UNCG Home > The University Libraries > Civil Rights Greensboro Home > Topical Essay - Overview of Race Relations
An Overview of Greensboro Race Relations, 1808-1980
Greensboro is situated in a state that in comparison to other Southern states has received much credit from historians and non-historians alike for its progressive and rather peaceful race relations. In Southern Politics: In State and Nation (1949) V.O. Key noted that North Carolina’s “fundamental difference from the Deep South was the smaller relative importance of its plantation economy. North Carolina had large numbers of slaves, to be sure, but large land- and slave-holdings played a less-important part than in other states.”1 Key famously proclaimed North Carolina a “progressive plutocracy,” an environment in which more progressive attitudes towards race relations could survive.
However, race relations in the “Gate City” have at times been both uniquely progressive and similarly regressive when compared to other cities in North Carolina. For instance, after the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) African Americans often found higher incomes and better educational opportunities in Greensboro than most other areas in North Carolina. In addition, “some affluent whites did promote racial justice, helping to guarantee that Greensboro’s atmosphere would at least be ‘civil.’ There were no lynchings in Greensboro, and on an individual basis blacks enjoyed a greater chance to secure just treatment.”2
But Chafe has argued that the refusal of white employers to eradicate employment discrimination during the twentieth century was one of Greensboro’s greatest plights in race relations. “The primary resistance to significant racial breakthroughs,” stated Chafe, “came from white leaders of the upper class.”3 He contends that white paternalism in combination with whites’ concern with maintaining social harmony and avoiding conflict slowed improvements in race relations, a situation that was mirrored in various communities within the twentieth-century South. Nevertheless, between 1808 and 1980 Greensboro did witness positive transformations in interracial cooperation and in the lives of African Americans rarely seen elsewhere due to relatively unique factors including its location, population size, Quaker tradition, booming industry, educational facilities, political life, and influential leaders.
The Guilford County area was originally settled around 1740. Many of early settlers of the region were people of German descent who were fleeing wars and religious persecution in their homeland. A large proportion of the German immigrants first arrived in Pennsylvania and Maryland, later migrating southward as land in the Northeast became expensive and in short supply. Beginning around 1750, Quakers of English and Welsh descent moved to present-day Guilford from both northern colonies and eastern North Carolina. The Scotch-Irish also arrived around 1750, traveling directly from Ireland as well as the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.4 The Earl of Granville enticed many settlers to make the journey to the Guilford County area by offering large tracts of land, often as much as 640 acres. A sizeable number of these early white settlers brought their slaves with them. In fact, historians have estimated that at least 500 blacks were living in Guilford County by 1754.5
Guilford was officially established as a North Carolina county in 1771. In 1790 there were as many as 7,291 residents, including 3,406 white males, 3,242 white females, 27 free persons, and 616 slaves. Most inhabitants lived and worked on small farms; only a few were large landowners.6 Greensborough (changed to Greensboro in 1895) was soon founded in 1808. Named after American General Nathanael Greene, commander of the American Army in the South during the Revolutionary War, the city would serve as the county seat of Guilford.7
Greensboro quickly established itself as a convenient stopover location as the midway point for several roads going to Raleigh, Fayetteville, Asheville, Salisbury, Salem, and the state of Virginia. These roads transported not only people, but mail, newspapers, and goods.8 Greensboro’s central location continued to contribute to sizeable economic development in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The city’s first textile mill, Mount Hecla, was built in 1828, becoming the first steam-operated cotton mill in North Carolina.9 Other major industries, including tobacco factories, opened in the 1840s. The next decade, multiple insurance companies and local bank branches were established as well.
In only a short period of time, Greensboro had grown to be one of the most prosperous cities in North Carolina and, thereby, attracted many successful and well-educated citizens from across the state and the nation. John Motley Morehead, who would become North Carolina’s governor in 1841, settled in Greensboro where he owned a tin shop, operated by slave labor. The construction of the North Carolina Railroad through Greensboro in 1856 only added to and prolonged the city’s economic development well into the twentieth century.
