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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Hylan Lewis, January 13, 1991. Interview A-0361. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Dubious government protection for a black man in South

Lewis recalls an experience with segregation: he entered a white waiting room and was accosted by a police officer. He avoided trouble by explaining he was doing government work. He was later warned that while he was working for the government, he should not expect that fact to protect him as he traveled the South.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Hylan Lewis, January 13, 1991. Interview A-0361. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Malcolm x said one time, "The South is anywhere South of the Canadian border."
That's correct, if you are black. [laughter] I knew Washington. So, anyway, Ed and I with our little 1935 or '33 Ford Roadster, which was good at oil burning—we drove and after making other stops we wound up in Atlanta. We went on from there to Mississippi and came back up to New England and so on.That summer, summer school was in session, and it so happened that Atlanta University was kind of a mecca at that time and even later. For students, particularly doing not only undergraduate but graduate work as well in the various [social science] disciplines. Billy Geeter, names you probably know, Ann Cook Reed, who later married Ira Reed, they were there. They conducted a very important and well-known theater repertory. John Mack Brown was there. Also, there were people who were visitors there. Sterling Brown was there that summer and Harold Lewis. I remembered because we had a wonderful time with this group of people in Atlanta. The things that I remember, the comraderie, but also the kinds of paradox which grew out of the fact of this oasis, this very stimulating oasis there which was Atlanta University and Spelman College.I remember we would spend our evenings sometimes just getting in the car and riding up. These little vignettes would stick in your mind, again, I mention the paradoxes here. We would drive out into rural Georgia and park the car at one of these little taverns or roadhouses or we would go in and get beer. Again, in the Georgia which is the Georgia of inaudible. I had been in Atlanta before that. I had been in Atlanta for the Department of Labor which is another thing which I will mention about my coming in there. We can come back to that. From Washington and Richmond, working for the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the cost of living study later on. I had government vouchers and I would go up into the. . . . If you remember that period, I don't know whether you remember, but in order for me to get pullman or sleeping car arrangements I had to into the "white waiting room." So, I walked in there with my friend Fisher, who was a Mormon from Utah, just as naive as you could be. I said, "Look, be careful." I said, "I don't know what kind of inaudible you have in my luggage and so on. So, I walked into the white waiting room and walked up to the counter. This little cop said, "What are you doing here?" I turned and very quietly said, "I'm getting accommodations, I have government orders here." I used the word government and he didn't know how to handle that. He walked back and stood and watched me the whole time.
Was that a practice that worked to say I have government orders here?
Well, it's such an unusual thing that you would use any leverage, and I did. It worked in the sense that this person was not used to that, he didn't know it and it was enough to throw him off. This worked both ways. We will have a rambling conversation if you ask these kinds of questions.To give you another point of that particular picture, that same trip with Ed Lewis, I took an examination for junior social economist in New Orleans at the customs house. That is where it was held. It was to be held in Washington but I got it transferred there. It was out of that that I got this later appointment. But, the point is that when this group ofinterviewers left Washington we met in the Labor Department there. I will never forget this guy's name, administrator, Fitzgerald. He said to me particularly, he said, "Look, you're going South, you are traveling with the government but in a sense you are on your own." This is diverting but if you want to get into these little vineyards and what the South was like and my particular, really interesting, kind of ventures that involved me as a young college graduate. I was lucky enough to have a great variety of kinds of experiences. Again, when you talk about, as you know so well, one of the aspects of living and coping is the dealing with the paradoxes.
The inconsistencies and learning how to play the game.
Precisely, but there again, they are part of the picture. They make the system work so to speak. In any situation where there were rules and pretend rules. Again, how do you do it, who does it, what happens?