Inspiring racial awareness and resistance
In this excerpt, Couch describes some of his influences, both experiential and educational. He was frustrated that African Americans could not eat at a restaurant called The Pines, where his parents worked, and resolved to become a sociologist. In school, he read Mao Tse-Tung, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin, and later he met Stokely Carmichael. These strong voices stood in strong contrast to most in Chapel Hill, which according to Couch was "an Uncle Tom town." This excerpt reveals the varied responses to a regime of segregation—from radicalism to timidity.
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
TC: Yes, and captain of the Lincoln team in my junior year. Led the basketball team in scoring and the football team in tackles. That’s right. And, I want to say to you now, it made me a militant.
RG: Tell me more about that.
TC: Probably it made the greatest change in my life. ‘Cause, I’m telling you, as a kid I worked for The Pines down there, where they didn’t let no blacks come in there and eat, and my mommy and my daddy worked back there in the back. By the time I was a senior in high school, you had broken the rule where they could, blacks could come there and eat. Mr. Finley, you know who Mr. Finley is, good God! Mr. Finley! Well anyway, in my heart I wanted to make a difference, so I was going to become a sociologist, you know. So by the time I got to Iowa State and began to read for real, about Malcolm and James Baldwin and, I met other black people who were involved for change. I was reading Mao Tse-Tung and I was on my way to become a new human being. That interfered with my being a number one draft choice versus a number six draft choice. But you learn later in life, so, hey, I fought the fight. Still fighting the fight. Still fighting the fight.
RG: What influence did your leaders—you were there during integration. What influence did people like Harold Foster and what was his name, Marion, or—
TC: I want to tell you about Harold. I don’t know if anybody has. Harold would come over to the Hargraves Center, which at that time used to be called Roberson Street Center. He’d speak to us all. We’d all be inside, inside there playing ping-pong, playing pool or something, he’d pull us all together and he would quote and rap and tell us about what was really going on in the world. For me, Harold is my Stokely Carmichael, and I mean, I got a chance to meet Stokely come right here. But for me, Harold is the catalyst. Because he wasn’t afraid. Most blacks in Chapel Hill were afraid. It’s known as an Uncle Tom town, I want you to know where we’re from. So we, I don’t ever want to confuse that so it won’t ever be misconstrued. As I got older I realized where I had lived and who the people were that I lived with. Yes. That’s right.
RG: But you didn’t have everybody in that category. I mean, you had Harold Foster, you would never have been able to go out and do civil disobedience without a whole group of young people like him.
TC: Oh, oh no, absolutely not. There was hundreds of people that came along. Billy Hargraves, I can’t think of all their names. Hilliard Caldwell. I can’t think of all those, all those people. But you gotta understand, that’s the way it was. Despite us all who were speaking out. Where we lived, you either had to stay in line, or, that’s the way it was, it was a color barrier as well, you know. You were dark-skinned and black, then there was certain jobs you had. You were light-skinned and black, then there were certain places you could work.