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Interview with Mary Lou Clarke

Clarke, Mary Lou, 1932-2006
Desmarais, Melinda H.
Date of Interview: 
Clarke, Mary Lou, 1932-2006; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee; Ku Klux Klan (1915- ); Segregation; Civil rights movements; Race relations; Boycotts; Health promotion; AIDS activists; Medical assistants; Nurses' aides; North Carolina--Charlotte; North Carolina--Charlotte--Cherry; Interviews (Sound recordings); Oral histories
Mary Clarke, Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP president (1986-1990), describes her experiences working for the NAACP from the 1950s to the 1990s, with attention given to her early role as a fundraiser and her later work as chapter president. Ms. Clarke explains the role the NAACP played in the evolution of Charlotte’s race relations, from the civil rights movement and school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s to community/police tensions and the role of racism in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) in the 1980s. She recounts the racial violence groups like the KKK used in an attempt to silence the NAACP, including personal threats made against her and the bombings of the homes of several African American leaders in the area. Also discussed is the central role women played in the Charlotte chapter, how the NAACP worked with local white government leaders, and her experience as part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee. Ms. Clarke describes her motivations for making health care and health education her top priority during her presidency, and in particular, the work she did on combating substance abuse and raising AIDS-awareness in the community.
North Carolina--Charlotte; circa 1940 - 2000
Interview Setting: 
Home of Mary Clarke, North Carolina--Charlotte
Oral History, OH
Interview Audio: 
MC: Mary Lou Clarke
MD: Melinda H. Desmarais

MD: This is Melinda Desmarais, the interviewer, and today is May the 11th. And the year is 2001, and I’m here with Mary Clarke in her home in Charlotte, North Carolina. And I’ll be interviewing her today for the Digital Sound Archive Initiative at UNC Charlotte’s Special Collections department at Atkins Library. Mrs. Clarke, please state your full name.

MC: Mary Lou Clarke.

MD: And can you spell that for me?

MC: M-A-R-Y L-O-U C-L-A-R-K-E.

MD: And what’s your date of birth, Mrs. Clarke?

MC: July the 17th, 1932.

MD: And where were you born?

MC: I was really born in Chesterfield County, and I grew up in Union County.

MD: And that’s in?

MC: Monroe.

MD: Monroe, North Carolina.

MC: Monroe, North Carolina.

MD: And tell me your parent’s names.

MC: My parents’ name was Willie Evans and Laddie Evans, the late Willie Evans and Laddie Evans.

MD: And were they also from Monroe?

MC: Yes.

MD: And tell me what they did for a living when you lived in Monroe before you came here.

MC: Well my daddy, in his early lifetime, he was a farmer. And then we decided not to farm anymore, and my daddy did public work. And my mother was the homemaker, and she went out and did a little home work. But the mother of 12--. And then by the time the children got grown there was some grandchildren coming, and Mother was back as grandmother and housewife.

MD: And so, when you say public work, what kind of work did your father do?

MC: He worked at a mill, and he was evening supervisor at a lumber company. And I want to call it Chesterfield Lumber Co., but it was in Monroe. And that’s where he worked at.

MD: And when you came to Charlotte, did your whole family come to Charlotte?

MC: No, I came to Charlotte. See when you finish high school in my days, we were lucky enough to have two years of business, and I graduated from Winchester High. And I had two years, and I had secretarial skills. Plus I had worked in Union County as a secretary for a funeral parlor, and then I moved on and came on to Charlotte on a job as a secretary for a (pause) a janitorial service.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And I just came on and started to doing work. And from that I went to the doctors’ offices and took training in health and became a certified rehab tech and medical tech. And I worked in the group homes where I could give medication to the clients who needed it that, the residents.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And I also worked for years with doctors as a chairside doctor, doctor office assistant. And then, this is when I--. All of my life, though, I always believed in everybody having rights. I know you had to have silver, S-I-L-V-E-R silver right, and you had C-I-V-I-L civil rights, and I always thought that I equal up to anybody. And anybody equal up to me, because I want to--. I was trained by my parents

MD: Um-hum.

MC: to treat people right. So many years we had to drink colored water out of colored fountains. So many years we walked to school. Children who lived and white children would ride on the bus and yell at you and call you names and spit on you and so forth. And I’ve also have seen where that people would spit in the fountain where they knew black people was going to have to drink from and wash their hands in it. And my daddy stopped us from going to any fountain uptown or anywhere we were traveling to stop drinking water because he knew that we were picking up germs. And so, and it just moved me on into civil rights, and then I shortly after I had gotten in Charlotte I (pause) got involved with NAACP here in Charlotte with Mr. Kelly

MD: Um-hum.

MC: Alexander, Sr.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: He moved me on from--. I served on every kind of board and committee that he had in Charlotte, raising money. And I got plaques where I raised a lot of money for--. That was the state and the blue ribbon committee, and that was back in the 70s, the date up there on it. And it’s just that it was something that kept me busy, and it was something that once you got involved with it, if you were for real, and you really believed in what you were doing, you couldn’t turn it loose. So, I was inducted in the Hall of Fame. I’m fully paid life member. And I have several plaques over there from radio stations and so forth, “Bringing Out the Best in You,” and, no, “Bringing Out the Best in Us.” But as I say, civil rights was something, as I often say, was like a fire. I guess it got shut up in my bones, and I just couldn’t stop.

