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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 >>

John Wheeler, head of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs

Spaulding describes John Wheeler, an African-American leader in Durham who chaired the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs. His aggressive leadership built the Committee, but may have doomed his individual personal ambitions, Spaulding believes. As he remembers Wheeler, he reflects on the significance of the Committee, which, in conjunction with companies like North Carolina Mutual, concentrated economic power in the black community.

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:
Before we had this interlude talking about the Spaulding family, we were talking about the mayoral race and about John Wheeler….
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Did you ever see the article I wrote about his death?
WALTER WEARE:
No.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
I'll see if I can find a copy of that. But go on with what you were saying.
WALTER WEARE:
There's quite an aura that hangs around him. And, in fact, he was one of the persons they wanted interviewed in this project, and there are three or four people in the community, perhaps, who knew him a long time, and you are one of them.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, he and I were roommates when he came to Durham.
WALTER WEARE:
I was wondering if you'd talk about him a little bit. [interruption]
WALTER WEARE:
You were roommates. And your initial impression? Just your feelings about him, and what you think was the difference he made in Durham? How Durham might have been a different place without him?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Don't I say that there? [Referring to article Spaulding has written.]
WALTER WEARE:
Well, maybe not as fully as if you just talked about it. Let me lead you into it this way: there's the feeling that—maybe a little bit like yourself—that he was a man who kept behind the scenes, did not seek a great deal of public acclaim, yet he was always doing something.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
He was very much out in front, though, and the appointments he got and the positions he served, and connections that he had.
WALTER WEARE:
He never ran for public office, though, did he?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, some people say there was a reason for that. Sometimes you make a lot of enemies, you know, when you're fighting a cause. What's the old saying? When you attack city hall.
WALTER WEARE:
You can't fight city hall.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
And things of that nature. Now I'm not saying this as my opinion, but I'm saying it as an opinion that has been held by some. First, John was somewhat of a proud person. And I think that it's necessary to have some pride or self-pride. Otherwise you won't do anything much. A person without pride, what do you have to appeal to? I'm not sure that John would have been willing to offer himself to the public, to the electorate, if he had reasons to feel that he wouldn't come out victorious.
WALTER WEARE:
And you think that it's unlikely that he would have?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Because he had rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Because of the positions he took, and would have to take. Even as chairman of the Durham Committee.
WALTER WEARE:
When you first met him in 1929, did you see this in him?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, he wasn't involved in politics. He hadn't gotten involved in community affairs or anything else. He had just finished Morehouse; he came here right out of school. And teller at Mechanics and Farmers Bank was his first job.
WALTER WEARE:
But this strength and aggressiveness—if that's the right word?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, it hadn't shown then. Because until he became active in community affairs and activities—and then you see it was long time between the time that he came here, and his becoming chairman of the Durham Committee. Which was really the battlefront for the Negro causes.
WALTER WEARE:
If D.B. Martin, as you indicated, was the man early on, would Wheeler….?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
He made a lot of enemies. Dan Martin would have never run for office. With all of the political force that he had, acumen and all, I doubt seriously that Dan would've ever run for public office, if he'd lived,
WALTER WEARE:
Was Wheeler aware of this? That it was unlikely that he could ever come out ahead?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, I don't know. Because it's hard to tell what a person's aware of, unless you sit down and discuss it with him.
WALTER WEARE:
That's what I'm wondering, if he ever sat down and talked about these things.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, he knew how people felt about him, naturally. Because in conversations and all, the battles and the run-ins that he had.
WALTER WEARE:
Was he contented in that role? Was it true that he was directing things behind the scenes as much as anyone?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
I think that definitely that he was, very much. Well, you take the president of the United States—all of them. They'd always send up trial balloons to find out which way the wind was blowing before they went out there themselves. Roosevelt was a master at it. And so have they been all the way down. And Carter has his cabinet members to come out and say some things first—especially if the thing's going to be very delicate. He at least wants to get some feel of the pulse, or which way the wind's blowing before. Because when you come out yourself, and you're the kingpin and all, and you send up a trial balloon and it flops, what does it do to your credibility? And as I have observed, the way people operate, they take it on whether it's from the courthouse to the White House. People always like to send out feelers.
WALTER WEARE:
And you think John ever sent out those feelers?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
I wouldn't know, and I wouldn't want to speculate.
WALTER WEARE:
Is it fair to say that without him the Durham Committee may not have become what it was?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Let me say this. Not because it was John Wheeler or anything else, but I think anybody in the role that John Wheeler was in. If he had in mind running for public office, he probably wouldn't take the stand and be as contentious and as tenacious. [END OF TAPE 3, SIDE A] [TAPE 3, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 3, SIDE B]
