Transcript of Oral History
Duke University historian Robert Korstad conducted an extended oral history with Ann Atwater when he was researching the North Carolina Fund for his book To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). Below is a transcript of that interview.
A: Ann Atwater
A: My name is Ann Atwater, and that’s the way I want it.
Q: When did you first come to Durham, and what was it like?
A: I came to Durham I think in 1950, along with my husband, my husband was already here, and he sent back for me and my oldest child and he told me he had a place for us to live. And when I got to Durham, he was not at the bus station so I had to get the police to show me where the name of that street was, and the name of the street was Canal Street, and so he told the cab driver to take me to Canal Street and if my husband wasn’t there, to bring me back. So when we got to 311 Canal Street, my husband, this is where he was staying but he was not there, he was next door behind the house, behind that house, with someone else. So he came, we went around there to get him, but he went out the back door and come around to the front. But anyway, he did not have a house like he told me, he had one room there that he shared with another man. So I had to go to bed either first, every night, because of the other man, and get up last every morning, because the other man shared the other bed. So the three of us slept in one bed. And there were a lot of substandard houses all around the North Durham area at that time, that’s where the houses were located in North Durham. And after that, I moved, we stayed over there a while and then I moved and moved back South Durham, on Carrington Street, and he was selling coal one day and he came by, when I went to the door to get a bag of coal, he was the person to bring it in, so then he decided he wasn’t going back with the man that was driving the truck, so we started back living together again. And we moved and moved, and then finally he left me, we got a place with another lady, and we slept on a cot about the size of somebody’s couch. And I got pregnant with my second child, so he could hold the baby on his stomach part of the night, and then the other part I would hold the baby, and this was the way we slept on that little couch, one turnip[?] and one big flat, and it was kinda rough living but that’s all we had at the time. And then he left me and went to Richmond, VA, and I was pregnant as I said with my second child, and then after I moved from this lady’s house I found an apartment of my own, 2 bedrooms, and I started out from there, working, doing domestic work. And that’s how it was when I first got to Durham. My rent at that time was like $6 a week.
Q: When you moved out on your own, were you aware of Durham politics?
A: I was concentrating on taking care of my children, I didn’t know, I didn’t participate in anything. I started, like I said, working in domestic work, and the house, lady that I worked for, I went up to the house one morning and she was paying 30 cents an hour, and that’s what I was making when I left home. And she was naked that morning, I went up and the mailman, the milkman and I both came up at the same time, and she was screaming, and so I told him, I wasn’t going in there, he said he wasn’t either, he just set the milk down and left. And I turned around and I left so I wouldn’t go back any more, because I didn’t know what was wrong with her. So I went on, and I went to the Department of Social Services then to apply for help, and that’s when I started getting the check of $57 a month, and that was for me and one child and then when my second child was born, that’s what they continued to give me. They didn’t allow me to have a television at that time, and so I made a, trying to pay my bills with that $57 a month, and we would have, we would eat like rice and maybe I’d take fried fatback and take the gra-, take flour and make gravy, and we’d have rice and gravy and fatback like today and tomorrow I’d probably cook a cabbage and then Wednesday I would have the rice, cabbage, whatever was left over we ate, that’s the way I fed the children. And I used cloth bags, flour bags and rice bags, to make their clothes, to make the slips and the dresses and things out of. At that time, the bags had little designs on them and they were, I thought they were right pretty, and so I made them on my hand, and made, and the children, I thought the children were right cute, clean, I wanted them basically to be clean. I had one dozen diapers for my baby. And the oldest girl, I had a dozen but I took and tore up a sheet and made diapers so I made her have two dozen diapers, the baby girl did, and it was more than the first girl had, so that when I did get somebody to keep them for me, to go, we would always give them the bird’s eye diapers, as they were called at that time, and I would take those diapers to the babysitter. And from there on, I started, looking around, seeing what I could do. Then finally I moved over on Fowler Avenue, I got set out at that particular house where I was living, so then I moved over to Fowler Avenue, and going in now to, and so when I got to Flower Avenue, one evening Howard Fuller came by and he was organizing, the NC Fund had given him money to organize 23 neighborhood councils, and he came by and he looked at my house, my house was the only house, I tell everybody that, well speaking to everybody it was bent over towards the street, and we didn’t have to worry about any air, because the cracks were all along the house, you could just stand on the outside and look on the inside, you didn’t have to go to the window. And the house was so poorly wired that when the man cut off my lights for nonpayment of light bill, I could stomp on the floor and the lights would come on and I’d stomp on the floor and they’d go off. So I kept the lights like that for about a year. They came back out to try to see where I was getting the electricity from, but they never could find out, it was one little wire that they were always missing to cut off. But I did that, and I think the lord was looking out for me at that time. But when Howard came by, he told me, asked me, if I wanted to get help for my house, get my house fixed. And I told him, “Yeah, well how are you gonna get the landlord to fix my house?” He said, “Well, if you come to the meeting tonight, I will, we’ll talk about that and we’ll show you how you can get your house fixed.” So I went, and I was eager to get my house fixed because my bathtub had fallen through the floor and it was sitting up like this and you’d turn the spigot on, the water on, in the bathtub, the water would shoot up and my children called it Niagara Falls. And they loved to play in that water because that was Niagara Falls to them. And he went, that night Howard told me what he was gonna do, he was going around to talk to the landlord. The next morning, he and Charlsie Headbeth[?] went with me around to talk to the landlord and he told the landlord he had, I was behind like $100 in rent, and he told him he had the money and that he would pay the money as soon as they fixed the house. So then they went and put a board up under the bathtub and just two boards to hold it up, but they didn’t close the air off, so I had to get, after that, I had to take pasteboard boxes and put down on the floor to make a rug on the floor, make a floor, to keep the air out, and that’s the way, then I took rags and stuffed the walls to keep all the air out of that. And when it would rain, the roof was leaking, I set buckets and things all over the bed, all over the floor, everything, where to keep everything from getting wet, to catch the water. But we stayed in those two rooms, it was three rooms, one bedroom, a living room and kitchen. And we stayed there until I moved on out a little further.
Q: Did the neighbors have similar conditions?
A: Yes, the houses weren’t quite as bad as this house was. I think this house, this landlord was known not to repair his houses. But after Mr. Fuller got, started this, and we started organizing, they started doing a little bit better, started patching up a little more, but every time they would patch up something they would go up on the rent. And this is what everybody was faced with. But after that night and the next morning, I went out door to door telling people how they could get their house repaired, how they could get their landlord to fix their house and didn’t have to worry about it no more. And we started organizing neighborhood councils from that, people wanted their house, and they were eager, this was a problem that they had and they wanted to get that problem solved, so we started out from there.
Q: Why did neighborhood councils take off so big in Durham?
A: Because we found out that by, I mean if one person themselves wanted to get a problem solved, they couldn’t, it wasn’t heard. But it took a group of people, everybody having the same problem, because if you had gone down to city council at that time, asked them for the change, asked them for problems to be solved, they would ignore you. But when you went in a group, they would have to take time, because they didn’t want the people to be marching in on them, and it was taking attention, they were getting attention, and they didn’t want this, they didn’t want their names out saying they weren’t fixing. So this is why it took the council, so we wanted everybody in all parts of Durham, if they were having problems, to speak out. This was time for them to speak out, and they were ready to speak out at that time because everybody had the same problem.
Q: When you went to the meeting with Fuller, what made you decide to start going door to door right away?
A: Well, when we told me he could pay my rent, he would pay my rent for me the next day, and he followed through on his word, he never lied to me, and after that they elected me to be one of the ones that he gave me, had me in a 17-week training, community action technician training, I guess because I had such a loud mouth and talked and all that. But I was, I had it at the heart, and I really wanted to help not only myself but other people because god had given me the gift of reaching out touching, and I wanted to fulfill the obligation that god gave me to do, I just didn’t know how to go about doing it until I got the training that I got from the NC Fund, from Howard, Howard taught us. And he taught me that whatever I believed in, stand on that, don’t let nobody change me from it. If I knowed it was right and I believed it, then stand on it, and I’ve been doing that ever since.
Q: What did you learn from the community action training?
A: Okay, that program was to teach different people to do different things. It was about, some people wrote proposals after that, some went out in the community, did organizing, some became secretaries, some became like sewing clothes, making clothes, it just, a variety of everything that was taught in the 17 weeks. My job, since I liked housing best, I chose housing, and it was another lady that chose welfare and somebody else chose employment. But all, we had, all of us had to learn a little bit about all of this in order to be able to do a good job when we went on the street. One of the things that we were taught in that was, never promise anybody something that you couldn’t deliver. If you didn’t know what, how to solve that problem or answer that question, tell them you would get the answer and bring it back. And this was one of the things that we learned. I can remember one Saturday, one day, one Saturday morning, he brought us back all in from the community and trying to do what we were doing. He had us to, what they call a ‘hot seat’, sit on the hot seat. Well, it was my time to get on the hot seat and he asked me, he said, my job was, when I was out in the field it was have the tenant selection and housing authority fired. Well, my supervisor, which was Charlsie Hedgepeth[?] at the time, told me to get a picket line. Well, I knew that weren’t the right thing to do for my training, but because she was my supervisor, I thought that I should obey my supervisor or else get fired, this is what I thought. So I went out and I got I reckon 300 people, picket signs and all, and we went out to the housing authority’s office, and we picketed out there all around there, just, “Fire the tenant selection”, we wanted her gone and all of that. So they didn’t know why we were out there picketing, so it made us look like a fool. And when we went in, Howard asked me, “Well who told you that? Didn’t you know better?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “But who told you that?” I couldn’t tell him to save my life, I was choked up so. Charlsie was sitting right behind me on the steps, and I couldn’t tell him that she did it for anything, but then she got up and moved, and when she moved, I told him, “Charlsie told me.” He said, “Damn, man, let me tell you, we could have been gone if you had just told me this.” He said, “Let me tell you something, from now on out, don’t you ever let anybody change your mind, you know something is right.” And from that day to this one, nobody’s ever changed my mind. If I believe it and I know it’s right, I’m gonna stand on it. And we have been all kinds of places, you know, organizing and talking to people, and when I go in for something, I don’t leave without the ‘yes’ answer, they tell me ‘no’ all they want, I’m not leaving, of course if I know they’ve got it, if I know they feel that they don’t have it, they’re telling me the truth, then I will leave. But when I know somebody has something and can change things, I go, I wait on it.
Q: Operation Breakthrough (OB), how did you get involved?
A: At the time that, part of the training was, Howard worked at that time with OB, and help organizing it, get it set up and going. And we started working with OB. OB at the time was teaching people how to vote, registered them, that voting was very important. Then, like you’re a citizen and you needed to vote, that’s where you vote, your votes counted when you went to the poll, you really didn’t feel like you were a citizen until you really went out to vote. And this is what we had to do, is teach people how to register and how to go out and vote. We couldn’t tell them who to vote for and things like this, this was something that we explained to them, what it was that they had to do, but we couldn’t go but so far. And this is what I started working at OB, then I got placed on their board of directors and I served on their board of directors I think 7 years, and which I really was supposed to been there 5 years but because of my work in the community for the poor, and I kept fighting for the poor, I never would stop, they kept me on the board. Then I got a job working for them with the Headstart program as a social worker for the Headstart program. And I guess I’d still be working if I hadn’t got sick, I got sick and had to stop, and when I came back to Breakthrough, they had changed my job description a little bit, where what I, my qualification had changed so I couldn’t go back to that particular job, I would have had to go back to school to take that job.
Q: OB’s main purpose?
A: They were taking the services out to the community, and people didn’t have to, they could just go to the council meeting and somebody from OB would be there to pick up what the problem was and show them how to solve that problem, because one of the things they wanted to do was alleviate poverty, and show people how they could learn how to go out and plant gardens and work and take care of their families, how we could chip together, come together, chip in and help one another when they need it. Say if I had food in my house and looked like I had a little too much, I could always share it with the neighbor, and taught us how to get along with one another, not just be selfish.
Q: The Neighborhood Councils?
A: What we did, we came together, we would throw out, like I’m the organizer, well I would go out and throw out, I’d go door to door in the community and talk to the people to find out what they felt their problem was, and if they wanted to try to solve that problem, and if I could get 2 or 3 people that said they had the same problems, well I’d ask them, “Well, why not come bring it up at the next council meeting?” So at the next meeting, they would bring it up and we would discuss then, How do you go by solving that problem? Then we would take them downtown, and like I say, if it was housing, well, we wanted to find out first who owned the house, so we would go downtown to the courthouse and look on the register of deeds office and find out who owned the house. Then we would go to that land, the homeowner, and talk to him about, her about the condition of the houses, see if they wanted to repair the house. They would say, “Well it’s in the realtor’s hands,” well then we’d go to the real estate company, then we would let the landlord know that the realtor wasn’t repairing this house, the house was going down, then we would stand on that, fuss about it, until we could get the city attention[?]. I can remember when I was working with one of the, some of the houses in Edgemont area, and we couldn’t get the landlord to cooperate. So we went down to one of the black guys that worked for the man, and when we got there and I was trying to talk to him to talk to his boss to fix these old peoples’ homes. He was cutting his grass, so he cut off the lawn mower and went and got the hose pipe and hosed me down, and, “Get away from there.” And there was a batch of us out there, but I mean I was drenched down. Coming back, I had to come back all through the street soaking wet. And if it had been real cold weather, I could have caught the pneumonia, anything, from being wet. But I did that and we left and come back, but finally the landlord decided that he was gonna put a board or two on the porch to keep the old ladies from falling through, but he went up on the rent, so then we had to figure out a way to move them out of that house, because we didn’t have a rent [word, strike?] so we couldn’t hold the rent and we didn’t have nothing, we could have had a rent strike, but we didn’t have rent control is what I’m trying to say, so they could charge us anything that they wanted to, and I don’t think we ever got the rent control. And another time I was working, see I became, with ULCI[?], it’s another organization that I worked with during the time that I was working for Durham for OB, and see it spilled off from OB, and we could really absolutely take the people in to vote, show them how to vote and all this stuff, but ULCI, it was a private organization, and I was the associ-, I mean I was the supervisor for 8 neighborhood workers and my job was to find the answers for the workers. So one day we were working with a welfare problem, people weren’t getting the type help that they were supposed to get from the welfare department, so I took one of the ladies and went down to the Department of Social Services and right out from was the manual. And I had my coat on and I took the manual off, the big book, I took the manual off the desk and put it under my coat while she was fussing about coming there and not getting any help. And while they were fussing I went on back out the street and went on down, right back down the street to the office, and we Xeroxed the part that told the welfare recipients their rights. And then I waited, gave myself a while, to take it back. So then I got another lady to go down and fuss, do the same thing, while I put it back. So we used that information. I would go in meetings with a tape recorder and sit there, the Committee of the Hole[?] to find out what was coming up on the next agenda with the city. And I would get all that information on tape, then I would take it back out to our meetings, and they would listen at it and we would be prepared when we went downtown to city council meeting. These are some of the things that I did, walking door to door, helping people, and didn’t learn to drive until way late, way over in the ‘70s, the ‘80s that I learned how to drive I think it was. But that’s what I did.
Q: How did knowing the welfare rules help you?
