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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 >>

Political influence, local goals, and the creation of the North Carolina Fund

Esser recalls how North Carolina governor Terry Sanford started a chain of events that led to the creation of the North Carolina Fund. Sanford supported John F. Kennedy in 1960, and when Kennedy won the presidency, he supported Sanford in return. Esser reflects on Sanford's leadership, particularly in race issues, and that of John Wheeler, president of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank.

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, we've agreed that the written record of the North Carolina Fund is so extensive that there's no point in going back with day one and every episode. That's already on tape and in an extensive interview, but what I thought would be interesting is to talk about some of the people who shaped the North Carolina Fund and your thoughts about them and their contributions; which means, of course, that we start with Terry Sanford who was governor of this state at the time. I'm curious, why Terry Sanford? What is it in Terry that was willing to take the risk that was implicit in the North Carolina Fund?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, Fran, Terry Sanford is a very, very interesting person to me. He was not…. Mr. Coats always said, "Terry branded him." But Terry wanted to go into politics and he was a good campaign manager for Cory Scott and he won as governor. And he showed real courage from the very beginning as governor. You know, I think supporting John Kennedy was an act of courage. And it later turned out to have very practical results in my judgment. I think the Research Triangle Park succeeds today because Terry Sanford supported John Kennedy. In other words, I think the Federal government brought the facilities to Research Park that would not necessarily have come if Terry's support of John Kennedy and later Luther Hodges going to Washington, because Terry supported Kennedy started in motion a string of events that ended up with that HEW agency coming to the Research Triangle Park and making it financially feasible. One of the things we may sometimes forget is that Romeo Guest and the people who had the loan were ready in 1964 to declare bankruptcy.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I didn't know that.
GEORGE ESSER:
Now, it came under Lyndon Johnson. But that was while Lyndon was still trying to be another Kennedy. So I think the fact that Terry Sanford was campaign manager for Cory Scott in the Senate race in '54 probably defines Terry better than any other single act. According to, you know, the Paul Lueke definition of traditionalist, modernist with the third sort of modernist is the middle of the road. And then citizen power ideology over on the left. He defines Terry as modernist with a few aberrations. Farrell Gillery of the Raleigh News and Observer says that Terry is a modernist with a real citizen power philosophy. My experience with Terry has been the latter is true. Now Terry is obviously very sensitive to what business [unclear] . You couldn't be a governor, you can't be a lawyer and you can't be a president of Duke University. And you can't win a Senate race without being sensitive to that. But Terry took leadership in integration; he encouraged experimentation in economics. Now lerry understands that this is a tobacco state, but he also went down there to Central America and organized a commission to look at how you could strengthen the economy of those countries. The same time that the Reagan administration was all for using force. Well, I think Terry understands. But I think he's a good politician as well. I was thrust in the role of being sort of an activist, particularly in the race issue, but also on economic issues. I had no problem with that intellectually. I had problems with it on how to implement that role, because I'm not that kind of a personality. But from the very beginning, it was clear to me that the pord Foundation was looking to the Fund to support the rights of black North Carolinians. And it regarded John Wheeler, in particular, as their sort of…. They were very sensitive to the way Wheeler regarded policy at the time. And if Wheeler had said, "This is not going to…." well, wheeler had to say, "This looks like a good thing to me," before they made the grant. If he had said, after they made the grant, "It's not going well," then they would have withdrawn the grant. So, I don't think that you had to be explicit in saying this to Terry any more than to me, but I learned a lot from John Wheeler.
FRANCES WEAVER:
And he was then North Carolina Mutual?
GEORGE ESSER:
No, he was president of Mechanics and Farmers Bank. He was involved with Mutual, but he was without question the strongest black leader in North Carolina and one of the strongest leaders nationally. He was close to Lyndon Johnson, for example. John was not an activist and yet he was not going to oppose activists. As I say, I learned a great deal from John Wheeler, not only about the way black North Carolinians perceived society and what they felt about the kind of progress that they felt was necessary, but also, he was a good politioian. And you got a good sense of the art of the possible from John.
FRANCES WEAVER:
He was willing to concede that? What was possible in the area of race relations?
GEORGE ESSER:
Oh, no question about it.
FRANCES WEAVER:
He wasn't a violence man, for instance?
GEORGE ESSER:
No, not by any means. Nor was he really…. He had questions about Martin Luther King.
FRANCES WEAVER:
A moderate himself?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, I remember—I guess it was '63—John had no intention of going to Washington for the speech at the reflecting pool?
FRANCES WEAVER:
"I have a dream?"
GEORGE ESSER:
"I have a dream." Had no intention of going. Now he supported it, but he was not going to be out there. John did not go to Martin Luther King's funeral. Durham was ablaze at that time, so he felt that…. And he was supporting Howard Fuller then. As a matter of fact, that particular time, Wince Grabarek, the then mayor of Durham, hated to say it, but Howard Fuller kept Durham from burning up at the time of Martin Luther King's death. And finally, Grabarek admitted it. Well, John Wheeler, on the other hand, John knew how to push democratically better than Martin Luther King. He knew how to use his banking connections and he knew how to use his governmental connections very skillfully. And he backed us at the Fund, backed me, one hundred percent. One hundred percent. But getting back to Terry, I think that Terry was successful because his instincts were with the people. Secondly, he got smart young people working for him who reflected the same goals.