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Interview with James L. Ross

Interviewee: 
Ross, James L.
Interviewer: 
Howard, Debbie
Date of Interview: 
2005-03-22
Identifier: 
BBRO0019
Subjects: 
Ross, L. James, 1934-; Hunter, Farrell; King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968; Brookshire, Stanford R., 1905-1990; Ingersoll, John; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; United States. Air Force; Second Ward High School (Charlotte, N.C.); University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department; Central Piedmont Community College; Billingsville Elementary School (Charlotte, N.C.); Clear Creek Colored School (Charlotte, N.C.); Carver College (Charlotte, N.C.); Charlotte Bureau of Employment Training and Placement (Charlotte, N.C.); Westside Council of Civic Affairs (Charlotte, N.C.); Success Motive Institute (Charlotte, N.C.); Julius Rosenwald Fund; Segregation in education; Race discrimination; School integration; Busing for school integration; Occupational training; Racism; Civil Rights; North Carolina--Charlotte; North Carolina--Charlotte--Myers Park; North Carolina--Charlotte--Cotswold; North Carolina--Charlotte--Grier Heights; Texas--Waco; Interviews (Sound recordings); Oral Histories
Abstract: 
James Ross, a native of Mecklenburg County, discusses his experiences with racial segregation and his civil rights activism in Charlotte. Growing up in Grier Heights, Mr. Ross attended Billingsville Rosenwald Elementary School and Clear Creek Colored School, before being transferred to Second Ward High School as a result of city expansion. In addition to describing his education in these segregated schools, Mr. Ross also discusses his experiences in the United States Air Force in Texas, and his career in consulting and job development in Charlotte. Mr. Ross describes his involvement with the Charlotte Bureau of Employment Training Placement, whose goal was to integrate the Charlotte workforce. Among his other accomplishments during the Civil Rights era, Mr. Ross was involved with Charlotte Mayor Stanford Brookshire and Police Chief John Ingersoll in efforts to build communication and understanding between the white and black communities. In particular Mr. Ross stresses the important role that negotiations, humor, and peaceful protests played in enacting change during the 1960s and 1970s.
Coverage: 
North Carolina--Charlotte; 1940 - 1980
Interview Setting: 
Home of Mr. Ross, North Carolina--Charlotte
Collection: 
Before Brown Collection
Collection Description: 
These interviews were conducted in conjunction with the Levine Museum of the New South’s award winning exhibit, "Courage: The Carolina Story That Changed America,” which was originally mounted in 2004. The interviews focus on the educational experiences of members of the African American community of Charlotte during the era of segregation.
Interview Audio: 
Transcript:
(Debbie Howard) DH: Today is March the 22nd 2005 I am Debbie Howard with the Before Brown Oral History Project at UNC Charlotte and I am interviewing James Ross at Renee Drive [IT SAYS RENEE DRIVE ON CONTROL SHEET AND INTERVIEW HOWEVER CAN'T FIND IT ON MAP ONLY "RENEE STREET"] in Charlotte, North Carolina.
(James Ross) JR: Right.
DH: Mr. Ross let's start by sharing a little bit about your family. Your family that you grew up with--.
JR: OK I grew up in-on the East side of Charlotte the community is called Grier Heights its out East 7th Street. It's out between Cotswold and Elizabeth. When I grew up out there in the late 30s and early 40s it was not part of the city limits it was in the rural end of the county. And there were farms I mean people had cotton fields and farms and horses and cows back-we had horses we didn't have a cow but we had horses and so it was not quite like living in the country but-because we were close to town but we were-so we were not country not urban.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And it was a wonderful place to grow up. Fairly small community-and one of the interesting things about the community it was a predominantly African-American community although it was an integrated community there were at least three streets-Dunn Avenue, Skyland Avenue and Orange Street that had European-American families who lived in the neighborhood. But the community was surrounded by Eastover, Myers Park, Cotswold, Oakhurst, and Elizabeth. So we were sort of plopped into the middle of it and I won't get into all the details but it was a fascinating story as to how African-Americans settled in that particular community and was completely surrounded-there was no direction that we left going anyplace that we wouldn't have to go through a European-American community to get to.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And of course that was a problem with the schools in those days you know schools were segregated.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And so we had to drive through other communities to get to schools. We had an Ann Richards school right here in the neighborhood it was a Rosenwald school it was called Billingsville-in fact Billingsville I think was build in 1927. Billingsville School and interesting-Grier Heights was a very independent community most of the folks who lived in Grier Heights were trades people. Brick masons, carpenters, auto mobile mechanics. That kind of this and when Rosenwald-the way the formula worked is the community would have to raise 3 or 4 hundred dollars and back in the 20s that was a lot of money.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And then they would sort of match the money and build a school for you and they were wooden schools and there must've been maybe 6 in Mecklenburg County. But the people in Grier Town did not want a wooden school they wanted a brick school and so if you wanted a brick school you had to raise another 3 or 4 hundred dollars which was a tremendous amount of money that this community came up with and they extra money and so the only brick Rosenwald school in Mecklenburg County is Billingsville. Now the rest of them are sort of falling down and in disrepair but now it's a community center, a community offices and a community museum for that community. So I can't think of any nicer place to grow up than the community that I grew up in. And I-my family consisted of me and three sisters and later on a brother with two sets of us.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Later on I had a younger brother and sister and growing up I was like in my teens when my mother remarried and I had another brother and sister but growing up there was just two sisters-me and two sisters and my mother and father and my grandmother, an aunt and a first cousin all lived in a four room house. [Laughter]
DH: [Laughter]
JR: All lived in a four room house and I still can't figure out how we did that. I laugh sometimes when I got married the first time we had a nine room house and we didn't have room for cousins or anybody to come over and visit maybe one at a time because all of the rooms had names we had the family room and the kitchen and the dining room and the whatever.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But in growing up my grandmother lived in a one room house for a long time in the summer that would be sometimes 6 or 8 of us in a one room house and there was room but then later on I got a 9 room house and there's not room so it just kind of goes to show you but it was me, my mother, father, my aunt, her daughter, my grandmother, we all lived in a four room house.
DH: Hmm.
JR: But it was-it didn't seem crowded because you know that's the way it was and so you didn't know anything else so it didn't seem crowded but the good part about the community is you knew everyone. I knew everyone's name in the community everybody in the community knew me I knew the names of the dogs. If I saw a dog going down the street I knew who's dog-I knew the dog's name probably and I knew who's house he belonged to. So that was a certain kind of comfort a certain kind of safety. You know in the summer I would leave home and my mother would have no idea where I was but I mean what kind of trouble could you get into. So we could roam in the woods and play all day and I think about my grandkids here they're restricted kind of to the driveway and you have to watch them you know they can't go in the street. It was a wonderful place to grow up I think.
DH: You had a lot more freedom.
JR: A lot more freedom yeah, yeah.
DH: And you're really a close knit community too it sounds like you watched out for each other--.
JR: Yeah and one of the sort of unspoken-if you want to say rituals in the community was that older guys would sort of take younger guys under their guidance and sort of teach you the facts of life.
DH: Hmm.
JR: There was nothing organized about it some older guy would take a liking to you because of your style or something else they can like you anyway.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I remember one day this guy that lived a couple doors down from us he came by and he said to my mother. My mother's name was Anne he said "Miss Annie I want to take-." And my nickname in the neighborhood was Bubba so he said "I want to take Bubba with me to work Saturday night." He didn't ask me anything he didn't say "Do you want to?" But he said "I want to take Bubba to work with me Saturday" and she said "Well yeah that'll be fine." So he said "OK I'll come by Saturday morning and pick him up." And that was the extent of the conversationI had nothing to do I had no sense over this whole deal so Saturday morning he came by and said "We're ready to go to work." And so we would go and buy stalk and Eastover and those days a lot of folks had coal furnaces.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So we'd take in coal or clean out the centers out of the thing or cut grass or rake leaves or trim hay whatever they'd need. He'd knock on the door and ask if they had any work that needed done and he'd negotiate the price and so we'd to the work and I was just a little kid and he was a teenaged guy but he would split the money.
DH: Yeah.
JR: I always appreciated about that because mostly I was his helper but he'd split the money right down the middle if we made 3 bucks he'd give me a $1.50 and he'd keep $1.50.
DH: Wow.
