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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 >>

The Durham Committee on Negro Affairs and interactions with local white politicians

Pearson describes some of the ways in which the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs interacted with local white politicians. In particular, Pearson focuses on how the Committee, with Spaulding as its leader, focused on issues of community improvement. In addition to seek infrastructure improvements, the Committee was particularly concerned with getting the city to hire African American police officers and firefighters.

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:
In the early days, what kind of things could the Committee ask of these white politicians who came before them?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Well, they got a whole lot of things. The first thing, you see, the way the Democratic Party operates is on a precinct level. If you get enough people at the precinct level, you can elect officers. As the population grew and the housing changed and so forth, you had a white precinct in a Negro neighborhood. So the Negroes would just go there and poke the whites out. So then they started dividing precincts up and giving them the precinct chairman and the registrar and so forth. I guess you've got four or five precincts in Durham that are controlled entirely by blacks. They got that out of the power structure. And then you've got two members of the County Commissioners, and you've got four or five people on the City Council, and you've got all of the City Board of Education are black except one person, Rodenhizer. I think there have been Negroes on the Board of Education in the County, but there are not now, not at this time. And then on a statewide basis, you see, if a politician could get the Durham vote, it'd help him and it gave the people who were heading up the Citizens' Committee a lot of political clout.
WALTER WEARE:
In these early days, were they asking for community things like street lights or paved streets or black policemen?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes, like fire department and police and things of that sort.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you think it had some effect there?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes. Now Mr. Spaulding took part in that, in policemen and the fire department. When they built the fire department down here on Fayetteville Street, they wouldn't admit Negroes to the white fire departments, which is tragic. Because when they had volunteer firemen, there was a squad called the Hook and Ladder that was controlled by Negroes, who fought fires all over the City of Durham. And then when the city started to pay the firemen, they fired just the black firemen and gave the jobs to whites, and I guess twenty-five or thirty years passed before ever a Negro got on the payroll. And I can remember when they were asking for policemen. Mr. Spaulding headed that up, because he went to the City Council about it and made a speech and asked them about a police. And I think the mayor was a relative of Julian S. Carr.
WALTER WEARE:
Watts Carr?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No, it wasn't Watts Carr. Another Carr; he was mayor of the town. He said no white man would ever submit to a Negro making an arrest. And eventually some other city started hiring Negroes as policemen on the theory that it takes a thief to find a thief. [laughter] And eventually we got Negro police; we got Negro firemen. So now the fire department is no longer segregated; it is integrated. Mr. Spaulding headed up that here.
WALTER WEARE:
Initially, this was to get black policemen in the black neighborhoods.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes.
WALTER WEARE:
That was what, the thirties, forties?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes. Now Negroes didn't ask for that. They just asked them to appoint a policeman. But when they did appoint him, they'd assign him to a Negro community. But they don't do that anymore now.
WALTER WEARE:
And the fire department?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
They built a separate fire department down here right in front of North Carolina Central, and that's integrated now.
WALTER WEARE:
But initially that was not …
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
All black.
WALTER WEARE:
And Spaulding had played a role in getting that built down here?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes.
WALTER WEARE:
Could they get other things like street lights and more paved streets in the black community?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes, Mr. Spaulding was very much interested in paved streets. That wasn't considered radical, you know; there's nothing radical about that.