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Interview with Ronald Caldwell

Caldwell, Ronald
Stickel, Lois; Sanders,Bridgette
Date of Interview: 
May 31, 2005
Black Student Union, UNC-"Charlotte, NC", Civil Rights
Dr. Ronald Caldwell speaks about his years as a student at the University of North Carolina at "Charlotte, NC" during the 1960s. He discusses in detail the nonviolent strategies used during the black student protests, the aims of the black student protesters, the role of Bonnie Cone and Dean Colvard in negotiating with student protestors, and the public perception of the Black Panther party.
"Charlotte, NC", NC; 1960s
Interview Setting: 
Dr. Ronald Caldwell's office in Asheville, North Carolina.
Oral History, UNC Charlotte Civil Rights Series
Interview Audio: 

LS: Administration building, I guess. [pause] Do you want to tell--.
BS: Oh, good afternoon. My name is Bridgette Sanders and I'm here with Lois Stickell my co-librarian, and Dr. Ronald Caldwell. We are in Asheville, NC at this time on May 31, 2005. At his office.
LS: OK. And I'm just going to start by asking what year you started at UNC-Charlotte.
RC: 1967.
LS: OK. So you were, so you started when Ben Chavis started.
RC: I started a few months after Ben Chavis.
LS: And, well that negates my next question. because I don't think there was a welcome meeting for black students until the fall?
RC: Perhaps.
RC: But there was not one when I first enrolled there.
LS: And tell us your first impression of the campus.
RC: The impression initially was a very good impression. At that time, the goal was integration. And we had very successfully, particularly in an integrated society. We were well received by a group of students who were cooperative and very pleasant to black students. The few black students that were there tended to be involved with the Student Union as a place of camarderie. Union socials. Students who were very sociable. So it was a good place to meet. So there were some white students who allied with us and were very friendly. And a, the others who were either, they would ignore us. There was very little, if any, resentment of hostility that I was aware of, initially.
LS: OK. [laughs] OK. We may get to that. And in December of 1968, Stokley Carmichael came to campus. Do you remember that?
RC: Very well.
LS: Do you want to tell us what you remember?
RC: Well, at that time the a, Black Panther's organization was receiving a lot of publicity and Stokley Carmichael came to Charlotte to, to meet with some of the black leaders in the community. There was not a formal Black Panther group in Charlotte, but during the course of the visit to Charlotte he came to the UNC campus. I'm not exactly sure, of how he was invited. I think Ben Chavis, who knew him had strong connections, was able to get him to the campus. But I know that when he came, because of the nature of things at that time and the bad publicity that the Black Panther Party had received, it was nothing that UNCC perceived to be very proud of. So he, he did come and spoke in the Parquet Room, as I recall.
LS: Was that in the Student Union?
RC: That was in the Student Union. I think that was the name of the auditorium area, or it was a large area. Because I do recall the Parquet floor. May be the Lucas Room now. But the interesting thing about that meeting, and I think that there was some stress about that, we thought it was very important that Stokley meet with the black students only. And in the process of him meeting with us, I recall that a conference room was locked and we wouldn't allow anyone in. We didn't forcefully keep them out, and a. Later on when he gave his open speech to the student body, everyone was welcome. I think there was a lot of to-do made of that particular event. Certainly him being on the campus [sound of door opening]. I'll take that. ( ) See you later. [door closes] Him being on the campus caused a lot of publicity. In fact, [door opens] Charlotte [door closes] newspaper carried that. And a, my picture went on the front page as I recall during that particular.
LS: Of the Charlotte Observer?
RC: Mm-hum. --
LS: We'll have to check that.
RC: ( ) when I was there. --
LS: OK. I mean.
RC: (Not building it on for a long time) because at that time I had a beret on and black glove with my fist in the air saying, Stokley speaks and black students exhort or exalt him or whatever. I remember that quite well.
LS: So they have that picture.
RC: Probably.--
LS: Or a picture.--
RC: Mm-hum. Any other questions about that particular event?
LS: No, no. The variations on the story have been sort of who was welcome to attend or who not, so.