Greensboro was never a large slaveholding city. In 1829 there were 33 families who owned slaves in Greensboro. The average number of slaves per master was around 3, but the majority of residents held no slaves. There were two main reasons for this. For one, unlike many of the large slaveholding cities in the eastern portion of North Carolina, Greensboro’s economy was not based on large-scale agriculture, such as cotton or tobacco, that required dozens if not hundreds of laborers. Most slaves in Greensboro worked in local businesses or as personal servants and domestics. Secondly, the city boasted a large presence of Quakers who openly condemned and helped to reduce the practice of slavery. By 1816 Quakers had established various branches of the Manumission Society of North Carolina which campaigned to reduce slavery in the state, which they considered to be not only immoral but against the teachings of Christianity.
The support that slaves received from the Quakers was most profound between 1830 and 1860 via the Underground Railroad. Several hundred black slaves used the secret system to flee the South for the North and West where slavery had been abolished. The first “depot” was located in Guilford County. Many whites were involved in helping slaves escape including Greensboro resident Vestal Coffin, considered by many to be the creator of the Railroad.10
Although the practice of slavery was less prevalent in Greensboro, whites enacted fairly strict rules and policies governing slave behavior. Historian Ethel Stephens Arnett writes that “According to the town rules, the free Negroes and the whites were treated alike in case of correction, that is, to appear before the town officials and give an account of themselves. The law governing slaves was more rigid.”11 In 1830 the commissioners of Greensboro set up a slave patrol system; slaves caught out past ten o’clock at night without proper excuse were with up to fifteen lashes.12 To recapture slaves who escaped, slaveowners regularly placed run-away ads in the local newspaper, ranging in reward from $10 to $100.
Yet despite these slave management regulations, there was voluntary intermingling and cooperation between whites, free blacks, and slaves, especially in religious institutions. Greensboro’s churches, most notably the First Presbyterian and the First Baptist, accepted blacks as regular members. In 1824, the First Presbyterian Church was organized in Greensboro with eight whites and four black slaves.13 The majority of the early local churches, however, built balconies for blacks, intentionally separating them from the whites who sat in pews below.14
Post-Civil War (1865-1940)
Following the Civil War, which officially outlawed slavery in the United States, ex-slaves in and around Greensboro were faced with a far greater range of possibilities for their lives. Some of the former slaves—many of who had remained faithful to their masters during the war—continued to work at their former masters’ homes or businesses.15 Others eagerly sought to map out a new life of their own during Reconstruction.
During the 1860s and 1870s blacks established their own churches, including those affiliated with the Methodist and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denominations.16 African Americans also founded Greensboro’s first Lutheran and Congregational church in 1893 and 1896, respectively. Trinity AME Zion, which presently sits on East Florida Street, was officially chartered in 1896. Yet, even while blacks and whites began attending separate religious services, they continued to live in integrated neighborhoods for several decades. In 1880, black- and white-owned homes were located side by side in seven of nineteen streets.17 However, most instances of racial integration in Greensboro dramatically decreased with the onset of Jim Crow segregation laws.18
Perhaps more than any other individual, Albion W. Tourgée, a “carpetbagger,” promoted the notion of a racially egalitarian society before the arrival of Jim Crow.19 In the fall of 1865 Tourgée and his wife moved to Greensboro from their home in Ohio. A devout member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Tourgée organized the Union League and established pro-Republican newspapers to support his belief in equal civil rights for both blacks and whites. He often spoke about the poor conditions of African Americans living in Guilford County, which unintentionally strengthened the local Ku Klux Klan (KKK).20
One of Tourgée’s most notable contributions was his role in founding Bennett College for African Americans in Greensboro. Bennett College, previously Bennett Seminary, was chartered in 1889 by Reverend Wilbur Fletcher Steele, a Methodist Episcopal clergyman from New England. Dr. Charles M. Grandison would replace Steele as the president of Bennett, becoming the first African American to serve as president of any of the schools supported by the Freedman’s Aid Society. In 1926 Bennett College became a four-year college for women, and in 1957 it became the first women’s college for blacks to be accredited by the Southern Association.21 View items related to Bennett
Public education for local African Americans was also expanded with the establishment of “Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race” (now North Carolina A&T State University) on East Market Street in Greensboro in 1893.22 White and black citizens came together to support the new college with donations of land and finances. Under president James B. Dudley, a former slave, the school expanded its curriculum and the size of the campus, found funding for several additional buildings, and provided a summer school program for teachers to improve their instruction methods. A&M became a great source of pride for the black community in Greensboro.