A: Okay, it, I learned in my community action technician training that our tax monies, this is what they were paying the people, welfare recipients, was our tax, we had already, our parents had worked and paid taxes, and this is the way they divided the money up through the welfare department. So they wasn’t really giving us anything, it was our, the peoples’ tax money that we were getting back. And a lot of people didn’t know that, so by telling them our rights, that we had the rights of these things, and that’s when the federal government gave them money, they would keep it up, they wouldn’t tell the poor folks anything, you couldn’t even get it, they’d swear they was out of money. And then when we found out what the rights was, we stood on it, and to get some changes made. One of the changes was, at that time, you go in the building and it was just open space, and they would holler out, they’d call the white people up to the desk and ask them, you know, “Your name, address? And what are you here for?” And they would whisper like, talking to them. But now, I could be sitting there and they would holler [loudly], “What you here for? What’s your name?” And then if you’re fat like I am, they wanna know if you was pregnant. And all this kind of stuff. And so we got booth, we argued the point that we would have booths to put the people in, at least if they talk loud, you couldn’t absolutely see who that was talking loud back there, give them a little bit of privacy. And so when we did that, started cutting the department off into the little booth they put the people to go into, then they decided to re-do the building. So they re-did the building and made rooms out of it, so this worker would come and get that person and take them in the room, and that’s one of the changes that we made, and it’s still like that now today.
Q: The establishment’s reaction when you threw the rules back in their face?
A: Okay, a lot of people didn’t wanna see us coming. You have, it’s bad that we had to go in loud, talking loud. I can remember at one of the problems we had with, trying to get some changes made in one of the school systems, we went in and tried to talk to the man and he didn’t want to hear us. So when we got, he knew we had an appointment, when we got there, he was gonna get up to leave because I had a crowd of people with me, so what I did, when he went to get up, I hit him over the head with the receiver of the telephone and then he sat down and I snatched the phone out the wall, and we sat down and we had a meeting. And you know, we got these, people just didn’t want to hear us. City council people would, they was in those chairs you know they wheel around, and they would turn their backs to us and didn’t wanna hear us, and we had to go up and knock them back around so that would let them know that we are human and we’ll talk to them. We had to stay at the city council meeting one night 2:00 in the morning, fussing and arguing about housing or employment or whatever we went up there for, we just had to fuss and holler all the time before they would vote to give in to us, after a while they got tired of hearing us. And this is what happened, and this is the way we done it, they just didn’t like it. They told us when we tried to get our black folks hired in the stores, I can remember Belks telling us that, “We want them not too tall and not too short, not too light and not too dark.” Wanted them to blend in, where you could look in the store and you couldn’t tell whether that was a white or black person there. And this is what went on. So you see somebody as black as me, they would always know that I was there.
Q: … the Fund brought to the forefront, that happened with OB, people were in the services, and then the community organization people. Tell me about the 2 sides?
A: What happened, see when OB first started, after we got organized and got trained, how to go out and organize people, we took the services to the people. We could pass by a house that looked like it needed a roof on it, well we could go in and find out if the people didn’t have to get up, and old people get up and get a cab or get somebody to help them to come down to OB and climb those steps to get into the building. The staff went out. But then as time went past, I guess funds got shorter so they had to keep the doors open but shorten their expand that they had going out. So now the people has to go to OB for the services. I think we should put it back out where it was, back out in the community. The NC Fund is not here right now to push that, because if I think it was, people would have, in order to keep getting funded, they would have to go do these things. I think we need to talk to the funding sources and see if they can’t change their minds, I know they have a lot of things now going on that every 6 months people have to update their application if they’re applying for something, may not have even have gotten the service, but that 6 months has passed so they have to go back and reapply and reapply and reapply, meet to meet, you know. And I think it’s rough now to do that.
Q: Why was community organization so important?
A: Okay, it’s because poor people will just not speak up for themselves, and if you find one person that will speak up for them, then that one person cannot, don’t know everybody’s problems. So if you’ve got the community organized, where they meet central location, then that person that’s gonna do the speaking has to get the information some kind of way, so that would be the place that that person needs to be, that group. So it was important that you can get the people together to tell their story, to let know what their problems are, and try to show them, after you talk with them, on how to go about solving their problems. Like in public housing, I had people there when I worked there, didn’t know how to clean the houses, and they were getting threatened to be evicted because their house wasn’t clean. So then while I’m talking to them on a home visit about maybe paying their rent, I’m also trying to give them counseling on how to clean the house and ask them, “Do they know? Do they want help?” and tell them what supplies to get to clean the house with, you know, brooms and mops and stuff what to clean it with, and then just come back, give them a certain time to clean it, then if they haven’t done it, give them a chance to clean the house and then go back and check on it. And this is what we did, we kept, it’s important because you keep focus in, you just don’t turn people aloose, because if we didn’t have the council meeting on a regular basis, we could go in and meet today, and if we don’t go back, then that council will dissolve itself, it will go away, and nothing was ever solved. That’s how we got the changes that we got made, is by continuously meeting.
Q: The evolution of the housing issue?
A: Well, we started off talking to the landlords first. We’d go to the realty company, then we’d go to the person who actually owned the houses, and we would try to get, the main thing was to get the people living in the houses to be on our side, not take up for the people said, “It’s all right, we’ll stay here like this.” But we said, “No, you can’t stay there like that. You need a decent place to stay.” And it wasn’t until, they didn’t wanna hear us, we’d go down to the city council and because the mayor and the city council at that time was a deaf ear to our situation, we had to do something that would open their eyes and know that we meant business. So then we started a picket line and we’d picket and sing all the way downtown. I know I can remember one night, one evening, we were going picketing down at the city council, and people were blocking, taking their cars, blocking us from crossing the street. So I’d get a group of men, and I’d tell them to move the little Volkswagen out of the way, take the car and move it aside, and turn it up, people would be in the car, we’d just turn it on its side, and then as we went down the streets, other people would throw bricks and break windows, that we tried to make it peaceful, but they were so riled up by that time, that they were ready to do anything, and they would throw bricks and then when we got downtown, the city manager at that time turned on the fire hose, and you know it’s powerful, and it was knocking people down and it made people mad. And I can remember that Howard went up to talk to some of them, and they locked him up. And I sat down in the door, the bottom the jail door, the courthouse door, that’s where they carried him, to lock him up, and I told them I wasn’t moving, wasn’t nobody getting in and nobody coming out until they let him aloose. And when they turned him aloose I got up and I went on home. But it took a time, because they wanted to keep him, you know, forever, but I didn’t let them do it. We had to do it, it was no other way, nobody heard us. You couldn’t go in talking, I’m a little loud now, but you couldn’t talk lower than I am and they hear you, act just like you wasn’t there, they didn’t even look at you. So we had to make sure that they heard us by screaming and hollering, and going on, and not only did that get the city council’s attention, it got the total community’s attention. And then they wondered where they got, because we had a boycott to try to get the black folks to quit buying out of the businesses, some of them were still slipping around on the telephone ordering whatever they wanted by the telephone, we didn’t quite get full participation from the people. So it was just something that we had to do, and it was the only way we knew how to do it to get it. But now it don’t take quite as much fussing as, keeps a lot of meeting, you know you go into the meetings now, you meet to meet to meet, and they keep putting you off, keep putting you off, but finally they get tired of you calling and somebody will go to do something about it. I’m right now working on this community out here, I am the president of Birchwood Homeowners Association, and our center is closed right now, and the city has given us, they said they would repair the center, but nobody from the center wants to get the people to come on and start it. So I hadn’t heard anything, I called the mayor, and he called one of the assistant city council, city managers, and she had somebody from the city to call me to let me know that they were ready to get started on the building. And see if I hadn’t have called the mayor, I wouldn’t have never knowed anything, and it’s on my daughter’s answering machine where he called. I haven’t called him back, but I wanna see, hear some hammers ringing. Then that’s what I, and I’m gonna keep on until I hear them, and this is the way I have to do things, you have to keep on and on and on, it’s never a dull moment, you don’t stop, you don’t give it up. But you can’t do this unless you have it at heart, because organizing communities is worse then, is harder than construction work, and that is you’ve got to be real for real, you can’t go out showcasing, saying that, “I’m with you,” and you gonna think you’re gonna hold out, because I would not have held out all these many years if it hadn’t have been in my heart.
Q: Obstacles you faced with the community organization?
A: Well, you know, when you go out, everybody is not alike. I can talk with one person, you’ve gotta know how to roll with these people, because if you don’t know how, they can shoot you down, right down you know. But you’ve gotta be able to talk, say for instance, if I come to you house and you’ve got children, but you don’t wanna talk to me because you’re white and I’m black, you don’t want anybody black coming to your door, but you’ve got some children there. So the first thing I do is ignore you, and go to the children. I pick up the children, talk to the children, play with them, get all down with them and play, and then when they see that I’m in love with the children, then that’s gonna get their attention, and then they’re gonna start talking to me, either to get me away from the children or to hear what I have to say, then I can go on. Sometimes, I can say things that makes a difference. Sometimes they don’t wanna hear it, I have to go back and, especially when I was doing this when I was with OB, because we had a lot of problems there. But it’s a lot of different obstacles you’ll find while you’re out there, but like I said, you’ve got to know what the answer is when you meet them, and if you don’t know what the answer is, then you need to go back, tell them, say, “Well, I don’t know that answer. I’ll bring you the answer back.” But don’t leave them hanging, go back with the answer, and this is how they get, take them and show them what happened, and they get so excited, they want it done, a lady called me the other day, wanted a furnace, and I told her to go to OB and she could get a furnace. She didn’t believe me. I called OB ahead of her going, and when they got there, they told her to come on in and make the application. That lady called me back shouting because she’s gonna get a furnace. Well, I didn’t know they had a furnace, but I had no, I trust in god that they would tell her what to do to make her happy so she’ll have heat for this winter. And that’s one of the things that I try to find out if the stuff is there before I send them for it. Same thing about food. I will go and collect the food and deliver it. I just won’t send people sometimes to pick up stuff, I won’t ever send anybody to somebody’s house to pick up, the way the situation is today, people breaking in and stealing because some people case folks houses out, and you know they go back and break in. But I usually go get the stuff myself because they trust me, and they’ll be thinking if the person comes back, “Well, Johnny came back and broke into my house because Ann Atwater sent him there,” and I don’t want that out on my name, so I go pick up what they’ve got to have, that’s why I have all this furnishing stuff sitting around in the way, I went to these people’s houses and picked it up myself and brought it here, so if they wanna break in, I know it’s nothing here nobody wants, other than what they come to get.
Q: Your nickname, ‘The Breakthrough Woman’?
A: I didn’t know they called me The Breakthrough Woman, no more than people know that that’s where I worked. And when you represent an organization you’ve got to give it your all, and I was giving it my all and people knew me, they knew that I, they thought I can move the mountain, they thought I was something, body, like god, and they still think that. My phone rings 24/7, even though I’m disabled, I’m retired, I’m not able to go out and work, but I’m still working, you know, I did a lot of volun-, for 40 years I volunteered, and give my service and people knew this and they know that if they wanted something, grocery, clothing, furniture, when I worked in public housing and people got behind in rent, I went out and recruit-, went to Sanford, went everywhere, recruiting furniture, getting people to bring truckloads of furniture, putting it in the yard, and I would go and put furniture in the house so they wouldn’t have to buy, pay, you know, pay for furniture, they would have decent furniture, got it free, wouldn’t have to be renting it to own. And this is what I did. Grocery, I would get it, go to the food bank, I’d go everywhere, people had gardens, and over-plus stuff in their gardens, they would let me go out and take, pick it, and bring it in, and then people would come by and pick it up. Sometimes I would divide it up in bags and drive around to people’s houses and just set the food there for them, to get it. And I did that, I would do that. I’d work during the day and deliver this stuff at night.
Q: Other issues facing the community, besides housing?
A: Oh it was, like I said, employment, welfare, just about anything you’d wanna bring up, what interest people, because the welfare was having, people were having trouble having enough money. Jobs was one of the things, they couldn’t get jobs. It was school issues going on. When we started with the schools we found out that the integration of school, that was one of the problems, and when we found out that the high school, Durham High, was all-white school and Hillside was all-black school, but Durham High had 12thgrade material and Hillside had 11thgrade materials for their 12thgraders. And they had old books in there back when I was a little girl, and the children didn’t have no significant[?] now of what the kids need, so we had the clean out the libraries, take all that stuff out and take it to the incinerator, and get the schools set up again. All different kinds of problems, whatever the problem was, we had to go out, I went out and learned how many nails it took to build a house and cinder blocks, I can’t remember how many now, but then I learned how to inspect the house, so that when we went out to check on the people’s work, I could inspect the house and know whether the inspector did a good job or not, did he leave it, the man building or working on the house, leave something undone? I was crawling all under the houses and everywhere. But you see now I ain’t able to get down there to get under there.
Q: Specific situations surrounding housing issues, the Greenberg incident and Joyce Thorp?
A: Well, I don’t know too much about Joyce’s situation with her, but of course I didn’t work too much with that. But the Greenberg situation, this is one of the landlords that owned 2/3 of Durham, and this is what I said in Edgemont, this was in Edgemont community, and this is where we got his, one of the men that worked for them, he hosed us down, that was his employee that did that. But we couldn’t stop there, we couldn’t let that stop us, we had to keep on going, and we fought and fought and fought and finally he, like I said, he put a board on the house. We got the city to tell him that those houses, the code said the houses had to be standard housing, and they’d give him so many days to bring it up to standard or else he would have to be paid, have to pay $50 an hour or a day or something, till he got it up to code. And he would then do just a little bit just to get by, and I think that’s what a lot of them did until people started building more houses. Then they tore down, urban renewal came through, and tore down one section of where we was working and put the expressway through there and promised the people that they could move back over there in the houses that they built, but the houses they put over there cost too much so the people couldn’t move back, so they did build Fayetteville Street Development. Some of them was able to go there in public housing, which they were already in private housing, didn’t wanna go to public housing, but some of them took public housing. Now they’re changing Fayetteville Street around to another type of housing. So see the system is going around and it was just a mess during that time.
Q: Your feeling about the expressway?
A: I didn’t want it. I fought it as long as, ooh I fought it. We had people just dying. They had to give up and dig up the flowers and everything, and they just didn’t wanna move. We had several people died from that, they got so excited about having to move, been there all their life and they now have to be rooted up and moved somewhere they didn’t know anybody and it was just bad. And we fought as long as we could, but we didn’t have enough, the only part that they saved was the West Durham section, the Crest Street area over there, they saved that, and I think the only reason that they saved it, there was a power place to get the electricity there, and part of it goes to Duke and I think that was the reason they didn’t wanna tear that power plant out of there and that was what caused them not to bother that. But they went as far as they could go.
Q: Does resentment exist still today about the expressway?
A: Well, I kinda got over it, you know, if the people had been placed back where they said, if they’d have did that, that would have been fine, but it makes it quicker to get to Duke, that’s the only thing. And see, Duke is not the only hospital.
Q: The obstacles you faced?