RC: Well, the initial meeting was specifically for the black students. At that time you're only talking about, ten to twelve black students who were deemed the core leaders. And I do remember us meeting for a very short period of time before the rest of the student body was invited to attend. And I think I can recall a picture of Bonnie Cone's face during that particular time. The picture in the Student Union or the annual just showing her face as one of the ones who was not allowed into the closed meeting. Does that fit what some of the other?
LS: Well, I, I don't think we've heard very much about the closed meeting. Mostly it's been that there were black guards at the door and though they came with Stokley Carmichael and they wouldn't let white students in until the white students went to Bonnie Cone and she came over and said 'I'm, I'm coming in.'
BS: Yeah, move over. Can't have a closed meeting and pushed her way in.
RC: It was not confrontational at all.
LS: Oh, OK.
RC: I mean in terms of someone having to push themselves in, no. One thing that was very clear, we knew, we never did anything that was against the law that we were aware of. Because none of us were ever arrested. The police were always present. They were looking for any, we felt, they were looking for any reasons to arrest us. And so at no time did we ever do anything to give them a reason to arrest us.
LS: OK. And there was an incident where the American flag was taken down and people referred to it as the Black Flag, I think maybe it was an African flag.
RC: It was a black flag.
LS: It was all black?
RC: It was all black.
LS: OK. And, and so the American flag was taken down and the black flag raised. And what can you tell us and what do you recall that?
RC: Well, I remember very well because Ben Chavis and I the night before that were the leaders, so to speak, the community, the student leaders, of the Black Student Union. And we were trying to think of some way to demonstrate black unity, which is what the black flag stood for. And I think the previous week a black flag had been raised at Berkeley. So, that turned into a violent demonstration, because, as I recall, the U.S. flag was defaced. However, at our particular meeting we went to, I think it was Zales at that time. Ben and I wore this white sheet and took some spray paint and sprayed the sheet black, and we decided we would raise the black flag. Now, at no time was the U.S. flag ever defaced. And a, I remember raising the flag. I remember that very well. ( )
LS: You did?
RC: Uh-huh.
BS: Now, do you have a specific date, like a month or a year? I think we're kind of fuzzy on that.
RC: No, but there was a picture of that in the school annual. And I remember that picture so--
RC: It, it all happened at about the same time.
LS: And did people know ahead of time? Was there a crowd there to?
RC: There was a small crowd there. There was a small crowd there. As a matter of fact, the black students met there, and I think other students just kind of saw us and came to see what was going on. And, we called the press to have them there, which is how. They, we just called them because we knew we wanted what we were doing to be public. So we called the press and they came and shot the pictures.
LS: OK. And right after the flag incident you went to the administration building. Didn't the flag incident-Wasn't it followed with locking yourselves into the administration building?
RC: We never locked ourselves in the administration building. A, we had gotten together and formulated the ten black demands. And I remember walking into the, walking into the administration to Bonnie Cone's office. And this was during the time where at Duke University and Chapel Hill, students had locked themselves or taken over the administration building. And that was the trend at that time. It was occurring at several universities around the country. So we went to the administration building and a, we took the demands to Dr. Cone. She welcomed us there. And I remember, 'whatever you want we'll help you, we'll do whatever we can do, we want to help you.' So at no time was the, there a lock in or lock out. It didn't happen.
RC: It didn't happen a. Security, again, was always around and a, there was no doubt that had we done anything illegal we knew what would happen. So we were of the mindset that we wanted to be heard. But the fact that the administration accepted us in, Bonnie Cone in particular. She was a significant defusing element.
LS: Were you prepared for that? Did you think that people would want to negotiate or did you think that, that it would escalate? I'm asking were you expecting Bonnie Cone to sit down and talk to you?
