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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991. Interview A-0364. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Transgressing racial boundaries as a representative for the Tuskegee Institute

Gordon offers a unique perspective on race relations in Memphis during the late 1930s. As a representative for a Tuskegee Institute publication, Gordon travelled around Memphis to hotels and restaurants. In this capacity, he witnessed the ramifications of racial segregation while simultaneously observing how the respectability of Tuskegee served to blur racial boundaries. His comments reveal the complexities that surround race relations and Jim Crow segregation in the urban South.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991. Interview A-0364. 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

When I was high school I started fiddling around with the newspaper and they asked me to write something about the school, which I did. When I finished high school I went to college. Oats, who was publishing The Memphis World, who was the head of it, went to work at Tuskegee. They had this publication called Service Magazine, which was an official organ of the dietetics department at Tuskegee. They published that because Dr. Fred Patterson-I'm sure you met him when he was alive- conceived the idea that they should properly train cooks and chef cooks at Tuskegee. It went over very well. My job was to take that magazine and go into hotels and restaurants. I was articulate enough at that time to talk to the people about the publication and I did pretty well with that. They kept me on and I went with that for several years.
JOHN EGERTON:
Did you work out of Tuskegee or out of Memphis?
WILLIAM GORDON:
Out of Memphis.
JOHN EGERTON:
You really didn't change your residence, you just took on a job.
WILLIAM GORDON:
I took on a job and I was a resident of Memphis. I would drive around throughout the South.
JOHN EGERTON:
An unusual time to be doing that.
WILLIAM GORDON:
[laughter] I would go into hotels and restaurants and some of them you couldn't walk in the front door.
JOHN EGERTON:
This was in the 30s?
WILLIAM GORDON:
It was in the late 30s. You couldn't walk in the front door, they would invite you come around and go in through the kitchen. I remember one incident in Birmingham where I walked in the front door. The bellhop, who was white, turned to me and said, "you can't come in here, niggers don't come in the front door of this hotel. You've got to come around the back." I said, "well, I have an appointment with the manager." I had called him up and made an appointment to talk about the magazine and the cooking school at Tuskegee. I think what infuriated him was there was a young woman behind the desk who was very polite and smiling when I came in. She didn't care who I was. Then she called the manager and told him I was there. This young fellow, I guess, didn't like that. He came over to me and I guess he was going to put me out bodily. But, just as he approached me the manager came in and shook my hand. Then that fellow disappeared. It was this kind of thing that you had to be very careful about going in and out of these places. The name of Tuskegee was like magic in the South and it had a good name, because of Dr. [George Washington] Carver and what it stood for, so we could get into these places.