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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Asa T. Spaulding, April 14, 1979. Interview C-0013-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

An influential business leader flouts segregation

Spaulding describes a flexible segregated society in the the Durham of the 1930s. White and black leaders met to discuss social change, even though they accomplished little. Spaulding himself, as his stature in the community grew, found that he was exempt from some of segregation's rules, such as discrimination in Pullman cars. Spaulding regrets that segregation artificially separated people who might otherwise have found common interests.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Asa T. Spaulding, April 14, 1979. Interview C-0013-2. 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

WALTER WEARE:
Yes. So the evidences of segregation would have been in the schools. You went to an all-black school.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
And I didn't recognize, or it just never occurred to me that we had the black school there. It was a community school. It was located in the community for the people. And it just happened that all of them were black. So, you see, there wasn't anything to cause me to think that this is a segregated school. It was a community school. Just like you talk about neighborhood schools? And the people in the neighborhood attended the school.
WALTER WEARE:
And the church?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
And the church. Now, as to whether or not there was feeling. See, kids, or the younger people, they don't see that or recognize it unless their parents drill it into them. My parents had no reason to drill this into us, or to call it to our attention, because we socialized and ate together. What is more intimate amongst blacks and whites than to sit down and eat together? It's taken us a long time, even in later life here, in the cities. When I came to Durham, I helped open the hotel here for blacks and whites to sit down together before the public accommodations proceedings were made.
WALTER WEARE:
This was in the fifties?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yes. As a matter of fact, when I came back from Michigan in 1933, and shortly thereafter—I don't remember what the year was, or whether this textile riot in Gastonia happened.
WALTER WEARE:
1929.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, this was while I was away in school, at NYU. But I knew about it, and the tensions that rose and what happened. And after I came back to Durham—I don't recall whether it was a tobacco factory or a textile plant—they had this strike. And where the strike breakers were brought in.
WALTER WEARE:
You're speaking of Durham?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
In Durham. And the situation was very tense.
WALTER WEARE:
The strike breakers were black or white?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, if it was the textile industry, they were all white. And if it was the tobacco industry it was mixed, black and white. But I remember that I was very much concerned about it. While I was away in school, I would write articles for the Carolina Times.
WALTER WEARE:
This was the black newspaper?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
That's right. Periodically something would strike me and I would write an article on it, dealing with it. So when I came back—after I finished and came back here—I started writing an article occasionally on something that was of interest, that had happened in the community and I had a reaction to. I'd write an article and send it as a letter to the editor. And it would be published. And I remember while this strike was going on, I think I made reference to what had happened in Gastonia, and whether or not we wanted it to happen in Durham, and that I thought that the leadership should try to take a stand in trying to bring about a more favorable climate, to settle it without resorting to violence. And I remember one of the letters called for community unity, to get it together. And it attracted a lot of attention. There were comments on it. So much so, that I took it upon myself to go to some of the leaders in the community. I went to a member of the city council, one of the outstanding white leaders. And I went to the editor of the local paper. I sat down and talked with him along the same lines. And I tried to get them to take the leadership in forming a committee. It didn't matter with me whether it was a white committee or an interracial committee. But I thought that there ought to be a committee of the leaders to get together to discuss situations that were developing in Durham, and to provide leadership for the community. And I won't call names because all of them are still living, and holding responsible positions, and well respected. And since I was talking with them privately, trying to get them to project leadership, they all agreed with me that something needed to be done. But no one was willing to assume the responsibility of calling the people together. They were afraid to be rebuffed.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you think that was a genuine feeling, or do you think they were using that?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, they all agreed that it was not good for the community, what was happening, and problems that were coming up. And I took the position that if everybody is pulling together, it becomes easier for all, and progress can be made. Whereas, if you have a divided community and different ones are pulling in different directions, they offset each other, so, therefore, we stalemate. They bought my argument. But they were not motivated, whatever the reasons. And I won't try to read their minds. But many of them said, "I just don't know whether I could get any followship." There could be something to that. Because, you know, when you're staking out new ground, you can be left alone. And unless you can get some followship, you may lose some friends that you had before.
WALTER WEARE:
Were they talking about other leaders or just about the white masses in general?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