RC: Um. No, but all along Bonnie Cone had always been a lady we could communicate with and a. She was always willing to help us. As matter of fact, the administration seemingly wanted to put us in committees and this that and the other. And our attitude was no, we don't want to get tied up into some committee. We didn't want to waste our time and effort. Because what few students we had, we didn't have time to get tied up in endless committee meetings. We thought that was a way to divert us. So, we demanded it now. And they responded by saying we'll offer you scholarships, we'll help you get into grad school, within, you know, within a matter of a semester we had our first black history course. And I remember that, I can't recall the, the professor's name because he taught at Barbra Scotia College. And I rode up to pick him and took him to class and back two days a week. I just can't remember his name right off hand. That was the first black history course that they had there. And a. Shortly after that they began the formal process for the black history's department, as such.
LS: He was the professor who died?
RC: Yeah. I think he had a heart attack and died unexpectedly. Maybe even before the course was over or shortly after that, as I recall.
BS: When did Dr. Bertha Maxwell come? Shortly after the department was started or?
RC: She came. If I'm not mistaken, I think she came my senior year or I had already left before she got there.
LS: What year did you graduate?
RC: '71.
LS: And, you alluded to this earlier. The committee meetings and that you didn't necessarily want to be on it. But you actually were on some committees once they reviewed those demands and started working on the Black Studies Program.--
RC: Uh-huh.
LS: How did those meetings go? Were, did that work?
RC: I think, there was fruit from those meetings. Things happened. The university made it very clear they were willing to work with us, but they could not violate any laws in terms of discrimination. So there could be no courses that whites were excluded from. Even when we went to get the Black Student Union constitution approved, it was not an entirely black organization because, as I recall, the constitution saying that it was open to any student. And it had to be stated that way for the student, a, body association to approve it. Now I think there were no white members initially. There may have been some who joined later. But the university made it clear that they could not break any laws. And we knew we couldn't break any. Without dire consequences.
LS: OK. And you also alluded to this earlier about the climate of race relations changing from the time you started in '67. --
RC: A.--
LS: How did they change?
RC: Well, initially we were. We enrolled and graduation rate was very low. A fair number of black students did not succeed for whatever the reason. There are a long list of reasons why many of them didn't. But at the campus at that time was about twenty, about two thousand students, most of whom were commuters. There was a large African, UNCC was known for its apathetic environment. So only the students who were active in the Student Union and university activities. Tthe majority of students just went to class. They were ( ) class and went back home, to work, and to their families. But there was a small nucleus of students who were the university typical student and I was in that group. A. So the group, the Student Union was the focal point of liberal white students at that time who embraced the idea of being helpful. And initially that was good. But then there became a movement in the black community to be separate. Because that's when the separatism, Black Panther thing, Black Student Union, we wanted our own, we didn't want to be in, we wanted our own. A, so. That. You had the group who initially wanted to participate, help, felt alienated because of what we were doing. And because of the mood of the county with the Black Panther Party and race riots that developed soon after that. There was a fear of. And so we were more feared, or we perceived ourselves to be more feared. Because of, you know, everybody else assumed that we were a violent organization when we weren't.
LS: Now, you went before the city council, I think, a time or two. Did you not?
RC: No, no.
LS: My mistake. Um, Bridgette? Do you have anything else you'd like to say or tell us that we don't know?
RC: A few other things I thought for historical reasons might be important. Remember the days of the flag raising, and a. We were told that the National Guard was on duty, ready to storm the campus should violence erupt. And it didn't. But also remember one of my wife's girlfriends who said that when she walked by a sheriff's car she saw them loading shotguns. So it was that kind of explosive environment that we operated under.
LS: Now actually one person said that there were people with guns on the roofs of some of the buildings, including the Atkins Library. But only one person said this.
RC: Well, if there was somebody on the roof with a gun it was no one in our group.
LS: No. The police.
RC: Now, the police we perceived to be armed and ready whether they were city or county police. We knew that the police were on the campus. A, and we knew that particularly at that time that they were armed and ready should violence have erupted. 'Cause tensions were extremely tense. Because the nucleus of the group became somewhat separate. And back in the Student Union there were a lot of debates that really in retrospect seemed to be more shouting matches then true exchange of ideas. Whereas we were saying we, we just want our own, we don't need anybody to--you know. A, there was this black pride issue which many of the white students didn't understand. Black pride did not equate to white hate. They didn't understand that. [pause] Other questions?
