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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Josephine Turner, June 7, 1976. Interview H-0235-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Determination to improve her community

The death of a boy, killed by a car at a poorly designed intersection, motivated Turner's involvement in city politics, she recalls. Her interest in the case led her to crusade against drug use and to intervene in fights. She tells a number of stories about violent incidents in Durham, illustrating a city likely wrestling with unemployment and crime and dramatizing her own determination to improve the lives of others.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Josephine Turner, June 7, 1976. Interview H-0235-2. 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

KAREN SINDELAR:
Was that like a real election that happens with the East End Community?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
Well yes, with the people in the community. Well, you see, I got involved when Mr. Holman was the president. Well, I just got out and started doing things, you know. A lot of them talked; we've got a lot of folks in the community who are talking, but action, no. Well, I'll tell you when I first got really bogged down, when this kid got killed right here on the corner. We have a light here now; had a lawsuit about it. That was about five or six years ago. And I went up to City Council then with the mother of the child. They was talking about putting sidewalks way down there , and I told them they needed to put the sidewalks on Allston Avenue by this and we needed a light. These are the things that really kind of upset me, and that's when I started out. And I started going and asking for things.
KAREN SINDELAR:
That was about six years ago?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
Seven years ago.
KAREN SINDELAR:
It was that incident that sort of sparked your activity?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
Yes, this really got me upset, because I knew this boy's mother, the grandmother and all. And I knew they were poor people and wasn't able to do…
KAREN SINDELAR:
He was killed by a car, is that it?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
Yes. The lady didn't mean to do it. The child panicked and ran in front of her, and she hit her gas instead of the brakes and knocked him from that corner up in that driveway there. And it was a pitiful situation. The lady was very disturbed; she was at the funeral home and sent him a beautiful wreath and she baked them gifts. But the idea of the thing was no light there, no sidewalks, no nothing. So the girl forgave her. She looked at it at the human side as to what happened, because it could have happened to anybody. But it was the neglect of the city that it happened, you know, by no sidewalks. So it's little incidents like this that makes you sad. And I begged for a light up here, because somebody's going to be killed up there on the corner of Darwin and Elizabeth. But you can't tell them that, you know. So these are the things that really upsets me. But by being a black woman I believe they hear me more, you know. One thing, when I ask the people to go with me, they'll go. And I get the church bus, and we'll go.
KAREN SINDELAR:
You use the church bus?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
Oh yes, they let me have the bus any time I need it.
KAREN SINDELAR:
And what do you do, take people who are going to tell them with you?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
To go to city hall with me, you know.
KAREN SINDELAR:
With you?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
So these are the things that just gets me upset. They get at me now. I haven't drunk anything since '63; I don't drink. I'm not saying I'm better than anybody that do drink, don't get me wrong; but I do know that stuff keeps you fog-minded. You don't know what you're doing. And what hurts me is the young girls out here on this dope. And I know the young man that killed the baby. You see, they're not doing the job down there with the dope-pushers, and I know it because they're getting at the ones that are smoking it. They need to get the pushers; this is where it's at.
KAREN SINDELAR:
Do you think they're doing it on purpose, not getting the pushers?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
I have told them, and they say I'm crazy. It's somebody downtown that's the head person of it; yes, I feel that. Because I know for myself they have gotten them off the street, and the next time in thirty minutes they're back out there, you know. So a person that would be a tattletale… They wanted my son to be a tattletale [a drug informer]. And I told them no, he's not going to be no tattletale and put his life on the line when they pick them up for five minutes and then are back out in ten minutes. He'd be just like that couple that was killed out there on the road. They'll never find out who killed them, you know, and this is what would happen to him. I told them no. And the man told me, he said, "Well, we're going to put him in jail." I said, "Well, you take out your warrant on him, but you have your warrant right when you take it out. He's not going to be a stool pigeon, you know." I said, "You done got one black one killed rushing in on stuff like that. Now what are you trying to do, get my son killed?" And when he said he didn't like my attitude I told him I don't care. I don't like his attitude neither—you know, trying to get my child killed for a thing like that. So I feel like somebody downtown is the head of it, and they know I'm almost close to who it is. And this is why my son is scared for me, 'cause he says, "Momma, shut up; you talk too much." I said, "No. It's not right." If you could come out here one weekend, especially about the first of the month, and see some of these girls fourteen, fifteen years old, and just look at them, and some of the young boys twelve, thirteen, some of them not fourteen years old, and just see how they are.
KAREN SINDELAR:
You said dope. You mean marijuana, or do you mean harder stuff than marijuana?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
I don't know what they're on, honey, but I know they're on something: something that'll make them stand up and go to sleep when they're talking, and do wild things. I've seen a boy standing at a police officer and just go straight up to him and just scream at the top of his voice. And people naturally are scared of them, you know. And I've tried to talk to them and calm them down 'til they get out of there. And I've had people come in there and draw guns on one another and all this. This is one thing I thank God for too: they have a lot of respect for me over here, the people that know me. I try to live what I talk to them about. And they could be fighting… I went out there and stopped a lot of fights. When the police got there I'd done stopped the fight, you know.
