Title: Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035.
Interviewer: Weaver, Frances A.
Interviewee: Esser, George
Abstract: George Esser was the assistant director of the University of North Carolina's Institute of Government, executive director of the North Carolina Fund, project adviser with the Ford Foundation, and the executive director of the Southern Regional Council. He was born into a comfortable Virginia coal family in 1920, but the Great Depression plunged his family into poverty. Struggling to find a way to earn an income, Esser learned "the meaning of what a penny meant and a nickel meant" and what government programs could offer to needy Americans. Esser took advantage of one such government program, the G.I. Bill, to enroll at Harvard Law School, and he took his law degree south to the Institute of Government in Chapel Hill. In this interview, Esser describes the background and family history that shaped his philosophy and how he put that philosophy—a belief in the power of institutions to uplift communities—into action at the Institute. There, under the direction of Albert Coates, he studied issues like city-county consolidation and made connections that would eventually lead to the creation of the North Carolina Fund, a five-year community empowerment organization created with a grant by the Ford Foundation. Esser discusses the increasing role the Fund played in North Carolina's economic development in the 1960s, a story that reveals not only the importance of political influence in the development process, but also the operations and personalities that drove the Fund's initiatives. After discussing the North Carolina Fund, which closed in 1968, Esser remembers his efforts to reorient the Southern Regional Council (SRC) in Atlanta and his return to North Carolina in the 1980s. This interview offers not just an inside look at influential social justice organizations in the 1960s and 1970s, but also a portrait of a man who devoted his life to organizations dedicated to ameliorating poverty and social inequality.