Self-determination and self-reliance in the start of Beech's collegiate career
Beech describes his long journey to Morehouse College. Rather than remaining a barber like his father, Beech resolutely decided to pursue a collegiate degree. He reveals how racial myths led to his timidity when talking to a Morehouse college official. Beech's refusal to rely on his parents' monetary support exposes his independence and self-reliance, prevalent themes throughout the interview.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Harvey E. Beech, September 25, 1996. Interview J-0075. 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
1. HARVEY E. BEECH:
...I didn't like that at the beginning,
that barber business, because when I finished high school, my brothers
and sisters had all been sent to college and none had graduated from
college. And after I graduated--I was probably the sixth or seventh in
my class, guess--he told me that he was tired of spending money on
college. He was going to send me to another kind of college, and he sent
me to Harris Barber College in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I got my
registered license at age 20. At age 17-I'd just finished
high school. Finished at 17. He wanted me to be a barber like, as he
was. I got my barber's license and I came
back, and I wanted to go to college. My mother wanted me to go to
So I guess the statute of limitations has run now, but they had numbers
at that time. I had ten cents and I hit a number for fifty dollars and I
took my barber tools and that fifty dollars and I caught a ride with a
nurse who was leaving to go into Atlanta, and I was on my way to Xavier
University where my brothers and sisters had started, had gone to
college. And, but the lady stopped in, her destination was Atlanta. So
she put me off at the YMCA at Butler Street in Atlanta. A 17 year old
boy, never been out of town except to Raleigh, afraid of everything. And
there was a gentleman who was manager of the YMCA. a Mr. Holmes, he
asked me about what were my plans. I said, "I'm
trying to get to New Orleans, to go to Xavier University." He
said, "Why Xavier?" I said, that's where my
brothers and sisters went. He said, "Why don't you
go to Morehouse?" I said, "Where is that?" He
said, "Here in Atlanta." I said, I don't
care where, any place would be all right with me. This was in June of
1941, July 1941. There was no summer school.
So he told me how to get on the streetcar. I'd never been on a
streetcar in my life. I didn't know how you deposit the coin.
Anyway, I made it. I went all the way over from east Atlanta on Albany
Avenue and Butler Street, to west Atlanta where Morehouse is situated
now. And I walked in the Bursar's office, which is the
business office, and the gentleman named Mr. Gassett, he told me, Mr.
Holmes told me to go see Mr. Gassett. So I walked in. I was probably,
weighed about 185 pounds, five-eleven or six feet.
And I walked in the office and he looked like a Caucasian gentleman. And
he said, "What do you want, boy?" And I said,
"I'm looking for a job." And he said,
"Hell, this is not a--this is the wrong place." He
said, "Bell Bummer plant is across town." And I said,
"Thank you, sir." And the reason I was so timid about
it, I had heard in Kinston where in Georgia if a black man, if you had
to laugh, in Georgia you had to stick your head in a barrel and laugh,
they wouldn't let black people laugh out loud in public.
I'd heard that as a child.
By the way, I was born in the back of a pool room and I heard a whole lot
of things. I learned how to cuss by being back of a pool room, and on
Sunday Its played pool for recreation. Efforts it was right in the back
of it and I played pool when I was seven years old. But I had, at five
or so, I had to stand on a Pepsi-Cola crate to shoot. But I was an
excellent pool player.
Anyway, he said, "You've got the wrong place. This is
a college, to learn, this is not a place to work." So I started
out of the door. He said, "Come back here!" I turned
around, he said, "How old are you?" I told him
seventeen. He said, "You want to go to college?" I
said, "Yes sir, that's why I came." He
said, "You asked for a job!" I said, "I need
that, too." He said, he asked me about, did I play football,
and I told him yes. He said, "Where you from?" I said
Kinston, North Carolina. He said, "Where the hell is
that?" And I said, "It's near Raleigh,
North Carolina." He said, what side, and I said, near the
ocean. He said go down and tell Mr. Wartlog, who's the man
who's in charge, to put you to work.
And that Mr. Wartlog, and nobody on campus but about four persons, I
guess, working. And I got a job in July working, making $20 a
week, I believe. painted every floor in Roberts Hall, which was a
dormitory, and Sell Hall, which was the auditorium.
Went back to the YMCA to get my clothers, came back somehow, I
don't know how I made it because I'd never been on
a streetcar before. And I had a room on the first floor of Graves Hall.
Graves Hall at that time was over a hundred years old, I guess. And that
night, in that building, by myself, and the whole dormitory, I heard
everything imaginable. And I started crying, asking for Momma. And the
next day I met a young man who was an upperclassman, who took me under
his wings, and gave me my first pair of pajamas. I didn't
have any pajamas at that time. He gave me a pair of pajamas. Only thing
about it, he was about seven feet tall, and I had to wrap them around my
legs and my arms just to be able to wear them. His name was Paul Hyde.
Paul died a few years ago. We became good friends. Oddly enough, his
wife and my wife were roommates at Central. She's still
living in Daytona Beach, Florida. I could go on and go on, but
that's about enough about my early days, I guess.
Then I had my barber tools, by the way, and I cut hair on Saturdays
before school opened. There was a young man who had a barbershop, a
Morehouse person, he allowed me to come work. And after school opened,
Mr. Gassett, the same man who was at the Bursar, gave me a position
making $20 a month, keeping the time of the student employees.
I did that for three--I finished in three and a half
years. And I did that for three and a half years. I made $20 a
month. Tuition, room and board was $27 a month.
So I cut hair every day, and I made 20 cents a head cutting hair, so I
had plenty of money. Bought suits of clothes and everything. Out of
my--I never got a dime from my mother or father. Never. They tried to
send me something, but I was angry with them because they
didn't send me to college. They had punished-I thought they
had punished me by not sending me and they had sent all my brothers and
sisters. Everyone had gone to college except me. And I refused to accept
anything. Never got one penny from them for college. And I think
it's the best thing, looking back on it, it's the
best thing that ever happened in my life.