Civil rights activism brings threats
In this excerpt, Hamlin remembers the hostile racial atmosphere in integrating Charlotte, North Carolina. Hamlin's father took the threats seriously enough to move his family to another neighborhood and send his children out of the state for a period of time. Hamlin's family may have been a target of threats because Hamlin had applied, through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to be among the first African American students to integrate Charlotte schools. This excerpt offers a rare look at Charlotte as a city hostile to integration, rather than living up to its reputation as racially moderate. The atmosphere was not so hostile, however, that Hamlin was not excited to be an integration pioneer.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with William Hamlin, May 29, 1998. Interview K-0169. 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
WH: I knew quite a bit about most of the city. In fact, my older brother went to school across town, Second Ward. And when we moved, the remaining children in our family, which are five, went to West Charlotte.
PG: Was the move related at all to the schools? You said something about changing schools--?
WH: Yes, it was. It was more related to integration. I was one of the persons along with Dorothy Counts and several other persons who went to the integrated schools when--. Dorothy went when she was in high school--. But I was supposed to go to Alexander Graham Bell Junior High which was across the street on Morehead where the central YMCA is located. Over that summer, my father and our family experienced a lot of racial threats and whatever. And my father sent us to South Carolina to be with his parents and then later to Richmond to be with my mother’s parents. When we came back to Charlotte he actually had moved us from Liberty Street which was in the Second Ward area. Which was supposed to go to Alexander Graham Bell over into the district that included Northwest which fed into West Charlotte.
PG: Had you applied to go to Alexander Graham?
WH: Yes, I had through the NAACP. I think all of us had, actually had, to make application. And I was one of those persons that the NAACP put up to go to those schools. I don’t know much about the application process. But I know that my mother and father were people involved in ensuring that I had the opportunity thoughout, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go.
PG: What did you think at that time? Were you in junior high school at that time or middle school?
WH: Think about going to a new school or the integration process?
PG: About possibly being one of the first children to go to an integrated school.
WH: Well, I thought it was going to be exciting. I had received a lot of encouragement from then my elementary school teachers who felt that I could do work very competently at that time. I was sort of excited about the idea of maybe being a first. I did have some anxieties about it because there was a lot of talk in the community. I may not have had the full weight of knowing what dangers may have lied ahead. I was excited, but, yet, sort of skeptical on a low scale. Because I really wasn’t familiar with what problems may lie ahead.
PG: Did you become one of these partly because you were a good student in school or was it due to your parents’ activism?
WH: I think it was more, not so much because of my grades in school, because in elementary school I was probably a B student. I wasn’t really a good, good student. But I was able to conquer the work, or do the work. But it’s more because I lived on Liberty Street. The school that I was assigned to go to was York Road Junior High School which is really in the southern quadrant of the city. I would have had to ride the bus. Whereas, Alexander Graham Bell was only a block and a half from my house. So, I think it had to do more with geography and because I had been a pretty good student it probably raised the possibilities that I could be a candidate and represent, at that time, my race well in a new situation, a new integrated situation.
PG: What did your parents do?
WH: My mother, at the time, was a cook in a cafeteria. My father worked for Union Carbide. He was a mixer helper in the battery room. For a long time I thought he was like a chemist but later he explained to me exactly what he did. And that was actually mixing the ingredients that went into batteries. That was his job.
PG: You said your family had certain threats made toward them. Was part of this related to their jobs at all?
WH: Part of it was related to his job. He did say that he had gotten some threats at home, I mean at work. But the threat that scared him most was the threats that we had begun to receive at home. The late night telephone calls, people riding by the house and that sort of thing. He shared with us later that during the period of time that we were in South Carolina, Newberry, South Carolina, and then later Richmond, Virginia, that people actually rode by the house. And he was at the front window, guarding the window, to ensure that no one would actually bring danger or harm to his family even though they did not know that his family wasn’t there. We were not there.
PG: What was that period of time like for you? Did you know about most of these or did your parents keep them hidden from you?
WH: I knew about the anger that existed in the community, and my parents were very active, at that time, in the NAACP. And they ensured that all of us, including myself, went to NAACP meetings where these issues and challenges were discussed, and the rallies so that we could have a full understanding of what was going on and what really to expect as children.
PG: But did they really just decide that it wasn’t worth—
WH: Right. My father himself decided that it really was not worth the threats that he had received and the danger it may place his children in to go in that situation. So, he opted—and ensured that we moved so that we wouldn’t have that challenge.