LS: Well, Ben Chavis is in the paper wearing a dashiki and it may be that picture that you're talking about. I think he was running for city council and there were several other people in the picture that we can't really identify. But it seemed that some of the students had moved out into the community and had offered free breakfast for kids and there were some programs but there was also a shooting incident that was Black Panther related. At least in the newspapers they wrote it up as Black Panthers. Did you perceive that some of students were becoming more active off campus as well as on campus?
RC: We were active off campus in a very limited role. Remember at that time there were no more then fifteen, sixteen proactive black students in the movement as such. So, between keeping your grades up to stay in school, which was a difficult transition for most of us anyway, and trying to be involved with the community, our actions were really very limited. But there were some, there was some involvement a. But I think it was more that we allied with some already active groups in Charlotte that were doing those kinds of things. The students on campus were mostly focused on black recruitment and going around to schools, and I recall doing this, going around to high schools and talking to student s about getting them to come to UNCC. So we had a strong focus on recruitment. If there were any efforts on tutoring, they were very, very limited. Again, you had just a few students who were carrying the bulk of the activity of the Black Student Union. And then you had some black students who were just peripherally involved. And some weren't involved at all. And at that time we're only talking about thirty students.
LS: In '68?
RC: Sixty -eight at that time. In my class as a freshman, I think there might have been fourteen black students.
LS: Were you from Charlotte?
RC: Pineville. And prior to that when I went to UNCC, I remember the faces of Ben Chavis, T.J. Reddy, and Charlie Parker who were some of the first students. There were a few other black students, but they were mostly commuters and they did not get involved. But we were the first students that really had the time and the interest to get involved in school politics and things such as that.
BS: Certain people have mentioned the Black House. Do you remember such a house? Downtown, I forgot which street they said it was on.
RC: The Black House was something that was run by a group, a group of a. The Black House was affiliated with the Black Panthers. There was a lot of discussion to whether they were going to issue a Black Panther party in Charlotte. But my understanding was that it was not recognized by the Black Panthers, that this so-called Black House was a place where there was pre-Panther activity, more or less. [pause] I vaguely remember something about a shooting, but then again it had absolutely nothing to do with any students at UNCC. [pause]
LS: Bridgette? I imagine. We didn't read about it in any student newspapers, it was in the Charlotte Observer, and it just said Black Panthers arrested. But, I mean, at that point some of the students, at least Ben Chavis, were loosely involved in the Panthers.
RC: Ben Chavis was more or less the liaison between the black students on campus and any other community-based black organization. He was associated with the Black lawyers in the city, he was associated with, with political people in the city. He was associated with everything. So Ben was the person who had the means, also transportation. We were out there on that campus most of us didn't have much transportation.
LS: Did you commute?
RC: I commuted for year.
LS: 'til they built the dorms.
RC: No, I never lived in the dorm.
LS: Oh.
RC: Later moved to within a mile of the campus.
LS: Have you seen UNC-Charlotte recently?
RC: Oh yes. Been there many times.
LS: It's changed.
RC: So. Other questions?
LS: That's it.
BS: Well, the last one for the record. What's your full name?
RC: Ronald (Remord) Caldwell. Let me just say that the administration at UNCC, because they welcomed us, they volunteered to help us, they helped prevent the situation from getting out of hand. They were not confrontational, for the most part. I think the first year there were some statements made that were antagonistic, but Bonnie Cone was the source to defuse the situation. And kept everything from getting out of hand. She proved to be a remarkable lady, in more ways then one. For me personally, the other stories I can tell you about that.
LS: Actually, two other people have said sort of the same thing that she helped them get into graduate school.
RS: She helped me to get into medical school. She arranged for me to get scholarships, so she was very helpful. So things that she said, 'I'll help you if you want to go to graduate school, I'll help you get in, or we'll help you get in. We'll help you.' So she had a. You went there with ten demands and she said ok we're willing to help you.
RC: What do you do?
LS: Say thank you.
