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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Henry Ell Frye, February 18 and 26, 1992. Interview C-0091. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Decision to enter state politics and experiences in the North Carolina General Assembly

Frye discusses his decision to run for the North Carolina General Assembly in the late 1960s. Frye describes the need for African American representation in state politics and the support he received in his voting district in Greensboro. He goes on to explain some of his early experiences in the legislature as the first African American elected to serve, describing some of the legislation he initiated regarding issues of race and his interactions with other legislators.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Henry Ell Frye, February 18 and 26, 1992. Interview C-0091. 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

AMY E. BOENING:
Well, that's kind of common in family law matters sometimes. What made you decide to go into politics?
HENRY ELL FRYE:
Well, we in Greensboro we had run a black candidate on a couple of occasions for the House and been unable to get a black elected and as a matter of fact had blacks running from Winston-Salem and some other places and at that time there had been no black in the legislature in this century. I just said it's time for somebody to do it and I believe I can do it. And so I talked with a lot of people and everything and was encouraged, and ran, and lost. Very interesting, at that time Guilford County had six representatives and you ran at large so that the six top candidates won and anybody below that lost. I don't remember how many we had, let's see there were nine people running. I came in seventh, so I lost. But the sixth person was James Exum, who is now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. And I think that's very interesting. So I told him the other day that he was the person who beat me in the election. But any rate, I lost that time, and the next time that I ran I won fairly handily. But I thought I could make a difference, and so I ran and finally won and went down and tried to make a difference.
AMY E. BOENING:
Who were some of your supporters back then who encouraged you to run?
HENRY ELL FRYE:
I could name a hundred. I remember one fellow, a dentist there, Dr. B.W. Barnes, who said well, if you run I'll raise the money for you. And he did. Then I had other people who said they would be glad to do work for me and things of that nature and they did. And I remember after I lost, there were several people who came to me and said, "We want you to run again and we're going to help you win the next time." Very interesting thing. Dave Morehead, who was the executive director of the YMCA and friend of a lot of people in Greensboro, including a lot of the so-called power structure of Greensboro, talked with, and I think this is all right to tell, with a fellow named Ed Zane, who was the treasurer as I recall, of Burlington Industries. Very fine gentleman and very active in the community and everything. And he said, "Get a complete resume and get it to me. And I'm going to make copies of it and distribute them among a group of my friends." And I got a detailed list, that was my first detailed biographical sketch, from the things you've seen, being born in Ellerbe, and right on up. And Dave Morehead gave that to him and he distributed it and I know that he did because I found out later from other people, that that's how they learned about me. I recall by this time that I had another treasurer because Dr. Barnes was getting a little old and so forth, and this treasurer when my campaign started and he told me, he said, "You're going to win this time," and I said, "How do you know?" He said, "I can tell by the checks that are coming in." And there were a lot of checks that came in from a lot of people who had not contributed before, and he said that means you're going to win. And he was right. I did. I won. One of the things that I got criticized for, not me as much as some of the people who were espousing it, they said that we had bloc voting by blacks for me. And they were saying, by bloc voting, in other words, even though you could vote for six, that a lot of black precincts, they just voted for me, and the intent of course was to be sure that I got elected. And so I was asked about that, and I said well, I understand that because if I had depended on certain of the silk stocking precincts, I would have still lost because in several of those precincts I still came in seventh or eighth place, which meant I would have lost, so the bloc voting helped me to get elected. And I said once we get blacks in the legislature commensurate with the population, then we can stop bloc voting, and just vote basically on qualifications on the total rather than on that particular thing. But that didn't end the controversy, of course, it continued.
AMY E. BOENING:
Did your campaign encourage bloc voting among the black population? Or did the black voters take it upon themselves?