JR: Yeah. So that was my introduction to the world of work and you were expected to work I mean there was fiddling around you were expected to work now I didn't have to work outside the house in that way to make money I mean if I was going to have it that was the way to do but I mean my mother wouldn't push me to go out to make money but you had that privilege. But around the house you had chores and you were expected to work-I mean not expected you would work. I mean whether it was washing fruit jars or making a fire around the wash buckets. You didn't have-we didn't have hot water cold water if you got ready to wash clothes you had to make a fire and heat the water to boil the clothes--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: --and the wash pot and one of the jobs that I hated was on Monday or whatever day you had to wash it was my job to fill up all of those tubs. So that was a half days work right there.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Because you had to go across the street and the well-we didn't have a pump you had to pull this bucket sort of dump the water in the thing then walk across the street pour it in the thing go across again so you were walking back and forth across the street because we didn't have a well at our house we used the folk's well across the street.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So that was my job on Monday that was-oh I hated that. But I mean I can imagine my mother having to wash all those clothes so that was my problem but I didn't like carrying that water. It was nice when we got a pump I mean that was--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Now that was uptown you got a pump you don't have to draw water you could just pump it out of the air.
DH: Yeah that's great well thanks for sharing that.
JR: OK.
DH: So your mother's name was Annie?
JR: Yeah.
DH: And what was your father's name?
JR: Well my biological father died when I was just a little kid so my stepfather-my mother remarried my stepfather's name was Fred.
DH: OK.
JR: Yeah its Fred yeah.
DH: Now tell me about the schools that you grew up in.
JR: Billingsville.
DH: In Charlotte.
JR: Billingsville, Billingsville Elementary school I started I must've started school in 1940 I guess yeah that sounds about right because I was born 1936 I mean I was born in 1934.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I started school in 1940 I had an older cousin in fact the cousin that lived with us one of my mother's sister's daughters. She was a couple years older and she came to me one day and said "I want to teach you to read its really easy I want to teach you to read." I hadn't even started school "I want to teach you to read." And I can't remember how it happened or what but she taught me to read and I don't remember it being a long drawn out kind of thing.
DH: Hmm.
JR: She taught me to read and I don't remember how she did it so when I started school I could already read but I don't remember she just said "It was easy and I'll show you how to do it." And I don't know if she introduced me to the alphabet I don't know what she did she was that lady had a brilliant mind she was one of the smartest students I have ever known.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Just loved learning and to digress a little bit. In those days you had what are called resertations. You had Easter, Christmas, Mother's Day, Children's Day almost every opportunity as a child you had to make a speech every year and stand up at the church and make a speech and my grandmother and my cousin I'm talking about lived out in Matthews and we all went to a little Baptist church out there and so there was a sort of an unspoken competition between certain families as to who's daughter or son or whatever make the longest speech during this time and my cousin Ruth was-it wasn't fair because she could pick up a book and memorize it so she would get up and recite 56 verses or whatever it was or something and the other poor kids would try to keep up with her and there was just no way I used to always think it was unfair. Now what I would do is I would see this wasn't negotiable you had to have a speech so if you were smart what you would do is pick out a few verses and learn them really quick and then go to my grandmother and say "Let me tell you my speech." And then you'd give a couple verses and then OK then you're through. If they had to assign you a verse where as you messed around and didn't learn anything then "OK here's your-here's what you've got to memorize." It might be 3 pages.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And you had to sit there and over and over and over and over until you got the stuff memorized. But I was fine I would always pick out a couple verses learn them and I'd recite them "Good you're done." So that was-so anyway back to Billingsville School it was a four room school with-when I went there it was a four room school with 6 grades. So you had 1st and the 2nd and then-well you had the first grade was in one room, the second was in one room and then the third and fourth was in room and the fifth and sixth was in one room. No library, no cafeteria, no indoor bathrooms, no indoor water but it was one of the most amazing learning situations I've ever been in. I have three college degrees and I learned more in that 4 room school with-heaters when we came in in the morning we had to make a fire once you got to school you made a fire or a teacher came in and made a fire. But I learned more in that school than I have now and I owe it all to that.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But that was the basic foundation for my education was in that 4 room school and I've often wondered no computers, no library, no cafeteria, outdoor toilets, outdoor water. I don't remember the teachers being especially brilliant or anything nothing outstanding about the teachers but-I'm not still sure what the secret of that school was.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: How come we were able to-some of the brightest folk that I have met on that planet was in that elementary there was a girl named Marilyn Gilmore. She was one of the only persons in all my school career that I had to study to keep up with. Because I mean I was bright as a kid.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: In school since I could already read when I got to school it wasn't a big thing but by the time we got over to the 5th grade I couldn't just do it just because I had to study to keep up with Marilyn. Marilyn was-I think Marilyn finally ended up with a PhD in Education or something she lives up in Virginia now.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But she-some really bright minds at that school but part of the secret of that school was when you went there there were three things that you were to get. You would get educated, get some sense or if you were lucky get educated and some sense. But you would not leave there without one of the three--.
DH: Excuse me.
JR: Yes, yes. You would not leave without at least one.
DH: No I'm fine.
JR: You would not leave without one of the three. Education, some sense or education and some sense. And I was one of the fortunate that left there with education and some sense.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Now what do they mean by "sense". It wasn't just academic sense.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: It had to do with a sense of time, a sense of place, a sense of responsibility, a sense of community so you would talk a sense of you would talk to values-you're not stealing you're not doing things over and over these things were drilled in your head you had to be better than other folks because we lived in a society that was going to discriminate against you and it was not going to be fair.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I mean so don't leave this school thinking things are going to be fair so you got to be better. So you got to work harder or you've got to better because you've got to be twice as good as-and in those days they would put it this way you had to be twice as good as white people in order to survive. You've got to be twice as good.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And so we can't cut you any slack because if we let you out of here just ordinary then you'll never make it so you've got to work to be--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And so that was drummed into your head over and over again and there were students at that school who now are some retired folk and with good livings and good income who work. Who if they came into the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system today would probably be labeled-they'd be given labels.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I don't think they could've ever come out of there with the kind of in the school system today with the kind of training or background or whatever you want it because the other secret of school was in those days we got books and desks and other things that the European-American schools had used.
DH: Yeah.
JR: I had been at that school maybe for-I think I was in the 5th grade we had inkwells--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But we never had an ink bottle. So I always wondered why there was a hole in my desk and I just couldn't figure why there was a hole in my desk. And one of the gentlemen in my neighborhood who worked at Oakhurst Elementary school in the summer in those days used to oil the floors in the summer. When schools out they oiled the floors to keep down the dust so he would get a bunch of the kids from the neighborhood to help him to move all those desks so he could oil the floor. So I go to Oakhurst School and I saw for the first time I saw these ink bottles in that hole and I thought "Oh so that's what those holes in my desk are for." But we never had ink pens or ink bottles we just had the desk with a hole in it. Yeah.
DH: Did you just use like pencils?
JR: Yeah we used big fat brown pencils yeah. And that was a wonderful experience going to that school and that was through the sixth grade I went to Billingsville School.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And then junior high we were bussed from Grier Heights out to it was that time called Clear Creek Colored School it wasn't J.H. Gunn Elementary School but at that time you had Clear Creek White School and Clear Creek Colored School and we went to Clear Creek Colored School.
DH: OK.
JR: I went there in the seventh and eighth grade now we were still in the county then in the next year after we finished eighth grade city limits extended so then Grier Heights became part of the city of Charlotte. So were no longer county school now we're city school so we had to go to Second Ward. So for the first two years we went to Second Ward we rode school buses because we were making a transition from county schools to city schools.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And the other kids who lived in the city had to walk to school you know some of them walked three or four miles to school but Grier Heights was a good little distance from Second Ward so for the first couple years they let us ride school buses so boy did we catch it. Because we were coming to school in school buses and everybody else had to walk. Now you would think that wouldn't be a thing but they gave us a hard time because we were country. So they would laugh at us because we rode school buses. But then after the second year they cut out school buses so we had to ride-we either walked or we rode the regular city transportation you caught the regular city buses to ride to school.
DH: Did you go on the city bus?
JR: Yeah.
DH: And did you have to pay for that yourself?
JR: You had to pay for that yeah.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And so you know we walked from Second Ward out to Grier Heights in the summertime especially you'd just walk I mean it was I don't know how far maybe 8 miles or whatever.
DH: Hmm.
JR: We used to walk it wasn't bad, it was not bad yeah.
DH: You got a lot of exercise.
JR: You got a lot of exercise yeah. And then at Second Ward now my academic career from the time from first grade through the eighth grade I was a straight A student. By the time I got to Second Ward and I was in an environment-because I had the same kids that started in the first grade who went through all the way through the eighth grade so I knew all of the kids they all knew me. We had competition but we go to Second Ward and all at once we're thrown in a-I don't want to say a hostile environment but at least it was a different environment. OK? A different environment strangers-strange teachers, strange students. When Second Ward when the city limits expanded it didn't just expand into Grier Town it expanded all over so we had kids coming to Second Ward from all over. We had we must've had in the ninth grade we must've had 18 sections in the ninth grade. So you had 9.1, 9.2, 9.15, 9.16.