MD: Now when you lived in Monroe, thinking back when you first came to Charlotte, when you went from Monroe—or Union County— to Charlotte, were race relations different in the city than they were more in a rural environment where you were coming from? How did you find the climate of race relations here in Charlotte when you came here in the earlier years?

MC: Well, when I came here in the early years, that’s when you couldn’t eat downtown, you couldn’t eat in the five and ten stores

MD: Um-hum.

MC: and Woolworth’s and Kress's. You had to go in the basement, go downstairs to eat.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: It was still, it was still race, because of, a lot of race.

MD: Where did you live when you first moved to Charlotte? Do you remember?

MC: I lived in the housing projects in Double Oaks. I had family living here.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: Yeah. And that was, you know--. Most of the blacks lived there, but you still had to ride the bus. And I’ll never forget one morning I came from Monroe and visited my parents, and I had my little buster handbag in my hand. And I got on the bus, and I didn’t walk fast enough to go back to back of the bus. And the bus driver says to me, “You can’t sit down up front with that suitcase.” That was his excuse, the suitcase, and I said, “What?” See I was in civil rights then. He says, “You can’t have a seat up near the front.” So, I says, “Well I was going here so I could come out the back door anyway.” And I’d always get on--. I’d get where I could get right out of the back door. I’d sit in the middle aisle, or where I could sit right across from the door and always get out. That was a habit I had when I got on the bus— that I’d always be where I could go out the side door, the back door, or whatever. So I did, you know, but his excuse was I had that handbag and can’t sit up front you know. But--.

MD: So, when you first came here and met Mr. Alexander--.

MC: Yeah. Well in fact I had met him before I came here, you know.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: But then I really got more on board with him. Yeah.

MD: Had you met him in the context of civil rights before you came here?

MC: Yeah. Yeah.

MD: Did he travel to Monroe?

MC: Yeah, he traveled to Monroe, and he traveled all around. But I met him coming to Charlotte through different things, you know. I met him.

MD: Um-hum. Tell me, you said you were involved in some of the early committees when you first got involved with the NAACP here in Charlotte. What kind of work did you do early on? You said you were in fundraising. Were there a lot of women doing that same kind of work?

MC: Yeah. We did the Mother of the Year each year, and it was a lot of fundraising. And one year I raised so much money, Mr. Kelly asked me said, “Are you running for the mother?” And I said, “No. I’m just raising money.” He said, “You need to run for the mother (laughs) sometime.” Then I--. Nominating committees, and freedom fund. We had different committees, you know, and I just worked from committee, and just worked with all the committees, you know. But mostly I had was fundraising and that is about fundraising, where I did a lot of fundraising, because I didn’t mind going to people asking for money,

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And I could get money, get people to pay who didn’t really pay money. I had a big write up in the paper about Mr. Kelly and the Order of the Eastern Stars where I had raised a lot of money for Eastern Star, and I just didn’t mind going back because sometime people have the money. And the people would say, “Don’t have it today, can you come back?” And I had two doctors that I use to go to when I really wanted to get kicked off and really get to rolling. I’d got to one doctor, then he’d say, “You got my buddy?” And I’d say, “I’m going to get him now.”

MD: Who were they? Do you remember their names?

MC: Well there were Dr. C.W. Williams and Dr. Emory Rann. Both of them are deceased. But that’s who I would kick my fundraising off most of the time.

MD: Were they African American doctors?

MC: Yes. And they would start me off with, most of the time it was fifty dollars, and no less than twenty-five dollars— just a donation because they’d say, “You’ll be back anyway.”

MD: (laughs) Yeah.

MC: I wrote memberships. I wrote Dr. Rann memberships, Dr. C.W. membership. And I--. Mr. Kelly had said you do so well with the doctors, I’m just going to let you go to the doctors. And I started my going around to the doctors and to the lawyers, and I’d raise my money. I would raise thousands of dollars each year.

MD: And this would be what in the 50s or the 60s?

MC: It started in the 50s and on up to yeah, yeah.

MD: And did, did a lot of people join the NAACP in the early years, say in the 50s and early 60s that weren’t professionals like doctors and--?

MC: Yes. Yes. See the membership then was like--. (pause) Along then the gold membership was ten dollars. If you bought a ten-dollar membership they sent you a gold membership, gold paper. And I think the membership back then was three and five dollars, but a gold membership--. And then you started your life membership. I can’t recall exactly. I think the life membership been 500 dollars for sometime,

MD: Um-hum.

MC: and when I got mine—it’s right there— so it’s, it was 500 dollars. You could pay so much.

MD: So would, you know, housewives and people who might, you know, be more working class, would they be joining in?

MC: Yes, because see civil rights and NAACP was, I want to say, a big thing, but it was something that people respected. We’d have a meeting at the Y you couldn’t get into the Y on Sunday evenings when we had a meeting. People dress up, and we’d go out. It was an outlet; places for people to go. They still had these movies. But, the blacks had to go upstairs. The blacks couldn’t go to certain--. A lot of people just come to the meetings. We would also have gospel singings and bring in speakers from all over. And it was a whole family, just to go hear it and be around the people. Uplift, you know. Enrichment to you to go in the evenings and step out and come back, and you talk about it all next week. And you would enjoy it. It was about helping people, and people getting involved. Because we had the education committee, and I was the one that started the health committee. I think you saw that in my paper,
MD: Um-hum. Um-hum.

MC: where we got into health—a lot of health issues.

MD: And about when did you start that?