A: Well you see when we would go out, they’d say, “Here they come,” and they didn’t call us, “Here they come,” they’d say, “Here are them niggers coming.” And they called us all kinds of stuff while we were out there doing it, and black folks as well as white folks. They didn’t want us out there hollering because it would show them up, they were nice in their nice homes and that’s where they wanted to be. And I can remember when they elected me to be the vice chair of the democratic party, then I got feeling a little bad and I couldn’t make quite a few of the meetings, then one of the black women in Durham paid for, gave a lot of money to that group, and they elected her as the vice chair. So it’s like that, they had the money they could pay for theirs, to be in, when the other poor people could not do that, they didn’t have the money to do that. And this is one of the obstacles that we found. People would use us a lot because they know we could get out there and fight and go on and get what they wanted, and then when they got it, the jobs and things, they wouldn’t offer them to us, they wouldn’t give us housing, they said, you had to get it the best way you could. And if it wasn’t anybody, and they would get tired, some of the people would get tired, and just stop, go on and find a job and say, “Well, I’m not gonna be in that organization any more, I’m not gonna have nothing to do with it.” And then they started moving out of the communities and other people are moving in and the community started disbanding, a way the people didn’t that moved in didn’t know anything about organizing, so they, you didn’t know what they were talking about. So they didn’t care about doing it, but people still wait, some of them, for handouts, and that’s what they expect people to do, by not willing to work a day for it.
Q: Durham was called ‘The Jewel of the New South’; the role of the black elite. How does that make you feel?
A: Okay. Now, my feelings about that is, here I am, a product of Durham, I’ve been in Durham ever since 1950, and I have volunteered and touched most every family in Durham, and here I am, disabled, without a job, and nobody has said, pretty much thank you. I’ve got honors, I’ve got accolades, but I’m talking about financially. You know, I can’t get a job today, and see the powers that be that have the money, should have said, “Well, here’s one person that poured out their whole life for us, to keep us alive, keep us going, to keep rats out of our neighborhood, let’s do something for that family.” But hey, “I got mine, you got yours to get,” and this is what it’s about. They don’t care, they couldn’t care, for they told me during that time when we was trying to get things squared away, that I had sold out to the white man. So they, and it made, it really hurt my heart to think that I had done that when in fact I was fighting the white man to get him to see that I needed a piece of his pie that he had, and we were able to get a piece of that pie. And see they got here and got, after we got through fighting, they had the education now, so they went right in, saying that, “Yeah, I know her, I know them, and we’re together,” and would get that job. And the people that was out there really fighting didn’t get it. So they were able to get over, go in different places and have these fine homes and stuff and buy these fine automobiles and go along, and this is what they did, and they left us out there. We, through the NC Fund, we were taught that, if I got a job working, then I would reach back and pick up my brother, pull my bro-, and that was one of the things, the main things, that the NC Fund did for us, is taught us how to do that. And everybody that was in this with us in the organizing, they, everybody got a job, I was the last person to get a job, and I got the last job, was working being a social worker at Headstart, and one lady, had plenty of education, I mean she got degrees a mile long, they had offered her the job, and I went up and said, “I’ll be damned if you’re gonna take it, this is my job.” And I went in, with no education, and I took the job, but I did just as good a job with the job as she had, because I did it from what I knew in my heart was the right thing to do for people. And because of that, I went down to Central and got them to put it, put it in their curriculum, that they would do, I call it community work, social workers would come out in the community and get learning from hands-on experience rather than the book experience, and they added that to that.
Q: Who said you’d sold out to the white man?
A: The black folks, black folks.
A: Because I was working with white, I could work with white folks and get along, I was trained how to do that, I told you you had to know it to be able to do it, and god had given me the gift to reach out, and when I reached out there, god just was in my heart, because I was mad with white folks. I said, ‘white folks had theirs and we had ours to get,’ they had the, I was raised up thinking that white folks was better than black folks, until I learnt better. And when I learnt better, then I knew better. And god said, my daddy taught me to do until others as I would have them to do unto me, so I would do to white folks what I wanted them to do to me, and we got along, and we started getting along.
Q: Did anyone, like John Wheeler, help?
A: No, Mr. Wheeler told me, see we had a, when we were trying to integrate the school system, after the 10 days of the meeting was up, Mr., they told us to go to the banks, told Clayburn Ellis to go to the white bank, the CCB Bank. He went to that bank, and they bought him a trailer and a car, and he placed it in Hillsborough. I went to, see Mechanics & Farmer was the only black bank we had, so I went there. Mr. Wheeler told me that I had paid my debt to society, they didn’t need me any more, for me to go home and take care of my children. And I come home. So I stayed for a while, and then some of the other people in the community told me, “You’re not gonna stay in there, come on back out, we need you.” So I started going back out, and that’s what it was, the bank didn’t do anything.
Q: Integration of schools?
A: This AFL-CIO gave a grant, they brought it into Durham and they wanted to integrate the school system. So they asked me, the boss asked me, about using the van to go out and pick up neighborhood people to bring them to the meeting. And I first said, the first night, I said, “I don’t feel like going, I don’t wanna go, I don’t wanna be involved.” But then it was order, so then I had to go. And I went and picked up the people 15 people, on the van, and we went to the meeting. When we got to the meeting, Clayburn Ellis was standing in the middle of the floor, talking about, “Them niggers ought not to be on this side of the track.” And I walked in and I said, “Well, you crackers ought not to be up here talking either.” And we started calling one nigger and cracker, and we don’t that for about 2 weeks, and we couldn’t get really anything done. And they decided that they should have a meeting to sit down and get some things solved, and after we sat down, that, the guy hired a man to come in and be the, I call it the overseer, to make sure that the meeting went round well. And he told us he was gonna take us out to dinner, but you see he was walking the floor, he didn’t wanna sit down, and he said, “Well,” I told him, I said, “Well, if you sit down, let’s eat and get this over with.” He said, “I wanna have a black and white issue.” I said, ‘Well, if you get through with this and you still want a black and white issue, I will have one with you.” So he didn’t. After that was over, he didn’t wanna have it, he had changed. But we started searching the schools and finding out that the teachers that we had in the schools was wives of the doctors at Duke, they wanted to, they were there working in the school system so that they could put their husbands away, I mean through college at Duke to be doctors. And there was like math teachers teaching English classes and was no teacher there in the right class that it should be, so we had to make all that change around, and the white folks didn’t want that change to come about. And especially, so they got the Klansmen involved, and that was C.P. Ellis’s group, to try to block us from going together. But we finally got the schools integrated peacefully, and we had made right many changes. But today it’s right back around where it was 30, 360-degree angle, right back where it is, fighting over the board people, board members not caring about what’s going on in schools, the superintendent and the school itself, some of the staff is not up to par as they should be. Now I did have one principal there in the school, at Southern, which Southern had had more crime rate, and he had it pretty much straightened out, but they moved him to Hillside, and the people there went crazy because it was trying to discipline their kids, and so they had to move him on out from there, they just moving around, but people don’t sit down to think that, you know, charity begins at home, it starts at home. And we don’t seem to understand that, that’s what I feel the parents hasn’t done, they were sending their kids to school for the teacher to train them, teach them, and when that was their job at home, to teach their own children, and let them know that the teachers are to teach them, not to baby-sit, not to train them, and they thought that’s what it was. And the thing that really went bad is, when they took prayer out of the school system, nobody can pray, and that’s real bad because you can’t get through this without god, you can’t get through with prayer, god has to come in. So I teaches my grandchildren that, “You can pray, still pray, but pray quietly, you don’t have to disturb nobody and god hears you. He sees and knows.” So you can’t do any of this work, though, that I’ve done without having god on board. God is the answer to all of this. Without god, nothing can go on, and that’s why we’re back in the same room, people that don’t believe in god, we’re putting them first and foremost in front of things, and that’s why we can’t get nothing moving, nothing going.
Q: OB tried to mobilize the poor white folks in Durham?
A: Yeah, we worked in all of the areas, and we had one or two, we even had white workers to go out and try to talk to the people, they would get a handful. And basically they were people that wanted welfare. Most of them didn’t care, they could sleep under a bridge as far as housing is concerned, they just didn’t wanna be told, especially coming from a black person. But now you can go to OB and you can watch, you know, whites have taken over, the Hispanics and everybody is going into the agency, but when we were on the street, they didn’t wanna be bothered. That’s what I was telling you about working as a social worker, taking the children home, going to the parents’ house talking with them about getting clothing and furniture and stuff for the children. One little boy came to school and he had wet the bed at night and the children wouldn’t play with him because the mother didn’t get up time enough for to bathe him before the bus picked him up and the children wouldn’t play with him because he smelled bad. But I would bathe him and change his clothes, but I had to put the same clothes back on him and take him back home in the evening, and I would go there and talk to the parents and see if they would like me to get them furniture, the black folks accepted furniture. But they didn’t want my, they didn’t wan my help, “Leave my child alone, leave me alone,” attitude. And that was the way it was. But then if it was some grocery to be given out, they would come out and get that.
Q: Why did they have that attitude?
A: Well, because that’s the way they felt, they felt they were still better than black folks. I don’t care how poor, what the situation was, they still had, because that’s the way they were taught, just like I was taught that white folks was better than blacks, that’s what I thought until I learnt better. See they hadn’t learnt any better. Now people are beginning to know that when you bleed, both bloods are the same, you couldn’t tell whose blood is who when it hit the floor. And see until you’ve learned that, you have to learn it the hard way. [phone ringing]
A: The reason that they didn’t wanna take it, because white folks always felt that they were better than black people and they didn’t wanna be bothered, because if a black person handed them something they didn’t want it because that means that they felt they were inferior, they were low, going low, not that it would become equal. And, but they had to learn that, the same as I did. I grew up thinking that white folks were better than black folks, until I learnt better. And I always let everybody know that if, when blood, you drop blood, both of us bleeding, and it hit the floor and nobody seen whose blood it was, they couldn’t tell whose blood was on there because our blood is the same color. And we had to a lot of this teaching to get people to change around when they found out that we were the ones that was gonna have to bring them the services, then they changed, because just like giving out food and stuff, it was some food going around that they would be there, to get the food, because they knew that meant the livelihood to their family. I think I changed a word to 2 there.
Q: Poor blacks and whites don’t come together to fix this.
A: See, white folks don’t see themselves as poor, they see themselves as white first and then poor second. Black folks see themselves as poor.
Q: The tensions going on back then?
A: In the black, with the blacks, when they learned how to, I call it, ‘take what they want,’ they went after it. Then white, poor white people got upset, because the black people were getting jobs, were getting some of the things that they wanted, could go in these stores and get waited on, didn’t have to stand in line, and they didn’t like it. And so that was a problem that we were having with the white people, and then until they found out that black folks weren’t gonna, when they come get in the line you just couldn’t jump in front of me, you had to wait your turn, so this took it hard for them to understand that, they thought if they walked in the door at Department of Social Services, they oughta pass by everybody and go on to the front of the line, and black folks had to stand back. Maybe something would be left when they got to them. But now you don’t have to do that, they give you a time to be there and you be there, they take appointments now, or numbers. Everybody is a number now.
Q: Howard Fuller?
A: The sweetest man in this world.
Q: How did he inspire you?
A: When I learned Howard, we were trying to organize, like I said, get the situations changed, and Howard was going, working down on Central’s campus, and he organized the students on the campus and when we had a picket line, he would have all his students come out, he wasn’t only trying to help just low-income people, but all people that didn’t have the knowledge to know what was happening, Howard read, he studied, he just worked hard to find out how to solve these things, up nights, up days, all the time, just working, working, working. And he cared about people, and that was what his main function was, the people, his family he had, somehow or another he lost his family, his wife separated, and then he started working out at Duke, and then when he went back to try to work at Central, they didn’t want him because they felt he was too powerful. He could stand and look a white man in the eye and tell him he was telling a lie, he would do that, and he didn’t feel no remorse from it, he was telling the truth, he knew it was the truth whether you believed him or not, he stood on his promises and this is what I love about him. And he taught me how to do the same thing, how to get what I go after, and he gets what he go after, you know, until he got sick, he’s been sick a while, and we haven’t seen him so, but he’s still a good man in my book, when you name Howard Fuller, people squinch, because, “Is he coming back?” And the poor folks want him back, but the middle class and rich people would hate to see him come unless it was a way they could use him. And he was not about to let anybody use him, whether he had anything or not.
Q: People say there weren’t riots here because of him?
A: It was, he told us, “You don’t have to do that. This is the way you do it.” And this is what he did, this is the way he did, he talked with his hand like I do, and he would nod his head and he would tell you, “Now, wait a minute, hold it, get back, don’t do that.” I can remember one time him and Ben, Ben Ruffin was supposed to be at a meeting with us, and Ben weren’t there. Well he didn’t get Ben out on the street and talk to Ben, he carried Ben up in the hotel room, and I was with him, and he thrashed him real good up there, “Man, you got to be here, you leave and you’re letting these people down, you can’t let them down.” And you know he, Howard couldn’t do it by himself, but he had to have, train us how to go out there along with him saying the same thing, and we all spoke the same language, the same way, and we got everybody listening, because I’m over here preaching and Ben over there and Howard out there, and all of us went down the road together. And Howard was just good, he was just a good man. He believed in helping the people. But at the end, we as black folks let him down. I didn’t let him down but a lot of other people let him down, and I include myself because I’m black. We really let him down.
Q: Why was he so effective?
A: Because Howard had the know-how, he had the education, he knew how to do, and he had probably gone through what we were trying to go through in Wisconsin, where he come from, with his grandmother raising him, and he knew how it felt to be poor. And I think this is what made him so, because see he had it first-hand, just like I know about being poor and how to survive, and I can tell folks first-hand how to go out and survive, and I can make a meal out of nothing to feed my children.
Q: What is poverty to you?
A: Okay. Poverty to me means that, well our bible speaks that the poor will be with us always. But he also said that he would supply our needs, meaning that the poor wouldn’t be as high up as the rich, but they would have with they need. And poverty may, meaning that people need to be able to get what they need. They don’t have what they need so that means that they are in poverty when they can’t get minimum wages for a job, they can’t get decent housing, they can’t find a job that would pay them enough to rent the house that they absolutely need to stay in, and people turn their backs on them. They need to be equal, people don’t, they classify you. Like people living in public housing, they class them ‘people from the projects’. But we got smart people in the projects, you know. And this is what it means to me, that people are saying.
Q: Black women came to the forefront with the Fund. Why?
A: Well because men were, were, I don’t know how to put it. Some of the men were not in the homes at the time, they had got the wives pregnant and walked away and left them, and they were running after other women, and so women had to come forth. When they learned how, that this is what we need to do and this is an opportunity for me to show myself, I got strength and we together got strength, so they decided to talk to one another and they moved on, one on to the other, and they got it going, and this is why they done it because women have to do it if you wanna stay alive because men just won’t do it, men are not there. See, men are in jail, most of our men are in jail, and for child support to whatever, robbing and stealing, drugs, whatever you name, they’re in, they put them in jail to get them off the street. So if they would let the men out, then men could go out and women could sit back, but women have to, it’s a must that they do it in order to keep going.
Q: For survival?
Q: The beginning of UOCI, why did it spin-off of OB?
A: Because when UOCI got started, you know OB was under what we call the Hatch Act, and they could not talk to people about voting, even though we tried to tell people it was important to vote. But UOCI, we could absolutely sit down and teach people, register them to vote and explain to them why they should vote, about the person that’s gonna be in that position, what that position would mean, to bring to us. We needed something, a tool that could get more people on the books at the polls, to be able to vote. And so this is what they really got started. Then they got from voting, voter education and voter registration, they got from that, they moved on into the other issues because OB could only bring the service to help so much because when a staff person went to the community, neighborhood council of OB, and said, “You need to go talk to your landlord,” went up there to talk to the landlord, first thing the landlord do is call the funding sources saying, “OB is up here starting trouble.” So then we had to shut, hit the staff back and OB--, I mean UOCI staff would be the one to go out and would this, get the people there. And we trained people to talk for themselves, so that we wouldn’t have to do the talking for them. Basically I lived in one of the communities, so I was always my community spokesperson, because I talked all the time and that was the reason why, that’s the difference in the organization, both of them was doing something similar to one another, and this is what we was able to do to get away, the churches gave us the money to do that here, and we did it. I think we did a good job, we got, I’ve forgotten how many on the books at that time, we got a lot of people registered to vote, and that’s what scared white folks about it, that we had one white man that was working with us, Patrick Thomas, and he would help us vote, and he carried all the black folks around, he was like one of the leaders for the blacks, and but he, we had to put somebody in white, but he was real good at that. And so he learned how to work with us and we learned how to work with him and with other, he could read white folks and he would tell us what, you know, what to expect when we were with that bunch of people.