KAREN SINDELAR:
How do you do that?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
I just go out there and tell them to behave theirself. And I have pulled them away from one another.
KAREN SINDELAR:
And they mind you?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
Yes. When they'd be fighting, if I grab one and I push one off of the other they won't hit me. I went out there and one had a gun one night, and I took the gun away from him. He was drinking, and everybody else was just running. I said, "Give me the gun." They all call me Mamma. He said, "Mamma Jo, don't say that." I said, "Give me the gun." And my son's there, "You're going to get killed; you're crazy running out there." But so far God has been good. They respects me; and if I speak to them they can be out there cussing or whatever they're doing, I can walk out there and speak to them. And like one guy said, if I get killed he believed the young men in this community would find whoever killed me. But I told him, if they would kill me it wouldn't be any of the young people around here that know me. It would be some stranger that don't know me. You know, a lot of people are scared me working at night up there on account of me handling money there. I said, "Well, I'm not afraid."
KAREN SINDELAR:
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
"Well, I'm not afraid." That's why a lot of those boys—see, they hang on that corner, and I think this discourages a robber from coming in there where I am.
KAREN SINDELAR:
Because of the guys hanging around the corner?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
Yes, they'll be hanging right on the corner, and they'd be out there smoking and drinking a little beer and wine, you know. But I'll go out there and stop them if they get loud. I'll go out there and say, "I'm not going to have it." "All right, Mamma," and that's it.
KAREN SINDELAR:
When they get too loud, just disturbing the neighborhood?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
Yes. You know how young people get loud, cussing sometimes.
KAREN SINDELAR:
Do you have any incidents in your working at night?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
No.
KAREN SINDELAR:
Nothing?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
I mean, now sometimes they get to fighting or something like that. Now I've had incidents when I wasn't there. They tell me the week I went to Atlanta they was out there shooting. Well, that never happens when I'm there, you know. And I had a man that come in with a gun one night and said he was going to kill the man. I said, "Now look; think. You've got a wife and five children." I said, "Think before you do it." He said, "Well, I ought to kill him anyhow." I said, "Why?" Everybody else was running, and got on the floor there. I said, "Now why do you want to kill the man?" The man wasn't saying anything, you know. But somebody'd say I was the biggest fool; he said, "I wouldn't have stood there and talked to the man." I said, "See, I've got God on my side. I'm not scared of that man going to shoot me." Now he could have shot me, but I haven't got scared yet. You know, it's amazing. I haven't got scared yet, and everybody's just running. And I just talked to him as calm as I could. I said, "Now why do you want to kill the man?" And he said the man had drawed a gun on him. I told him, and he was just cussing and . He said, "Excuse me, Mamma, but I'm going to kill this boy." And I said, "Well look. You've got a wife and five children." I said, "Think about them. You kill him and you're not going to have your wife and five children." "Look," he said, "I'm going to listen to you." He went on and got in his car and left.
KAREN SINDELAR:
Wow.
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
Then I told the other man, I said, "Now you go on home." So these are the type things, you know… They're there sitting up behind them desks telling me what's happening out here. They can't do it. You've got to get out here and get involved with these people and know the heartaches and the sadness. And like I tell them, being black and a minority, you know, I feel like in some of the issues I could help them. I feel like in some of the things I could be an asset to them. In the problem of housing: now, one old lady lives in a house up there. If I'd pursue it they'd tear her house down in a minute. Now where would the poor soul go? She don't have anybody, nobody to go to, nobody to turn to. Oh, if I could take you on a tour of the place. I carried the newspaper man and showed it to him; I've carried the inspectors. I won't show them a lot of the homes, because old folks ain't got no money. And this is it: if I had the money, God knows I'd build these houses and put them in it, you know. But what are you going to do? And like I told them up there, I look at them. Mr. Herndon is eighty-one years old. He's got all that profit and all that money. Like I told them, I haven't seen a Wells Fargo truck or a furniture truck yet going to a cemetery behind nobody. They carried nothing with them. And you know, there's so much they could do to help humanity if they would. Now Paul Geddy died with all that money. If he had left me a little of it I could do so much! [laughter]
KAREN SINDELAR:
True.
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
So much I see needs to be done. And the ones that got it, they won't do it. What're you going to do?
KAREN SINDELAR:
Where would you start if you really had more power?
JOSEPHINE TURNER:
If I had more power I'd start with the housing, trying to get some decent houses for these old folks to live in. Then recreation, to get these young people off the corners. And I would try to program them, their minds and their bodies, physically and mentally. I'd try to get them in their churches, you know. I'm not saying saints is in the church; no, the church is the hospital for the sick. But there's so many things that… If I had the time I could just get out and talk with the people. And that's why I say I'm going to trust God and give up my job, 'cause I feel like there's a lot he wants me to do, and I can't do it on the job. So if I was to come to you for a meal, I will [laughter] .