Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Remembering Howard Fuller's community development efforts

Esser remembers the activist Howard Fuller. Fuller was an influence in Durham, North Carolina, and he used his influence not just to advance the African American community's financial and civil interests, but also, for example, to keep Durham calm after Martin Luther King's assassination. Esser remembers also Fuller's involvement with the Foundation for Community Development and the founding, and closing, of Malcolm X University.

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 ESSER:
Howard Fuller was a native of wisconsin who had taken graduate work at Western Reserve Case in social work and when we created the eleven community action agencies in North Carolina, in some way his name came from Case Western Reserve, maybe through John Turner—I don't know, who was then dean—to Morris Cohen and we referred it to the Durham project and he was hired by the Durham project; and I think in 1965.
FRANCES WEAVER:
This was a community action program?
GEORGE ESSER:
It was a community action…. It was Operation Breakthrough in Durham. The executive director was a social worker who—I don't know what happened to him—but he had a lot of good qualities. He was named Foust. But Howard soon demonstrated both his charismatic leadership, his appreciation for real community organization; that is, encouraging people to take a hand in their own lives, of neighborhoods to organize and come to the City Council or come to the County Commissioners and demand equal treatment in such mundane things as garbage collection, street lights and street paving and so forth. And over a period of time—and I think that the actual events are in some of the other tapes—he developed a black community in Durham that was asking for equal treatment of the poor and the middle class black community in Durham, the John wheelers and the John Stewarts and the Charles Watts and others were not taking part in the street demonstrations, but were very supportive of Howard. And the mayor of Durham, who was at that time named wince Grabarek, and Wince was a decent sort of man who did not understand what position history had thrust him into, was very much afraid of Howard and very outspoken against Howard, though later he did have the decency on the night that Martin Luther King was killed, to say that Howard Fuller had saved Durham from burning up; which he did. Anyhow, I had hired and employed a black staff member who came with very fine credentials named Jim McDonald. When he came to us he had been executive director of the Minnesota Human Relations Commission. And Jim was working with a the black programs. Well, no. First he headed a special Manpower Development that we had in eastern North Carolina centered in Rocky Mount, Newbern and Laurinburg. And then in '66, I brought him on the regular Fund staff to work with the black who were in the east, primarily, and the Piedmont cities. Jim was intellectually committed to the same things that Howard was, but he lacked charisma and—and this was very important from my point of view—Jim would so something, and there are things reflected in that 1970 tape that tell this, Jim would take action such as in the [unclear] situation in Burke county, and then want me to support him.
FRANCES WEAVER:
After the fact?
GEORGE ESSER:
After the fact. I gathered from friends, including Nathan Garrett, that Howard was the reverse. That he would tell you what he was going to do before he did it. And therefore, you were able to prepare and to support him.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That's right. And you could answer the questions when they came.
GEORGE ESSER:
So, I forget the exact incideht, but in the spring of 1967—it's covered in that 1970 tape—Jim took one action where he wanted my support and where I thought he'd gone too far. And where Nathan thought he had gone too far. But we were very much aware that if we were not careful, that he would organize the Durham black community and the Fund black staff against us. So I forget whether it was Nathan or myself came up with the idea, "Well, why don't we hire Howard Fuller in his place?" Because we knew Howard was stronger and had better roots in the black community and would be a better Fund staffer. So, one Saturday morning Nathan and I called Howard Fuller and had a meeting with him and Howard was very much interested. And Howard understood what the problems were about Jim and he said, "Don't let that worry you." And so finally I called Jim in and I said that we felt that the relationship should terminate, and I said, "You should know," before he could say a thing, I said, "You should know that we've already hired your replacement, Howard Fuller." Well, if you have ever seen a man who had a needle release all the hot air. He was flabbergasted. Really flabbergasted. And we had no problem with the black community. That summer we had a lot of problems. We got a grant from OEO to hire some fifteen or twenty students as interns to place in black communities in eastern North Carolina and Dan Moore was Governor and all of a sudden, you know, in Rocky Mount, in Newbern, in williamston and Raleigh and different cities, why the black community was coming in and asking for equal services. well, the mayors began to get very, very upset. And that's the issue around which Jim Gardner…
FRANCES WEAVER:
When Jim Gardner picked up on it. Yeah.