Q: The NC Fund also funded UOCI.
A: Yeah, I said, that was, like I said, that was part together because he was with the NC Fund as well, so the staff of the NC Fund came out and worked with us hand in glove so that we would do the things that was right.
Q: A lot of interaction between the Fund, OB and UOCI?
A: That’s right.
Q: Ben Ruffin?
A: Ben is nice. Ben is a, started off as a shoeshine boy, he’ll tell his story when you get to him. But anyway, Ben, Howard trained Ben, and this is where Ben got his toehold from, was from Howard. And of course Ben went to school and had good education, he could pick up too on his own, but Howard trained him. Howard trained all of us. And so if we do anything that’s worthwhile, it’s because of Howard and that’s, give Howard the credit.
Q: The issues with OB bringing people to vote? Did you know about Jim Gardner?
A: I did know but I forgot it, it’s been a long time, and I forgot, some of this stuff I really forgot about it. But I do know we were using, I mean they used a few of the vehicles, to take them to the poll, but then we trained the people in the community to use their own busses. We got churches to donate their busses, and people used their individual cars and stuff like that because we didn’t want OB to fold down, and they were getting ready to shut it down because people didn’t want, we were winning the, the race I call it, and they didn’t, white folks didn’t like that, and they put it on OB using funds illegal to do these things, whether it be driving the bus or staff out there doing it, because see you had to, I couldn’t work on a poll because I was working for OB. But I could get somebody else, I could train somebody else what to do and they could go out and work. And that way they couldn’t tie me down as being, working for OB and the staff, we had to be mighty careful about that.
Q: Did you work under Bill Pursell.
A: No, no. Wait a minute, didn’t he work for, yeah, he worked for OB. Yeah, I was on the board with him, and he and I went to Washington to meet Humphrey about housing, we certainly did, on the plane together, yes I did, I mean I wasn’t working but I was on, I was sort of like his boss, I was on the board.
Q: What issues faced OB that Pursell helped smooth out?
A: You know, I can’t even, I apologize but some of these things, it’s been so long, and I forgot all of the issues that, because I got sick during the time I was on the board and had to stop. So I don’t know, if I think of them, I’ll get back with you.
Q: The Durham Herald attacking Howard Fuller?
A: I can remember vaguely about the paper, but I know they would always write articles in the paper about him, and about all of us as a matter of fact, but then we would write letters back to the editor, and talk to him as well. But see when people did that to Howard, it didn’t, didn’t dampen him at all. That gave him more power, more strength to go forth because he had to show them people that he was for real, what he was doing. And that’s what kind of man he is.
Q: Why is it important to study today what the Fund did back then?
A: If I had known that I would, see right now my grandson come along, and there are times when I need to help him with his homework. Well, I can’t I have to go out and get somebody else to come in and help him, because I’m limited on my education. And if I had gone to school then, I would have been able to help him to see a lot of things that I didn’t, I can’t do now. And it makes me feel bad thinking I failed him, and I wouldn’t be able, like my grandchildren in college now, I could help her along some, to tell her what to expect when she’s on the college campus and all of this. But I can’t tell them anything because I haven’t been, haven’t been there to do that. And that’s why I feel like I should have done that. If I get the opportunity again, I would definitely take it. But I didn’t think at that time that I would even need education to do that, the know-how.
Q: You are one of the smartest folks I’ve talked to.
A: Well, I learned mine by doing.
Q: You know invaluable things.
A: Well, that’s what I said, people call here, they think I’m god, I can move mountains. And they really, if I say it then they believe it. We got a family across the street is sick, and people want, I had to talk to them people day and night to get them, the daughter had a serious stroke, and they were trying to take care of her at home, and they couldn’t, was about to lose her, the ambulance stayed out here like 4 and 5 times a day working with her. I said, “That’s too much money you’re throwing away. Put her in a nursing home where they can get skilled help around the clock, and then she’ll soon be out coming back home. But the way you’ve got her now, she will never get out of home to get out.” And so they took my advice and they put, now they’re happy that they did that. And all kinds of things. I have to go to bed and pray at night and ask god to give me the will to face the next day, to be able to tell the people what they wanna here. I did counseling this morning, a man and his wife, they separated, and he loves, he found out after she separated he loves her. But I don’t know if the time is too late, but I had to talk to both of them and tell them what god wanted them to have.
Q: What are you most proud of about your work?
A: Well, I don’t pat myself on the back, I give god the credit of whatever I was able to do. One thing I enjoy when I go out to help somebody is, if they ask me to do something for them, and when I do it the expression on their face gives me a high. If they’re sad, it makes, I try to figure out, “Well, what’s wrong?” Something didn’t come through clear, but when they give me that glad look, that makes me feel like I have done something right, I’ve helped this person today. I always go one record every night as telling god that I tried. “God I could not solve all the problems, but I’m on record with you that I tried.” And I do that because he gave me the gift to reach out and touch and I go by as I said earlier, my father’s saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” that’s what he told me when I came off to Durham. And I do that, when I do that then I’m satisfied. I can be laying in the bed bad off sick and this just can’t get nothing done, and somebody can call me on the phone and say, “Well, I need some rent money,” and I come alive in that bed immediately, and then I say, “God, what door to knock on?” And then I call a couple of churches or something, and we get the money and the person’s ecstatic, I’m happy. I’m happy just to know that I went on record, as I said earlier, to help out, to try to do it, if I don’t fail in doing it I don’t get it done, I tried. See, some people just don’t try, they say, “No, I don’t have it, get off of my door.” And that’s it. But you’ve got to go a little further than that, I go the last mile, I put my all in it, and that is, I’m just happy that god has given me strength to be able to put my all in it. And I will continue till god calls me home, and I expect to live to 120, with bright mind and good eyesight. Take these glasses off, I can see there.
Q: Durham’s issues today?
A: I think the issues today are the same as they was then, the same 76 as I call it. I said earlier we went back, 360-degree angle. We’re dealing with the school situations, we got now here, we’ve got employment, everybody’s out of work. We’ve got drugs on the street, that’s an added detention, which it was probably there in the beginning, we’ve got routing, people stealing and everything, trying to make a living, doing it the best they can, and it’s just rough, it’s just bad, that there’s nothing, not enough of anything, we can’t come together to get the drug addicts off the street, to say, “Here, here’s a job. Here’s what you can do. You don’t have to kill yourself doing this stuff.” And tell the children, “You don’t have to riot. Here’s enough food for you. You don’t have to take people’s stuff and get killed trying to do it.” And it’s, this is what I see. The school system, if we as parents would teach our children what to do when they go to school, as we did before, I think the school system would be better and monitor the boards that we have, teach them and work with the teachers, I think things would get back better. But we have dropped our hands, we got so satisfied in the situation till things just festered and there’s nothing that, there is something that we can do, if we would do it. That is, if all of us would put our heads together at one common thing and work on that and then go to the next thing. One thing I would like to see us do is find a place to put the drug addicts, say, “Here’s jobs, here’s something you can do to get off the street.” Take 2 or 3 of them off and show them that they can make a living, then that would gradually pull the rest of them off. And then drug, people that’s bringing in the drugs won’t have anywhere to bring the drugs.
Q: Was OB and UOCI a failure then?
A: No, if it hadn’t have been for OB and UOCI, black folks would have been long wiped off the map, I mean they really would have been gone, the poor black folks that is I’m talking about. And they wouldn’t have had the know-how. But they were taught, OB and UOCI trained these people. I don’t have to get out there and go down to welfare and tell somebody to go apply for some food stamps, they know that that’s their rights now, to get these food stamps, get AFDC checks, so they’re gonna take what they, they’re going for what belongs to them, that’s because they took them, if they hadn’t have taught them, they would not have known how to go down there. They can go into the doctor’s office, like Duke Hospital, Lincoln Community Health Center, these places with no money and say, “There are programs, we know that you have it, people donated this money to you to help folks like me that don’t have it to pay. I’ve come here for service. You agreed that you would give me service. And that’s what I’m about, getting some help. So I can get well. I don’t have, it ain’t about me bringing you some money, you’re giving me some medicine to help me out.” And that’s the way we learn how to do these things. When they can go in there and talk for themselves, and if it hadn’t had been for them, lord knows I don’t know what would have happened to me.
Q: If you started an organization like OB today, what would you focus on?
A: Well, what I would like to see started, two things. One is, when the school system, principal, suspends a child from school indefinitely, just put him out, he can’t go to school. He carried a gun on campus. Well, he can’t go to no other school no more. No alternative schools. Well, we need alternative schools to put that child in, because that is a number on the street. He will become a number on the street and we don’t wanna see that, I don’t wanna see that. That’s one thing. The second thing is, is find a way, a mechanism, that we can pool together our monies and give kids jobs to get them off the street, hanging on the corner with these in the gang, break up the gangs, and the people with children would quit selling drugs and get them on the right road. Have someone that’ll teach them and show them how god can give them what they need, once we started. We’ve got enough churches on each corner, we’ve got enough churches in Durham to change the world, but there’s nobody listening. We can get somebody to hear, but they don’t listen. And some people just not, some children you can’t even go to that church, look what they got on, the bible says, “Come as you are.” So if you’re willing to take them as they are, and talk with them, and offer them something, give them a little job to do, something to do around the church, that you trust them. You first start with that trust, and you’ve gotta know that you trust yourself before you can trust them, because sometimes they don’t trust themselves.
Q: Neighborhood Youth Corps?
A: Yeah, now that would be good, to get back into that. One of the ladies that kept up the Neighborhood Youth Corps, she died, so there’s nobody talking about that, you never hear anybody talking about it. That would be something good that we could do, if you got Neighborhood Youth Corps, we could pull these teenagers off the streets.
Q: What was Neighborhood Youth Corps about?
A: Okay, during the time I had a daughter, and she got a job through Neighborhood Youth Corps was this organization helping children learn how to work, getting them permits to go to work. And my daughter was able to get a working permit and she got her first job in Butner, working at the hospital in Butner with the mentally retarded children. And it taught her a trade, you know, on how to do that. So she come out from that ready to go on to college, go back to school and get out of school, and she went through college, now she’s a preacher because she saw some preachers out there trying to talk to people and it helped her to get, it really trained my daughter how to go out and be a woman, when she got grown. And it do the same thing for men, you know.
Q: Where is she, here?
A: No, she’s in St. Louis, Missouri.
Q: Do you know anyone else who was in it?
A: No, because most of them are all grown and out of the way now and I can’t even remember. It’s like I was reading the minutes and I found some names on our board that I forgot about.
Q: Which kids did Neighborhood Youth Corps focus on?
A: Okay, it was the low-income people like different community development, I mean council people that lived in different neighborhoods. They would have so many children, bring your child and the child would sign up for it. It all depends on if the parents wanted him to be in it, and you had to give an okay to be there, so I wanted mine to go in and learn something and do something, get a job, and they was really helping people to get jobs. Now I think that’s where foster care has picked up at DOSS, they started foster care, but that doesn’t cover what it should cover, I don’t think.
Q: Drop-outs too. It’s a great program.
A: Well, see that was something that’s important, and a lot of people, when you see things in black folks, was taking advantage of that importance, and see white folks didn’t wanna fund just black things, just for black people. White folks felt, like I said, didn’t wanna come out, didn’t want nobody to know that they needed that.
Q: What can we learn from OB, UOCI, the NC Fund for today?
A: I think if you sit down and take a look at what has happened, what we’re doing today and what was happening then, you would find out that it is a great need for another organization or we could put power to OB, who is still in existence, and that would be the best avenue I think, you wouldn’t have to organize another group, but we could just put power to them, put more things into them for them to do, give them more money to hire more people to carry the services back to the community. I think if we could carry the services back to the community, I think we could get more done and it would stay where we placed it.
Q: What does OB do now?
A: Okay, they work with, they have a Headstart program, they have weatherization[?] program, and they have a program where people, like I said, they go there, like sometimes people need help getting jobs and things, they put them through some kind of training and help them, to teach them how to go out and apply for jobs. And they do several things down there, that they were doing and some of it cut off, but the person has to go to the agency to get it. I don’t think they work as closely with neighborhood councils now as they did, the neighborhood councils pretty much take care of themselves, those that are meeting, because those that are in public housing, the public housing staff takes care of that.
Q: There are still neighborhood councils?
A: Yes. … They still have their meeting, the regular meetings. They meet like once a month. And like in public housing, at that time when we were in charge, we brought them out to city council, but they won’t dare come out unless it’s something that, they go to the board at Durham Housing, those that are in public housing, but you never see them get together from the community, I call it the community, to come together unless it’s voting time, they go vote, you get them, your different people to vote, but everybody seems to be on their own, a little bit on their own.
[end of interview]
A: Ann Atwater
Q: When you grew up you thought white people were better than black people?
A: Um-hum [affirmative].
Q: What made you feel this way?
A: Well because where I came from, a little town called Hallsboro, most black folks worked for white people, white people was the one that had the money, and if you got any credit to anything you had to go to the store where the white folks owned it to get it, so we grew up thinking that, you know, if they were white they had more than we had and they were better than we were, and you had to listen, my daddy made us listen to what they were saying, you couldn’t sass them, talk back, be ugly to them, you had to be real nice because this is where we were getting our food from, and getting our stuff to live off us, he was for us, and so this is why I guess we thought that, not knowing that, if he kept, he was just as important, but I didn’t see it at that time cause I didn’t know any better.
Q: What changed your mind about that?
A: Okay, after coming to Durham, see I got married when I was 14 was still frightened to death being a child getting married, so my, coming to Durham, I had to learn that as I was working my money was just as important as the white man’s money when I started making a little bit of money, and their money, my money would spend, go just as far as, even though they had more but at the same time we were both paying the same price for the same, and then I started acting. Then when I really got into organizing, you know, got into coming out of the CAT training program and really finding out where our tax dollars was going and what was causing this and learned how to speak out for myself, then that’s when I really knew, and my eyes came open and that’s, like I said, Howard Fuller was the reason for my eyes coming open and I think that after that my eyes got wide open and I never closed them. So that’s, that’s how I got, reason I changed around.
Q: Was Durham different from where you grew up, and how so?