RC: Well, yeah. But we're kind a like why was, it's not like this is happening everywhere else.
LS: Was it not what was happening everywhere else?
RC: Well, we, we felt that our administration at UNCC defused the situation by cooperating with us as much as they could within their limitations.
LS: You keep mentioning Bonnie Cone. But she was vice chancellor. Colvard was the chancellor. Did he? Nobody mentions him very much. Did you have contact with him or was it mainly through Bonnie Cone?
RC: Mainly through Bonnie Cone. We had contact with Colvard, but Bonnie Cone was always the lady who was out front. She was more, she was more receptive to students. Not to say that Colvard wasn't, but Bonnie Cone was always there and she was willing and eager. Whereas I think Colvard was more the administrative, he had to play the political role and UNCC couldn't be perceived to be giving into us. So he had to walk that political role. That was our perception.
BS: There was a picture in the yearbook where signs were placed somewhere on campus that said, "Colvard has blackitis." Do you remember those signs, and did it have anything to do with the incident or was that just a general feeling about Colvard?
RC: A, I remember placing the ten demands on the sidewalk in front of the Student Union or (), one or the other, placing those on the sidewalk. There's a picture taken of that which was in the year book. I don't remember any particular sign that said, "Colvard had blackitis." The ten demands. I don't recall anything that we every said that was derogatory, as such.
LS: Can I go back a second? You said that Colvard had to be perceived as not giving in. And I know that the governor had issued this proclamation if there're any campus unrest, students were to be arrested. I mean, they were taking a hard line.
RC: Yes.
LS: And Colvard was evidently trying to steer the middle cap. But, but Bonnie Cone must have been perceived as giving in or at least negotiating. Why do you think Bonnie Cone was willing to, to go further than the chancellor was or the governor?
RC: First of all, I think you would have had to known Bonnie Cone. --
LS: I did not know her, I know she.--
RC: The first year I was at UNCC there were just a few very, a few black students there and Bonnie Cone was very visible. She got to know us each personally. So we, we had respect for her. We had respect for her. But we also knew that she was a politician. We knew that she couldn't cross the line but so far but yet we perceived her as a lady who would do whatever she could. Do for us within political and personal means. You know.
LS: Well, she was obviously willing to help people, you know, all the way through. Even after they graduated, or when they had graduated. She seemed willing, it wasn't like she got mad at somebody and closed that door.
RC: I knew Ms. Cone so well I could just do an interview about my relationship with her, and things she did for me, and whatnot. That would be the source of another interview, another time.
BS: Were you one of Ms. Bonnie's boys? I've heard people refer to that, Cuthbertson said he was considered one of Ms. Bonnie's boys.
RC: No, I never perceived myself as being that way because there was a period of time when I was kind of angry at Ms. Cone. [pause] We had a full-time recruiter named Diane Scoggins. And she was married, I think she became pregnant, and she, she left. And it was kind of implied that I would get that job. Which I was looking forward to cause I wanted it real bad. But as a student, I couldn't take a full time position. So, I found out I didn't get that job. The university's approach was we couldn't go from full time to half time cause it looks as if you're not doing as much. So I was, I was angry because I didn't get that position. But later on, when it was time for me to graduate. () she was extremely instrumental in raising some financial aide, which was overwhelming. I think she respected what we did because nothing we did was illegal. We never said anything that was ugly to anyone.
LS: Where did you go medical school?
RC: Wake Forest. [pause] So she respected what we stood for. She may not have really liked our approach. But it was still within, you know, ( ).
LS: Well, Ben Chavis said that when you all were in the administration building together, Bonnie Cone said you didn't have to go this far to get listened to. And his answer was 'well would we be talking right now if we hadn't gone this far.' But actually, he described it more as a lockin, that the students locked the administration in, locked themselves in at the same time. So his take was a little different. So he was just saying that Bonnie Cone was saying you didn't have to go this far to get what you wanted. That he felt was needed.
RC: I think she may have said that, but again, in terms of us locking ourselves in. I can't recall or did not know that any doors were locked. We got together and decided we were going to take the demands to the administration. We went to speak with them at that time. Bonnie Cone, 'come on in. The door is open.' That's my recollection. I don't recall anybody locking the doors.
