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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 >>

Rising assertiveness in the early twentieth-century black community

Spaulding describes the rise of some new trends in race relations in Durham, North Carolina, including expanding awareness by African Americans, many of whom were inspired by the Harlem Renaissance; greater aggressiveness on the part of black leaders like Dan Martin; and greater receptivity to black leadership by a new generation of influential white Durhamites. As he remembers Martin, Spaulding recalls the shift in political influence from local leaders who bought and sold votes to political organizations like the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs.

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

WALTER WEARE:
We were talking about your experience with Harlem the other day, about the new Negro movement, the Harlem Renaissance. Did that filter down to Durham? Was there a feeling here that something was changing?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Ch, yes. Because you see what was happening: so many blacks, even from Columbus Country, would go to New York. And they would come back on business, you know, the families. And that's one thing, communications, what's going on, by word of mouth, and you see people, and you hear about where they're working and things they're doing: it creats an awareness.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you remember R. McCants Andrews?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Ch, yes. He was the first black lawyer in Durham. First black to practice in the Durham courts. He was a Harvard man. He didn't back up for anything. I guess you've been told that before.
WALTER WEARE:
So he, McDougald—who else would be kind of leading the way?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, Dan Martin, who was one of the employees of North Carolina Mutual, was a most astute politician. Dan Martin, after the Durham Committee was formed, he was heading up the political division of the Committee. The white political leaders always sought him out.
WALTER WEARE:
White political leaders?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yes. And the precinct captains and all of them. And the labor unions. And he'd go into meetings of these politicians. And he didn't mind using his profanity. "Damned if we're going to do this" or "Damned if we're going to do that" or "If you want so-and-so, you've got to do this." And the older whites resented it. But the younger whites saw that he could deliver. And that was the beginning of the different groups here. At that time, back in the thirties, the politics in Durham was controlled by a very small group of whites. And the city council was controlled by one man.
WALTER WEARE:
Who was he?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
John Sprunt Hill. You've heard that, haven't you? And employees of his in his diverse businesses would run. And he'd back them financially.
WALTER WEARE:
This is Watts Hill's father?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Young Watts Hill's grandfather.
WALTER WEARE:
Yes.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Watts Hill, Sr.'s father. And then Percy Reid, who was the county attorney, had a large following. And the Bryants were very strong. So you'd have a group of people who more or less determined the politics in this community.
WALTER WEARE:
So Martin would go to them?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
When Martin came upon the scene, there was a clash between him and his group and them. And then an alliance was formed with the later labor union, a coalition. And they began to get more and more power. And then when they got enough power to unseat the county chairman.
WALTER WEARE:
This condition was between the labor union…?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
And the Durham blacks.
WALTER WEARE:
The Durham Committee on Negro Affairs.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yes. And they unseated the chairman of the democratic party, and put a younger, more liberal person in.
WALTER WEARE:
Who was that, do you remember?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Leslie Atkins. I don't remember whether he was the first one or not. But he was in the early ones. I think he would be first of the younger breed to become the chairman of the democratic committee.
WALTER WEARE:
Are both blacks and whites in these labor unions cooperating in this coalition, or is it just black workers?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Now, I don't mean that they had one hundred percent cooperation, but by this coalition they got enough of them with the black vote to elect X number of people. The majority, where they got so strong they were able to more or less determine how the election would go.
WALTER WEARE:
The Durham Committee is established in what, 1935?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
1935, I think it was. '35 or '38, but I think it was '35.
WALTER WEARE:
Now you say the precursor to this was people like McDougald, Dan Martin and others?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
No, no, no. They were in it when it was formed.
WALTER WEARE:
But in the twenties?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Oh, earlier. Well, you had Buck Waller, who was a black and ran a meat market. And his market was up here on Fayetteville Street. And others up in West Durham area. Spotted around in different areas, who had a following. Businessmen would all go there. You know how people would gather to discuss things. And each one, if he controlled twenty-five or fifty votes, after all. Because the number of people who turned out and voted were not spectacular numbers, at that time. A guy could pick up twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred votes that way.
WALTER WEARE:
Now there's a distinction to be made here between the meat market man and somebody like Andrews.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yeah, and McDougald and Martin.
WALTER WEARE:
The meat market man is a ward heeler who's selling votes.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, the Durham Committee, that was one of its ironclad policies: we're not for sale. We will vote for you if you take the positions that we stand for.
WALTER WEARE:
If there's any one person in the black community who would get credit for the Durham Committee, would it be this man, Martin?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, everybody recognized him as being chairman of the political committee, and they followed his recommendations pretty closely. See, the Committee was divided into subcommittees. They had the political arm, and he was chairman of that political arm. He has stood up in some of these meetings and had some pretty hot clashes with the older heads. I remember one meeting he was in, and one of the older white political leaders—there was some position they were taking on something. Martin was opposed to it, and one of them was for it. And he, Martin, stood up and said, "I'm going to use all the influence I have to defeat it." And this white man made the mistake of saying, "Well, you'd better wait until you get some influence," He didn't know how much he had [Laughter] .
WALTER WEARE:
Martin said this to him?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
The white politician didn't know how much influence Martin had. But when the results were in, he found out.