A: Well, yes, it’s different because where I grew up people had a garden, you know, killing hogs or something and maybe, I didn’t have a hog but you might have had one, and when you killed hogs, we always called it, give them a mess of fresh meat, you know, and you would carry them some whatever, pork chops or something that you had, killing sausage and stuff, most people would want some, you know, when they first kill hogs. But Durham you know people, whatever they have, they keep it to themselves, they’re not so willing to give away stuff, they’d rather sell it to you than to give it to you, and that’s the difference. Like when my mother died, I didn’t have a white dress to wear to her funeral, but a neighbor of ours at home had a little girl my same size and I wore her dress to my mother’s funeral and it was …
A: Well, as I was saying earlier, the, you know, people are not, they don’t act the same. We were more like neighbors, you know, taking care of our neighbors, and we shared whatever we had, we was really into sharing with each other. But in Durham, you find somebody got something, they want to sell it to you, and they’ll pass right by you. We, we believe in hollering and speaking and hugging and going on, standing up having a half-a-day conversation, but if you barely get somebody to speak to you here in Durham, that way, it’s getting a little bit better now, but most of the time they pass right by you, walk all over you, won’t open their mouths, and that’s a lot difference. Plus there are jobs here, and there wasn’t that many jobs, mainly farming there, and now they’re opening up a few places, like hospitals and places like that, people can find jobs in the 5 and 10 cent store, we call it dime store at home. And so it makes, it’s a little bit difference, some children are getting jobs now and they make them feel at home a little more important, but they’re getting set into that, “I got mine, now you got yours to get,” when they found out how to do it. But in the city, you see, things has been that way all along.
Q: Durham didn’t have a sense of community when you came here?
A: Yes, that’s what I’m saying, cause when I got to Durham I didn’t know anything. I was, when my husband, I told you he was running around, whoring, I call it whoring around, messing around, and he left me at the house plenty of days with my daughter, and nothing to do, know nobody, didn’t know anybody but the house lady and people wasn’t that friendly, so I did start going to church at night, and that’s where I met, started meeting people and started talking to them and they told me about the ad in the paper, I didn’t know nothing about looking in the paper for an ad, looking for a job. So I got the paper and had to learn how to read the paper and all of that, cause people, we went by word of mouth, not by newspaper. So I went out and got this job and started working and then from there I started walking my way around, every once in a while I’d meet somebody willing to talk to you, but then sometimes I talked to the lady at housing, she would tell me wild stories and if I tried to follow them, I’d go off wrong. So that’s the way, I just had to pick and choose what was right from wrong and to keep this, keep myself straight. And then her house is so, liquor in the house where I was staying, and I didn’t want my daughter to be into that, so that’s how I moved around.
Q: How did the neighborhood stores treat blacks?
A: Okay, if it was a neighborhood store, most of the people went to the little neighborhood grocery stores that black folks had opened, and everything was higher but you got what you wanted and you got a credit, you know, you have to go buy on credit. And this is where a lot of people did their shopping at those stores. Now, like downtown, they would go in the store but you would be the last person that got waited on, and you couldn’t, wasn’t allowed to, you know how you go through the rack looking at clothes and stuff, you wasn’t allowed to touch the clothes, you had to stand up and let the clerk know that that’s that dress or that’s that shirt or panties or slip or whatever you wanted, that’s what you wanted. You wasn’t allowed to touch it. But now you go in and ramble through everything, throw it down, let somebody else pick it up. But they’d always have you in a line, and you’d have to be the last, somebody was behind you in the line, they’d ask them, get their package, and check them out, and you’re still standing, they got to make sure you’re the last person to get checked out. But now it doesn’t matter, you can go up there in the line now and come on out.
Q: When Howard and Charlsie knocked on your door, what made you respond?
A: What happened, when he asked, asked if I had a problem, and they told me that they had the funds from NC Fund’s organized neighborhood councils in the community and it was 23 to be exact and they had to go from community to community organizing. And they said, asked me did I have any problems. And I told them, yeah, I had a problem with the, asked me was the landlord treating me right, fixing up the housing, that’s when I showed them the bathroom, and they could see the house for itself, all the holes in it, where you look to see in the house without coming in the house. And so when he said, he said, “Now, I can tell you how to get this fixed if you’ll come to the meeting tonight.” And he said, “Do you owe any rent or anything?” I said, “Yeah, I’m behind $100 in my rent.” And he said, “Well, we’ll help you pay that rent.” And I think that was the selling thing right there, helping me pay my rent and telling me how I can get the problem solved if I went to the meeting, and I wanted that badly. So I went down there, and when I went down there and found out that they told me the truth, and that’s what I been hanging on is the truth, and so they did what they told me they was gonna do, he went with me round to the landlord’s office and told them he had the money, showed them the $100, but he wasn’t gonna get it until he fixed my, my bathroom. And they put 2 boards under the tub to make it sit up but still you could see under the house there, but that was fixing it as far as we could get in the tub, before we couldn’t get in the tub. And he didn’t put the latch on the inside of the house but not on the porch, so you couldn’t shut it you know. So if you be in the bathroom you know, the door come open, you just in there, so they had to go change that lock, put another where you had to screw the knob, had the hooks, just hooks like on a nail. So this is, I found out he did make them fix it. And that put the true gos-, that was gospel to me, and I started out and that’s what made me go to work helping other people, with the thought behind in my head that my daddy said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” because he did that for me, I wanted to help somebody else get out of the same dilemma that I was in, so I started going door to door telling folks and this was the way I was recruiting people to come to the meetings, to helping them out recruiting people, and I would tell them, “Come see my house, how my house looked, you know how my house was, come see it,” even though it wasn’t nothing that much to look at, but it was a lot for me at that time.
Q: A lot better.
Q: You were shocked when Howard came through with this?
A: Yeah, cause see I didn’t, nobody, see I didn’t hear anything. I was 20 years old before I learned how to vote, and when that lady, Nellie Hunter, carried me and told, showed me how to register to vote and how to vote, man I skipped all the way from the poll back to the house, oh, I was somebody big, I was voting, and you know it was important to me, so when here comes somebody that you never heard nothing, you’ve been, like I said, been in the country all your life and you never heard nothing, been work, work, work, holding babies, trying to be the right wife, and never got out there and learned anything, and here’s somebody come by to tell you something and it’s the truth, you know, sure I was shocked. I was good and shocked.
Q: And it made you feel how?
A: There was hope available for me, if I, and I knew that in order to get help I had to work at it myself, it wasn’t gonna come to me just out of the sky to me, I was gonna have to work. And then that’s when my daddy, I called my daddy and told him about it, he said, “God said if you make one step he’ll make two.” And that’s where I began to count those steps, I would make it and god would make 2, like 2 things would happen. I said, “That’s the god’s 2 steps,” and that’s the way I put it together and that’s the way I’ve been living, making it ever after that all the time. And that’s what happened.
Q: What happened next, after the landlord fixed things?
A: Okay, after that Howard paid him. And then we started, like I said, I started going through the community and the next meeting day, we would meet once a week and the next meeting, I would have 4 or 5 more people there, and they would tell their problems and then I would tell my problems and then I would find something else going on, and what it looked like. And then Howard saw the need at that point to set up a training, he felt that he had enough people then that he could train to help get out and do some of that footwork that he was doing, and so that’s why that CAT training come along. And then after that we did the CAT training, he sent us, all of us out in different areas, some in housing, some in employment, in welfare. Housing, mine, mine was basically in housing, I loved housing, but I learned about all of them because when UOCI came along, they made me the supervisor, and I had to know a little bit about it, all I didn’t know I had to go find it out and make sure I didn’t tell anybody any lies, that was the thing, you can’t tell people lies. So we had to build it on the truth and that’s why I think it stood as long as it have has been on the truth.
Q: What did you see was the main purpose of OB back then?
A: Okay we, when we first started out, they said, “Win the War on Poverty,” this was to bring the people that, up, you know, be sure that they could keep their heads above water so they wouldn’t drown. Teach them how to survive, because some people just couldn’t talk up for themselves and still today we have people that just won’t talk up for themselves cause they get more if they would talk like when there are certain things that they could, benefits available to people, and they won’t even ask for them. If they ask for them they would get it. And this is what OB’s job was to teach the community how to go out and learn how to survive. And at that time, OB was going out in the community, taking these peoples to these different places that they needed to go. But now the people have to go to OB and get whatever answers they need answered at OB, and nobody, there’s not a worker at OB that will accompany any given number of people anywhere, cause they changed that. So if you haven’t got it by now, you’re lost. And I feel like there’s still some people that haven’t got it. Course I know at times I need help in doing some things, especially with the city when I get ready for some things done at the city and I have to poll people, some of the city council people, talk to the mayor ahead of time before I go to city council, not that he’s gonna lean my way but by the time I, he know I’m coming to holler, so in order to get me out quicker so it won’t bring attention to everybody, that was one way I figured that I could get help sooner and get out.
Q: What did you see was the main purpose of the neighborhood councils back then?
A: Now, when we first started organizing, you would, okay like if I had a house, I would look in the community, like I look in my community, and I’d see how many houses need painting or boards off the house, and people struggling trying to get to work, I’d go there and talk with them, and I’ll tell them, I said, “Well, now, I got my house fixed, you need to get yours.” “How,” you ask me, “How did you get it done? Did it cost you anything?” And I said, “No.” “Well, I ain’t got no money to pay nobody.” I said, “Well, I didn’t pay for nothing, you just come to the meeting with me and I’ll prove it to you, just by coming to the meeting.” And I’d get them there at the meeting, and then when they would tell their story, and if we found out that it was a person or 2 people in there that would just speak out without waiting for somebody to call on them and ask them what did they have to say, then they saw potential in that person of being able to talk. And so then that’s what he would do, he would get them to the meeting and see how they were going and pick out the ones that he figured could go back in the community, keep the community together, and that’s what it was basically used for, to see if there were problems in that community and make sure they met and try to iron all the problems out within that community, and that’s basically what the neighborhood councils were set up for. We even one time thought about getting a credit union, self help credit union you know, that could help the people, but we never got that off the ground, because some of them got a little frightened, they didn’t have much money anyway, and they figured if they put the money in that they wouldn’t get it back. So they didn’t, we didn’t ever get the credit union going and we didn’t have anybody that would give us a pile of money to start it off to prove itself, so that was the other reason we didn’t get it off. But they had a lot of plans going on.
Q: Did people take to community organizing?
A: Yes, everywhere. We, he organized 23 neighborhood councils all over the city of Durham, not just one area but all over, Braggtown, north Durham, west Durham, south Durham, everywhere there was a neighborhood council going on and each one of them had a president, had an or-, you know, had a vice president, secretary, whole offices, and everything. And then at times we would come together and we’d go off and have retreats together and meet and see what else was coming, the best way that we could get this done because when we went down to city council to ask for problems to be solved, we had to have enough people with us, you couldn’t just take one neighborhood council and go, we had to take a batch of them, a lot of people. And so when we did that, we would pull all the neighborhood council people together and they would meet us down and we’d have spokesperson from all of the communities because my house over would be needing repair and where there was somebody’s house over there that needed repairing, and they were, whatever we were meeting on at that time, everybody from different areas. So the city council would look at it, “Well, if all this is going on, something must be true about it,” not just one person hollering, and that’s, that’s why everything got, got on the ball. We used poor people especially for this, and because we felt that upper, middle class folks had their way of going through getting what they wanted, and they could get telephones and they could get TVs and they could get all this stuff. See some of these people didn’t even have a telephone, didn’t have a television. And we started telling them the Department of Social Services said if they was on AFDC, they couldn’t own a TV. And I think I was one of the first ones that got a television set, and then the rest of them, when I got the television set, I couldn’t tell how I got it, but they found out I had it so they went down there, “Ann Atwater got a TV, how come we can’t have a TV?” And then they started letting them have TVs, but they were black and white TVs, at that time people got a colored TV, that was too high on the hog, you’re living too high. And a telephone was like a luxury, they didn’t want you to have that either. And we felt it was a necessity, but they didn’t, and so we had to figure out, show the people how they could take their own, install their own phone, different things that they needed to do, a lot of people couldn’t read nor write, we set up a tutorial program to teach people how to read and write. The elderly people that didn’t wanna go to school, we sat down and worked with them. I used a clock to tell them how to tell time and to count their money, using a clock, so that they could go to the bank themselves without sending people and not getting all the money back. And this is some of the things that we did.
Q: What steps did you go through to resolve the housing issues?
A: Okay, when, okay the channel, it went like, okay we talked to the tenant and the tenant may have water repairs in the house and they said they’ve called the landlord and the landlord didn’t hear, well we’d make sure. So they would, we would go with them, and then they would ask that we be present while they, this is the way Howard would train us, that we would talk up for ourselves but they would be there to support them and then when we got our foot in the door we would ask questions like, “When do you think that you will be able to repair this house?” And they would promise us that on a given day that they would have this house repaired. Well, that given day it didn’t, so then we took it on, if it was somebody renting a house for somebody, we’d go to the person that owned the house to see if they knew that the land-, that the person that was renting the house was fixing the house or was just taking the money and not keeping the houses up. Some they didn’t know, some they did, didn’t care. And so after that we would go to city hall, after it went on so long we’d take it on down to city hall and that’s when the city council would rule that they would either bring the house up to standard and give them a certain number of days to bring it up to standard and charge them $50 a day until it was, was repaired. But sometimes the landlord would say, “I’d rather tear it down than to repair it,” so then they would tell you you had to move. And you had, we had to be looking around for a house for that tenant to move in, in case that happens when we went downtown. So we had to take the next step before the next step came in, and that’s what we did. Howard, I mean Moses Burt[?] taught me about housing rules and everything, the code and everything, the city code, and bringing houses up to standard, cause a lot of them didn’t have heat, and some still had indoor ba-, toi-, I mean outdoor toilets, didn’t have any indoor facilities at all, and we worked hard to get all of that into the houses in Durham.
Q: Mayor Graberek was sympathetic at first but then he changed when things got hard? What was your impression of Graberek?
A: Well I think he just went to town to work to wear a, uh, I’m trying to think of the name of the flower … carnation, he wore the flower, that’s why he came down, to wear that flower, that’s all he wanted to do, to walk the street and wear that flower. But as far as his mind on what the people absolutely needed and what was needed for Durham, I think that was far from his mind, he just wanted a showcase. And we have woke him up a many a nights at his house trying to get him to see what we were talking about, and he, he was with the city, the city manager, one night we marched downtown they turned the hose on us, he instructed that to be done. And so we, we didn’t, I didn’t like him at all, I didn’t think nothing of him, and after, when I started working with the Klansman, I found out he was a Klansman, and I didn’t even didn’t even know that, this went on home with me, you know. And he wasn’t anybody that nobody needed to know.
Q: Why did you have to go to his house?
A: Because we had been to city council several times, trying to get things done, and he would turn a deaf ear. Wasn’t anything he had to say any, and most of the city councilmen they didn’t care either, so we was doing whatever we had to do to get their attention. And that was one way, you can either hear me in a closed session, or you hear me out here in front of your neighbors, you know, in the public. And that was what we was trying to get him to see and hear, and most times he heard us when we went, cause we were so loud, every cop in Durham would be down there to try to get us back, and we went in droves, I mean not just a handful of people, the road was full of people and we’d march over there with bull horns and everything, the, waking up everybody in the world. And it’s kinda funny now, but then we were mad, we were real mad at that time.
Q: Describe the city council meetings. Before you started organizing did many black folks go there?
A: They didn’t, they had 2, they had 1, I think Bulware was the first city councilman we had, and then Johnny Stewart was the second one, and those were the only 2 that we had on the city council for a long, long time. And what they did, they had, they would meet on Thursdays, the Committee of the Whole[?] is what they called it, and they would put together the package, the agenda, for the Monday night meeting. And whatever they talked about when they come, if we decided to go to council meeting, we didn’t know what was on the agenda, so they would play, play us good and cool. So what we started doing is, I started going to the Committee of the Whole meeting with the tape as I said earlier, and sitting in the back listening, taping everything they were saying, getting ready for council meeting, then I would bring it back to the group, and we would go over it. And then when Monday night come, we were ready for them, whatever was on the agenda that they brought, we wanted to talk about, we had already put it together and they couldn’t figure out how we knew all of that, and that’s how we started making these changes come about, only one street would get paved, we wanted them all paved, you know. And that’s the way we would, whatever we asked for, we wanted it, and that’s the way we got it, had to go down there that way and do it, had, like under cover, you couldn’t just come out and go and get nothing cause they’d look at you like they thought you was crazy. And so that’s, we had to just learn the hard way.