GEORGE ESSER:
Not only Jim, but who was the other Congressman from…. Larry Fountain.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Larry Fountain did? How about Robert Morgan? was he active?
GEORGE ESSER:
No, no. Fountain and Jones to some extent, though Jones was never very articulate. But Fountain was…. The Federal bureaucracy was afraid of Fountain, because Fountain was chairman of the Senate sub-committee on labor. well, anyhow, I've covered that in some detail but Howard throughout, was consistent in saying, "Well, we're only asking for equal rights," and I found it very easy to defend that. And I had no problem. And then the next year, we had the Martin Luther King death, but the next year we were also—I have forgotten, but it's in the 1970 tape—somewhere between December of '87 and March of '68, we created the Foundation for Community Development and Howard went with Nathan on that. And I think he was still with FCD when the University organization issue arose; the custodial workers. Because Howard was not the only person that I was, you know…. I was supportive of Howard in his efforts. I was also supportive of Bill Coats, the principal student chaplain at that time and his effort to be a communications link between the workers and the power structure.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Was this the food workers as well, or was this earlier? The custodians?
GEORGE ESSER:
This was food workers as well. And then after that came Malcolm X University.
FRANCES WEAVER:
And what was his role in Malcolm x?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well he created it.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Howard Fuller did?
GEORGE ESSER:
Oh, yeah.
FRANCES WEAVER:
George, I'd forgotten that. I guess we were out of the country then.
GEORGE ESSER:
You were. You were India.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That's right.
GEORGE ESSER:
He created Malcolm X University and he had Nathan's support. And he had left. And again, it's in that 1970 tape. I forget. For a while, see, he took a Mohammedan name. And so he moved to Greensboro and Greensboro was an interesting choice. I think it was partly because of his wife, at that time—his first wife still lives in Greensboro—but Howard attracted some students. He later told me that most of them have done very well; have entered education bureaucracies or social work bureaucracies or municipal bureaucracies. The only one that I knew that was, as the police chief said in the '69 issue, was communist—we all knew it was communist—and Howard was trying to save him. Named Nelson Johnson. And he was still a communist at the time he was involved in the 1979 shootings.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Was he really?
GEORGE ESSER:
But the others have had very mundane careers, really. I mean, no, I say mundane, but they have followed mainstream choices. But the reaction of this diocese to the national church's grant to Malcolm X University was something that I will never get over completely. The diocese, well the giving fell off markedly. And our vestry…
FRANCES WEAVER:
At the Chapel of the Cross?
GEORGE ESSER:
At the Chapel of the Cross. Adopted a resolution which criticized the presiding bishop, Bishop Praser, Mason Thomas, who was then a member of the vestry but was also chairman of the diocesan committee to review grants from the national church to the diocesan projects and which approved the project unanimously. And criticized Mason and there may have been somebody else. And it's a 1970 resolution and that resolution is still on the books in the parrish and I think probably should stay. Although, you know, I was not on the vestry at that time, but I remember several people who were. And I think that it was…. Tom Thrasher was still alive and still rector. And Mary and I heard that it had been passed by a vote of nine to three. And we requested a hearing and Mary and I went down for three hours one night and we changed one vote.
FRANCES WEAVER:
And this was a resolution in opposition to the national church support of….
GEORGE ESSER:
The national church had made a grant of forty-five thousand dollars to support Malcolm X University. And the people who were on the vestry with responsibility in the University had been so upset by the food workers' and the custodial workers' strike, that they objected and as I told Peter Lee later, when Howard closed Malcolm X University, he had the humility to call a press conference and say, "Well, it didn't work." But I said, "The church did not have the grace or the humility to call a press conference and say, ‘we were wrong in accusing him of being a communist."’ And so forth. And so I said, "I will never feel the same about the church."