Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Thurman Couch, February 12, 2001. Interview K-0537. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Dynamics of segregation

In this excerpt, Couch moves from black neighborhoods to the all-black Lincoln High School and from the Chapel Hill courthouse to Big John's Dairy Bar to describe the character of racism and black Chapel Hillians' responses to it. Black people could not expect justice in the courthouse or service at the Dairy Bar, ruled by the notorious Big John, but they drew strength from community solidarity and the strength of their leaders, including Lincoln High School principal Charles McDougle.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Thurman Couch, February 12, 2001. Interview K-0537. 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

RG: Did you have relatives in the neighborhood on Grant Street? TC: No, no relatives, but everybody, we had a few people on the street that was like sisters and brothers, you know, that we all grew up together with. There was the Edwardses down the street, the Foushees across the street, um, people next door like that, and everybody, we were all very, very tight at that point in time in life. It was not like it is today, everybody watched after each other. RG: How did they watch out after each other? Give me some examples. TC: Well you know, when you walk down the street from school every day, people say hey, how you doing, son, how’s your mama, that type of thing. You’re walking down the street and talking too loud, and somebody may say, hey boy, be quiet. So you know, it was good things, and come on in, you want a sandwich? Eat with us. And I think all of us, all the different classmates you had and friends, you could go to their house in the afternoon and having a bologna sandwich and cheese, you know, it was camaraderie with them. It was never a power move. The only problems coming in life was afterwards. All through your neighborhood it was a wonderful time, you experienced everything, you saw everything, the flavor of the neighborhood was wonderful, all the time. You know, there was police, things were still the same, police still rolled through the black neighborhoods, and back then everybody knew to get out of the way when the police came. So it was difficult. I want to say one thing, though, one thing that really intrigued us was on Tuesdays, I think it was Tuesdays or Wednesdays, we would go down to the courthouse in Chapel Hill and listen at the cases come before the judges, you know, they would let you come in. That intrigued my life, that made a big change in my life, what went on in the courtroom down there from day to day. RG: How did that change your life? TC: Well, the way that the whites treated the blacks, you know, the worries, the way they spoke to them, from the judge to the lawyer to everybody in there, how they always put them down, and always had derogatory statements to say about them. And if you were a black man, I remember most of all, if you didn’t have a white man who spoke for you, you went to jail that day. RG: How old were you when you went to courtroom to see this? TC: I was probably in 9th grade, 9th grade. I had heard about it, you know, word travels through the neighborhood. That there’s no justice. You go downtown, you in trouble. RG: Is that what you saw, no justice? TC: Oh, definitely, definitely. Well, I don’t know if I saw it as much as I learned about it. We knew who we were in the black school, we knew that it wasn’t equal. I mean, we at Lincoln, we at Northside, we knew that we weren’t as equal as Chapel Hill High School or the rest of the schools that were going on in town. We knew that we had to work harder, study harder, be harder. We knew that our books were not of the same caliber, the same standard. We knew that we had a mission ahead of us. It was instilled in us, I think, by Mrs. King over at Northside, and then on to Lincoln. There were some things that were very noted by Mr. McDougle, who was our principal at Lincoln High School. He had a quote every morning about something great, but every day he reminded you when you were out of character, how important it was for us to stick together as a race, and how important it was for us to get an education so that we could make some changes, so we could make some changes. Very important. One other thing about Chapel Hill, I remember that when they came to do the sit-ins, I was a ninth grader, and we heard about it through the grapevine, and we went to this secret meeting place where they, um, they was having these rallies to get together, and I remember seeing, I won’t call their names, but some of the great leaders stand up and tell us that we had to make a change, and that there had come a time. And I knew that my mother and my father couldn’t go, because they would lose their jobs. And they made it clear that parents couldn’t even participate in making the change in Chapel Hill. Plus, I lived off of Merritt Mill Road, so right up the street at the ice house, there was a big sign that said black and white. You couldn’t even drink water from the water fountain, you know, it stood out there, it was big. To walk from Northside, ‘cause Northside to Lincoln High School, I lived close to Lincoln as a child, but to walk from Northside home, ‘cause you had to walk then, t here was no buses for us, you know. We had to walk to school. But there was always those signs saying, we, Big John, who was known as the most racist drugstore guy, you know, you couldn’t, he didn’t allow blacks to come in there and do anything in his store. He had made it known that he was a racist, so when you walked down his street you had to look for him, when you walked past the drugstore you had to look in there to make sure he wouldn’t run out and say something to you. You couldn’t buy a milkshake. But thank God for the milk dairy. I forget the name of those guys, in fact one of the guys still, just retired from Durham. His brother, we could go in there on Sunday and get a milkshake and do whatever we wanted. And a cheeseburger. Just a simple thing. RG: The Dairy Bar? TC: The Dairy Bar, yeah. The Dairy Bar. Famous. RG: You know, that’s really interesting about Big John and Colonial Drugstore. He kept his store open late at night, didn’t he? TC: Yeah, well he was, you couldn’t, at one point in time I don’t think you could get your medicine from him, you had to go in there and get your parents’ medicine. He’d let you come in there for that, but you couldn’t step around to the counter and order a soda. RG: You couldn’t sit down there. TC: Oh, you definitely couldn’t sit down. You couldn’t sit down.