No, we were talking about leaders. Because they were holding responsible positions in some of the businesses here, as well as public office and the publishing business.
WALTER WEARE:
White and black leaders could apparently sit down and talk, but you couldn't get much further than that?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
That's right. And then I think, as I began to gain stature, because of my being actuary of North Carolina Mutual—because, you see, the company has always been downtown from its very beginning. It's the only city that I knew of that you could go in anywhere, and find a leading black business in the downtown, in the heart of the town. Because, the post office was just one-half block west of us; Main Street was one block south; and the leading bank was just right around the corner; and the courthouse was probably just a little over two, two-and-a-half blocks southeast. As a matter of fact, the hotel was just one-half block west.
WALTER WEARE:
But there were certain things in that area that you couldn't do.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
But at the same time there were a lot of things we could do. You know, the dollar makes a difference. You take the stores. I remember shortly after I came back—the leading stores, the top stores—a black woman could go in there and buy a dress, but she couldn't try it on. She could have an account. I mean if they felt it was good credit. But they would address their bills to them by their first names. And one of the first confrontations I had was with the leading women's wear store. This was after I got married. I married in 1933. And my wife opened an account there. And I remember the first bill that they sent to her. It was sent to me. A.T. Spaulding. I sent it back and told them that evidently this was meant for Mrs. A.T. Spaulding, because I hadn't made any purchases there. And if, and when, they sent it to Mrs. A.T. Spaulding, the bill would be paid. And they did it. And then others began to take that position. And they changed their practise. And then when that company did, others fell in line.
WALTER WEARE:
Were there practises then that informally kind of fell away for people of your stature?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
They made a difference. You take, for instance, the Pullman accommodations out of Durham. Blacks couldn't get Pullman accomodations in the South at that time. But the top officers of North Carolina Mutual could. I remember when I got ready to go to New York University in 1927. I went down to the ticket office to get Pullman accommodations. And the ticket agent who had been selling Pullman accommodations to C.C. Spaulding, and Dr. Shepard here at the college, Mr. Ferguson. He was the ticket agent. He's still living. Way up in age though. And he sold me Pullman, sold me a berth. And then his successor, Mr. Bobbitt, same thing. From that time on I was always able to get it. And I remember when I went on the train that night. It left here at seven o'clock, or five o'clock. I've forgotten which. But anyway, when I went on the Pullman car, before entering the car, I heard conversations, with the passengers on there. When I walked in through that door, it got so silent. I went on to my seat and sat down. And it was some time before somebody started talking with his seat-mate, or the person across the aisle. I paid no attention to it; I knew I had my seat and I was going to keep it [Laughter] ; I was going to bed that night when the time came. And that's what I did.
WALTER WEARE:
So there was no overt action?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
No overt action, just everybody ignoring me. And later it got to the place where conversations would start between the passengers and me. And especially after I became actuary of North Carolina Mutual. So I've seen these changes take place. And, you know, people are still afraid of anything that's strange. If you don't know about it, you're uncertain, you know, and you just don't know how. And I think that's one of the curses of segregation and discrimination. It prevents people from coming to know each other. And I have found when people come together, they find a man is a man is a man is a man. As Gertrude Stein would say. Or a woman is a woman. And that the color of the skin has nothing to do with your ideals. You have some black grand rascals, and you have some white grand rascals, or scoundrels. And you have people of high ideals from all races. And the only way you can know, is by actual contact and conversation with the person. Just like I told you about those classmates of mine, that I had in Michigan. And once we came to know each other, we became fast friends. And I have found it as I have travelled around the world, or across this country. There isn't a time, hardly, that I get on a plane today that I don't either sit down beside someone that I don't know, or someone I don't know sits down beside me. And it's only a few minutes before a conversation starts. And when it does, both of us are sorry when we get to our destination. Because, fortunately—and I hope this doesn't sound that I'm bragging; it's not that, but to make a point. When a person finds that you're conversant on the things that are of interest, that you have ideas too, and you can back it up with some solid information and with experiences, whether it's on local issues or national issues or international issues, that you can hold an intelligent conversation with him. And you just get started in a conversation, one thing goes on to another, just like our interviews here. And you find that everybody has experiences—there isn't a person who doesn't have some experiences—different from the experiences of somebody else. That's the way we broaden our experiences. I remember one of the managers of our Philadelphia district years ago made this statement: When two people come together, each one may come with one idea. If they exchange those ideas with each other, when they go back, both are richer. Because each came with only one idea, which was his own. When they separate, they go away with two ideas—the one he brought and the one the other person brought. Then he has some comparisons that he can make.