DH: Wow.
JR: And if you got there late you had to stand in the back of the room and you know I hear folks now complaining about trailers the schools are overcrowded with trailers.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: They at least had trailers we didn't have trailers at Second Ward if you got there late you just stood in the back of the room you literally didn't have enough seats for all of the students.
DH: Hmm.
JR: So that was the start of my downfall when it came to academics so I just I finally almost quit in fact I did finally quit school I dropped out in the-must've been the tenth grade. I just I mean it was just culture shock.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Because going from a rural to an urban setting and I just felt lost.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And just got to the point where I didn't care anymore. I remember when we had the induction of the honors society I was sitting up in the gymnasium and sort of chuckling to myself at the folk who were being inducted because I knew none of them could-was any better of a student than me. But then I thought well OK you're sitting up here in the stands and they're up being inducted because I didn't apply myself. Yeah but that was the last time I was that silly about that but that was culture shock. So I barely got through high school just kind of except when there was a teacher that I really liked I would apply myself other than that I just really didn't care.
DH: Say more about the culture shock and how that affected you? It sounds like it was really traumatic for you?
JR: Because it was because you know again growing up in Grier Heights where I knew everybody then going out to Gunn and again the same place it was like our whole class just picked up and went to the next school. And when I went and got to Second Ward there were all these strangers. I mean they were all-they all looked like me and that kind of thing.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But there were strangers and there was a wider variety of students for instance the kids who lived in First Ward and Second Ward and kind of Third Ward were urban kids.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I mean they had sidewalks and they lived in the city. And we lived out in the country so they were-they had a rougher edge to them I mean country kids walked one way and city kids another way and so it was culture shock. It had indoor bathrooms and a cafeteria and all of this stuff. And all of this stuff was new. And Second Ward was in the neighborhood called Brooklyn.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Second Ward was in Second Ward but nobody called it Second Ward I mean when you heard the word "Second Ward" it referred to the school not to the neighborhood. Because in the end it was supposed to be First Ward, Second Ward, Third Ward, Fourth Ward and Second Ward School was located within Second Ward but it was also called the Brooklyn community. And it was an urban community you know night clubs and cafes and-sidewalks. In Grier Heights where I grew up we didn't have any of the same thing we didn't have any paved streets.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: If you wanted to roller-skate you know you had to walk all the way over to Elizabeth where there were sidewalks. I mean that was culture shock it was completely different.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: The pace was a little faster than it was in elementary school and junior high and I just couldn't-not that I couldn't keep up I guess the better way of putting it was I just withdrew.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: It wasn't smart but that's what I did.
DH: Yeah.
JR: Yeah.
DH: Did you eventually go back to school?
JR: Yeah, yeah I dropped out pretty much-we got out of school for Easter I just didn't bother to go back so when school started that fall my mother said "OK you've got three choices you could go back to school, you could get a job or you could go to training school." In those days they had something called training school.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: You go to training-well that was easy. I tried all that summer to find a job and I think I'm lucky that I didn't find some job that paid 15 bucks a week and I would've been working some place delivering groceries or something. Couldn't find a job and certainly wasn't going to training school so I went back to school and unfortunately when I left school in the spring I was 5'9" when I went back to school that fall I was 6'1" I had literally outgrown all of my clothes.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Couldn't find a job and then that wasn't fun at all that was tough but I did go back and did enough to get by. Just enough to get by I made probably was a C+ student in terms of the grades that I made but that's just because I didn't apply myself yeah. And then I graduated from Second Ward 1953 that was the year-53? Yeah '53. And got a job delivering at the drug store out on Park Road. It's Evadale Pharmacy got a job delivering prescriptions and stuff out at the Park Road area. And it was-I got the job maybe in November and in December it was cold and they didn't have kind of windshields didn't have any special clothing and I think we were making maybe 22 bucks a week.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And I kept thinking "Boy there's got to be something better than this" and so I joined the Air Force I thought "OK if I go to Air Force for 4 years I'll get the G.I. Bill so I'd get 4 years of college and I'd do it on the way." So I joined in January 1954 I went to Texas first time I'd ever been away from home I had never been 100 miles away from home in my whole life. I was 17 years old-17 16-17 years old.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Never been maybe 50 miles away from home all my life joined the Air Force and next thing I know I'm on the train going to San Antonio, Texas. I was so disappointed when I got off the train and didn't see any cowboys. I mean I really thought I-you know you had seen the movies and I really thought that-I didn't think anybody would be riding around with guns but I thought I'd see some horses and no, no, no. Surprised that folks looked just like me and dressed. [Laughter]
DH: [Laughter] You didn't see what you thought you would see.
JR: I didn't see what I thought I would see so that was my introduction to an integrated society because at that time in 1954 the armed forces had-President Truman in 1948 had integrated the armed forces so by the time I got in in '54 it was probably-I would think the armed forces was probably 65% or whatever the president wanted it was probably about 65% there. And that is you slept together, you ate together.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Now there was still some funny business that went on but it was nothing like civilian life. Growing up in Grier Heights the only European American people that we saw were people who peddled things and you had a guy who sold eggs and you had some guy who sold milk and you had the insurance man and you had the guy that collected rent so the majority of folk we saw were people and then you had some other families in the neighborhood that took in washing so folks would bring their clothes so you'd see people-so there were some families that lived there but there was no real one to one relationship with whites.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: In the summertime you only had Myers Park Country Club had a swimming pool but you didn't have any public swimming pool so we swam in the creek and so a lot of white kids swam in the creek with us so you had some kind of interaction but again it was just bare. We played football and baseball against each other but then again you know you played the game and you went to neighborhood and you went back to your neighborhood so they'd come over out and they'd play baseball and we'd go over there they would play baseball that kind of thing but it was no real human interaction so the first real kind of human interaction I had was when I joined the Air Force so it was the first time-now I never felt inferior to anyone I knew what I knew in my head so I never felt inferior to anyone but I didn't have any experience with folk and I wondered how these folks felt and it was a revelation to find out that we were the same some smart, some dumb, some whatever, whatever.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: That was interesting to learn about different people at that level yeah that was interesting. I remember my training instructor came up to us one day and said that there were some guys who had come into the Air Force from West Virginia and Louisiana and other places who didn't read very well so he wondered if there were any high school graduates that could help these guys and I said that I would volunteer and we got over there and all the guys who couldn't read very well were white. They'd come from West Virginia, Appalachia and some parts of Louisiana. And I was shocked. Because I just assumed that you were white you were educated you're not just--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I couldn't-that was-because you know we had been taught that if you were white then you had all these privileges and you didn't have-so it was interesting to see that. So I spent 4 years in the Air Force and got out in 1958. I got out of the Air Force in 1958 and came back to Charlotte I really wanted to go to-I was an electronic technician in the Air Force and so I really wanted to go to North Carolina State to study electronics. And I was accepted to North Carolina State but never got my money-I never got money for tuition and that kind of thing so again I kinda dropped off for a while.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But then went to there was a junior college at Second Ward at night called Carver Junior College and so I started to Carver Junior College and got the juices flowing again the academic juices flowing again.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So that was a really nice experience and left Carver after two years and went to Johnson C. Smith finished undergraduate training and started trying to make a living. An incident that happened I won't name the company but they were recruiting-As I said are we OK?
DH: [It started again]
JR: When I went into the Air Force because of my math scores I was accepted into electronic training so went through basic training in Texas. Left Texas went to Belview, Illinois to electronic school and the Air Force-well not just the Air Force but the armed services have some of the best training in America is at the US armed forces so I got-went through basic electronic school and when I finished basic electronic school I was accepted into advanced training school so I had some of the best electronic training you could get I spent four years in the Air Force doing the electronic stuff. Got out and there was a company interviewing here in Charlotte for electronic technicians. So I go over to apply for the job and when I get in there I can see the testing room and the guy who interviewed me I could see a group of folks sitting taking a test in the room and he asked me what did I want and I said I came to apply for the job and he handed it to be and said "What's the answer to number one?" And it was nothing but basic electronic stuff.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And I said "The answer to number one is" it was multiple choice "The answer to number one is C"
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And so he said "What about number two?" I said "D" "What about number three?" "A" "What about number-" Because it was just a basic just the most basic stuff so I did the first 19 questions he asked me I got them now the test was set so that as you went through it it increased in difficulty and you had to do some calculations so I get to number 20 I missed number 20-I missed 20 I got 21, 22, missed 23 and then after that I must've missed 5 in a row.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So he said "Well you know you missed the last 4-the last 5." Now I guarantee there was no one sitting in the other room with pencil and paper that got the first 19 correct. And he knew that and I knew that so he said to me "You know maybe you should get a job at a television repair shop." And I said "Well they're not hiring black folks at television repair shops either."
