Title: Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218.
Interviewer: Weare, Walter
Interviewee: Pearson, Conrad Odell
Subjects: School integration--North Carolina African American lawyers--North Carolina North Carolina--Race relations African American civil rights workers--North Carolina
Abstract: Conrad Odell Pearson grew up in Durham, North Carolina. In 1932, immediately following his graduation from Howard School of Law, Pearson became involved in legally challenging segregation in higher education. The first part of the interview is dedicated to a detailed discussion of his work with fellow attorney Cecil McCoy on a case that challenged the decision of the University of North Carolina to deny admission to Thomas Hocutt, an African American, to the school of pharmacy. After the case failed in the state legal system, Pearson helped to reintroduce it at the federal level as a challenge to the Fourteenth Amendment, where it was ultimately thrown out on a technicality. Pearson continued to litigate against institutional segregation from the 1930s on, and in 1935 he helped to found the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs. In addition to describing his legal and political work for civil rights, Pearson offers an insider's perspective on race relations in Durham, primarily from the 1920s through the 1940s. Pearson devotes considerable attention to describing the ways in which James Shepard, president of the North Carolina College for Negroes (later North Carolina Central University), and C. C. Spaulding, president of North Carolina Mutual, were leading members within the African American community. In so doing, Pearson offers numerous examples of Shepard's and Spaulding's leadership qualities and their ability to work closely with white politicians for the benefit of African Americans. Throughout the interview, Pearson expresses admiration for the leadership capabilities of these men while simultaneously drawing distinctions between their moderate politics and his more radical politics regarding race relations. In addition, Pearson emphasizes that he saw Durham as more progressive in terms of race relations than many other southern communities, citing a general lack of racial discord as evidence. Whereas Pearson devotes considerable attention to describing the role of African American leaders in shaping race relations in Durham, he also offers commentary on the ways in which industrial leaders, like the Duke family and Julian Shakespeare Carr, also shaped the social and racial landscape of Durham. Finally, Pearson discusses the organization of tobacco workers as it affected African Americans in Durham. This interview offers a lively and complicated portrait of race relations in Durham, North Carolina, and the struggle for socioeconomic equality in that city.