Q: Did you go to city council meeting as a group?
A: Yeah, sometimes when we’d march up there, we would march and then we’d go on in the meeting, we would be peacefully walking in and we’d take our seats until time come for us to say something. Then when we went to saying something, we would take over. Sometimes one of us, one from the neighborhood would get up and go to talking, and then maybe 2 or 3 of us would talk, but then later Howard would get up or Charlsie would get up or Ben would get up, and most of the time they’d put in the paper, I would be up, Howard and Ben, all 3 of us, and they would have our picture on the next day, Ann Atwater, Ben Ruffin and Howard Fuller picture on the paper all the time, fussing about something. And that’s the way we did, we kept it together, we, and when they saw us coming they know something was up. They’d let us 3 go together, that was rough, that mean trouble. But we were just only trying to get the, you know the things, better living conditions for our people, that was all.
Q: People took what Howard and Ben said as threats. What was your perception of what they were trying to say?
A: Well they did, they said that because of Howard, you know Howard had that ability to be able to organize people, to be able to talk to you and look like it just went right through you, you know, went right in, sinked in, because he went on the campus and he organized the students there and got them out going, and we felt that they, because we were able, he was able to do that, yeah, that he was a treat, and he had trained us up, so had made us become a threat to them. And now people still, people still feel that I’m a threat, cause I can call some places right now and they’ll hurry up and call me back, and but when I go down there it’s a different story, so I haven’t been anywhere in a long time, but you’ll know when I go, they say, “She’s coming.” And one lady went to the Department of Social Services yesterday, and she went to try to get her grandchildren back, and she told them that she had talked to me and I told them, told her to call. Well she, when they said my name, the little, the [words] immediately agreed that she could get those children back, and she said, “I don’t know why but I used your name and they told me I can get my grandchildren back.” I said, “Well praise god,” you know, “he’s still working.” So she called me up thanking me, just crying and thanking me that she would be able to get her grandchildren back. And it makes me feel good that my name has that much weight to it.
Q: What was the atmosphere like the city council meetings?
A: It was, okay, if black folks went in there it was just like we wasn’t there, they didn’t pay us no mind. That’s why the night that we were talking about getting the houses, getting landlords to fix up the houses, the city councilmen would wheel around in the chair, turn their back while black folks was up talking, and you had to go around and knock them back around so they could look the people in the face, let them know that they weren’t talking to the backside, they was talking to them, straight to them. And they couldn’t have cared less, act just like they were sitting there doing everything else they want to do while you’re up trying to talk. They didn’t want to hear it at all.
Q: Is that why you went in such big numbers?
A: Yeah, we, see if I’d have went by myself I’d have just been overlooked, “Ah, we’ll look into that, we’ll take care of that and that’s it. You’ve had your say, now you’re free to go,” and they would have put me right out. But with the crowd, they was afraid to put 1 out cause the crowd, they thinking about a riot, somebody wanting to fight, but if you went in a crowd and everybody get up and put a hollering on the same point, somebody had to hear something in order to shut us up, somebody had to agree to do something. And that’s why we went in a crowd right there, to let them know that we mean business, “All these people have the problem,” you need to see our, since they wouldn’t come out to the community, we had to carry it up there.
Q: What happened when CP Ellis started bringing his folks to the city council meetings?
A: Well he was, he was ignored as well, partially, because some of the council people were Klansmen, and that’s how he kinda got his foot in the door, and they used him to come in to retaliate against us, and so they wouldn’t have to show their hand that they were Klan cause they knew that if everybody knew that they were Klansmen the wouldn’t get elected any more, and so that’s what they used them for.
Q: What happened between your 2 groups?
A: Well basically nothing. We sat there, and we had to let everybody talk, and we’d let them talk. So we didn’t, we didn’t know CP at the time, I was going, I didn’t know that he was a Klansman until after we, you know, started with this school [word, charade or sharet?]. But we would fuss and argue, he’d get up and talk and we’d know that wasn’t right what he was saying and we had the right to be there and we was gonna be there, there wasn’t nothing that group was gonna say to put us off the streets. And they would be, we’d get a picket line just to prove it, and we’d go back up the street picketing. And walk all the way down to city hall, any time anything was going on big, we went in a drove picketing, singing and carrying on. And they couldn’t stand that, cause we could come together quickly and that was because we, the low income people had organized themselves, and we didn’t bother them. But then the middle class folks started joining with us cause we started getting recognized, everybody taking our pictures for the paper and they were left out. So they, they started at that point, deciding they would join and come in and be with us.
Q: Did you feel the city council was taking you at all seriously?
A: No, they weren’t. It wasn’t until a few windows got broke, down, the businesses down on Main Street got broke, throwed, broke the glasses on it, like Belk’s, somewhere that we knowed had the money, and people’s houses started catching on fire and stuff like that, that they were willing to, we said Durham got hot, you know, and when that happened they started, “Well we better do something about it, we better do something quick, cause them people mean business.” And that’s when they started knowing that we were human beings, not just animals.
Q: It was the violence that got their attention?
A: That’s right, we had to do it. That’s what I said, you know, I don’t understand how we had to holler all the time, we could go in and sit down and talk, and we should have been able to, you know get something done, negotiate some kind of way, but we, they didn’t, they didn’t, either they didn’t have it, they didn’t know where, “We’ll talk about it later, I’m tied up,” and all this kind of thing, but you go in there cussing a time or two and talking loud and you would get what you want.
Q: Did CP and his group throw up any other obstacles to you?
A: They would stand on the side, they would walk on the, they’d be standing on the side, as we were marching, and walk, pacing like they wanted to do something, but they never did anything.
Q: They didn’t do anything?
A: No, they were just standing there, you know, watching us come by. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t ever jump at us or anything, cause we had what they call army barrels[?] all the way down and the people in the middle keeping everybody away from it. But the white folks at the time, when we first started, they didn’t deal with us, they’d deal with one person, one black person, and that was John Wheeler. Wheeler was in charge of the bank, Mechanics & Farmers Bank, so he was the father of all these other low income black folks and all black folks period in Durham, he was their father. So he spoke for what he wanted them to have. And that’s all the city council gave us is what John Wheeler said we needed. If he didn’t think we needed a, a street paved, we didn’t get a street paved, he didn’t think a house needed any better repairing than it got, we didn’t get it. It’s what he said. And you know he talked real soft and that’s all they wanted to hear, he never raised his voice and that kept his bank open so he could deal with them the way they wanted. It wasn’t till we got organized and found out how we needed to make some changes, so that’s when we started in on the Durham Committee. He was also chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. And he went there to, cause then that was telling everybody that he was representing all the black folks, which he was representing himself. And we allowed him to do that because nobody spoke up against him until we got organized. Once we got organized and found out how to change it, by going in and changing the votes, putting in office, and they went in early, we would go down to elect officers, and they would say, “Well we just elected officers,” minutes before we got there, they would always go earlier than the time that they said they would have the meeting. So we decided to go earlier than that, at one time, along with Howard, and we all went in and we put, I think it was Lovett, Willie Lovett in the chair, and got other officers to go along with him, and we started taking over, sliding them back out the way and then the city began to hear us and we began to get a few things done in Durham. And that’s how the change came about. We would have never got nothing changed the way it was.
Q: Tell me more about you and CP working together on the bull sharet[?].
A: Okay, the AFL-, the AFL-CIO sent a man, representative to the job down to Durham housing. And they wanted to talk to Mr. Taburn[?] about getting the community people to come to the meeting, they wanted to integrate the school system. And my job was working with the tenants, residents, so Mr. Taburn told me that I oughta attend this meeting. But I didn’t go the first night, so the next night he asked, come to ask me about it, and I told him I didn’t go, cause I didn’t want to be involved. He said, “Well, if you want your job, I want you to take these people.” So of course you know I had to get up and go. And I went out and got the van and I went over there, and we started talking about it, and CP was up in the floor going to it, “Them niggers ought not to be out, them niggers ought not to do that,” and I was already mad cause I had to go over there, and to hear him say that, I just got madder and I started calling him a cracker, and I started cussing a little bit, and then he started cussing a little bit, and we just raised sand with each other for 2 weeks trying to get something going on. So that’s when they decided that they couldn’t get nothing done with us. So they had the 10-day sharet[?] as they called it, and we would get something done because it would be set up different, they’d have people in different rooms, different areas, talking about different things. And that’s, cause we couldn’t be in all the rooms at the same time, so they would get something done. They told us, demand[?] office[?], we were the 2 co-chairs, to make sure that we see that the meeting went on, not that we was at the meeting itself, so that’s how we got to it, and then when we found out that after talking to the children later on, listening to them, and his son and my daughter was having the same problems in school, then we knew then that we had been barking up the wrong tree against each other, we shoulda been pulling with each other. So we knew then that if we didn’t fight for our children, nobody else was. So then we come together and then when he put his, displayed his Klansmen material, I kept the boys from tearing it up and he sorta turned towards me then at that point, so we’ve been friends ever since. We come out of there, went in as enemies, come out as friends, cause I had told him, we was gonna see whose god was the strongest, mine or his, I carried the bible and he carried, had the machine gun, so this is the way we went on. CP wanted it to be a black and white issue, and I told him if we got through the sharet and he still wanted a black and white issue, I would be standing right there ready for him. But we didn’t have to go that length, it changed by the time the 10 days was up.
Q: Who brought the sharet and what was the idea behind it?
A: Okay, Bill Reddick[?] was the person that they got to come and when they, somebody said, named it the sharet and wanted somebody to direct that program and somebody knew Bill Reddick and they got him, called him up and got him to come, and they talked it over to him and he thought he could handle it. And we got started, so then he wanted to talk to CP and I and he asked us to come for dinner, and CP didn’t wanna sit down, he said he was, he didn’t want nobody see him sitting to eat with nobody black, and so finally I told him, that’s when he told me he wanted a black and white issue, and I said, “Well, after this is over, if you’re wanting to be black and white, it’ll be black and white,” and so then he sat down and we had dinner and then he come back and we were so out there, neither one of us didn’t want to hardly hear nothing, cause I didn’t even wanna work with him to start with, then I thought about what the paper would say, and I knew the paper would have come out the next morning, “Blacks Scared of Whites,” and I could not let that happen, not after I went through all my training and everything to know, and so I decided I would work with him, and it worked out, and we’ve been friends ever since.
Q: What was the sharet?
A: What happened, we had an agenda, you know. We knew we wanted to come, what was the best, quietest way to bring the schools together, to integrate the schools, bring the people together. And the white folks jumped up, they moved out the suburbs, they moved out, well that left the blacks in but no sooner then they moved out, they found out there wasn’t any schools out, so they had to bring the children in to schools. So this is when bussing started. So then we had to figure out a way to get them back in, that’s when we got the busses rolling. And then they found out that that was a little too close in to bring them, so then that’s when they built Hillside, and immediately they closed up Durham High, so it wouldn’t be another school and that way they wouldn’t have no room, no reason to go there any more, and that’s how we got the, people talked about what plans oughta go into doing this, and different ones, then that’s when this whole, the middle class, everybody come together and sit down and put their ideas together to get it integrated peacefully, and this is what they did. And out of that the Dur-, Women in Action to Prevent Violence and its Causes was born. Sometimes they say they were already there, but they wasn’t, they, they promised that whenever a problem came up in the community that they would go out and solve the problem onsite. But I never knowed them to do that, only thing I know they become a service organization, one that would help people. But as they tell it, they come up on their own.
Q: What did you learn from the experience from CP?
A: Well, I learned that it’s best to learn a person before you judge a person. You know, cause see I was hating him, not, you know, because his color, and not really knowing that inside of him he was a human being as well. And he had some, he had a heart in there, and we had to find that heart. And his wife, I knew his wife had one, but he didn’t have one. And trying to get to that heart, and I think after talking about the children, that’s what was most on his mind was children and that was on my mind was children. We, I learned that we had to do that, you know, and I, I learned that with everybody, you know you got to wait before you can judge somebody because who are we to judge? We can’t judge anybody that’s up for god to do, to judge them.
Q: Can we learn something from what happened to help bring the races together today?
A: If people are interested, and sincere, wanted to bring them, cause a lot of people has changed, it’s just like The Passion, the people went and saw The Passion, they received Christ immediately and came over. Now it’s the same thing about getting together now, it’s the same, usually people, we find people that will come together if they have a problem, but so if you’ve got a problem and if you, say if I help you solve your problem, then when your problem’s over you help my solve mine, but we’re not doing it on a black and white issue, we, the color is gone, we look at the problem, not the color, and as soon as people get that in their minds, that it’s the problem that we’re faced with here today, not the colors of the skin, it’s the problems and if we could get that straightened out in our mind, our own mind, then we could move forward without a whole lot of bickering and hating and backbiting and all that stuff. Cause as I was saying earlier, people ask me, said, “Well all this work you’re doing, you started out poor, and you’re still poor.” I say, “Yep, that’s me, cause I give it away.” I said, “When I take any stuff, anything like I had some things in the house and I had people that come in and help me, well it got stolen and it got away.” The bible says, ‘lay not up things for yourself where thieves, where moths come in and corrupt and thieves break through and steal.’ And see I had it laid up for me for now, but see now that I need it it’s gone cause somebody done stole it and broke, so I shoulda just been doing it one day at a time to start with. And then maybe I would have been better off now. I don’t know. But cause I had nothing and I only ask god for, I figure if god want me to have it, he’ll send it to me, cause he said he would take care of my needs. And I think I was asking god to take care of my want, and that was probably what was happening to me, I don’t know.
Q: UOCI came out of the neighborhood councils. What made the councils decide to create their own organization separate from OB?
A: Because OB was funded federal money, and it had a stipulation on it, there’s certain things they could do, and they couldn’t do, you know, with that money. For instance, they could not, they could tell people they should vote, “It’s your right to vote,” but they couldn’t tell them how to vote, or tell them, show them voter regis-, voter education and stuff like that, because people said it was under the Hatch Act and they’re subject to get cut off. With organizing the neighborhood councils and you’re already trained how to train those people how to register to vote and how to show them how to vote, you could do it on your own without anybody bothering you, cause nobody weren’t paying you nothing, you volunteered and this, and then when UOCI came into play, they were, we had to grant that, see in OB no staff can serve on their board, but UOCI the staff could serve on the board, and that was different cause that means you got it from the outside and inside at the same time. And that’s why people decided that they’d rather have their little groups and then the more you got together, the stronger you are, together you stand, divided you fall, and so this is what that was set up for.
Q: What did UOCI accomplish?