ASA T. SPAULDING:
He likes to succeed in what he's trying to do and where he's trying to lead people. And sometimes, even no matter how much ambition you may have, if you're going to put the good of the public above your own selfish interest, you may have to sacrifice yourself for the good of the public.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you see him as a kind of sacrificial hog, then? In black politics in the South?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, I think that if he was just wholly political and a striver for public office, that he might have been more careful about some things, and positions that he took, than he would have otherwise, because afterall. You see, you can do some things if you're independent that you can't if you're not. And because his livelihood and means of survival was not dependent on being the employee of a white institution—because his support came from the black community. I'm talking about economic support. And his base of his political strength was in the black community. And being a black, too, and if you're going to be worthy, sometimes you have to give yourself for a cause if you believe in the cause. And if you don't do that, then you become a hypocrite, and that soon will show up. So I have no way of knowing whether he inwardly, or had secret ambitions, that were not fulfilled or not. I just have no way of knowing it, because we never discussed it.
WALTER WEARE:
I was really more interested in your assessment of his role and the process of politics.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
I think he served a role that was needed and that he was peculiarly fitted to serve it.
WALTER WEARE:
It's a striking point as to how he was invulnerable, to a certain extent from white sanctions, because he had independent financial base. Do you see that as true, in a larger sense, for the whole Committee?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, I think it's not because that. Afterall, his family—he came from a very proud family. I forget now whether his father or his mother was from Kentucky.
WALTER WEARE:
His father, I think.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
And his parents were well-educated. His father was president of Kittrell College before he came to North Carolina Mutual. He always stood well. I don't know how far he could trace his lineage, but back to his parents, and probably beyond that, they were upstanding, straight-forward people. And it was a part of his heritage.
WALTER WEARE:
If we look at the Durham Committee, it's been Dan Martin.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
He was the political arm of it.
WALTER WEARE:
And it's been Wheeler, and it's been Stewart. It's been a number of figures who were associated with black financial institutions who did not owe their existence.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
No chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People survival depended on the white community, or was on the payroll.
WALTER WEARE:
Political scientists are fascinated with this Committee, because they think that it brought the vote to Durham long before other Southern cities.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
The economic situation here: here you have three black institutions that control over two hundred million dollars in assets in a city with less than fifty thousand blacks. Now, can you duplicate that anywhere? And for years—I don't know what it is now—Durham had the highest per capita home-ownership, black home-ownership, than anywhere else in the nation. Because with these financial institutions and making loans to blacks, when they couldn't get them from white institutions. And had it not been for these institutions here, the home-ownership in this community…Because what happened—I think I told you. When we got to the state of Pennsylvania, no blacks there could go downtown and get more than five thousand dollar loans from any institutions. It didn't matter what security they had. And that was the city of brotherly love, in Philadelphia. When North Carolina Mutual entered there in 1938, right just coming out of a Depression, it set aside a half-million dollars to invest in mortgage loans for Negroes in the city of Philadelphia. Well now a half-million dollars today, with inflation and everything else, doesn't sound like much. But a half-million dollars in 1938, in one city, and for blacks? And we weren't operating in Philadelphia three years before that white market, those lending institutions, began to open up. And for years, way back, blacks in Durham have been able to go to the white banks, and white savings and loan associations, because these other institutions were here, and they knew if they didn't make them, we would. And then, as I was talking to some of the people at Metropolitan and others not so long ago, we were talking about it, going over some of these things. And in these institutions, they had to make loans, or in the eyes of some people at least. Well, in the first place, I can see why the white institutions in Philadelphia didn't, because blacks had not established any credit, or been considered responsible, or able, or would repay those loans. But when North Carolina Mutual went in there, and when they looked at this black institution, and their foreclosure rate, and found that it was no worse than theirs, and in some instances better. Because there was one thing that a black wanted and that was a home. And he would sacrifice a lot of other things to keep the payments up on that home. Well, what's the next step? Either those blacks are smarter than we are, if they can make loans to black mortgage holders and survive. If they can survive on it, we ought to be able to do it, too. So that's what I mean, when you try to measure North Carolina Mutual's worth and its contribution to this country, and to the economy, there's no way to do it. Because it's been an example of what a minority group can do, under a democratic form of government and in the free enterprise system. And when North Carolina Mutual was organized, it was being predicted that the Negro race would soon be no problem, because they'd all be dead. And here comes a group of blacks and organizes a company and builds on these people, whose mortality they thought was going to result in their extermination.