In 1915, the Agricultural and Mechanical College became known as the Negro Agricultural & Technical College of North Carolina, the largest of its type in the nation at that time. In 1928, women were first allowed to attend A&T, and in1939 graduate programs were added in agriculture, education, and engineering. After World War II the college’s enrollment increased significantly from 1,100 pre-war students to 4,738 in 1955.23 As an historian noted in the 1950s, “Its forums, its numerous extension services, its agricultural and vocational conferences have encouraged participation by [African Americans] in all types of beneficial activities and have raised the economic level” of blacks throughout the state.24 View items related to A&T
By 1905, in addition to Bennett and A&T, African Americans also had the option of attending two other preparatory schools, Immanuel Lutheran and the Palmer Memorial Institute, the latter of which was founded a few miles east of Greensboro by Charlotte Hawkins Brown in 1902.25
Two new public schools for African American children opened in Greensboro between 1910 and 1915—Ashe and Washington Street. However, racially segregated schools continue to be the norm.
Many influential black citizens of Greensboro denounced the city’s system of racial segregation during the turn of the century. James B. Dudley, then-president of the A&M College, spoke out openly against segregation as early as 1914. Dudley primarily criticized the poor health in black neighborhoods and the wooden Jim Crow cars on railroads.26 A black hospital was erected in 1914 on W. McCulloch Street to offer wider medical services, but it abruptly closed down in 1918.
Many black requests for better living conditions, like those expressed by Dudley, were left unanswered by the white community until decades later. This dissatisfaction certainly played a part in fueling local blacks to found a city branch of the NAACP in 1917, one of the first three branches to be chartered in North Carolina.27
By the 1920s, Greensboro had become the state’s third largest city and was primarily occupied with fulfilling its role as a “New South” city. As a result, the issue of race relations was not as high a priority for most of the city’s white leaders as economic development. A pamphlet printed in 1917 read “Greensboro has always been a Southern town, both of the old and of the new South…The spirit of the old South has fostered its churches, its schools and its club life; the spirit of the new South has given existence to its commercial, industrial, and transportation facilities.”28
With industry’s expansion into Greensboro, mill villages soon sprouted up near the manufacturing plants, profoundly changing the layout of the city. In addition to furnishing homes for employees, these villages also provided free electricity and water, nine-month schools, churches, and YMCAs all paid for by the company. These villages, however, were largely segregated by race. East White Oak was the primary community for blacks employed at local plants, including Cone’s Proximity Mill. As the 1920s progressed, this pattern of residential segregation continued as additional neighborhoods were developed that further separated white and black residents.
Regardless of the mounting presence of racial segregation in the early 1900s, a substantial number of economically independent black citizens in Greensboro were able to discover ways to influence political affairs in a mostly white-run city. In fact, during the 1930s the black middle class in Greensboro (together with those in Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, and Winston-Salem) comprised most of the black voters in the state.29 In some eastern North Carolina towns, black voting was practically nonexistent until the post-World War II period.
Post-World War II/Civil Rights Era (1945-1970)
African American veterans across the nation came back from World War II with a greater desire to end forms of racial injustice. Blacks optimistically expected that if the United States was willing to fight against Nazism and the persecution of Jewish people in Europe, then it would likewise be influenced to improve race relations in America as well. In Greensboro, black veterans came back home with similar attitudes, and as a result, both NAACP membership and voter registration exploded in the years after 1945. The Greensboro Citizens Association (GCA) was formed among black citizens in 1949 and propelled one of the most successful voter registration campaigns in Greensboro.30 In the 1949 city election, two black candidates survived the primary for the first time.31 Two years later, in 1951, Dr. William Hampton was elected as the first black member of Greensboro city council, receiving more than half of the votes cast; he was reelected in 1953.