DH: [Laughter]
JR: And so I left but the point is that that was that kind of foolishness-this would've been 1959 or 60.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But I will never forget that kind of insult. Now that guy I don't know if it was his idea or if it was the company's idea and they told him you know "We're not hiring any black folks" or whatever.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But he was in an awkward position because he knew that I knew.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And in his wildest nightmare he would never expect somebody to walk in there and be able to get the first 19 right without pencil and paper.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I mean what was he going to do with me?
DH: Yeah.
JR: He knew right off the bat that here is the best candidate that I have for the job but I can't hire the guy either I can't hire him because the company won't let me or I don't want to hire him because of my own prejudice.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I couldn't figure that out but that was a big experience. I mean that was an experience. So I left--.
DH: It sounds like that was your first experience where you really felt--?
JR: No, no.
DH: The most impressionable.
JR: That one really stuck with me because I got the first 19 right.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And the guy was in a tough place because it would've been easy if I had missed the first 5 or 6 so he could dismiss me but he couldn't dismiss me so there was this awkward pause.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: He because he knew and I knew that I could do this. But this was not my first gosh I guess my first kind of awkward deal well let me back up then. I never felt inferior to anyone.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: My mother was a very independent kind of person and she drummed it in our heads that we were as good as anybody so that wasn't a problem I fully understood that we lived in a segregated society. And I didn't understand why I didn't know why and didn't try to figure it out except this I will abide by these segregated rules to a point. It's not a big deal to a point but you-but my dignity and I was saying this as a kid my dignity will not be compromised. And I don't know why I had this idea I don't know how I did but I you can go so far with me but you can't go any farther I'll play this game up to point. But my grandmother one summer I was down in Matthews with my grandmother and she said "Do you want some ice cream?" and I said "Yes Ma'am." So we go into the drugstore and so I walked up to the counter and I said "I want to buy some cola with some vanilla ice cream."
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And he said the guy who was behind the counter said "Don't you want chocolate?" So that was kind of a little--.
DH: Hmm.
JR: I said "If I had wanted chocolate I would've asked for chocolate I wanted vanilla." And my grandmother said "Shut up boy" because she knew that it was dangerous you had-it could be dangerous so she said "Shut up boy" and he gave me the vanilla ice cream and we went out the store so as we were going down the street down the road to my grandmother's house she said "You told that cracker [Laughter]" And there was a certain little sound she made that said what you did was OK except you had to be careful. It wasn't a laugh it was a certain kind of sound that older African American women made that you have to know that sound to understand what it meant so the word she said was one thing but that sound she made like "[Laughter]" like that she said you know it was OK what you did but you had to be careful. It was OK what you did.
DH: Hmm.
JR: So that was my first kind of little incident that was volumes in that incident that was the first one I remember. Now there was obviously all kinds of little incidents that would go on.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Like the buses at that time you had the colored passenger seat you get on the bus that said "Colored passengers seat to the rear."
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Where we lived the bus it was the number 6 Elizabeth it came from downtown Charlotte down Seventh Street to Fifth Street came down Seventh Street and turned Fifth Street and well that was the end of the line and so when the bus started back up Fifth Street going back to town it was empty. And so we were the first passengers that would get on so we'd sit wherever. So as the bus went back through Elizabeth behind Presbyterian Hospital and down to Elizabeth Avenue back to the square you white people would start to get on the bus and we'd already be on the bus and so there would be these little-some folks they would sit beside you it didn't make any difference but some other folks would want you to get up and move so they could sit by themselves.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Well they'd come and stand next to you in the seat and expect you to get up well it just depended on who you-you think I'm going to get up and give you you've got to be kidding.
DH: [Laughter]
JR: I said "You think I'm going to get up and give you my seat?" And so the bus driver would sometimes stop the bus and say "You all need to move back" and we said "No you need to drive this bus" and so we would get to the square and he's talking about he would go and get the police but by the time he got the police we'd be off the bus and go about your business. Now there was a catch to that kind of thing when the bus came to that end of the line.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: There were no street lights it was dark so we had some bricks and some stones in a pile over there so the bus driver-by the time that bus driver got back to the bus half the windows would be broken out so we had-so we'd say "OK you've got to come back in our neighborhood with the same bus tonight."
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And so you know he'd have to explain why the windows were broken out in the bus and so after a while we had a little understanding because you had the same drivers over and over.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So after a while we had a kind of understanding that when you came down to Grier Town you just-it was up to the passengers as to how they would work out the seat arrangement.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Now that wasn't for everyone but for most of us guys you know we didn't-I didn't "Are you sitting in the rear" "No I'm not sitting in the rear" I mean the Birmingham-no I mean the Montgomery bus strike no that-we'd done that in Grier Town.
DH: Uh-huh long before that.
JR: Yeah long before that yeah.
DH: Yeah.
JR: Yeah so that was my kind of take on it and I kept that attitude when I went into the military.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And I kept that attitude when I got out of the military I kept that attitude and so my first professional job there was a group of guys in Grier Heights that had started up an organization called the Charlotte Bureau Employment Training Placement they got a grant from an outfit in Chicago to try and break job discrimination in Charlotte.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And by the time they had got the grant Lynden Johnson started the war on poverty and that kind of thing so some federal money started to come in but we were able to start this organization and didn't have to worry about getting fired or any pressure on us because the money was not from Charlotte the money was from Chicago.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And so my first professional job was to-now I had 2 college degrees and I was working at a company making golf carts making $1.25 an hour with 2 college degrees.
DH: Hmm.
JR: I got my first professional job I was called a job developer and I would go into companies now at that time you had a rigidly segregated employment situation in Charlotte drivers, no laundry truck drivers, no BM truck drivers, no-I mean jobs that people just don't even think about-.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I mean literally we got the first bread truck-Merita bread truck delivery the first guy who delivered for National Linen.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: A linen truck of all things. And so from 1964 to 1968 we pretty much broke the back of job discrimination in Charlotte
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: By going to companies and insisting-and by insisting we'd negotiate and let you all integrate your own workforce. And so that was one of the most exciting periods in my life.
DH: Yeah.
JR: Because we would go into companies with no training I mean there was no training that you could go into to learn how to do this.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: We'd you know you'd get your briefcase and put your suit on and you'd go in and the companies you'd call the companies and say "I want to talk to you" and "Go to the Human Resources" we called it personnel at that time.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: You'd go to the personnel director and then you'd negotiate. Try to negotiate and sometimes we would go in and we wouldn't even be asked to have a seat you'd have to do all of the negotiating still standing.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Other times we weren't even allowed to come in but I knew we were right. Discrimination was wrong what we were doing right there was nothing to negotiate.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Now again you had to know Charlotte you had to know people you didn't disrespect folks you didn't come in with anger you just came in with determination with facts on your side and it worked out most of the time. So eventually you know we were able to do this kind of thing.
DH: Uh-huh because you were really motivated because you knew what was right.
JR: Yeah we knew it was right.
DH: OK you were talking about your--.
JR: Yeah Eastern Airlines, Southern Bell, Sellenice, Sears Roebuck.
DH: Hmm.
JR: City of Charlotte it was-one of the interesting experiences that we had the mayor of Charlotte was Stan Brookshire. Brookshire Freeway is named after him.
DH: Hmm.
JR: A real southern gentlemen I have outmost respect for Mayor Brookshire just a real southern gentleman if he told you something you could kind of-so he just couldn't for the life of him understand what we were so angry about. He said hey these young black men so he said to Jim Polk he was the guy who started this organization and gave me my first job. Jim was sitting on the man's community council and so he said to Jim "Charlotte is a wonderful place to live and you all have opportunities I can't understand what you're-I'd like to meet some angry young black men."
DH: [Laughter]
JR: So Jim said "Oh no problem I have two of them." So me and Fredrick Douglas Ford those were the two that he sent over and so we met with the mayor and the first thing he said when we got there he said "If you're qualified you can get any job in Charlotte if you're qualified." And so in those days "qualified" was a no-no that was the wrong thing to say "qualified" because "qualified" would mean depending on the situation.
DH: Yeah.