MC: That was sometime in the 80s, late 80s. Yeah.


MC: Because AIDS was rampaging when we started out on that then, in the local branch.

MD: Well let’s--.

MC: In the local branch.

MD: Before we get up to that date,


MD: Let me ask you about the role of women in the NAACP early on. Obviously you sounded pretty active and involved in the 50s and 60s. Were women in the early days in leadership positions here in Charlotte?

MC: Yeah. Well, they were the fundraisers, and we did a lot of things.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: But we didn’t--. Everybody wasn’t in the position where I am, you know, where I was.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: Like becoming the president, but we had--. Ms. Brooks was the president before my time. And this other lady there she gave me, Ms. Bertie Howell. I can remember those two, those two women presidents, and then it became the ministers and men, you know.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: But we had secretaries and, you know.

MD: So, were people open to having women in those areas or were they just not--? You know this was before sort of women’s rights and you know, gets big. So, in the 50s and 60s were people like Mr. Alexander and others open to having

MC: Oh, he was always open

MD: women?

MC: with the women, Mr. Alexander, because he called us his girls and his women. And he know, he knew if he wanted something done he would get his group of women to do it, and we would pull it off. Whatever, you know, programs. And he was a famous fan of gospel singing, and we would put on songfest. And we use to have a lot of quartet singing. That was a way to bring people together and to get people involved.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And we’d write memberships. We would have gospel sings at the center, and we would solicit memberships.

MD: Did women do a lot of behind the scenes work and the men do more of the public role? Or was it kind of equal? How did you see that? (pause) And again I’m talking about the early days, before, you know, became president,

MC: Um-hum.

MD: like say the 50s and the 60s.

MC: Well there were a lot of women coming up. A lot of women were doing things and being recognized, you know.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: It was, a lot of women being recognized. Just like the--. I think most of the women--. Most of the people who broke down the segregation in the colleges were women, most of them. Irene Lucy, and--. They were women. There was a young lady here in Charlotte, two young ladies here in Charlotte, or three, and they helped to desegregate the school. And the marches.

MD: So you see women in Charlotte as playing a pretty big role, just not men in the limelight.

MC: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

MD: Let me ask you a little bit about how you, if you, remember back now and before the civil rights movement really gets cranking in the late 60s, if you think back in your earlier time here. You know, I know Mr. Alexander and the NAACP started the push for change very early, and Charlotte has always been known sort of as a progressive city in a sense with race relations because there weren’t riots or, you know--. It didn’t turn into like a, say a Selma for example. Do you think that, that--. You know you’ve talked about how sort of the public accommodations were not available for African Americans and that sort of thing. Do you think that sort of assessment about Charlotte being a place with good race relations is true back then?

MC: (pause) Well, it was somewhat, and I think the reason is different from some of the southern. If you ever notice in the Southerns, anytime time times get hard, somebody’s going to move up. That’s when a lot of hate crimes are committed.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And that’s Deep South. And this I think, Charlotte had people like Mr. Alexander and other people, and they would talk to the people. And we just didn’t want it to burn and tear down what we had, you know. The baddest thing I think I can remember in Charlotte was back in the bombing of Mr. Kelly’s and those houses. I was working with them at that time.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: They might make the phone calls, hate calls, but a lots of the—whoever the KKs, whoever done it— they didn’t just come up face-to-face, you know. And we knew that we had KKs in suits. White collars. Guys. We knew it.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And some kind of way the forefathers had learned to deal with it, and we knew it was there. And we dealt with a lot of it.

MD: So did you feel--. Is it your kind of impression that the people who were--. And I’ll just call them the white leadership, the white power structure in Charlotte.


MD: Was it your impression then that many of them were racist and kind of wanted to keep the status quo even though on the surface, like you say, you know, your African American foremothers and forefathers kind of knew how to deal with that. I mean, do you think? Was that your impression?

MC: Yes. Because there was one thing that I played a part in (pause) was the shooting of a black man in Cherry. He was unarmed, and we had a hot city. And I was able to talk to some of the people and ask the people, “Let’s not riot.” I went out to a meeting, and I had stayed gone awhile. And there was a meeting going on of the NAACP. And they were getting ready to come to try to get me out of Cherry because all of this stuff was going on, on TV and all this stuff.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And it was people screaming and hollering. And I went in and said what I had to say, and stayed. Time for me to leave, I got in my car and come home. But everybody they didn’t know. You don’t know what chance you were taking. You could--. I say, yeah, but I came. I’m here, you know. And when I had to go speak, I spoke my mind. I said what I said because we had people saying that NAA--. Blacks had NAACP and whites had KK.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: It was a police chief who said it, because one of his fellows came back and told me. And I stood up in Davidson College. We had a retreat, and I told them there’s a difference. And it might’ve been why I got that phone call, I don’t know, (laughts) but anyway. I think we, what you call it? We faced what we had to face.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And we would always, if I can remem--. We would always go to (pause) the, like the city councils and all of this when, when I was in the chair. And we would always go to them and put those people on notice, that OK, you need to do something. You need to help, you know.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And back then with the school board we had some good people I think on the school board back then. I think Reverend Coleman Kerry was on. I don’t know if you ever--. He’s deceased. He was on the school board, and I can’t recall all the people we had on the school board back in that time.

MD: And you mean during the 60s?

MC: Yeah.

MD: And during the busing and

MC: Yeah.

MD: the Swann decision and all of that?