A: Well, we, we, like I said we set up different, we basically followed the rules, people like on welfare, housing, and kept the fire hot, and getting all these things done. Anybody had a problem, we had the workers out, each worker had to take them people down to get it, and everything that mostly you see changed a lot, UOCI until we got good and hot and was really doing things, then somebody called a couple of the, the people, the churches that was funding us, and wouldn’t give us no more money. But by that time we had learnt how to get a lot of things changed, a lot of people went back into their shells, some of them did, some of the neighborhood councils just weaned away and they don’t meet any more because new people moved into the neighborhood. But out here we meet every once in a while, we’re together, we got a board and I call them, we don’t meet every month like we should but I call them every month 2 or 3 times a month to talk over what’s coming up next and what I plan to do. And most of them won’t go nowhere with me to talk, but I have to talk by myself. Sometimes I can get some outsiders to go with me. But now if we need something, just like we need the center, I got to go down to city council I think Thursday night if the Committee of the Whole meets this Thursday night, and see about, getting, find out when they’re gonna tack the boards on the building, cause we’ve been waiting all the years, somebody went to sleep and I’m not sure that the city, the city council knows, that the people working there, that the city manager and all has gone to sleep on it. And I started to call her first and ask her, but I think she’s, they’re kinda heating her up a lot right now.
Q: What was the relationship between UOCI and OB?
A: Oh, hand in glove. Real good. Cause see, you wouldn’t know, a lot of things that Breakthrough couldn’t do but we needed the staff, so the staff had to be part of UOCI to be able to do it, so if anybody said, “That’s an OB staff member doing something,” they would say, “No, that was UOCI,” you see, and they couldn’t, couldn’t stipulate which it was, so we needed each other, that’s what we was, we needed each other. Operation Breakthrough had the funds and we had the power to do it, and that’s the difference.
Q: Did you notice a shift in people’s attitudes in Durham’s communities once you started organizing? What happened to the people?
A: Some of them’s head got swoll, and you know we were taught in our training that if you rose up, then you reach back and get somebody and pull them up. And we found out a lot of them weren’t doing that, they were just left out there. I know we got better attention from the middle class and rich blacks, I did, from that in terms of being able to walk in the same organization with some of them, before I would never got a chance to be in organizations like the National Council of Negro Women. Everybody else was a member, I didn’t know anything about an organization named National Council of Negro Women. Now I’m a member of the National Council of Negro Women. And these were some things that they had hid under the table and a lot of them came out, so they could be seen, see cause the low income people was being seen more, so they didn’t want to stay up under that table, they had to come out and join with us, so, and this is what happened.
Q: Low income people stopped being invisible?
A: Yeah, and started being visible to the people.
Q: Do you remember the march to protest the school board’s decision not to have Neighborhood Youth Corps after UOCI was formed?
A: Yeah, oh yeah, just about all the marches that they had, I was in them, all except, well I think I was in all of them cause I was in the hospital at one time and I came out the hospital and they gave me, we was wearing black, green and red bands on the arms so they gave me mine, and I was in my housecoat and gown, and I marched on downtown. And the nurses sent the police to pick me up from downtown to bring me back home, back to the hospital. But I marched with all of them down there, but what went on, I can’t recall all of that.
Q: Do you remember why the school board rejected Neighborhood Youth Corps?
A: I think because of, I must say because of Howard’s ability to organize and he didn’t want the youth to get that Howard Fuller kind of appearance to the thing, you know, learn how, again, people talking out and speaking out for themselves. And that’s what he was all about, see Howard believed in your finding out what the writing said, what was on page so and so, verse so and so, before you go up to talk to anybody. So when you go up there you know what you’re talking about cause here it is in black and white right here, and he could quote it so good, memorized it, and he could say it so good that, and when they turn over there and see it, they had to read it but he could quote it out, just like I do sometime bible verses, you know. And they didn’t want the children to be able to do that, and yet that was a way to help black kids if they got into the Neighborhood Youth Corps, so they could, a way to train themselves up to be somebody, they wanted to keep them down underfoot.
Q: What your duties as chair of the UOCI housing committee?
A: Okay, I was not, well I was the chair, then we had, I had people working with me. My job was to go out and find out everything I could about housing. How many nails it took, how many cinder blocks it took, how long it would take you to build a house, everything. And what the city code was like to bring the houses up to standard, every little bit about housing, what kind of wood we needed to build a house so when I go back to inspect, see I used to do inspection too, I would go out and inspect after that, the landlord would fix it, to see if that was good material or just sol-, you know sorry wood, then we’d have something else to argue about. They’d put some no-good wood in there, like if they would come and put on my flood, all them boards that had them knots in it, we know that them knots won’t last long, and somebody heavy like me standing on them knots it’s gonna break, and we have the same problem over again. And so I had to make sure that those knotty boards weren’t in the floor, especially when we, when we would go out and inspect, I had to go under the house as well as inside the house, I used to crawl through the crawl spaces, and then I got so fat I couldn’t, if I got in there I couldn’t get out so I had to stop that. But I’ve done a little bit of all of it.
Q: Was UOCI organized well and was it effective?
A: It was, it was the best thing we had, you know. I just wish we could have got funded like OB did and we could have stayed funded, but a lot of people didn’t like the idea that this was a group with a board and the staff could, it was a unique group to work together, work on the same board like that. Most people didn’t want the staff on their board, they wanted a separate board from the staff.
Q: And the folks on the board were low income folks?
A: Low income people, that’s exactly right. That’s right. They didn’t think black folks, you know poor folks, had any sense at all, they didn’t know anything. … That’s why they used Wheeler, and see Wheeler was god until he died.
Q: But the poor people proved they could do it.
A: That’s right.
Q: Talk to me about that.
A: Well, whether it be with UO-, well anyway they proved themselves, cause for instance they, when people lived in the proj-, they call it projects and I call it com-, you know communities, different communities. Well, they said if you lived in the project, or either if you got AFDC, you were classified as a nobody, and you didn’t have any sense cause you’re up here living off welfare, not knowing that that was your tax money that you were getting back, and not knowing that your kids could be as smart as anybody else’s kids, so they found out by, since UOCI was organized, that in the housing development, a project as they called it, we had kids there was on A honor rolls, all around, doctors, come out of there being doctors and lawyers and all of that and this made, proved itself, and low income people has proved themselves, if given a chance they will do it, and most of them went out, I know when Unity Village was built, they were able to go out and purchase their own homes, and some of them had bought, like out here, they got their own homes, and this was, you know program, Turnkey III program, and then they found, got some other houses, rent to own, and some of them still have theirs, where before, they didn’t know anything about surviving, and how to get, buy cars and nothing, like everybody was walking or catching the bus and stuff like that. But they have really proved themselves, some of them have gone out to be teachers and preachers and you name it, they’re really going out, you wouldn’t know that they were low income people. And see that’s just the difference in having, I guess the low income people call on god more, they use god, they didn’t use money as their god, and I think that’s the difference.
Q: reading from “The Best of Enemies” “There’s something about demonstrating that does something for you, for your dignity, it tells the truth.” What do you think about that?
A: Well, if you’re telling the truth, it tells the truth. Sometimes you can demonstrate some, you can be talking, especially I use like people that’s running to be elected, you know they can put on the best show in the world and they don’t mean it at all. But if you mean it and it’s the truth and it gives you some [word]. Now like when I talk and people give me a clap when they stand up, I feel good after that, but I’m really hoping that they just didn’t clap because it was me but that I said something that was important to them, that they could use later, is what I’m hoping when I speak to people, that this is what it does to them. And I think it do, you do feel a lot better, cause I know when people was calling me around, because of the book and documentary, that I felt so much better. I said, “I thought I was gone long time ago,” 30 years later I’ve got to rehash all this stuff out. So it makes you, it makes you feel better but don’t make your head get big, the people saying all these things. It don’t me. I reckon I don’t know how to make my head get big.
Q: When did you guys decide that demonstrations were unavoidable?
A: Okay, it was, I think it was when we were working in public housing, trying to get the rent lowered, get a scale for the rent, [word] people’s rent, like 30% of the income for rent, and not just whatever they wanted to charge and people would go, tenants would go down and ask for stuff and nobody heard them, it would go undone, the commode stopped up for months and months and nobody’s seen about it. We found out that just going down talking won’t help any, we had to do something else, we had to get rough, tough with the tough. And I think that’s when we started, when we found out that we go through the proper channels and we wait, wasn’t [word] to wait forever, you couldn’t wait forever, so we had to shake them up. And just like a car, if you’re fixing on a car, and you won’t fix that car and let it sit there, you’re gonna crank that car up. So we had to crank them up, and that’s what happened.
Q: 1967 was when Howard scared folks with his rhetoric and Detroit happened, etc. Do you remember what it felt like that year, was there something different?
A: Well everything was, it looked like, like [word] you join together, simultaneously everybody hit it at one time, it looks like this is what happened. That it was happening over there, it was happening here, everybody was getting the word at the same time and that’s what it, what it looked like, everybody was on target. And then everybody was running scared to death because you go out, go and people would be looking at you and you had to watch, you were just almost scared to speak, everybody was being quiet because they didn’t know what was coming up next. And some of us had ears and was there to hear what people were saying and trying to see what was going off, but they just knew that Howard and his group was the one behind all this stuff, and sometimes people might have been helping us out, you know, and calling at us, but we was getting the blame for it. Anyway even if we hadn’t done it, so we do our share, to get, get everything together. But I thought that, at least I’m thinking now, thinking back there then, that I think it was, had something like, I call it a 9/11 I think, it’s something like that, everybody wondering, “What in the world? What is the world coming to?” But it wasn’t as drastic as 9/11, but I guess if things had’ve kept on it would have been.
Q: Did the white power structure fear what was happening in Detroit and Newark would happen in Durham?
A: Yeah, cause see Durham was heating up too, Durham was putting its share in as well, and they couldn’t figure to go to sleep and might not come up out the next morning, they couldn’t think of that, so their eyes, some of them turned around, you know, and began to come in and ask, “What can I do? We’re here, just call us.” And a lot of jobs were given to the blacks and different type people had a lot of cars and was able, people would buy cars ain’t never bought cars, people got credit ain’t never had credit. Behind all this, to just cool us down. And that’s what happened.
Q: Things never really got out of control in Durham?
A: Not too much out of hand, because like I said, it got kinda warm once, like the houses and things was burning down and stuff, but it didn’t, just didn’t keep it, it went for a spell and then it shut off, because when they would get what they wanted they had no need to go out and burn themselves out doing nothing, cause if they gave us more no need to fighting them. So then they decided to come in and join with us and, “Let’s try to work it out.” We found out now that we can go to the table, and that’s all we wanted in the first place, was go to the table.
Q: When Howard talked about revolution, what did you hear him saying?
A: Okay, now as far as the black power part and this is, he let us know with, together you had power, and you know like your, we could pool our power together, be it for building houses or taking care, we could put our stuff together, that’s power. And if we wanted to build say a neighborhood center in the community that was ours, we pooled our monies together, got the carpenters, people that know how to build, to get in there, and that’s power when you do it yourself and you do it, just like I say to Mexican/Hispanic people, they’ll come in and they’ll rent a house and 15 or 20 of them will get in a 3-bedroom house, but when they come out they got houses over here, stores over there, everything, they pooled their powers together and go it. And this is what it was saying to me, Black power. You got white power, whatever kind of power, and so you just pool, this is what Howard was saying, we had to get together. Stay together, you can do something, divided we fall apart. And this is what he was talking about.
Q: That’s not how others heard him.
A: No, no, no. It meant that we was coming after them full force.
Q: Do you remember the Orangeburg massacre in SC?
A: [nonverbal negative]
Q: So housing come to a head in 1967, things got hot. What happened, you kept running into a brick wall in Abe Greenburg?
A: Well, I think right after that, Unity Village was built by Ben Ruffin and Ms. Seimens. That cleared up, some people started buying other land and building other houses, and different landlords started getting away from Abe Greenburg and the people started moving out, building more public housing and people started going in that. That gave the people a toe-hold. Urban renewal came through and tore down a big whole neighborhood, and all those folks didn’t die, they were able to be, they were told they’d go back in the neighborhoods, but they didn’t, they went in public housing. So they did have a safe, decent house when they went back in, and that kinda cleared up some of the housing as far as low income people but they were never satisfied cause they didn’t get what they were promised. And that’s what happened, it still is in a lot of people’s mind now, some of them moved way out in the neighborhoods, togetherness just got away. Where we were so close, you know everybody and what everybody had for breakfast, everybody knew it, but now you don’t even know where the people are let alone what they had for breakfast. They moved out, they scattered. That was one way of scattering us away from each other. If they could break you up, then your power won’t be so strong.
Q: So the Greenburg situation was never really resolved, him personally?
A: No, cause he still had it, him and his wife, she got part of the houses and he got part and it’s the same situation as went, but they did fix the houses up a little better, some people, they sold some of the property and the other people got it and fixed it up. But they were still renting and giving people that don’t have time to pay the rent, you’ve gotta pay it on that date or else you’re late and they don’t take no for answer, so it makes it rough for people.
Q: You went to Greenburg’s neighborhood. Why?
A: Well, to show his neighbors what kind of a person he was. He lived one thing, the neighborhood out in the other area, see it showed in our neighborhood who he was, but they didn’t know about it cause they didn’t have to see it. So we thought we would go there, to help them to understand what it was we’re talking about, and “This is the man that’s causing that.”
Q: So you marched with signs?
A: The signs, picket signs, and bullhorns talking and singing loud so we could get everybody’s attention, they would know we were, wasn’t slipping in, we were, they could hear us coming, they know we were out there.
Q: What was the reaction of his neighbors?
A: They acted like they were scared, they wouldn’t come out and everybody’d go on the house and shut up as tight as they get in the house, cause I guess they thought we was gonna be shooting and all that stuff. But we didn’t care, the [words] with us, if we did, nobody knew about it.
Q: But you stayed nonviolent?
Q: Grabarek too Greenburg’s side?
A: He did, he did. That’s the way he was with everything, him and, him and, lord I can’t think of the man’s name, was head of the housing authority .… Carvey Odum[?], and him and Carvey Odum was like buddies, and that meant that all of the black folks and the tenants in there was gonna get squashed down, and they did, they treated them like dogs, wouldn’t give them no leeway, but now they got a chance to have neighbors, people that come in and stay with them, and get some of the things that they need, you can get it on a timely basis. Have to go in every [word], inspect and paint the houses and do stuff like, they’d never get any painting, houses about come apart before they did anything.
Q: And the mayor stood right by?
A: Stood right by, didn’t care. He didn’t have to live there.
Q: Tell me about the night when Graberek sent the police out to guard the streets outside St. Joseph’s when no march was even planned.
A: Well they, they was all lined up, I thought Ft. Bragg had come to Durham, but we were able, Howard got out and talked with us, and told everybody to stay in the, stay in line, you know, and we went in the church and we had prayer and we talked, and then we marched downtown to show them that we could go down there peacefully and come back. And some of the people were kinda frightened but most of us, we went on down there and did what he told us to do, and they didn’t do nothing, they was out there, we, and then we started fussing about them spending, wasting tax people’s money for nothing. Get the, get the people out there with the [word], I can remember that so well.
Q: Why did he call the Guard.
A: He thought we’d be frightened and not come out. We were getting on his nerves and he figured he was gonna stop us one way or another, and that’s what he did, with MPs on the street, we wouldn’t come out.
Q: You saw it more as a challenge?
A: Yeah, I thought we should go, we hadn’t done anything so why back up and hide? Need to go on out there and be seen, and heard.
Q: Why was it so hard to get things done in Durham at that time?