JR: They say all you have to do is be qualified but nobody would tell you what "qualified" meant until after the fact and so "Well you could have gotten this job if you were qualified" "Well what is qualified?" "Well you didn't pass the test" or if you passed the test sometimes if you made too high of score you were overly qualified so that was a dirty word it was a catch word.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: That's not the word I'm looking for catch word but anyway so we jumped on about "qualified" so we had a really tough conversation. I give him credit I mean we told him both of us Fred Ford the guy that went with me graduated from Talladega.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: He was working at a 7/11 a clerk at a 7/11 with a college degree. I had 2 college degrees and I'm working building golf carts and so we explained to him "How do you think we feel with this kind of training and we're making $1.25 an hour" so after about an hour with him he said "I just had never-I had no idea that it was like that" And we argued against the mayor about "qualified" in fact there's a book up here that I will show you. This is a book written by Alex Coffin.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Brookshire and Belk; Businessmen in City Hall and he relates that story in this book.
DH: Ahh.
JR: He gave it to me he relates that story when we met with the mayor.
DH: Ahh.
JR: But that guy but Brookshire under Brookshire this town moved from the dark ages into the light ages under him because he was a genuine what I would call a southern gentleman. Stanford Brookshire.
DH: So this is the book Brookshire and Belk.
JR: Yeah.
DH: --Businessmen in City Hall" by Alex Coffin.
JR: Yeah.
DH: And it has the story you talked about?
JR: It's in the book.
DH: It is in the book.
JR: Alex interviewed me and the story with the mayor is in there.
DH: Oh wonderful.
JR: Yeah, yeah and he gave me a copy of the book as a result of sitting for the interview and Brookshire was just a real southern gentleman and part of the reason we were in the Civil Rights era and part of the reason we were able to get a lot of things done was you had something we had men that we referred to as "southern gentlemen".
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And it was kind of the old southern tradition that your word was your bond.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: If you sat down with these guys and negotiated something with them then that was it there was no going back.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And then when you showed them look what is being done is wrong.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And here's why it was wrong and you can't defend it now they would make some-depending on they would make some halfhearted attempt to defend "Well that's the--." I can tell you a little story I won't name the company because that's not important but we go to this company. Me and Jim Polk go to this company--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: To meet with the personnel director and he says-well we make our little pitch about integration and breaking down these barriers and he says "Well what you all are saying has some merit I can't deny that but let me tell you what my problem is we make we create these synthetic fabrics and we have a textile mill in the basement of this building and since no blacks have been involved in textile all of the folks who work down there are white. And they take these synthetic fabrics that we make and weave them into automobile seats and all of this kind of thing and we take them out to our costumers so they can see what we do with this stuff and those white employees have told us that on no uncertain terms that if we bring any blacks in that they'd all quit and if they quit then we'd be stuck."
DH: Hmm.
JR: So he sat back in his chair so I asked him "Let me ask you one question what if one of those whites came up to you and said they're going to start a union." He said "I'd fire every damn one of them."
DH: [Laughter]
JR: He said "OK, OK I see your point."
DH: [Laughter]
JR: Because I knew that-see again you couldn't win an argument with us you might get a tie if you were real good you might get a tie.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Because we were right and you were defending something that couldn't be defended.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Because the best that you could come up with was "That's the morays of the society at this time that's the way it's always" that's not an answer to anything.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And we'd say "Well what about We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created-well what about that?" So you'd get a halfhearted argument you had some folks that were just stubborn and set in their ways but for the most part if you could do an argument like that these people weren't crazy.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: These were sophisticated corporate folk and they went along with the stuff of that time because-and then you know what happened a lot of times the guy would say to us "Look sue us. Bring a court suit against us so we'll have to do it we're not going to volunteer to do it but if you'll bring a suit against us then we'll just cave in but we don't want to be the first."
DH: Hmm.
JR: So or "Picket us. So that when the pickets come we can say that you know we had to give us an excuse help us."
DH: Yeah.
JR: "Give us an excuse to change." You'd be surprised how often that happened "Give us an excuse." And again these were folks who went along with the program because they felt like they had to go along and "We don't want to be the first."
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: This bread truck thing I got a guy in job development now what I would do is I would go out and develop a job then I'd have to find somebody to take the job.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So I had to do all of these so I called a buddy of mine I said "Look we want you to take the job driving Merita Bread Truck" he said "Bread truck?" and I said "Yeah no problem we already talked to the guy and he'll hire you." So he went and hired him and about three months later he came back and said "Mr. Ross I'm going to quit." And I said "Why are you going to quit?" and he said "Well I went to this one little store out there on Rozelles Ferry Road and they said they didn't want any niggers bringing bread into their store." And I said "Hold on before you quit let me call the guy" and I called the guy at Merita and he said "No problem just tell him we don't have to serve them bread tell him not to quit if they don't want our bread that's fine we just take it somewhere else don't quit." So you had that kind of foolishness.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But that was the kind of thing so we'd go out and develop a job and sometimes we'd hand pick we would hand pick somebody to go into that job because we knew if we got this first guy and he did OK then it would be-for instance Sears called me one day and said they wanted a guy to do repair.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Well repair that means you have to go to folks' homes.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So a buddy of mine Ted the only reason you'd know he was black was because he told you he was black.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Ted was very fair, straight hair I mean I don't believe in race I have no idea what that is but Ted's background-apparently Ted's background was-whatever.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And so I called Ted and said "Look Sears wants to hire somebody and they want to hire a black person would you be interested?" And he said "Yeah I'll do it." And so he was the first Sears-now when he pulled up in a truck they'd think he was white.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But that was fine he retired from Sears after probably-he must've stayed there 30 years but he-.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But again you had to know how to do these things so now Sears has hired a black guy so the next time they'll hire a dark skinned black guy.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But the first guy they get in there and so after that the guys said well that worked out OK and so that's how it worked. Yeah.
DH: And you had children did they grow up in the 60s?
JR: Yeah, yeah my daughter was born in 1960 and my son was born in 1962 yeah.
DH: OK so did they grow up with the segregation in the schools or--?
JR: No by the time they-well--.
DH: With integration. They were integrating--.
JR: Yeah they were integrating yeah. And the neighborhood where we lived it was still predominantly black the neighborhood where we lived. This friend of mine married a European American young lady and we worked together in fact we all got our jobs together and I remember the first time Laura and Ben came to our house I wondered how our kids were going to react to her.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: They didn't blink I mean it was like "This is Ben and Laura" and then let's see when they started to school they did start to-they started at segregated schools I guess but by the second grade they were-we moved to Texas. We moved out to Texas so they integrated the school because we moved to Waco, Texas and we were the only black folks who lived on the East side of Waco, Texas. It was interesting Jim and I got hired with a company out at Waco, Texas and so when we got there the guy who was my boss said "Here's where the corporate headquarters are and you guys want to live on this side of town because it is close to corporate headquarters."
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And so he said "I found you some this apartment complex where you can live." Jim bought a house we moved into an apartment complex because Jim had a bigger family so I go to the apartment complex and I said "Farrell Hunter" no I go to the apartment complex and I said "I'm James Ross and I came to get the apartment." And they said "I'm sorry we don't have any more units available." And I thought well OK so I went back to the office and I said "Farrell when I got there the lady said they didn't have any more units available." He said "That's a bunch of crap" he got on the phone and said "This is Farrell Hunter at Success Motive Institute and I have a corporate executive that we just hired and he needs an apartment and I wondered if you had a unit available." And they said "Oh yes Farrell Hunter" so he said "Get in the car" so we get into the car and we drive back to the same apartment complex same lady and he walks in and says "This is the executive that I just called you about." Well she didn't know what to do so--but she had to rent me the apartment so we rented the apartment and we stayed there for a year and when we left she cried. When we left she actually cried.
DH: Hmm.
JR: She said "You all are just the nicest people and your children are just-." So you know that's the kind of stuff that you go through.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: The other thing that Farrell Hunter did Farrell was the guy that hired us out at Texas me and Fred the guy I talked about and Jim--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: All went to work for this company down in Texas so we were going out there the second we go for the interview the second time we go to meet the guy who owned the company. Well I'm 6'1" Fred's about 6'3" Jim's about 6'3" and Farrell was about 6'3". They said "You guys look like you might be able to play basketball."
DH: [Laughter]
JR: "Yeah we play basketball" "Well let's go over to the Y and play a little bit" "Well we don't have any shorts or shoes" "No problem we'll stop up here and get some" so we stopped at the store this guy buys all of us a pair of sneakers and some shorts so we go the Y in Waco, Texas we go to the Y. And when we went in it didn't-it all seemed a little awkward but we didn't think much about it.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So we go in and we play basketball the 4 of us played 2 on 2 we played basketball for a couple hours then we went down and took a shower and dressed and come out and when we came out Farrell said "You know you all are the first black folk that ever been to the Y in Waco, Texas."