MC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And we had some good lawyers: Julius Chambers and the others. And we had--. Lord have mercy let me think of his name. He lived on Oaklawn. He’s the one that fought that that case. Has anybody ever given you his name? His widow is living now. He was an attorney. I can’t think of his name. It’ll come to me.

MD: How did, how did starting to talk a little bit about school desegregation, how did the Brown decision in 1954 affect Charlotte? Was that a big decision within the black community here in Charlotte? Or how, how did that effect?

MC: Yes it did. I remember when the man won the case downtown. I keep, keep, keep seeing his face, but. Yes, it affected everybody. It was a big thing, and it opened up a lot of doors.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: (pause) His name won’t come to me.

MD: Now, are you thinking about the Swann case? The Swann child, or? With the whole busing issue

MC: Yeah.

MD: here in Charlotte? Darius Swann? (pause) What sort of--. Did you see any change over time in the Charlotte leadership? I know you say you kind of felt that there were people who were really racist in, in leadership positions. Was there any change over time in the sort of, you know, elected officials that you saw from say the 50s to the 80s when you were president of the NAACP?

MC: Yes, yes. I’ve seen some change because I know there once upon a time that, lots of time black people couldn’t go before the city council. You couldn’t go before the county commission. You had to go through one of the leaders. And they allowed me to go when they allowed (laughs)--. I know, I appeared for them several times, you know, and you can go down and speak your piece, or speak your interest. Yeah, it’s, it’s changed.

MD: What sort of activities did the NAACP really get involved in and push, say in the 50s and 60s and 70s that you think had a big impact on Charlotte and race relations in Charlotte? Were there certain activities or certain programs that you all initiated, you know, in the earlier years, say from the 50s to the 70s before you became president. I’m going to talk about your--.

MC: Yeah, they had--. Well they had different programs. The youth, you know, the youth program. And where the youth went down at the school board and rallied. I don’t know if you’ve seen the head—or not, you know. And (pause) the meetings, they were [required] to know that people were just tired, and sick and of tired of being sick and tired. And people just wasn’t going to take a lot of this stuff anymore.

MD: Um-hum..

MC: And you boycotted.

MD: What kind of boycotts were here?

MC: There were certain stores and certain like (pause)--. I’m wanting to say Belk’s. I’m wanting to say. I don’t want to--. I think there was—let’s say some department stores. A lot of people tore up the cards, and I can’t remember what year.

MD: You mean like their charge accounts?

MC: Yes, yes. Something had happened downtown. There was a boy got killed downtown.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: They wrestled him to the ground and he died. Now, you cut that off?

Pause in Recording

MD: So you said that there were some boycotts. Were those NAACP kind of initiated boycotts?

MC: Yeah, there was boycotts initiated here.

MD: Tell me were there sort of tensions within the black community? Maybe not tensions, but different kind of groups who wanted to go about things. Were their other organizations, you know, aside from the NAACP who were organizing in Charlotte or trying to, you know, take different stances or go about things in a different way? I mean like, for example, I know that Reginald Hawkins kind of went and developed the MOPA group. I mean were there groups like that that developed around?

MC: I understand he tried to do some groups, but it didn’t overthrow NAACP. Whoever tried to organize it, they had to wind up coming back to NAACP. OK?

MD: Why do you think that was?

MC: Well you always have people (pause) who think they can do it better than you. Always think that they’re the only person who is right. But you see, NAACP, we’re under a charter. And certain things we can do, certain things we can’t do. Certain things we can say, certain things we are not supposed to say. OK? And if you overstep them bounds, then national can snatch your charter. And we live by the charter, and did things by the charter, you know. It’s like you can’t have a group of militias carry guns and doing--. No, not on NAACP.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And say it’s NAACP. And even if you’re affiliated with NAACP, certain things you can’t do.

MD: And why do you think that the NAACP was so strong with people here, versus, you know, like say the Black Panthers or CORE or SNCC? You know, they kind of caught on in other places in the South, you know, even in Durham, where, you know, they were kind of started. Why do you think that they didn’t catch on here?

MC: Because the people who’s the leaders was in NAACP and just didn’t get--. Just, they just didn’t go for it. You know, didn’t get caught on. OK. Mr. Kelly’s sons would have been some of the highest and most involved people in the public, and they didn’t get involved with it. See what I’m saying?

MD: Um-hum. So, the leadership was all really--. There weren’t leaders who emerged who in the other areas, they were all still

MC: Right.

MD: converged in the NAACP, and

MC: Yeah.

MD: tight with that. I know you mentioned the incident when you were president in the Cherry neighborhood.

MC: Um-hum.

MD: And, you know, I think I’ve heard that, you know, they were sort of--. You know, Charlotte’s kind of a calm place in terms of people not taking to the streets, as you say had happened elsewhere. Do you think that’s due--. What do you think that was due to? How did the lid kind of stay on? Was it because of people like Mr. Kelly and you and others?

MC: Yeah. Because we had meetings at churches. And we had meetings, and we asked people. And the family of Jake King called me, and they wanted to go downtown and march. They wanted--. And I said let me tell you something. I say you can go out here and start marching. And the louder you yell the more people going come. And you are going to catch on a lot of people don’t even know what they really marching for; they just want to be seen. They don’t know what the cause is. They not a member, and you going to be marching probably in the name of the NAACP. And I would rather that you get a lawyer. In fact I’m the one that helped them, told them, referred them to a lawyer. I can’t get you a lawyer. And I gave them a list and they picked one. And I said this is what you need to do is handle it through your attorney and not go down and start a riot and cause a lot of people, innocent people, to be hurt. Because NAACP believe in litigation. OK? Get you a lawyer and let your lawyer handle it. I said if you go downtown and start, and you could have a big riot down here for nothing.

