it was about forty or fifty seats. So we occupied all the seats, practically. Then the coordination began: keeping the students aware of what was happening, strategy sessions, and all that.

CC:

Now, on the second day, when the students' executive committee formed—

DR:

It began to formulate the first night. We approached the president of the student body, which was [Herman?] DeBose. I don't know where he is now, but he was a football player and the president of the student body. We really got together with him and the four of us and began to contact other campus leaders. And that's when the student committee was formed. We had members from Bennett College, even the downtown colleges here, the white colleges were at the meeting, but they were pressured to give up their roles because they would have been suspended from school.

CC:

What happened after that?

DR:

The sit-ins actually lasted in Greensboro for six days. On Saturday morning it had grown out of proportion. We had downtown five or six thousand students. They hadn't sold a thing at the lunch counter since Tuesday morning. And then you had this influx of people from the rural areas of Greensboro. We had a strong [Ku Klux] Klan organization in Greensboro about twelve years ago. We anticipated trouble on Saturday, and we had it—a bomb threat in the store, and they closed it.

So we left the downtown area. We walked single file from Elm [Street] back to campus. I've never seen so many people downtown. We had traffic blocked up from Elm Street to Market and Benbow [Road], which is approximately two miles. The line was at least two miles long.

After that first week when they closed the lunch counters completely, we decided to boycott. So we set up picket lines and marched in front of the stores. We spread ourselves all over the city, at every facility that served food, and picketed those organizations. By this time the picket signs and all the traffic and all of this other stuff, the mayor and the city council and the county commissioner, everybody that's authority was trying to come to some kind of agreement, trying to negotiate or something. But it was necessary for us to picket. I can't recall how long it was before the stores were open—from February 1 all through the summer. I think they opened up when we started back to school the following year, the sophomore year.

[End of Transcript]