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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Asa T. Spaulding, April 16, 1979. Interview C-0013-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Political success and failure

Spaulding describes some of his political successes. In 1968, Spaulding scored a major victory when, with white support, he won a seat on the Durham City Council. In 1971, he sought the mayoralty, narrowly winning the primary but losing the run-off due to misleading advertising by his competitor.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Asa T. Spaulding, April 16, 1979. Interview C-0013-3. 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

ASA T. SPAULDING:
We had never been able to get a black even nominated for the county commissioner's board.Lincoln Hospital had problems getting aid from the county. And one of the trustees came to me to see if I would run for county commissioner, because they felt that without a voice on the board, the chances were that the doors of the hospital would be closed. He put it to me this way. He said, "You owe it to the community. You're the only person who would have any semblance of a chance of being elected. And for you to refuse, it would be turning your community down." Well, you know, that's something to put on your conscience. Especially with all the sickness of my family, and all my children were born in Lincoln Hospital. So I thought about it, and I said, well maybe it's true. And here's a good chance for me to find out whether the demonstration that took place in the civic center on that night was genuine. I went down the day of the deadline that morning, and filed as a candidate for county commissioner. So I ran and was elected. There were thirteen people running, encumbants as well as new ones, in the primary. The person who had been on there I think about fifteen years or more. And had always led the ticket. He's an undertaker. So he was campaigning everytime he buried a body. And he was the largest undertaker in town. He was very popular. In the primary he beat me by five hundred-and-nine votes. In the general election, I beat him by more than the five hundred votes that he beat me in the primary. In other words, I led the ticket. So the demonstration manifested itself not only in the civic center but at the polls. I had a tremendous white vote all across the city, and carried several of the white precincts.
WALTER WEARE:
That was in '68?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
'68.
WALTER WEARE:
And was it in '70 that you ran for mayor?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
'70 or '71. No, it was '71. The election for mayor was off-year from the elections for county commissioner. I didn't plan to run for re-election in '70, but they came back to me and said, "Now you've opened the door, the only way we can be sure to keep it open is for you to run again." Well, I did run. I was elected, and led the ticket then. So in '71, people were displeased with the person they had as mayor, and they were going to make a change. And it was suggested that I run. Well, it was so late. Because Hawkins had been out, and all of my friends— especially in the white community, and some of the blacks—he had commitments from. They wanted to get rid of the incumbent, and if he, Hawkins, would run, they promised to support him, both financially and otherwise. I hadn't indicated that I was giving any consideration to doing it. So he had all these commitments. He had commitments from the Seamans, from the Powe firm, from the Bryants, and everybody else. But there were others who wanted me to run. So I sent a letter to one of these people saying I was being urged to run, and if I ran, would they support me. And they came back and said that they were sorry that they didn't know earlier; they had no idea that I was even considering it. They knew I was on the board of county commissioners and had led the ticket and all, and could probably stay there as long as I wanted to. And they didn't think that there would be any likelihood that I would be a candidate. And they had naturally committed themselves to Hawkins. And in politics you don't go back on your word, you know, when you commit yourself to a person. That's one of the rules of politics, that your word is your bond. So anyway, I had a good bit of grassroots support. And I went on through with it. And I won the primary. I beat him by twenty-six votes. Despite all the support of the leading citizens and the power structure downtown. Well, some of the questions that they were using: "Are you going to let a black be the mayor of Durham?" "Is Durham ready for a black to be the mayor of Durham?"
WALTER WEARE:
Was the press raising this issue, too?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
No. By word of mouth. They were contacting the different ones and even contacted some of the blacks that had pledged to support Hawkins. Well, I can understand that. Because they were working with him on the city council and all; they had wanted to get rid of the incumbent. Naturally they had promised that they would support him if he ran. I had not announced that I was considering it. But anyway I got enough encouragement to cause me to go ahead and file. And, of course, you know the results. So there had to be a run-off between him and me. The thing that provoked me—because I was told the Friday before. Well, as a matter of fact, I had some of the political leaders down in East Durham to call me and tell me that I needed to come down there and speak to those people. Because he had been down there, and the things that he'd said, a lot of people were being turned off. And also I did not go back to the tobacco factory, where all the laborers were working, between the primary and the election. I got the support at the primary. He had visited them, and had his representitives making the contacts down there. And in addition to all that work that I didn't know was going on—I didn't work as hard as I could have worked between the primary and the election. But on election day, I was visiting the different precincts. I had been, from the time the polls opened until five o'clock that afternoon. And I didn't have my radio on. I was going from Pearson School precinct down here, I guess, to Hillside precinct. Kenneth was with me. He turned the radio on. The first thing I heard was, ‘Black millionaire running against white real estate dealer’. I declare they couldn't have fabricated a bigger lie. Hawkins could have bought and sold me three or four times. But that had been going on on three of the radio stations and the t.v. almost all day. And nobody had mentioned it to me. Well, naturally the people at the precincts didn't know it; they were working and all. And I was circulating. So that's the way that I heard it. I came in and I called WDNC—a large listening station. They were running it. And I demanded that they issue a statement, or withdraw that anyway. It was untrue, and so forth and so on. And you know what they said? They were just as sorry as they could be, but they thought it was a fact, and that it had come to them from the UPI in Raleigh, and they thought it was authentic. That's why they were running it. They gave me the number of UPI. I called them. They said they got the information from Durham, and since I lived here, and it was a Durham contest, they thought it was authentic. They had sent it out to all the radios. I told them it was not true, and I demanded a retraction. And about thirty minutes later they came back with the retraction. Well, that was going on towards six o'clock. They said that they had checked their sources in Durham and had found that it was not true, and that they therefore retracted it. Well, the damage was already done then.
WALTER WEARE:
The polls close at seven or eight?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Seven, I think it was, or seven-thirty. And it was six then. But in the meantime, at Watts Street School precinct—I was there that afternoon. The polling was very good that morning. For a good many blacks. That afternoon I stayed over there for a half an hour and didn't a single black come to that poll. They had been hearing this. And there were a good many low-income people there. They were saying, "Well, hell, if he's a millionaire, no point in my going out voting." The teachers down at the college had a group of college students working for me down in the black neighborhood here. They had heard it. They went home. Wouldn't work anymore. They went home around noon and didn't work anymore. They were volunteers, you know. They said, "Dammit, if he's got a million dollars, if he's a millionaire, he ought to be paying us for it. I'm not going to get out there and work for nothing. Not for a millionaire." Well, I didn't even know the thing was going on. Well, anyway, all those things were happening. It was just too late. Even after all of them had retractions. The damage was done; my workers had stopped [Laughter] . And the tide had turned.