MD: Now, is this when you were president?

MC: Yeah, yeah.

MD: Um-hum. What was the issue over, do you remember?

MC: Well, that’s when the policeman killed this--.

MD: Oh, the Cherry neighborhood incident.

MC: Yeah, yeah. And I got a lot of information. And then there was a lot of policemens who were Nazis. They, they wear the hood and have stuff in their car, and they were writing all kind of stuff, under there, down there: “Nigger,” “Go home niggers,” and “Go home this.” News 36, tried to get it, 7 News tried to get it. But one guy that worked downtown told me that he had never painted the police department downstairs—is where they’d go in and go out—as much in his life, because somebody would come through and write “Nigger” and all kind of stuff. And they say they would run grab them to paint. They would paint and then clean and then paint. It was going on. All this stuff was going on. But he said he had never painted as much in his life, and people might as well forget saying that we don’t have some racist police.

MD: Was that even true, was it your impression that was even true earlier in the 60--in the earlier 60s and 70s?

MC: Yeah. You know it was probably worser then. It was worse then.

MD: Did they, did you all ever face any kind of opposition or anything from the police when, when you may have marched or had a meeting? Or did they did the police or the city leaders here try to stop the NAACP from meeting or?

MC: Not as I know of. Whenever we had conventions or had speakers coming in--. I never forget they had, we had tough security. Tight. Down in the Center one night, and I was up on the podium, and I looked around at all those guys. And I said trench coat men. They were meeting. We had Roy Wilkins here right after that bombing or something

MD: Um-hum, um-hum.

MC: and it was

MC: At Ovens Auditorium?

MD: I think it was at Ovens or we were at the center, the Grady Cole Center. I think that’s where we had it. But anyway, I never--. You know, we would go out to conventions. I can remember be escorted in with state patrols. We would go in and go out. And when went to Greensboro, after that shooting and killing up there. We had to be out of Greensboro by one o’clock. The policeman told Mr. Kelly you going to have your people out, because that’s when they going to bring that casket down the street. They was going to have a march. He said, well now, you’re NAACP will be protected up until one, but make sure your people’s out. We decided--. Some people left the night before, and I got my little load of women and we left out that morning around six-thirty or seven, right at daylight. And it was storming. So one of the guys work at the hotel ask me, said please, ya’ll need to wait. I said well these ladies are at my car and I, we got to go, we said. And then we were escorted so many miles out from that hotel, until we got on out and we were leaving. And then we just--. You didn’t know who was who. But I appreciated the protection. And when we went down in Kinston one year—I can’t remember quite the year, probably in the 70s, we were in a meeting. The KK’s called down there and told us to get our so-and-sos out, or they would be down there. And they was going to run everybody out and what they were going to do. Mr. Kelly gathered all us in this big auditorium and told everybody to come in. Polices came, and they were there all on the outside. And they was rallying in a field. Weren’t long before we got a call back; polices came in and told Mr. Kelly everybody be cool and be calm, that the Native Americans, the Indians, had jumped on them, whipped their fannies, and wrapped their flag around them and burnt the flag.

MD: So, the Native Americans in that area--.

MC: That’s right.

MD: Attacked the white supremacists?

MC: The KKs, the white supremacist, whatever it was. I had the paper somewhere, but I don’t know where it is now. But anyway, I lived through all those days. And my people saw it, and boy they wanted me to get home. Well I’m here, you know.

MD: Was there a strong group of like KKK members or anything like that here in Charlotte?

MC: Yeah, you got them here in Charlotte.

MD: Were they like during the 50s and 60s and 70s and even in the 80s, when you were president of the NAACP here in Charlotte, did you have opposition or get phone calls or threats, or that kind of thing?

MC: This is when I got this phone--. Did you hear it?

MD: Um-hum. Yeah. Tell--.Just describe it for me a little bit, since, you know, we don’t have the tape.

MC: Describe what, you know?

MD: What kind of phone calls you received, or--.

MC: Oh, the phone calls that black people depen--, (pause) dependent on the white people, and that we spread disease. And we were a threat to society, and, you know, lots of times people say blacks is less human. You’re not a human if you are black, got black skin. (pause) So, I got the phone calls, but I did not let them have the satisfaction or publicity of going putting it in the paper or getting on the TV talking about it. I did call the police department, and they came out and carried the tapes in and listened to it and investigated it. And I did once upon a time, some of the neighbors had noticed that some white dude would come there and park in the front of my house in the evenings. Now I don’t know who that was, what that was, but they kept staring him down I understand. And I don’t know if anybody if ever came up to him and said anything to him, but he stopped, you know. Because even when the polices came to pick up this tape, one guy came from across the street and he said, I want to see are you the white guy that been sitting out there in front of Mrs. Mary’s house in the evenings? And he says--. He just look at him, and I says you can go ahead. These people are OK, and I gave him the tapes. But I’ve gotten--. I had a tracer on all my calls, on my phone also. I use to get phone calls and wanting to know how is the Ku Klux Klans and how do you and the Ku Klux Klan get along down there. And are you scared of them and all this kind of stuff. And I said well I tend to my business and they tend to my business, they tend to their business. But really, except the phone calls, I don’t know when somebody been looking at me. Once you’re a civil rights leader, you’re always a civil rights leader. Because somebody sent me a health tape one time from a company—a VCR, you know, tape. And it didn’t have a return address on it. I called the sheriff department, and I didn’t open the tape. I got it out of my post office box, and I hurried home with my mail. But they came out with the bomb squad to seal off this area. Fire truck down the street, fire truck out there, and I did not want the publicity. I called my job and told them I was at home and what I was home for. And the police officer who was investigating he says, OK, we don’t need to call Channel 9, 911. I said I don’t need it. But what we did, we opened it, and it was from a health company. But my name and everything was on it, NAACP was, with no return address. You know, you have a certain way you feel it, and you try to feel it. I told them what I thought it was, and that is what it was. It was a tape on how you can like leave, put on your driver’s license, if you want your eyes donated, if you want somebody--.