HENRY ELL FRYE:
Well, a lot of the people who were active in my campaign did it. I didn't go out and say that. But I didn't go out and preach against it either, because at that time that was the only way to get elected. What had to happen was that I had to get enough votes in the black precincts to offset the fact that I lost in so many of the others. And so you put those together, I came in rather high. Now, by the time before I left the legislature, that was unnecessary because then I was also winning in a lot of those precincts. And I'm a great believer that if you've got a bad situation, you've got to do drastic things to change that situation. Hopefully, those things are temporary, you see, so that once you get over that bad situation, then you can go back to normalcy, I guess would be a good term. But I believe you have to do what needs to be done to get the job done. So I defended bloc voting in that situation. And not only with me, but with others where we were trying to get blacks elected into various positions.
AMY E. BOENING:
Did you see that as a major goal - to elect black people in North Carolina?
HENRY ELL FRYE:
Yes. Very definitely. You see because up until a few years before then, you had very few blacks in any elected office. Town councils and everything else. You would have occasionally one and in many cases, none at all, and so you had to take drastic methods to try to get that done.
AMY E. BOENING:
So as the first black elected to the state legislature, what was your main priority?
HENRY ELL FRYE:
Well, my first thing was to get through that amendment to abolish the literacy test as a requirement for voting and I got that through. I found myself, though, spending a great deal of time going through bills for what I considered bad things in bills that came up in the legislator and a lot of those were local bills. I also found myself talking with blacks from all over the state of North Carolina. They would come from all over the state to Raleigh to see me to try to get me to either put in a bill for them, or try to get me to stop a bill, and so I spent a great deal of my time trying to convince them that what they should do is deal with their own legislators. But there was no dialogue between a lot of blacks then and their representatives in the legislature. Sometimes I would take it to the delegation. Somebody would come up and I would take them and go to that legislator and take them with me and say that this was so and so from your district, and they have got a little problem here with this bill, and I told them you would be glad to talk with them. And, of course, they were.
AMY E. BOENING:
Playing liaison once again.
HENRY ELL FRYE:
Yes, yes. But I found that to be very effective and it wasn't long before a lot of them began to have that dialogue with their representatives, which is what they should have had all of the time.
AMY E. BOENING:
Do you remember any confrontations occurring early in your years with the legislature regarding any racial issues that came to the floor?
HENRY ELL FRYE:
Well, when I was presenting my bill to abolish the literacy test, in talking about it and giving the history and so forth, one of the legislators asked for the floor and he said that this amendment had nothing to do with race - nothing whatsoever to do with race. When he finished, I explained on the floor of the House very clearly that it did have a whole lot to do with race, that that really was the primary reason for it being there in the first place and gave my own personal example to prove it. That, incidentially, helped to get the bill passed. Another thing that happened that was - I'm not sure it was racial - but it was when I was elected to the Senate. Offices are assigned based on seniority and at that time the rules of the Senate required that seniority be based on service in the General Assembly, which meant that a person who had 10 years in the House and 2 years in the Senate had 12 years' seniority and offices were assigned on that basis. So based on my seniority, I was something like - let's just say, 7th in seniority in the General Assembly, so I should have gotten 7th pick on the offices. But the person in charged just ignored me and didn't make an assignment, which meant that that left me with just a regular office like people with no seniority. When I complained about it, two or three members came to me and said all you are going to do is stir up problems and all like that and so forth. And I said that I understand that, but I just want to be sure that we uphold the rules of the legislature and the rules of the Senate. Under the rules I am entitled to pick number 7 or whatever the number was. The chairman came in and I picked the one that I got, but it meant that the Senator who had moved in had to move out. There was some criticism about that, but it didn't bother me because I knew I was right and then, of course, others came and told me that I was right to insist on it and that type of thing. I was generally respected - for whatever reason, you know, [laughter] - when I went there and a lot of the legislators went out of their way to try to be helpful and everything and I appreciate that. I developed some very longterm friendships from that legislative service. Incidentally, one of the persons who is in the legislature with me was Willis Whichard, who is now on the court with me. He left the legislature before I did and he was a very fine legislator.