The World War II era planted valuable seeds for black political activism that would manifest itself in rising civil rights protests during the late 1950s and 1960s. Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 that outlawed public school segregation, Greensboro experienced a whirlwind of changes in race relations. The post-1954 era would primarily be marked by a series of direct-action demonstrations in which blacks demanded jobs, decent schools, and basic civil rights.32 During this period, several whites in Greensboro volunteered to improve race relations by desegregating their restaurants, providing support for school integration, and campaigning for the election of blacks to the school board, but as a rule, these volunteer efforts ran at a limited pace that was unsatisfactory to most in the black community. In general, the majority of whites in Greensboro seemed to prefer gradual integration as reflected in North Carolina’s Pearsall Plan for school desegregation.33
One of the first successful direct-action protests in Greensboro was led by future NAACP leader Dr. George Simkins who, in 1955, helped to file several lawsuits that won African Americans the right to play alongside whites at the city’s golf course. Yet it was not until five years later that a direct-action movement was born. Indeed, February 1, 1960 represented one of the most crucial dates in Greensboro’s civil rights movement. On that day, four African American freshmen from North Carolina A&T University—Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain—sat down at a whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s Drug Store on Elm Street and proceeded to ask for service. They sparked a revolution in Greensboro as black and white students organized numerous sit-ins and protest demonstrations at segregated lunch counters. Read more about the 1960 sit-ins.
Although the sit-ins resulted in the opening of department store eateries and a few other businesses, by 1963 many African Americans were no longer content with the token desegregation of Greensboro’s public accommodations. Protest activities at segregated theatres and restaurants increased throughout the spring as many of the city’s young black became increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress. On May 22, 1963 more than two thousand African Americans of all ages and classes silently marched to downtown Greensboro to show their dedication to achieving racial equality, making it the largest march in the city’s history. On Two weeks later, following leader Jesse Jackson’s arrest for ‘inciting a riot’, hundreds of demonstrators marched to Jefferson Square, the main business area in downtown Greensboro, and sat down in the streets, resulting in mass arrests and clogging the judicial and penal system. On June 7 Mayor Schenck issued a statement urging businesses to desegregate immediately and blacks to halt protests.34 For the most part, his please was quickly observed, and by fall of 1963, close to 40 percent of businesses had been integrated.
Read more about the 1963 protests.
By 1968, civil rights activity took on a different tone in Greensboro. The rise of Black Power, which was ushered in with the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., influenced many young African Americans to stray away from notions of nonviolence and negotiation and to tackle larger unaddressed issues on their own. Although African American citizens in Greensboro had won the desegregation of public accommodations, many of them still had sizeable grievances such as police unfairness, job and educational discrimination, political underrepresentation, and poor housing.
Black poverty was perhaps the most serious of the grievances. In 1968 Nelson Johnson formed the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP) which advocated for the poor and relied on confrontation and direct action to accomplish its aims. The group also focused on city redevelopment plans that did not provide adequate relocation packages. GAPP mostly attracted younger African Americans including students from Dudley High School, NC A&T, and Bennett College. Undoubtedly, “GAPP quickly acquired a reputation as a community ombudsman, fighting for people’s welfare money, going downtown to protest official intimidation whenever local blacks felt aggrieved.”36
Black Power’s influence was most evident in May 1969 when Greensboro witnessed three of the most violent days in its history as city police, the National Guard, and African American student protestors came to the fore—leaving several police officers and at least nine students injured, and one, twenty-year old NC A&T sophomore Willie Grimes, dead.37 Until the Dudley/A&T incident, civil rights protest in Greensboro had remained a predominately nonviolent affair. Read more about the Dudley/A&T incident or Black Power in Greensboro
Civil Rights and Beyond (1970-1980)
Interestingly, as the ideology of Black Power picked up steam in the 1970s, attempts at interracial cooperation and discussion seemed to strengthen in Greensboro. In fact, the peaceful integration of the city school system in 1971 was due in large part to several local discussion groups which developed ideas on how to ease school integration. The most prominent of these included the Chamber of Commerce’s Concerned Citizens for Schools (CSS), a study group lead by Joan Bluethenthal, and the Lay-Professional Advisory Committee (LPAC).38 Moreover, between 1966 and 1972 more than four thousand Greensboro citizens took part in weekly discussion cell meetings organized by the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce’s Community Unity Division.39 Above all, the efforts of these groups assisted in forging a peaceful coalition of blacks and whites, most of whom were parents, during a period of heightened racial tension and change.