MD: Um-hum. To be an organ donors?

MC: That’s what I wanted to say, to be organ, organ donors.

MD: So even here in Charlotte as late as the 1980s you were concerned about possible violence against you as a leader?

MC: Yes. ’92 is when that tape.

MD: Thinking back to that bombing you mentioned, of Mr. Alexander and Mr. Chambers and Mr. Hawkins, you know, all their houses. What kind of impact did that have on Charlotte?

MC: (pause) Well, to me--. It goes way back. I, we made national news off of it, and it made a lot of people really wake up. And we had a lot of people became members and was more concerned about what could happen.

MD: So it kind of made the African, people in the African American community?

MC: Aware.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: Yeah.

MD: You had more membership and?

MC: Yeah we had quite a few, yeah. Yeah. And people got more involved with civil rights.

MD: How do you think it affected people in the white community. Did it affect them?

MC: A lot of white people were not happy with it. They were not satisfied, or they weren’t happy. Because some time ago late. late 80s or 90s it was a church, a black church, out on Yorkmount, or something, where somebody wrote all this stuff on the door. And we had a love-in, NAACP did, and we had a church-full. We had more white, or just as many white as we did blacks. And they just don’t--. They said we don’t go for this; we don’t want this. Because they know if this neighborhood is burned down over here, it’s going to affect that neighborhood in Myers Park some kind of way. And people started to rioting, they didn’t always riot in the black neighborhood. It could go over there, and those people just don’t want nobody causing nobody to come and destroy anything of theirs. Can you blame them? So, when time come to say you couldn’t see their heart, you don’t know what they were. But they say we just don’t want it. And that was another thing. we did have leaders, white leaders, stand up and say we don’t want this.

MD: Do you remember who any of those were that you felt were earnest in their not wanting that kind of thing here? Were there any white churches that were involved with the NAACP at all or?

MC: I can’t think of the names of those churches that came out that night. They had a mixture of preachers who came out.

MD: I’ve heard that the minister at Covenant Presbyterian back in the 60s and 70s was real active. But I don’t, I don’t know who he is. I haven’t looked him up yet.

MC: I don’t either. I can’t remember but they were, you know--.

MD: Let me ask you about, about the whole, what you remember about and your impressions of the busing case here in Charlotte. I know you said that had a big impact on Charlotte, and you can see, still see, in your mind in the, on the news footage of when that case was decided. Was the NAACP very active with the Swann case? Do you remember a lot about the busing in the early 70s here?

MC: Yeah. It--. Lot of--. Well, it--. People were happy. People felt like they were human. It’s dehumanizing to walk down the street and you’ve got kids riding by and waving and saying things to you. And you got to take your child to school or, you know? And you got separate buses, and people couldn’t ride, you know? It had a good, you know--. It helped Charlotte a whole lot.

MD: Did you have any children who were in integrating?

MC: No. I don’t have any children. I had nieces and nephews that school desegregation, you know. I had nieces that graduated from Myers Park and the other schools that integrated, you know.

MD: Do you think the integration went smoothly?

MC: No, it didn’t go smoothly because the--. (pause) there were people spitting on people and the school which is now Central Piedmont--.

MD: Um-hum. Carver College?

MC: Yeah, Carer--. Central Piedmont used to--. That was not Carver. It used to be another school. It used to be a school that was integrated down there.

MD: Oh. Um-hum.

MC: But anyway.

MD: A high school?

MC: Yeah.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: (pause) It didn’t go smooth, because that’s one that Hawkins--. You talked to Hawkins about he had played a part in with the--? I can’t think of names I want to think of tonight.

MD: With Dorothy Counts?

MC: Dorothy Counts.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: You know you had pictures of people spitting on her and shouting at her. It didn’t go smooth. And the lunch counters downtown, it didn’t go smooth. And that was some of the places that we were boycotting, not eating in there. And when you don’t spend your money, people soon start opening their doors. But we got tired of going downstairs eating at Kress's. We got tired of going down at Woolworth. And people just don’t shop and don’t go in there and eat, and we stopped. It didn’t go really smooth, but it went smoother than it did in some places. Like I keep saying, there was a lot of people that I don’t know today, and they probably don’t know me. And they were the power people. They just did not want hysteria or the Queen City destroyed. Because I said to them several times when I had to go out on these places, I helped to keep your city cool, but not if we don’t get what we need or get straightened out what we’re working on. I can’t keep it cool. Because one year is when some Freedom Riders came through here—and I was living in another part of town over off Fifth Street, me and my husband—and you had people all on top of buildings watching the bus station. Ok?