DH: [Laughter]
JR: We laughed about that so we integrated the Y in Waco, Texas at that time. So all of these kinds of things now to get kind of to bring this back to something as I said growing up I never felt inferior.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I always had something inside of me that said that my dignity as a human being is important and that I will not allow anyone to step on that. No you can't do that I worked at the little place it was at the corner of East Trade and College Street it was called a Period Market it was a meat market it was open like Thursday, Friday, Saturday and they sold all kinds of meat and I worked as a high school person. And the first week that I worked they were closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday so any of the stuff that they had left over they had to throw it away because it couldn't last and so the first when the thing was over I mean Saturday night when we got off the guy gave me all of this stuff. "You want this?" "No I don't want it" So when I got home I said to my mother I said "This guy offered me these turnip greens and all of this I told him I didn't want it." She said "Boy don't be silly. If somebody offers you something you could've taken that stuff and thrown it in the trashcan but if somebody offers you something." See again that's arrogance on my part.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: You know just because I'm black you don't give me the stuff you want to throw away. She said "Don't be silly you could've taken the stuff and throw it" her faith was that it was not an insult to you.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: The man made you an offer you could have at least taken it and thrown it in the trashcan if you wanted. Don't do that. So my mother was-I mean I just hesitate to even think about what my life would've been like if I had a different kind of mother she was the wisest-its hard for me even now to talk about because I never understood how she knew all of the stuff she knew it was like-dropped out in the 8th grade she probably finished high school when she was in her 70s. But she was one of the smartest people I have ever known I mean she told me once when I was little I wasn't 7 or 8 years old she said "If you're not coming home at all let me know so I won't wait up for you." That was the only rule she had for me. I mean after I was grown I asked her why and she said "Well the rules you had for yourself were stricter than the rules I had so why would I mess with that."
DH: Hmm.
JR: I started crying I mean what could I do I cried.
DH: Hmm.
JR: She said "The rules you had for yourself" because I did I had these rules for myself it was very, very-I don't think of myself as a disciplined person other folk talk about how disciplined I am about certain things. I don't think of myself as a disciplined person I just have certain things that I do in a particular kind of way. And then when I go back and think well it is what discipline is.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So my mother picked that up real early that was strange. And so she said "Well I just leave you alone because you've got these rules."
DH: Same here.
JR: "And you never gave me any trouble you don't get into trouble so I just leave you alone." And I thought well I mean that was the really way only to deal with me.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I mean really there was no other way because if you tried to-if you tried to any other kind of way like the military. That was a 4 year fight, oh that was a 4 year fight and that was silly on my part. But I just couldn't-me and three other guys from Grier Town went in the Air Force at the same time they both made careers out of it I couldn't wait to get out so they would ask me "What is it you don't like about the Air Force?" Look what kind of business is it for somebody to tell me that my shoes are untied.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Or I have to wear a hat or tell me what time to get up and no, no I'm sorry you can't tell me what time to get up what time to go to bed. I didn't like wearing a hat.
DH: Right.
JR: So I'd take my hat off and put it in my pocket I'd see an officer coming I'd put it on real quick and salute. I didn't like wearing a hat so why should I wear a hat if I don't want to wear a hat.
DH: [Laughter]
JR: But you know its part of your uniform.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: "You're out of uniform put your hat on." No, no so that's the kind of person I am so my mother understood that and just left me alone.
DH: Yeah you're more self-regulated then you didn't want other people telling you what to do.
JR: Self regulated that's right I know what's in here and that I don't need that outside.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I'm still like that my wife and I get along fine because she understands it.
DH: [Laughter]
JR: She understands that you know.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: That you got your ways the way she puts it.
DH: Yeah well you had your business too.
JR: Oh yeah that was part of it.
DH: So that fit.
JR: Yeah and the consultant business because I like doing the same thing over and over again I like fixing something and then going and fixing something else.
DH: So you mentioned that you went to UNC Charlotte.
JR: Yes.
DH: And got your masters in counseling right?
JR: Counseling yeah.
DH: How was that at that time? I guess that it was pretty integrated at that time you sounded like you had a good experience there so say more about that.
JR: It was-pretty integrated my first experience at UNC Charlotte would've been 1968 I guess it was. There was a Professor Lou Diver at psychology and Lou was an interesting guy. Lou came to Charlotte from New York and was-rode a motorcycle and was really a way out kind of guy for UNC Charlotte because UNC Charlotte was a very conservative kind of school for a long time. It was a very racist school.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Very-Stokely Carmichael came to UNC Charlotte he said to me he said "Look I've been to Alabama, Mississippi all of those things."
DH: Hmm.
JR: "The most racist school I've ever been to the most hostile school I've ever been to is UNC Charlotte."
DH: Hmm.
JR: That was at the time and so my first experience teaching at UNC was-I wasn't a teacher but Lou would have some of us to come out and lecture.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: About the racial kind of things but Bertha Maxwell Bertha started the African American Studies thing at UNC Charlotte. Bertha was the first black faculty member at UNC Charlotte and when she started in 1970-see 1969 when most black schools were closed and then integration came full fledged so you had a lot of black folks who had gone to school all the way up to their senior year.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And then their senior year their junior senior year they had been sent to all white schools.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And so these kids you talk about culture shock.
DH: Hmm.
JR: If you think what I went through with it these kids were they were literally lost so when they got to UNC Charlotte Bertha thought "We have got to help these kids to find some kind of normalcy."
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So she started something she called "Understanding Self and Others".
DH: Hmm.
JR: And during the summer before they would go to school they had to come and spend a week with me, Jim Poke and a guy named Jim Bertrand who was the first black referee in the ACC and he was a superintendent at the schools here and a really sharp guy and what we would do is we would take these kids through-maybe at that time it was kinda called like sensitivity training.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: We would, we would-OK you came out of hostile environment those schools you were forced to go to.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: You're coming into a hostile environment and here's some survival techniques that you're going to have to learn in order to do this. And we'd take them through that workshop.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Excuse me but you need to turn that off because I need to step to the restroom.
DH: OK this is Debbie Howard interviewing James Ross.
JR: And I don't remember where we stopped.
DH: You were talking a little bit about the--.
JR: The Air Force?
DH: Bertha the training Bertha?
JR: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DH: Training at the university.
JR: At the university yeah and so what we would do is we would take these kids through the summer and it really helped them to integrate in school in fact the black student union something grew out of that.
DH: OK.
JR: That endeavor there was fraternity I believe two fraternities these are national black fraternities.
DH: Hmm.
JR: That started chapters there as a result of that thing so it really made the transition from the integrated schools and to UNC it really helped them and Bertha was just--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I mean she's a delight.
DH: What was her last name?
JR: Bertha at that time she was Bertha Maxwell. She's now Bertha Maxwell Roddey R-O-D-D-E-Y. But she and another professor at UNC Charlotte started the Afro-American Cultural Center which was an extension of that. All of that came out of this effort from her to put into that thing and then during that time sometime during the middle 70s I took a leave of absence from the consultant firm that Jim Poke and I started and took a job as an executive director of the open house drug treatment program.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I was director of an inpatient facility.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And the drug treatment program in Charlotte had been started by Dr. John McCloud who was later a professor at UNC Charlotte and Dr. Mirror told Dr. Burke so I hooked up these two ladies.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And so that's how I ended up in the master's program at UNC Charlotte and I ended up teaching there through John and Dr. Burke And Dr. Burke was just I mean she was just the love of my life.
DH: Hmm.
JR: At the time when I first met her she was still wearing she was a Catholic nun.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And she was still wearing the full black habit she wore her habit.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And I had an Afro that was out to here.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So we'd have lunch sometimes and talk about an odd couple I mean here's this Catholic nun with a full black habit on and here's this African American guy with this afro out to here and it was obvious that we had I mean we just had a really beautiful relationship.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And so we'd be whispering about what-wonder what people think about this?
DH: [Laughter]
JR: Yeah she was a really dear friend.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Yeah, yeah she was a big influence on me until she told me when I came here "You won't learn anything but you've got to go through it in order to get your master's degree so why don't you teach some of these classes with me so that way it won't be quite as boring if you're teaching classes." So that was the way I--.
DH: Hmm. Sounds like a wonderful experience.
JR: A wonderful experience yes.
DH: Uh-huh and on the phone you mentioned too that you were involved in some Civil Rights Movements when you were--.