A: Number one, the blacks were satisfied with the status, what the had, they had got, they’d learned how to get what they had, and they didn’t see any need of giving up any of it or moving on any further. And the low income blacks didn’t know now to get it, and nobody cared about, and low income whites too, they didn’t care about how, nobody cared about telling them how, and that’s why it was so hard because they wanted the individual to ask for what he or she wanted, not a group of people coming in asking. So we found out that by them waiting for them to go up and ask, they were afraid to death they weren’t gonna do it, so we had to organize ourselves where we would get together, and this is where Howard kept preaching power, power, power, to come together and do this, and this is why it took so hard. But after we learned how to organize, it still took a lot of time to get it but we got it anyway, we wouldn’t have never got it but we did get some things changed, and you know, by being together. … We need to do that again now, I think, now is the time to start all over again, cause see most of us now that was out there’s much older and we didn’t pull up enough younger people to take the spot, cause when the younger got some age, their parents sent them out somewhere else getting jobs, getting away from that stuff, “You don’t wanna be classified with them people, that ain’t what you want.” But yet knowing that’s what it took to get where he was, but they didn’t want nobody to know that. Cause I can remember when I was the first, I was the Democratic, vice president of the Democratic Party in Durham and well I got sick and I knowed another lady was in that spot, cause she had the money to put in, in the pot to help pay her way in there, and I didn’t have any money, so they just moved me out when I got out, I wasn’t, I didn’t know what I was doing, I wasn’t doing my job, it was just that, “Here’s a poor person getting all this recognition with the Durham Democratic Party. Hey, that’s our party, you need somebody like me,” you know. And that’s what happened, but they got it but they couldn’t get it done without me cause they couldn’t get any low income community, see they had, cause people in the low income community wouldn’t even talk with them. I was the one that they communicate with, and so then they had to use me to keep going back in there getting the people out and brining them out.
Q: These are from the book, it’s a list of housing conditions back then. [reads from the book] The housing shortage and the bad state of the existing houses …
A: That’s right, substandard housing. Yeah, that was the truth. The only thing we could find was the substandard hous-, we couldn’t go out, I mean we could afford, we couldn’t find any, there wasn’t any, and people weren’t about to fix them up cause they knew they could rent them to us anyway. And the minute we got evicted from one house, we would take another one of those substandard houses. And if we, if we’d been organized enough to have burnt them down anyway we, maybe they would have built some affordable houses, but it wasn’t until here lately that they started getting affordable houses, Section 8 come along, that made it even better for us now.
Q: [reading] Many of the articles in the leases violated basic human dignity… ?
A: Okay, now I know in public housing, you, they could go in your house whenever they pleased. You could be in the bed and they wanna come in your house, midnight, they could go in there to see what’s in your house any time they wanted to. But you were paying that rent, and we thought that was wrong, that they didn’t have any business in your house when you wasn’t there. And then you couldn’t allow your family, they wanted to come and spend and you had to, spend the night or a few days with you, you couldn’t allow that either. So it, and it made, looked like you was in prison. And that’s just the way it did and that’s what they were talking about.
Q: [reading] Racial discrimination in admission of any applicants and also treatment of the tenants… ? Poor whites and poor blacks were treated differently?
A: Whites, the poor whites, didn’t see themselves, they saw themselves white and then poor. We saw ourselves poor and then black, and that’s the difference in it. And now, cause they could get on in, they would talk to them, if me and a poor black person, white person, went any place together, they would call that white person in first, before they’d talk to me, and if they had any, they wouldn’t sell you enough to divide it equally, they would give them most of it, they’d give me a little bit, just to say they gave me some. And that’s the way that would work out. And jobs, we would be the last ones to get a job, you had to dress just exactly right. Cause I can remember the man at the unemployment office telling me if I was gonna send people there to be interviewed, to make sure that they had on a suit and a tie, hair was cut close and everything, shoes shined, everything. But like I said, a white person, they go in some old jeans and stuff and get there, look like I don’t know what, but we had to prove the point before we ever got there. And that’s the difference. Yet we’re going out, they’re going out there to get construction work, but you had to put on that suit and tie to go out there.
Q: [reading] System of selective roles enforcement designed to intimidate residents and foster spying on your neighbors.
A: They had certain people that would spy on you and you couldn’t breathe cause they were calling in. They had, they’d threaten them, “If you don’t tell me what’s going on, you’re gonna have to move,” and they was afraid they were gonna have to move so they would tell them, squeal on everybody. Everything that went in, went on, they would tell it, until we broke them down, we told them the same people, they were spying on somebody, somebody else would be spying on them, and we got them, we set them up, some of them, to see this, and then sorta broke some of them out of that. Now we still got people, you know, racking on people.
Q: The Mayoral Appointed 5-Man Authority Board, and there was a single black member who was there for the longest time but was never given chairmanship of the board.
A: I’m trying to think who that was. … I remember that but I can’t think of the man, I’m trying to think of the man’s name.
Q: Recreation facilities for children?
A: There weren’t any, you know. We had to fight to get that done, so we got in our pretty much all neighborhoods and we got recreation set up there in them, and we got staff, they’re staffed by the city, paid for them, we figured we’d put it in the city’s hands, to make sure that this got done. But that didn’t come about though until we started changing the mayors out and got us some black mayors and got things going. Then we had one black mayor though, that he rented his house to drug dealers and I’m not sure he didn’t know about it, cause he went there to collect the rent, and he allowed it to go on. … That was Justice Jenkins.
Q: Were houses in black communities more expensive than those in other communities despite them being substandard?
A: I think so, I believe it cause they know they could get more for, in a neighborhood, people, black folks will pay it, you wonder why they pay so much for a house that don’t look worth that, but it meant a million dollars to them, and they would take it, they would go get it. And they could, course they could fix it up and look real nice on the inside but the outside was, people would be talking about it, “Well I pay so and,” and it wouldn’t be worth $25 a month, just looking at the house. … over their heads, that’s right, that’s right. That’s the way the house was I had, and I think my rent was $100 a month, and that was a lot of money to me then.
Q: Grabarek again. [reads quote, paraphrased] OB had fallen into ultraliberal hands and had to be purged.
A: Well see that’s what I’m talking about. See when they had people that he wanted put there, see they could control them from downtown, they didn’t have to help the people, they’d just say “I’m helping.” But when, like myself, when we got organized and got in there and Howard got in there, we changed that. See we started working and doing, and we worried people to death, they either died or they resigned, and that’s the way we had to do it, [word] death, resigned, get out, and the next person come on, the community picked them and put them on there. Cause I served on Breakthrough’s board for 7 years and I wasn’t supposed to be on there that long, that’s because I was on the board talking up for the community, and nobody, they would always vote me back on, the community wanted me to stay on, they couldn’t say no to the community’s representative. So it wasn’t in his hands any more, it got into the community’s hand and this is why it was in, unrespectable people and he said, that he could use, the words that he used, because that wasn’t meeting his needs you see, he got shut up. And then when he, time to vote, voted him out, but he had the right people to stay in power if they’d stayed in place.
Q: It would have made Durham run a lot smoother just to give you what you wanted. Didn’t he know that?
A: No, I don’t think he did. He, his idea wasn’t to do that. See I said he was a Klansman, Klansmen love to tear things down, and so that’s what he was, he was showcasing. It’s like Pilate in the picture you know, Pilate, why he was guiltier because he was the one calling for Christ’s death you see. And he washed his hand when time come to do it, make them think, the people to think, he would be clean of it. But he was more guilty than the people that really killed him. So that’s the way Abe Greenburg, I mean not Age Greenburg, Wensell Grabarek was, in terms of the city, he was holding the card in his hand and he could have played it the way, but he played in his way of playing it. And that’s why he didn’t, he couldn’t see, cause that wasn’t his purpose.
Q: Howard Fuller’s impact on OB, UOCI, Durham?
A: Howard had the greatest impact on the city of Durham, not alone but OB, cause Howard was the kind of a person that, he, like I said, he studied and he knew what he was talking about. And he went and he let people know that he knew they were telling a lie, they knew where to get this money from, they knew where that money was laying, and he told them. And see they didn’t wanna hear that from him, and then when he got people to, when he told them the truth and proved himself, he had everybody in the world running with him, and nobody could take, wouldn’t change it, but then he got the middle class folks in behind him, so it frightened, they wanted him out of OB because it was federally funded, so once they got him out of there and he went out to Duke and then Duke got scared of him cause he got the union out there going right, and then didn’t nobody want him cause it was too much power. See he told them he sh-, opened up, everywhere Howard stepped, he opened up people eyes, and the city didn’t want that, people didn’t want it, they didn’t like him. A lot of middle class blacks and whites would sit back and say, “I don’t want that, I don’t like that Howard Fuller.” But what Howard Fuller was doing that, they liked that. So they had to say they didn’t like him, but they didn’t want to fuss, let somebody know that they cared, so they had to hang back there. So the impact he had on them, Howard was the man. And when they went back, when he come, after he got sick and come back, wanted to work in Durham again, they had set it up so nobody would hire him and he couldn’t get a job and by that time Howard was sick so he had to go back to Wisconsin. But I was so upset, Durham, oh, god I was so upset. He was the best thing that ever, you talking about a Jesus for the people, that was god for the people, and that’s the truth. That just because he knew what he was doing, got a brain in his head, and he knowed how to use it, and he could get these things, you know, if people would have cooperated with him, we would have never went back to where we are now in the things that we’ve got done, like the school system, it would have never went back, cause he would have personally seen that it stayed afloat, like it was supposed to been.
Q: Why did people have to say they didn’t like him?
A: Cause they didn’t want nobody, see, you know the way Howard talk, when he speaks he just speaks with authority, it comes out. And people didn’t wanna be associated, “You’re a mean per-, you’re roughie,” I guess they call it alley bad[?], so whatever you call it, you go to speak, and it’s like I talk loud and strong, a lot of people don’t wanna be bothered with me cause I talk loud and strongly, even in my church. I get up to make an announcement, I’m talking right to the point of that announcement, and if I was just singing it along or something it would be different. Then they didn’t wanna be associated with nobody, “That’s a little bit too rough for me. I’m too miss goody two shoes, and I can’t be associated with nobody like that,” even though under the table I’m saying, “Bring all you got in,” you see. And that’s different, you know, that’s why they have to say it that way. They’re cowards, they won’t come forth and be honest. And see Howard is an honest person, you, when you’re talking to him, if he tells you something, if it’s wrong, it’s because he didn’t know it, the changed it up on him. But when he read it, it was that way. I have that much confidence in him.
Q: What was Howard trying to do in Durham?
A: To make Durham a better place for all people to live, not just one segment of people but for all people, it was, looked like all hope was gone for us here in Durham, weren’t any hope, but when he come through, he brought life to us. He made, he made the responsible people give us life, that’s the way I should say it.
Q: What did being part of OB and UOCI do for you?
A: Okay, he helped me out, being a poor person, like I said, learning how to get services that I didn’t have and could get services and you could go through OB to make a short cut to get where, what things, some of the things that we wanted. And then I served on their board and helped me to understand policies that I could go out in the community and help everybody else with in terms of if we were making policies, and we’d learn how different businesses operated, and this is something a lot of people need to know, how that business is put together, what ties it in, and so, you know, what two-thirds, two-thirds, two-thirds means. And private-public and poor, you know. And we put that together, and where you had to get your people from and who they were [word], and a lot of times on these boards we found that because we were organized, that we could have a voice in who they put on their boards, you know, especially that they said they was gonna represent the poor, and we wanted to see that, that’s something else that was changed. They went to reaching back, getting poor people, putting on these boards, not just people that say they represented the board, but absolutely a poor person was set on these different boards. And they were trained how to serve on that particular board.
Q: That’s the important part, they had to be prepared to sit on the board.
A: Doing that, were getting trained so that they would know when they said, somebody said, “All in favor,” they would know to vote aye if they wanted it and no if they didn’t like it. And when they didn’t like it they would know that there was something in the community, the community wouldn’t like, not that it’s something that I didn’t like per se, but I was saying no or yes, that’s what my community wants, or no, my community don’t want it. And I’m always with my community in my mind, not just my mind. We trained them how to do that and then they would come back and sometimes we’d have to bring reports back and it was good, people would gather around them and that pushed the person on up further, made them be, I call it be greater in their work, and wouldn’t just get on the board, some people get on the board just become stalemates you know, they just sit there won’t say, won’t participate, just sit there to fill up a seat, that’s the [word] and the poor, you know.
Q: How did it make you feel to be part of these organizations?
A: Well I felt good when I was serving on the board because I, the people had confidence in me, that I was the person that they wanted to speak for them, and I was able to do that and carry it back to the community, I was able to show the community that when I spoke they got what they wanted, and that’s why I was so glad I was able to serve on the boards. Not only OB board but all the boards I’ve served on, you know, I was able.
Q: You can talk from experience.
A: Yeah, I’ve been there and I know it. … And I’d always find out before I’d go to board meetings, was there any particular thing that I needed to express, to try to see to get out, when we would have our meetings, community meetings, I’d call all around the councils and see and if it was when I went to the meeting, I was prepared to argue that point.
Q: Tell me about the day MLK was killed.
A: Now that day I was working in the domestic work out there for James G. [word], community, I mean domestic work. And she come home and told me about that, and she, she got off work early, and she said, “I can take you home now.” And I remember her bringing me home. And then that, you know, then the talk got on about that.
Q: The impact of that on Durham?
A: Some, well sometimes people act like it’s a shock to them, and then some, they act like, “Well that’s just something else happened, somebody else just got killed.” But as they, as they beefed it up, then that’s when the feelings started coming alive as they began to beef it up.
Q: Was there a march?
A: I don’t remember, there might have been, but I can’t remember a specific march for that. I don’t think, I’m trying, I don’t even know if we had a memorial, you know, setting, I don’t know, I can’t remember if we did.
Q: What happened when Howard left Durham, what had he done to ensure that things would continue to run even if he was gone?
A: Howard, when he worked with us on training, he, in his mind, he, I’m using his mind, I don’t know what was in him mind, but I feel that he felt that, “If they just do what I taught them to do, they can survive after I’m gone.” And he told, this is one of the things he told me, and I think[?] in our interview here at my house when you was here before, that he was glad to see that some of the ones that was left back was able to keep up and carry on, and that’s how I know that it was in his mind and he was so glad to see that, that our names were still floating, wasn’t somebody just died and, like somebody died and went on to heaven, no, we’re still going. When they call our names, people recognize it.
Q: What role did the NC Fund play in helping UOCI get funded?
A: I don’t know who talked, I know there was Nathan Garrett, David Sullivan that worked for the Fund, and Howard, they were employees of the Fund, but they worked with these churches and went off different places to get the funds, and I don’t know whether Mr. Esser had anything to do with it or not, but Mr. Esser was good to me, because he offered to pay for me, pay my rent, pay on the house for me to go to school, he wanted me to go back to school and get the college education I needed, but I couldn’t leave the community. He said he would pay for somebody to buy my clothes, pay for the children being kept, babysitting for my children, just take care of me, and I just go to sc-, had nothing to do but learn. But I couldn’t give it up for the money. And when I went back to see if he had any money left, the money was, of course the money was gone. That was my fault. But he was so good to me, I’d go, you know, he’d send me out different places talking and I would, he was making sure that I always had a chance to go. Now he did that, he made sure of that. And he didn’t come stand up here in my face every day, but I knew he was in the hand-work, because even when he met me, we would talk, we would meet, talk different places, and he just seemed to be a nice man. And I thought Howard was his special person. Yes, Howard was his special person.
Q: George loves Howard.
A: Yes, he does.
[end of interview]