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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Harris, September 5, 2002. Interview R-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Redevelopment sweeps African Americans out of Greensboro's downtown

Despite good intentions, redevelopment damaged Greensboro's downtown, Harris observes. Unable to find the capital to relocate, a number of black businesses and churches simply closed; those that did relocate sometimes struggled to duplicate their success. Worse, the children educated with money from successful businesses used their education as a passport out of the community.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Harris, September 5, 2002. Interview R-0185. 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

KIERAN TAYLOR:
I want to just finish off by getting some of your reflections on overall on what happened to Market Street. Is there a time that you can remember where you kind of sensed that things are going to change on this street or things are changing?
JOHN HARRIS:
Well, I grew up being born in the depression years, being born in 1930. I grew up when times were, when the economy, times were tough. Then the war came along, and then I saw times get better. By this time and it was my impression that everything that they had downtown we had on East Market Street. In fact you could probably live a lifetime without even going downtown because you had everything that was downtown was on East Market Street. So but for the most part what happened when redevelopment came, they took these places and people had to be removed. Well they had to move because either they had not made arrangements, or they were not financially stable enough to open somewhere new, or they had gotten to the point where well, this is it for me. It's time for me to go anyway. I guess those kinds of businesses, service, because all of them are service, most of them were service businesses. They had to do it. The people that ran the cafes, they were service-oriented, and they were the ones that were offering the service and doing the service. Depending on their age, I mentioned the bakery shop, Harris Bakery shop. These people, this was a young black— [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
JOHN HARRIS:
Carried on the business. In that particular case, they carried on the business.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Somewhere else.
JOHN HARRIS:
Somewhere else in another section of town. But they weren't as stable sometimes as their parents. So eventually their business went out. There were dry-cleaning businesses; they were relocated. I have in mind of one place that the gentleman, he moved, but after he had moved he did fine for a while, but then age caught up with him. There was nobody else and it was a family business. But there was nobody left in the family that was interested in carrying it on. So it died. It was, I was thinking of the newsstand. There was Boss Webster's Triangle News Stand where you could get sandwich, news, get your shoes shined, get your shoes fixed. But now when redevelopment came in, the only thing left then for him when he moved was he just fixed food. The shoeshine stand disappeared. The newsstand disappear, and the shoe shop disappeared. So he was left fixing hot dogs and hamburgers and good ones at that.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
I've heard.
JOHN HARRIS:
I heard they honored him the other day at A and T. Good man, but by this time he had, his age was setting in. So there was nobody else to carry on the Triangle News. It eventually died. I guess it's the same way with all. When you think about it, most of those businesses were good businesses, people made a living out of them. They educated their children, but their children were not interested in that type of business to make a living because they had become educated, and they could find something better. It's as simple as that. They could've stayed, but they didn't. They found something better. My case, I guess I just, I stayed and just continued what my mother and father had started. I say I'm still in it. But it hasn't, it's been good. It's been good for me and my family. I guess that's why I guess I'm still in it.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
What do you think the goals of urban renewal were?
JOHN HARRIS:
The goals of urban renewal, I think, were plain. They wanted to make the life, no, they weren't interested in the life of the people. They wanted to make things better for the city because it was a blighted area. The buildings that most of those businesses were occupied by, we didn't own those buildings. Very few people owned those buildings that they were in. The housing in this area had gone, it had gone kaboo. It was terrible. But people that are survivors, they do what they have to do. They live where they have to live. They live where they can and they make do. Even though, well they can't say, I can't say they knew there was something better but I guess they knew but it wasn't available to them. So I think what redevelopment did was a good thing because I lived on the next street over. I lived on Regan Street. The houses that faced Regan Street were pretty nice old houses. They were old. The houses in back of us where really shanties. People lived there. People I played with lived there. But it wasn't the best housing.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So you think it was a well-intended effort.
JOHN HARRIS:
I think it was a well-intended effort. What it did, it exposed, and the landlords, these were slums, these were really slumlords. The same thing on East Market Street. These buildings, we didn't own them. They were old raggedy buildings, but people were, did a business in them. But the man was there every week or every month to collect his rent. But he didn't do any improving. So from that standpoint, and I say it because everybody in the end, everybody was really, everybody did better as a result of moving. Those that stuck with it. The sad part was that some of them didn't have the resources to move with it. They just said—
KIERAN TAYLOR:
That's it.
JOHN HARRIS:
That's it for me. So it died.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
What about even the churches? Did they need to tear down all those churches?
JOHN HARRIS:
My church is the only church that survived East Market Street.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Which one is that?
JOHN HARRIS:
The Institutional Baptist Church. It's still there. It had a strong pastor, C.W. Anderson. He was strong. He almost refused to go. He let them know that he wasn't going anywhere. So they made arrangements, we made arrangements, the church made arrangements to improve ourselves, and we got, we built a new church building. That's the building we're in. This is fifty years old. So it was in the early '50s. The old building, we tore down. The old plank building, we tore down. But the church survived. As a result we got more land. We were just sitting on a little corner. We were just sitting in this little spot; so it ended up we were the big guys on the corner. But when they got through doing all their architectural configurations and what have you the layouts, we were able to get more land and because I guess they said, you said you're not going anywhere. So we'll just, so we were able to get more land. So as a result now we have now we own, in fact we just bought a parcel of land about two months ago at the corner of Murrow and East Market Street. About 1990 we bought another piece of property from the guy that we just bought this last piece from and built a parking lot on. So we've got, we ended up with a block. So I don't know whether you've ever noticed it, but next time you go up East Market Street, you'll see it. It's across the street from the new Dudley Lee Building. We're the only church on East Market Street. There were other churches there, but they went in the, they were able to move to other places. Providence comes to mind. They sat right where the old post office building, they were in that area. So there were some other churches. There was another church, a smaller church. So it just went out. So you, if you weren't prepared, you just went out. If you were prepared, you went to a better place. So I have to agree with that. But because every thirty years this has happened. I have been a witness of two moves. The move from East Market Street to Gorrell Street and from Gorrell Street—
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Now again.
JOHN HARRIS:
To Elm Street. So we went from, now we're on Elm Street.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Isn't that ironic?
JOHN HARRIS:
Right. Right.