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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Reactions to and outcome of the <cite>Hocutt</cite> case

Pearson outlines various community reactions to the <cite>Hocutt</cite> case, in both Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Interestingly, Pearson emphasizes divisions within the black community regarding the effort to challenge segregation at the University of North Carolina. Here, Pearson focuses on the role of leading African Americans James Shepherd and C.C. Spaulding in dictating the outcome of the case. Throughout the interview, as here, Pearson highlights the prominent positions these men held in Durham, particularly in terms of maintaining a sense of racial peace.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218. 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:
Was there any response in the meantime? Did word get out that you had tried this? Did the people of Chapel Hill react?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No. I do remember there was a law school professor there who was from Illinois. He went to school in Illinois with Negroes in his class and so forth. And he made a statement I never did forget. He said, "Of course you had a right to bring this case, and you had a right to bring it under mandamus, to make a state officer do what he is supposed to do." He said, "It's just like a child coming into the parlor and demanding his play toy to play before the guests." Then he said, "We kept our ears to the ground to see what the reaction would be, because we didn't want anything to happen to you." I forget that fellow's name. I think he was dean at one time. And the name of the attorney general at that time was Brummett. So they brought in Brummett, the person who was teaching constitutional law at the University, and Victor S. Bryant, a prominent lawyer here in town.
WALTER WEARE:
Mr. Bryant is still alive?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
He's still alive. [Died 1980] And it was amusing. When we got to the courthouse to try the case, the hearing, the attorney general said he wanted to talk to us. So we would go into this room, and all the Negro citizens stand out in the hall. We went in there to talk, and the attorney general said, "Well, now, I'll tell you what I'll do. If you fellows drop this suit, I'll get the state to appropriate money to pay your tuition outside the state." We asked for assurances. He said, "Well, all I can say is that I would probably do it," and when we come back and tell the people what they said, they said, "Don't give in, don't give in." The whites said "Give in," and the Negroes said to say not give in. They were young people, see. Then, to our surprise, two lawyers came down, the late C. J. Gates and the late M. Hugh Thompson. They said they represented Mr. Spaulding and other people.
WALTER WEARE:
These were black lawyers from Durham.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes. They felt that the suit should be dropped, and we should follow the state's proposal to furnish tuition to Negroes who wanted to go to state schools outside, to such jurisdictions that would admit them. We wouldn't agree to it unless we got a firm commitment. Well, the attorney general couldn't commit the legislature to do anything; all he could say was he'd try. So we wouldn't accept. Then later on a bill was introduced to that effect, but the legislature was mad; they wouldn't pass it. Later on they did pass such a bill, and you know who had control of it: Dr. Shepard. If you wanted to go to Chicago to study medicine or anything of that sort, why, you had to go to Dr. Shepard. If he okayed it, then you'd get your stipend. And several of the southern states then followed that.
WALTER WEARE:
Did Shepard have contacts in the legislature?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Oh, yes, because he was a clever politician. If he'd been white, he would have been governor of this state.
WALTER WEARE:
Tell me a little bit more about him. He was a Republican, wasn't he?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes.
WALTER WEARE:
That didn't make any difference?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No, no, because Shepard was a very, very clever… He was a highly educated man. He was clever. He finished in pharmacy. He started to study law, but his mother didn't want him to study law. It was a very strong family connection. He held some office, I think the Collector of Revenue, during Reconstruction, as a young man. And he never gave up his Republican ties. But he knew how to handle the legislature. He had a fellow working for him by the name of Charlie Amey, who was a graduate of A & T College. And Charlie Amey would go around every year and meet every legislator and every senator as Dr. Shepard's emissary. And every year Dr. Shepard would send everybody in the legislature—the Senate and the House—a Christmas present. And whatever Dr. Shepard wanted, he got. I was talking to a man about five or six years ago who was running for governor, by the name of Taylor, and something came up about Dr. Shepard. And he said, "Yes, Dr. Shepard used to send my father a Christmas present every year." His daddy was a big man in the legislature.
WALTER WEARE:
Was Bryant in the legislature at this time?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No. He had been in the legislature, but he wasn't a member at that time.
WALTER WEARE:
You said that Bryant was one of the people who was trying to control this. Were Bryant and Shepard together on this?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No, I don't think so. I think Shepard's lawyer was Bob Gant, Sr., who was a member of the legislature at that time. He's now deceased. Bob Gant, Sr. was a lawyer and a politician. Dr. Shepard was working through him.
WALTER WEARE:
Was there a clear division then in the black community over the Hocutt case, would you say, with the black citizens being on one side, and then the feeling that Shepard and a handful of others [were] on the other side?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes. The people who were closely related to the Reconstruction problems naturally were cautious, for fear that there might be repercussions like they had in Wilmington and different places in the state, where people were shot down at the polls and told to run, be out of town and so forth. And then you had the younger generation, who were far removed, who knew what the issue was, who saw the issue clearly. And they didn't care about any repercussions. And that was the division in the Negro community.
WALTER WEARE:
Was there any division at all among the whites?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I had letters from people from all over the state who supported. I can't remember receiving a letter from anyone that was derogatory, who didn't support it.
WALTER WEARE:
What about in Durham? Any white citizens who were supportive?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No, I don't remember anybody.
WALTER WEARE:
Was there any division at all? Was there anybody who stood out as the chief opponent, and then people who were more moderate?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No. Brummett was the attorney general. I guess the people of the status quo figured that you wasn't going to get anywhere with it anyway. It was their ballpark, and you couldn't win on the home court. That was their home court. They didn't think you could win anyway. I don't think they were disturbed at all.
WALTER WEARE:
So among whites who might have had some voice, there was nobody in Durham who spoke up in favor, who supported it?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No, not as I can recall it.
WALTER WEARE:
Any younger white citizens who would …
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No.
WALTER WEARE:
Now this division between the citizens on the one hand and those, you say, who remembered Reconstruction on the other. Shepard had this extra motivation, you're saying, of perhaps getting a law school or something. Now Spaulding's motivation was pretty much fear, you think?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I wouldn't call it fear. He was afraid that the repercussions might cause the same conditions that you had in the Wilmington riots.