JR: Yeah the sit-ins during the 60s you know we were involved in voter registration, sit-ins, demonstrations I mean some of the run of the mill-I have a knack for talking.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And I also learned that humor can disarm hostilities if you know how to use humor and so that was a particular-that's something I learned from my mother she was a master of that that you could use humor to disarm so if you could-its not making something funny because there's a difference between something being funny and something being humorous because if you made something funny it was like you were making fun and it could be insulting but if there was a certain way you could use humor that disarmed kind of thing so I could do that.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And so I was-one of the things that I did a lot of it was talking to groups.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And get them to understand the wrongness of the situation now I became a master at that I could-see I knew how to put the needle in and really twist it.
DH: Hmm.
JR: But I knew that there was a certain point that you got up to that if you crossed that point then you had trouble so what I would do is essentially almost all of the large churches like Myers Park Baptist Church, Myers Park Presbyterian Church, Myers Park Lutheran Church I mean every big white church in Charlotte almost at some point I spoke there.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: On a Sunday as part of the-this is during the 60s I spoke as you know the big thing was to have somebody there to talk about this stuff so one of my little tricks was I'd launch into would be. I grew up in Grier Heights let me give you an example of what happens to black men in Grier Heights.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: A black man works for somebody in this church he probably works for somebody in this church and he makes $40 a week after taxes and this kind of thing he takes home $31.84 his rent is $10 so now he has $21.84 and groceries are $15 now $15 from $21 the guy's got $6 and the light bill is whatever so by the time he pays the rent, buys groceries and pays his light bill he is down to 31 cents so if he goes up the street and somebody steps on his shoes and he pulls out a knife and cuts this guy the problem is he's cutting the wrong person if he's going to cut anybody he ought to cut the guy that's paying him $40 a week.
DH: [Laughter]
JR: That's the way I would say it. Now I mean these folk first of all they never thought about violence in terms of what they paid people or they never sat down and figured out OK we're paying this guy $40 a week and that's not enough for him to live and they just "We're doing fine by Willie. You know Willie has a job." Now you can't just sit there and say "Oh we've been wrong all of our lives" but at the same time you can't deny the fact that what I just put out there is real.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So most folks said-well you always got some guy in the audience who said "Oh that's a bunch of junk. You oughta be glad you came over here from Africa you'd still be there with bones in your nose." And I thought I wanted him to do this because what'll happen I'm through.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Its like in that book "The Games People Played" let's you and him fight I've started so now somebody would jump up and say-so I'm refereeing now you see.
DH: [Laughter]
JR: See I'm out of this thing. So I had a knack of getting that kind of dialogue going between the folk now you all get this thing going. And so at the end Monday I'm going back to my company and I'm going to see that folk-so I had that kind of little thing going. I had-I can't think of the number of these kinds of speeches that I made through the years.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Again using humor and using what we refer to in the south as "Mother Wit" and none of this stuff was in any book anyplace you just had to figure out how to fix this thing and Jim Poke who was my mentor and gave me my first professional job and was a shrewd reader of human events so he told me "OK now never alienate unless you intend to annihilate. Never alienate unless you intend to annihilate. And so there's always a way of getting something done."
DH: Hmm.
JR: And he had these little sayings and he would say "There's always a way of getting something done." And so the way you get something done is you figure out a way of getting it done.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: There's always a way to get something done and so that was the-I can remember the night that Dr. King was assassinated.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Professor at Johnson C. Smith Dr. Sam Byron and we were at the Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: One of the first real integrated churches in fact there's probably maybe still the only real integrated-well that's not fair but anyway it was one of the first integrated churches in Charlotte and they would have these forums and we were Dr. Sam and I were talking about how people treat each other and I was particularly hard on Christians.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I was particularly hard on Christians because if you profess to be a Christian and if you say all of these things all of us are created by God then you can't have it both ways. You can't on one side your mind no say we're all made by God we're all equal in the sight of God but we're not quite that equal so I was particularly hard on Christians sometimes-no I won't get into all of that. I was hard on Christians because if you professed to be a Christian then you have a certain responsibility to live up to your Christian teachings. So we were over that night and we were going on and somebody came to the door and said "Dr. King's just been shot." And then I remember well as it was raining I mean it was pouring down rain and I remember Dr. Byron said "You know that's what the whole point of what we've just" we didn't know what had happened we didn't know who shot him or what all we knew was Dr. King just been shot in Memphis, Tennessee and Dr. Byron said "That's exactly what we've been trying to tell you."
DH: Hmm.
JR: "That this violence that America is a violent country" and this kind of thing and Dr. Sam had a very interesting take on integration he used to talk about non-prejudiced discriminators, prejudiced discriminators, non-prejudiced non-discriminators and prejudiced discriminators. And he said "You know in some cases a person personally isn't-doesn't discriminate isn't even prejudice but they work for a company that practices this so this is a non-prejudiced discriminator" and that helped me a lot because again you weren't just talking about abstract kind of things you were talking about the way things happened you had these prejudiced non-discriminators here was a guy who was prejudiced. See his argument was that it didn't make any difference what you felt in your heart it was the environment that you were in that made a difference so you could be a prejudice first but if you worked for a company that didn't practice discrimination your prejudice didn't make any difference because the rules of that company--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But on the other hand you could be a non-prejudiced person but you're discriminating. Like the guy who handed me the--.
DH: The test.
JR: Test thing. He may have loved to have hired me but the company said "We don't want any black folks working at this company."
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So he would've been a non-prejudiced discriminator so that was a big help for me in terms of separating and giving identity a real identity to certain situations so that you knew how to--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Yeah so a non-prejudiced-then you had prejudiced discriminators.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And non-prejudiced and non-discriminators yeah, yeah.
DH: So it sounds like you were really involved with trying to increase the awareness of people that we really need to integrate and we need to-the equality.
JR: We hired a new police chief here in Charlotte his name was John Ingersoll he came here from California.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And at the time we had an organization called-there were two organizations in town that were started by blacks the first one was the East Side Council of Civic Affairs it was started by Jim Poke and some other guys from Grier Heights. And they had the-I've asked Jim and he's never given me an explanation that I'm comfortable with that the way they started this thing is they were sitting around one night John Brooks, Willie Davis, Bob Davis, Paul Green, Jim, Quentin, it must've been, Henry Wallace it must've been 8 guys all in kind of the same age range which would've been the next step up for me. Remember the big boy and the little boy so they would've been the generation ahead of me.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: They decided that something isn't right in the South something isn't right in our community and we need to do something about it so what we're going to do is we're going to invite some white leaders into our community I mean into our homes and tell them what's wrong with this community.
DH: Hmm.
JR: Now my question to Jim and the other guys I mean this was a radical idea.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: That we're going to invite them in as equals.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And we're going to discuss Charlotte as equals I mean this was a radical idea and they did. They invited guys and the first couple guys didn't-honest to God the white guys who came in they didn't know what was going to be-they're like OK here's this group of black guys and they said "Come over to my house we want to talk."
DH: Hmm.
JR: "Talk about what?" "We want to talk about Charlotte what's going on in Charlotte" So when the guy would come we'd sit down so we started we're speaking as equals and here's what's wrong with Charlotte. Now and when if we look at what they were complaining about in today's time it was nobody was talking about complete change to society.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: It was more of a talk about treating folk with respect and dignity rather than an overthrow of society kind of thing. It was mild in comparison to what actually happened.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But it was a radical new-did you need to do something?
DH: No its fine.
JR: So it was a radical idea so we started-I moved from Grier Town over to the West side of town so we started a Westside organization the same thing it was called the Westside Council of Civic Affairs.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So we get the Police Chief and Chief Ingersoll had been in town probably 3 or 4 months so we called him in and said "Look Chief we have some problems with some of your officers they don't know how to talk to black folks."
DH: Hmm.
JR: "They still call grown men boys and in some cases they call us even worse words and stopping folks for no reason this kind of thing." He said "Look I don't know how to tell white police officer how to deal with black folks but I'll tell you what I'll do if you guys agree to teach the class you know what they need to know if you guys will agree to teach the class I will send every officer on the Charlotte police force through that class. Do we have a deal?"
DH: Hmm.
JR: Well what can you say? "Yes we'll teach the class" so me, Fred Ford, Jerryl Austin, Rudy Worsly and a guy who was a TV announcer for WB channel 3 at the time I think it was Doug Mays we put together these little skits and every police officer on the Charlotte Mecklenburg police force had to take this class with us and the criminal justice system at Central Piedmont Community College.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Kind of grew out of that Ingersoll said that from before if you were a police officer in Charlotte you had big feet and strong to kick down doors and that kind of thing but Ingersoll said "That's not enough you've got to be trained" so he started the Criminal Justice thing at CP. So we took these folks through the class what we would try to get them to understand--at that time the-do you know what a transistor radio is?