LS: OK. That may have been a figurative. He may have said it more as a, mean walking in instead of taking over.
RC: Well, in a sense yes but in terms of locking doors, that's a criminal offense.
LS: OK. [laughs] We're not going to turn you in.
RC: No, but I mean we operated under the frame of the law or we would have gotten arrested. And we knew that. I'm not saying that we weren't prepared and ready to do. had they not listened to us, I think we've would have been put into a very precarious situation. Now, what you going to do? But we did not have to deal with that because the door was open. I think many of us had the mindset that we came to talk.
LS: It's good they were willing to listen.
RC: It was great. [laughs]
LS: Saved a whole lot of aggravation.
RC: It saved a whole lot.
LS: Anything else, you'd like to say? Thank you. Someone will transcribe.
[interruption: tape turned off and back on]
LS: Sixty five dash two. Which we think is some kind of student legislative.
RC: Uh-huh.
LS: It had something to do with holding a meeting without a permit. And we're still not sure if it was Stokely Carmichael's visit, or if it was the press conference along with this black flag incident. That's, that's an unknown. We don't know why he was tried. And he, I don't. When we asked him why he was tried. I don't think he remembered. [laughs]
RC: It was some meaningless, who knows. It was just like, he felt like they had a whole group of rules that they just like to play games with rules, we didn't have time to be bothered with rules.
LS: The administration had a bunch of rules?
RC: Well, no this was the student council.
LS: Oh the student, yeah.
RC: Or student, what do you call it, the Student Government Association?
LS: Yeah, SGA.
RC: Which Ben at one time had been president of.
LS: Well, the person who tried him in student court was John Lafferty. And he had run track with Ben Chavis.
RC: Yeah, John was a friend of ours.
LS: And, and he said that he was getting. So he was the judge at this court, and Ben Chavis tried to have Reginald Hawkins and Julius Chambers come to defend him and they wouldn't let him.
RC: They wouldn't let them in there, yes I remember that.
LS: And, and a. But Lafferty said he was getting, like, promises or memos from some state, like the state attorney general, or it was obviously in Lafferty's mind a set-up job that the, was not just at the local level but that somebody at the state level had taken an interest in wanting to stifle Ben, at least Ben Chavis. Or at least you know that, it was, it was the '60s. And, and there was, I don't know if you call them undercover people or whatever, but sometimes students were targeted. You know, they watched students.
RC: As a matter of fact, I was interviewed by one of those people one time.
LS: Oh, really?
RC: Yeah.
LS: You mean by someone who was undercover?
RC: Mm-hum.
LS: OK. [laughs] Shall we turn the, do we want to?
BS: Well, I have the tape on but I can turn this back off.
LS: While, you were student?
RC: Yeah.
LS: And how did you know that they were? It was a fellow student right?
RC: No.
LS: Oh it was someone sent in?
RC: It was, we assumed it was.
LS: ( ).
RC: We just knew that we were targeted. We just felt that there were people who were trying to keep up with what we were doing. A, we kept ( ). We felt that it was very important that we be very confidential. And I recall one time being interviewed by someone trying to get information as to what the Black Student Union was doing. And I just refused to talk, because of my commitment to the group. And the implication was that, you know, you shouldn't be discussing this with anyone. And I remember, you know, being interviewed by the FBI as matter of fact. Back in those days.
LS: Did he tell you he was the FBI?
RC: Mm-hum. He came to my house.
LS: And, and interviewed you because you were--
RC: Because of the student activity that was going on. But it was very, you know, he just I'm with the FBI and just want to talk with you about what's going on.
BS: And what was your reaction?
RC: Well, I was young and very philosophical. So I just talked the typical logic of the day. I didn't tell him anymore than I had told anyone else. But again, I didn't feel that I was threatened by him. But he was from the FBI, I know that much. And I just thought it was ridiculous.
LS: OK. Did you get a picture?
BS: Mm-hmm.
LS: You were--