MD: And do you mean whites?

MC: Well they had security.

MD: Oh, security. Oh, OK. um-hum.

MC: Watching. And then when the mule train came through here, headed out Alabama and came through here, it was a big cookout, a big--. They fed them down here where Sears Roebuck is, cause some of these places now was nothing but a grass field where old Sears-Roebuck is, and that’s where they pull off. And people sent sandwiches and things to feed them. There was a lot of tight security went on, you know. (pause) But, it didn’t go as smooth, but it did go smoother than some places.

MD: Well let me ask you about when you became president for the NAACP. You weren’t the first woman president, as you’ve alluded to, because there were others before you who were women, but not many, right?

MC: But when I came, became the president, it was like a different day and a different time. You know, when the others, the others did things to. And it was a time that things got pretty hot, because we had police situations where police were killing and shooting black men. And it kind of put me out, and I had to get out there.

MD: And this was in the 80s, is that right?

MC: Yeah. Yeah. I became in the 80s, and there was a police shooting in the 90s, too, somewhere along in there, but anyway.

MD: So what sort of things in the, the community? I know you said for example you’ve said for example with the Cherry incident, of the Cherry neighborhood, you went out and you talked to people and tried to calm them down. Is that something that you did often when these kind of incidents happened?

MC: Yeah, yeah. And my telephone was the line. See I had--. I have the telephone here. I had the hot line here.

MD: For the NAACP?

MC: NAACP. And my phone would ring all night. Sometime there were calls; sometime I wouldn’t even answer it. Then I had this separate line for the NAACP lines, you know, and sometime I’d here the phone ring, and I just turned over and grab the phone and realized it’s the NAACP line, you know. And I’d say, “You--. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I’ll get your number,” you know. And see and with NAACP you already, you also had that label in industry with people about jobs.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And a lot of people would really discriminate on their jobs, and people saying this and saying that. Police arresting people and saying foul languages calling them “Niggers” and all this kind of stuff. And beating up people. And, and I have to, well I didn’t have to, but I tried to answer it. I try to get the people to the police, internal affairs, and so forth and so on, you know. And it was a job.

MD: Did you see any positive changes here as a result of your actions, you know, in terms of the police department or other areas? Did you see things changing in the 80s when you were working on them?

MC: Well, (pause) some of the families sued the city. And the policeman that was in office with the Cherry situation, he resigned in the suit. He resigned. He went to work for the Belk brothers--security. The last time I heard from him he was at Myrtle Beach. He just, he couldn’t take it, I don’t think. But when I worked on it, I brought in elected officials, that’s what I wanted to say. I said, listen this is NAACP, too, but we need elected officials. Me and the Community Relations, we worked on that. I worked through the Community Relations into the elected officials. That’s another thing that helped is that you worked through the elected officials. You just didn’t run out and say, “I’m NAACP, and I’m going to take it over.” No, you work through your sources. You have to use that, and that was another thing I did that worked with them.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And we would have retreats with the policemen. They placed me on the Community Relations Committee, and I served on it. I worked on the crime. We had a neighborhood and police crime community. We would go out and diffuse. We would go out, and we would set up neighborhood meetings. But I still was NAACP link in there. See what I’m saying?

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And, and that helped a whole lot, too.

MD: So you would diffuse like when there were these police situations. Were there other kinds of situations that would kind of make you all, that you remember that you can tell me about, that would make you all need to come together as a Community Relations Board?

MC: Oh, yeah. Anything, like drugs. Like the neighborhood would call us up and say we got a lot of drug dealers out here.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And we need. We would set up a night, and we’d go. We’d have a church running over the first night, because they want to know who is who, you see. And we go out and help them to set up and tell them or show them, you know, how to set up a neighborhood watch, and you know, who you need to contact and help get them started also.

MD: Now, I know one of the things you were involved in, personally, was sort of health initiatives within the black community here in Charlotte. Can you tell me a little bit about that? And why you saw that was important? And what sort of things you did personally to work on that?

MC: Well, as I say I worked with doctors for about thirty-seven years, medical office assistant, and I was on Governor Hunt’s task force. And I felt that they should know about health issues. If you don’t have your health, you don’t have nothing. You can have all the money in the world, all the glamour, if you don’t have your health. And that was one of the thing that I really wanted to go. Then my husband died on dialysis, kidney dialysis machine. OK? And he used, consumed quite a bit of alcohol, and I did one of them substance abuse. I received a grant from Fighting Back and did, went out on a retreat, carried the neighborhood out on a retreat to talk about substance abuse. I also had classes around at a church, Wall Memorial Church, for the neighborhood to come out and to learn about substance abuse. Because food is one of the biggest abuses. (laughs) And I was interested in AIDS, because I’ve learned white gay men live longer than the black because they use every kind of protection they can. A lot of the blacks are ashamed to come out of the closet. They get no treatment. Lots of time, literature don’t get into black neighborhood like it does in the other neighborhoods. And we got men going this way and that way, and women, too. But it’s hard. I’ve opened up in my meetings and brought people in to speak. I’ve passed out literature. I got boxes of literature in my bedroom that I’ve passed out, and people just push it by. I don’t know where they are ignorant to the fact cause they’re ashamed, and they say it can’t happen to me. But it can happen to you.

MD: And I know one thing that you did, too, was about advertising here in Charlotte to the black community for alcohol and tobacco. Can you tell me a little bit about what, what prompted you to start thinking about that?