DH: Yes.
JR: It's the little radio?
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And those boom boxes and that kind of thing but you'd have guys-brothers in the hood as they called it.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And the police officer had never seen this before so you have this guy with this radio up to his ear blasting and the police officer trying to talk to the guy "Turn that thing down" or "Put the thing" or the guy would be standing on the corner with this thing blaring.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And the police might stop and say something to him and you'd have this kind of thing now keep in mind at this time you had riots in Watts and the riots in Detroit.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And I mean things were-the long hot summer thing was going on in this time so we explained to them that sometimes in the black community we have something called woofing.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: You're running your mouth and its sounds like you're angry it sounds like you're getting ready to-but all you're doing is woofing it's just a way of life.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: I mean it's a street kind of thing you're woofing so you need to know the difference between woofing and real anger. Woofing and real animosity so you might have a guy over here who is woofing at you but that's all he's doing he doesn't really mean any harm that's his stick you know he's woofing.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: You'll know the difference because woofing the guy that's all the guy's going to do is run his mouth.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So you don't want to arrest a guy for woofing because that's not against the law and so we explained the details and we did these little skits to tell the difference between woofing.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: When Dr. King was assassinated you know the whole world was--.
DH: Hmm.
JR: So you had demonstrations folk were going up and down Trade Street kids from Johnson C. Smith and other kids were marching and so this police he was a major. Major Harken. Major Harken told us a story after and maybe in our last class he came in and he said "You know I want to share a story with you guys" he said "You know you all told me about woofing and you explained this kind of thing to us" and he said "When Dr. King was assassinated you know the first couple weeks after was you know we had to close the liquor stores and everything was in turmoil" he said "I was standing at the square and the group of kids marched by and this guy said 'At 10 o'clock I'm going to kick your ass' and they went down the street and they turned around and they came back up and he said 'Remember at 10 o'clock I'm going to kick your ass'" And he said "Now before I went to this class I would've arrested that guy had I arrested him I might've started a riot in Charlotte but since you guys had taken me through this class I thought well maybe this is an example of woofing so I didn't say anything" he said "At 10 o'clock I'm getting nervous because I didn't know what was going to happen" he said "10 o'clock the bus pulled up and somebody raised the window on the bus and said 'Goodnight Officer'"
DH: [Laughter]
JR: The same guy and he said "That was the extent of it but if I had not gone through this class I would've probably arrested that guy I would've probably started a riot so I want to thank you guys for taking the time to do" so that was a--.
DH: Yeah.
JR: That was a story but I remember John Ingersoll the same police guy the same police chief came to my house and again I wondered how my kids was going to react.
DH: Hmm.
JR: He came to my house and he said "We want to open the liquor stores" because the first two weeks after Dr. King was assassinated the liquor stores were closed.
DH: Hmm.
JR: He said "You know we think things have quieted down enough that we can open the liquor stores so how do we do this? I mean how do we do this? OK Friday night is coming up."
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: "And we do not want the liquor stores closed another weekend" so I said "Well you know maybe open them up Friday morning I mean just open them up as usual on Friday morning and people will get off of work and they'll go by and make their usual purchase and I think it will be OK." And he said "OK that's what we'll do" and that's what happened.
DH: Yeah.
JR: No big deal one of the things about Charlotte is that Charlotte and this is something that hit me during Black History Month in February I was on a panel talking to a group of folk and we were talking about the history of Charlotte and one guy made a point that what makes CCharlotte very different from other southern cities was always black folks live all over Charlotte.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: You have black folks if you divide Charlotte into 4 quadrants you know the east, west, north south black folks live in every quadrant.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: You never had a situation like you had in some other where all blacks lived in one section of Durham, all blacks live in one section of Greensboro.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Blacks live all over Charlotte so it was harder to kind of control blacks because you couldn't isolate them into one group.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And so at the same time we always had some interaction with this the other thing about Charlotte was-is that Charlotte prides itself as a can-do city.
DH: Hmm.
JR: And it will-things will go to a certain point and then its OK that's far enough. And you could always get to one-you had insurance companies and banks and Savings and Loans in places like Gastonia and Greensboro.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Charlotte was never as bad as other southern cities now I'm not making it some kind of panacea but you could always get-you could go to a bank and borrow money now you had to get some white person to vouch for you.
DH: Hmm.
JR: But at least you could do it in other cities blacks had to start Savings and Loans and other things because you literally could not I mean there was no way you could get any money.
DH: OK yeah.
JR: And so Charlotte has been very different from other cities.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Now there were never any riots in Charlotte no buildings were burned.
DH: OK.
JR: In Wilmington, Greensboro, in other places and some folks think it was because blacks in Charlotte were wimps but that's not true blacks in Charlotte and whites in Charlotte we negotiated.
DH: Did more negotiating.
JR: We negotiated and we had that Charlotte Bureau Employment Training and Placement it was an organization that was not beholden to Charlotte so they couldn't put pressure I mean I couldn't get fired for going to those churches and talking like that.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Because who was going to fire me? Had I been working for--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: Let me give you another example and then we can talk-when the schools were first starting to close down they were closing down black schools and all over and so they the school board decided to have a meeting at Second Ward of all places.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: And so we were-either Second Ward or Myers Street but anyway it was in a black school and the guy who was the school board chair at that time pronounced the word "Negro" as "Nigra" so he was sitting there and he was "Nigra this". "And the Nigra children are going to be here and the Nigra parents and the Nigra whatever" and I got a job now so I'm--.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: So I raised my hand I said "Look I don't understand something" so keep in mind I'm slick "I don't understand how you can pronounce communist words like 'Czechoslovakia' and 'Nikita Khrushchev' and-." [Laughter]
DH: [Laughter]
JR: "But you can't pronounce a 5 letter American word Capital N-E-G-R-O it's 'Negro' not 'Nigro' its 'Negro' but you can pronounce these communist" so I'm working this guy down.
DH: Hmm yeah. [Laughter]
JR: I mean he is dead he is flat dead. "You can pronounce communist words but you can't pronounce good old American words."
DH: Yeah so you really know how to get the--.
JR: Oh.
DH: How to approach people in a way that was acceptable or you kind of put them on the spot.
JR: Put him on the spot so I haven't attacked this guy.
DH: Yeah, yeah.
JR: "Look just say the word right" now this guy is dead.
DH: [Laughter]
JR: I mean he is flat dead first of all he's up there jiving about what they were going to do about black schools he's up there running some kind of little southern Mickey Mouse not some southern gentleman Mickey Mouse but one of them little off to the side southern Mickey.
DH: Hmm yeah.
JR: And everybody in the room knows he's running this trick but again you had to just sit there and swallow it no I don't have to sit here and swallow this because there's nothing you can do about the fact that I'm not going to sit here and swallow this.
DH: Uh-huh yeah.
JR: So I challenged it and people laughed now for the rest of the night he didn't say he couldn't make himself say "Negro" so he started saying "Colored" and that was better than what he was doing and afterwards I had these folks who worked for the schools the school principals came and the guy who was principal of Second Ward came up to me and said "Ross I am so glad you-I've been so sick of going to meetings and listening sitting there listening to this guy 'Nigro' this and 'Nigro' that. I couldn't say anything because you know if I said anything I'm fired but I'm so glad you challenged him on that."
DH: Yeah.
JR: So again you know you had to pick the right time and the right place and you had to do it but that's how you got things done.
DH: Yeah.
JR: Again you didn't have to burn any buildings you just had to use the weapons at your disposal the weapons of humor.
DH: Yeah.
JR: The weapons of you know you're right and you know this guy is wrong.
DH: Uh-huh.
JR: But you got to be careful about how you show him up but show him up he's a buffoon he's sitting up here with this funny business going on so show him up as a buffoon so keyword "Communist" everybody in the south against-everybody in America is against Communist but if you use these Communist words and you pronounce them correct but you-.
DH: Uh-huh yeah.
JR: So that's the way you do that stuff yeah.
DH: So it sounds like-I really appreciate you sharing all of your experiences about how like you said you used your wit--.
JR: Yeah.
DH: And you used your words in talking to people.
JR: Yeah.
DH: To get the point that integration needed to happen.
JR: Yes.
DH: And our time is up.
JR: OK.
DH: But I really appreciate you sharing--.
JR: My pleasure.
DH: Your stories and your experiences for this.
JR: Yeah my pleasure.
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