Black city residents were likewise aided by the city’s decision in the late 1970s to no longer pursue urban renewal. Urban renewal, called “slum clearance” by some, began in Greensboro during the late 1950s and continued through 1976. During this time, the city Department of Housing and Community Development reported that “approximately 2,100 families and individuals and 362 businesses had been relocated, and about 2,200 buildings had been demolished.40 Disproportionately, African American individuals and businesses were harshly affected by these urban renewal projects. After seeing its affects on the urban poor, the city decided to end the course of action in 1976. Accordingly, the Housing and Community Development Act was passed to change the focus of the Redevelopment Commission to neighborhood revitalization activities rather than large-scale clearance, and residents of these areas have taken a greater role in contributing to the decision-making process of how to effectively revitalize older and deteriorating sections of Greensboro.
One of the darkest moments of the 1970s was the violent clash between the KKK/Nazis and the Communist Workers Party (CWP) that took place on November 3, 1979. Civil rights activist Nelson Johnson and other fellow Communist Workers Party members organized a “Death to the Klan” march at the Morningside Homes housing project, protesting the Klan’s agenda of dividing workers among racial lines. At the rally, five CWP members were shot and killed by white Klansmen and Nazis in 88 seconds. Six of the assailants were tried in two criminal trials but were acquitted by all-white juries who deemed the actions of the Klan and Nazis acts of self-defense. Read more about the Greensboro Massacre
On February 1, 2010, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum is set to open in the 1929 F.W. Woolworth’s building on South Elm Street, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the original sit-in by the “A&T Four” on February 1, 1960.41 The museum, much like Greensboro’s history of race relations, has been an evolutionary process of toil, uncertainty, cooperation, and progress. As long as Greensboro continues to make an effort to remember and commemorate its past in race relations it will likely ensure that relations between the races shall be carried out most justly and honestly in forthcoming years.
PhD candidate, UNCG
V.O. Key, Southern Politics: In State and Nation
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), 207.
2.William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
4. Gayle Hicks Fripp, Greensboro: A Chosen Center (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1982), 10-12.
11. Ethel Stephens Arnett, Greensboro, North Carolina: The County Seat of Guilford County (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 388.
15. Arnett, 388. Slaves in various southern communities likewise stayed and worked as free men at their former masters’ businesses, homes, or plantations.
19. “Carpetbagger” was the term given to a Northerner who traveled to the South after the Civil War and who often sought private gain under Reconstruction.
20. Fripp, 36. The KKK in Guilford County had at least 800 members in the 1860s.
22. The mechanical college was an extension of what is now known as North Carolina State University, approved by the General Assembly of North Carolina on March 9, 1891, but initially operated on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh.
25. Due in large part to the progress of school integration, the Palmer Institute was closed in 1971.
26. Wooden cars were situated in between the modern steel coaches for whites, which had led to several deaths when crashes occurred. Crow, Escott, and Hatley, 123.
27. In 1917, North Carolina’s first three branches of the NAACP were formed in Raleigh, Greensboro, and Durham.
29. Crow, Escott, and Hatley, 145.
33. First drafted in 1956 by North Carolina House Speaker Thomas J. Pearsall, the Pearsall Plan shifted responsibility from the state to the local boards of education, allowing communities to avoid immediately acting on the ruling of Brown. For African American parents who wanted to send their children to an integrated school, the plan required them to apply for their child’s admission through their respective school board, some of which were not always friendly to desegregation. The plan also provided schools an option to close, by majority vote, if integration transpired at an unacceptably high level. Finally, it permitted white parents to receive state tuition aid to apply to private schools of their choice if they could not be conveniently assigned to a non-integrated public school. Consequently, between 1956 and 1964, integration in North Carolina would occur gradually and on a volunteer-basis.
34. Untitled article in New York Times, June 7, 1963, Folder 2: Correspondence, May-June 1963, David Schenck Papers, Southern Historical Collection.
37. Carolina Times, May 31, 1969.
39. Otis L. Hairston Jr., Picturing Greensboro: Four Decades of African American Community (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2007), 11.
41. “Editorial: Mr. President, you are cordially invited,” News & Record, August 4, 2009.