MC: About the, when it came on the news about the “uptown cigarette.” Uptown cigarette was a cigarette that they targeted young blacks. And they would put it in as upside down, when the only thing you’d have to do, when the rest of them got the top up, is put it in, you open it, when you pick it up like this you put it directly in your mouth. And I--. Being involved with so much health, until I felt like it was my duty to say something. Because I got a call one day and wanted to know how did I feel about it. And I made a statement that the blacks had enough health problems not being attended to then to take on anything else. And that went national. That went national. Because I had someone to come in from CA or somewhere, brought the paper to me, and I have a clipping of it, but you know. But, I’m not a smoker. And I’ve looked at so much health stuff on the lungs looking like a fish net, a spider web, you know. And, like I am saying, anything I do I guess it just get shut up in my bones (laughs) and it just burns me, and I got to do something about it. Or try to do something about it. I always worked with a lot of older doctors, and they have been my savior, I guess in a lot of things. You see, in a lot of things, they teach you and you learn. And I just always--. Because I had a vision one time. Something told me I was Job’s daughter, and I saw all of these jewels in the East, and I was sitting like I was looking to the, where. And somebody was seated beside me. I never knew who it was, and they said, “All this is yours. This can be--.” And I woke up, you know. I think I was kind of sick or something that day, that night and went to bed. And that thing has been into my mind, you know, that maybe this they telling you that you should read the story of Job, and then you got to do some of the things to help other people or be humble or what, you know.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And so--.

MD: Do you think those jewels represented civil rights for you, or helping other people for you, or in your vision?

MC: Yeah, that’s what I felt like it, you know, it was something I had to do. Something I had to do. I wish I could go back. It was beautiful.

MD: How old, about how old were you when you had that?

MC: About in my 20s. About my 20s. Somewhere along in there like that. But I was working with NAACP then, yeah.

MD: Well, we have about five more minutes left on our tape. Let me ask you, I know you’ve been involved in all kind of civil rights issues, from, you know, your 20s on. Is there any one event or any one thing that really stands out in your mind that you think you were involved with that had the most impact on Charlotte, or Charlotte’s history?

MC: I do think working with the situations. (pause) Everybody looked to me on TV, it seemed like everything I did, did something to good, brought about. People felt good about it. And I got a lot of compliments when I stood up, moving the jail out of our neighborhood over here,

MD: Um-hum.

MC: and working when the black men were being killed. I think we had two or three to get shot, killed by police. I keep talking about police, but it was a rage along then. A lot of people, not only Charlotte, black guys were getting killed by the police. And I think with me standing up with it, it helped Charlotte. And I think the, I know the--. When we had the retreat in Davidson, all eyes were on me when time for me to speak. And the only thing I said to them, “I’m willing to work with anybody to bring about a change, and to bring harmony, and bring peace, but there is a difference in NAACP and KKK’s.” And I got a standing ovation, and the person I was talking about was sitting right there. And some of the officers had came to me and told me. That particular person every time he see me, I haven’t seen him in years cause we worked on a lot--. I don’t care who he is he going come to me and give me a hug.

MD: Is he a police officer?

MC: He was a chief. ( )

MD: And was that retreat with police officers?

MC: Oh, yeah.


MC: It was community leaders. After this situation is when they put me on this Community Relations committee.

MD: Um-hum.

MC: And they pull out the leaders, and we went up for a retreat because things were hot. It was hot. But as I keep saying, there was some people I don’t know of, they probably don’t know me, did not want Charlotte burned. They did not want it, and they did some things to help move things on. And I appreciate it to the highest that they did. But I just--. I visited Ohio afterwards. They rioted. And looked at all of that; it was something. It was something.

MD: So, where do you think Charlotte stands now in terms of race relations? Here in the year 2001?

MC: Well, it’s better. It’s gotten better. Still some things that could be done, but it’s pretty good.

Pause in Recording

MD: You mentioned that you had been working, you were thinking back about the bombings,

MC: Um-hum.

MD: of Chambers’ and Hawkins’ and Alexander’s homes and things. And what was the reaction? At that time you said you were real active with the NAACP, tell me a little bit about that.

MC: Well, I was real active. And where I was employed, my employer made the statement to me about that I need to be careful of any statements being so active, because he was afraid that somebody might come by and bomb his office, which was a medical doctor at that time I was working with. And I thought about it, but I said to him, “But I’m going to still work with NAACP and don’t think nobody will come bomb your office.” But that just how frightened I guess he was

MD: Um-hum.

MC: thinking my involvement with the NAACP would cause somebody to come bomb his office. I guess you really didn’t know where somebody would strike, but it weighed heavy on my mind. But I kept on with NAACP.

MD: Well, let me ask you one more question that I thought of. Was there ever any opposition about you being a woman and being elected president? Did, did you feel like either that people voiced it or they felt it? Did anybody ever, because, you know, you were a woman, did anybody ever give you--?

MC: Well, I had a couple of calls from a couple of men saying that a woman didn’t need to be the president, that a man need to be. And they didn’t think that I was strong enough and big enough to handle the job. But over the years, like I stated one time, my husband was real sick, and people was asking me about re-running. And I won again. And they said, “How did you do it?” I said, “Well what I did, I took my husband on one shoulder, NAACP on the other shoulder, and God in my heart, and I moved.” And that’s how I did the two years, and that’s how I was planning on doing the second term, and that’s how I moved on.

End of Interview