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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Esser describes his current projects, as of 1990

Esser describes some of the projects he has been working on around the time of this 1990 interview. The projects are different, but the goals are the same as his efforts in the 1960s and 1970s: helping impoverished minorities improve their economic and social status.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. 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

George, I thought it would be a good idea if we started in the present and talked about what you have been doing since you came back to Chapel Hill, and then go back and reexamine some of the forces in your life that lead you into your dedication to the causes of poverty and the amelioration of the racial problem in the United States. So what are you working now? What is your main effort?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, since June of last year I have been retired in the sense that I haven't been recently paid [Laughter] for my efforts. I'm working on three or four things. One is I'm working with Senator Sanford in trying to come up, with other organizations in North Carolina, a plan for a program in northeastern North Carolina to do with basic causes of poverty. I am on the board and very active with the Board of the Indian Cultural Center and active in the effort to build an Indian Cultural Center near Pembroke. I've been working with North Carolina Indians since the days of the fund, so I have a lot of friends in that community, and I'm interested in helping them achieve the kind of both economic status and status in society that a small minority has to work harder to achieve. I'm chairman of the local community action agency which takes some time. I'm a little more active in the church than I was, a member of the vestry for the next two years at a time when a lot of money has got to be raised to bring the capital facilities up to standard. And I remain active with a number of organizations that I've been working with in the last five or six years, sort of as an elder statesman. It is interesting to me that organizations like Rural Economic Development Center, MDC, the Legal Services Resource Center, the Center for Community Self-Help, others that are concerned with some of my own concerns, continue to call on me for involvement in their programs and, from time to time, for help and advice. So I enjoy that.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Working with Governor Sanford, in what way do you work with him in the effort you mentioned? Senator Sanford, I mean. [Laughter]
GEORGE ESSER:
Senator Sanford, well, that shows our age. Senator Sanford has a young black staff member, Katharine Wellman, who got involved with a study of the northeast done by an organization in Washington, I believe it's an organization of the Roman Catholic Church. Anyhow, they had done—I'll find that name and supply it to you—a study of the northeast and poverty in the northeast and racial relations as they effect economic opportunity in the northeast, and it was pretty grim as we all know. Even though that was the first part of the state that was settled, it also has more limited natural resources and certainly more limited human resources. So Katharine Wellman got Terry interested in doing something there, and Terry thought, well, we had the North Carolina Fund in 1960; maybe we'll have another effort in the early nineties comparable to that. So he called me and I agreed to help him. It's a quite different situation than it was in the 1960s, but there are governmental agencies and foundations that are very much interested in the kind of programs and leadership that are evolving in some of those organizations I mentioned a few minutes ago in North Carolina. And they feel that for rural economic development there is probably more leadership and more institutional resources in this state than any other state, certainly in the Southeast, maybe in the country. So I'm working with those organizations and with Terry and with foundations to try and find a handle for a program that won't be just another—well, we could not get funded just another program. But we could get funded an effort that might really advance us in terms of knowing how to deal with poor rural areas. One of the things that we were trying to do is to get leadership from the counties and from that region, which is not limited to attracting jobs but which recognizes that improving human capital, education, housing, health, etc., is probably in the long run more important than vocation or other resources. And you're making some—we believe that there are some people in the northeast that understand this.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Now, who are the leaders there to whom you turn?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, right now we're working with local grassroots leadership. Eventually, before this would become any sort of a public program, we would have to involve that just economic development leadership but county commissioners, state legislators, and town bodies, and some of the economic fiefdoms which are…
FRANCES WEAVER:
Who are those economic fiefdoms?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, there's some agricultural. In other words, there's some large farms. There are some, not many, but a few large industries.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Are they North Carolina industries or they industries that were…
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, the seafood industry is probably North Carolina. Perdue is, Del-Mar-Va, you know, his operations are in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina as well. There's one large paper company, International Paper Company, that's active in that area. But there isn't as much big industry in that area as in other parts of the state.
FRANCES WEAVER:
If you go northeast, do you go all the way to the ocean? Does that include tourism at all?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, I'm not sure whether it, we would involve those counties, yes. We would involve Dare and Currituck and Hyde. On the other hand, the coastal area is not the area where the economy is so badly off.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Most intractable poverty.
GEORGE ESSER:
The environment may be bad, may be under a threat, but there are probably plenty of jobs, not necessarily the best kind of jobs. I've always been very cautious about pushing tourism because many of the jobs are custodial. On the other hand, many of the service jobs—we say we're becoming a service economy—that I've dealt with in other projects in the last five or six years don't pay very much either. On the other hand, if you can provide a community base, a non-profit base, for, let's say, a retirement community, the people who are performing those custodial jobs are more likely to feel job satisfaction if they are involved somehow in the ownership or feel a sense of ownership for that project.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Have you tried that kind of experiment?
GEORGE ESSER:
In working with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation in the last five years, one of the things that I did was help support programs for the elderly in different ways, but with community sponsorship and community ownership. For example, in Jackson, North Carolina, under the sponsorship of the local health clinic, which is also a non-profit corporation, we have finished and now opened a facility for the elderly that includes fifteen units of housing, eighteen rest home beds, sixty skilled nursing home beds, and the county senior center, all in one location across the road from the health center. Well, you've got in that county then those jobs of concern that support both health care and elderly care are focused in sort of a non-profit community. They're paying as well as other—they're more competitive in North Hampton County, the salaries, though low, are more competitive in North Hampton County than they would be in Charlotte or even Raleigh. Plus the fact that this is an opportunity, I mean, for example, that retirement home, half of the skilled nursing home beds and rest home beds and all of the housing can go to people who have, really, no income except support from Medicaid. So that you have a facility where the custodial workers may not make a lot but they see their own being cared for.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I see what you mean, yes, yes.
GEORGE ESSER:
And they see that the community, they are contributing to the community.
FRANCES WEAVER:
A sense of pride.
GEORGE ESSER:
And their own people are being helped by that community.