Sanders,Bridgette; Stickel, Lois
Civil Rights, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Black Student Union, Black Panthers, Bonnie Cone
Ben Chavis describes his experiences in civil rights activism during the 1960s at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and in the Charlotte, North Carolina community. Chavis also describes his hopes for the future of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the local community.
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Oral History, UNC Charlotte Civil Rights Series
BS(Bridgette Sanders): Good afternoon. My name is Bridgette Sanders and today's date is February 7, 2005. And we are here as part of grant funded research to conduct an interview. And we have a few questions for you. What is your name?
BC(Benjamin Chavis): Benjamin Chavis Mohammed
BS: Where did you grow up?
BC: Oxford, North Carolina.
BS: What was the black community like when you were growing up?
BC: I was born in 1948, and 1948 and early 50s. Oxford, North Carolina was a racial, segregated community- [Sound of microphone being moved]
BC: Farm community, tobacco. Eastern North Carolina. Oxford is the county seat of Granville County.
BS: What year did you enroll in UNCC?
BC: I believe I enrolled in UNCC in the Fall of 1966 or the Spring of 1967.
BS: And when did you graduate?
BC: I, I finished all of my course work in 1969. I think I actually got the degree in 1970. But I finished everything in 1969.
BS: What was your first impression of UNCC?
BC: Well when I first arrived on campus, UNCC had just become the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Because it was originally called Charlotte College. So I was on the campus while it was in the transition from a college to a university. There were approximately twelve African American students in total on campus at that time. I was in the chemistry department. [Sound of microphone being moved] I was the first graduate; I was the only black majoring in chemistry on campus. And I became active; there was a warm spirit on the campus. I became very active at UNCC Students for Action. I was one of the founders of UNCC Students for Action, and later I became the founding president of the UNCC Black Student Union. It was a closer relationship between the Students for Action, which was integrated, and the Black Student Union.
BS: You touched on this just little bit a second ago, but when did you think it became more active in the black student causes. Was it at that point or had it been sort of building up to that point?
BC: Well I've been active in the cause of freedom, justice, and equality for African Americans since I was twelve years old. So while I was in high school, at Mary Potter high school in Oxford I was going to Saint Augustine College ( ). And then I transferred from Saint Augustine to University of North Carolina at Charlotte. So my activism, I was a student activist before arriving at UNCC. But I think there's something significant about UNCC. I was brought up in a segregated school system. So that the first time I ever had the opportunity to sit in a classroom with a white student was not until my sophomore year at college here at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Prior to that, all of my classes had been with blacks. Totally. At Saint Augustine was a black school, Episcopalian, HBCU in Raleigh. The closest school system. Oxford had not been desegregated at that time. So, being in a classroom with white students was a, a unique challenge first time. The fact that I was already a chemistry major, I was a chemistry major at Saint Augustine college. And I discovered that we were using the same book. My book was organic chemistry. And the book that we used back then was Morrison and Boyd. It's a famous organic chemistry text. And I was surprised to learn that the text books we were using at Saint Augustine college was the same text books that they were using here at the University of Charlotte. So, I got a smooth transition academically. But because it was a new environment, I drove to school; I did not stay on campus. I stayed on Beatties Ford Road, Charlotte. So I drove to a, a class every day. A, in fact as I recall. In those days, everybody was a. No one stayed on campus.
LS(Lois Stickell): No there was a dorm built in '69.
BC: Right, they were, they were beginning to build a dorm. As I was first arrived everyone was commuting. I didn't have any racial problems on campus. I was in study groups with white students obviously. Library here was, spent many hours in the library. I was a good student, but I was also inquisitive about what was going on in the community. There was another school here in Charlotte called Johnson C. Smith University which was a historically black college and university. So I would spend my day, days here, evenings over at Johnson C. Smith. Even though I wasn't a student at Johnson C. Smith, there was a student union over there, there was fellowship. And I soon got involved with the student issues here. For example, I joined the, a, the Union Board it was called back in those days. I actually ran for office. Found to my surprise, was elected. [laughs] You know, president of the student union. And at that time, the union program board determined what the activities would be on campus. Lectures, concerts, all extracurricular activities. So I became very much involved in the life of the campus as a whole. And then it came up one time, you know this is in the '60s. As I stated in my lecture, I was here the day that Dr. King was killed April 5, 1968. I was in the student union. And that had a very devastating impact. At the time, while I was a full time student here. I was also a full time volunteer for the Southern Leadership Conference. I was a youth coordinator for Dr. King's organization. So you have to understand I was a student here, I made all my classes. But after class, between class, I was out in the community. Sometimes not only in Charlotte, but in different areas, Lenoir, different places. Sometimes Western as well as Eastern part of the state, I was fairly much mobile. I was driving since I was thirteen. I had a car. And so wherever there were major student meetings in Greensboro, Raleigh, or Durham I was always at those meetings. Because student activism was very high in the late '60s, late '60s on all the campuses. And we maintained communication, and also it was during the Vietnam War. Remember the, UNCC, students of UNCC, students for action sponsored the first anti-war rally, very controversial. Back in those days, it was considered unpatriotic to speak out against the Vietnam War. And there was a group in Charlotte called the Charlotte Peace Committee. And the Charlotte Peace Committee, and the students for action sponsored a workshop. We were opposed to the Vietnam War for a whole lot of reasons. And at the same time we wanted to promote civil rights. So you know, I was a student activist but I was also a good student. I had good teachers. The chairman of the chemistry department at that time was named Dr. Sherman Burson. My faculty advisor was Dr. James Culpers . They were both in the chemistry department. I have to say that they took time, because I was rather rebellious. I always was questioned what was going on and I know I used to wear a. I look very nice in this picture at the time. [laughter] But I, I didn't dress like that everyday. And my hair is curlier. I really had big afro.-- [laughter]
BS: We've seen the pictures. [laughter]
BS: (We have those pictures.)
BC: Right. I used to a, I was a campus militant no question about it. But I also made friends. I thought that a it was always if I could win students and some faculty over to our side. And our side was to make the university more inclusive. To make the university more of apart of the community. There were issues going on in Charlotte, a lot of police brutality in the community, Vietnam War. There was a battle over the desegregation of the schools. At that time Charlotte Mecklenburg schools were battling over busing. And whether or not they would utilize busing to desegregate schools. My first arrest happened in Charlotte. I was arrested in 1968 on the campus of Second Ward High School. Which there were two major high schools in Charlotte at that time. West Charlotte and Second Ward. And they were going to tear down Second Ward High School and we were trying to save the school. And the principle of the school, Mr. Waddell, invited me to speak to the students. And as I was speaking to the students on a regular assembly program, Charlotte police came on stage and arrested me. Said I was trespassing. Even though I was invited, so I, that was my first arrest. Forty different arrests over the years but, So I have a, vivid, and I would say fond memories. I mean I. When I think of UNC at Charlotte I think of academic pursuit, but I also think of cultural pursuit. While I celebrated being a young black man I also was at a period in my life where I was advancing in our connection to Africa. So I would very often wear dashikis.
BS and LS: We have a picture of you in the dashiki's--
[interruption by all three] LS: ( ) [laughter]
BC: So. Because you know that's apart of the culture. And we started an organization in Charlotte called the Black Cultural Social. We had a house on Statesville Avenue and, Statesville Avenue and Oaklawn. I don't know, I think they tore down Oaklawn Avenue. It's Statesville and Oaklawn. We had a house we called the Black House. We painted it black. You from Charlotte?
BS: No. [laughs]
BC: We painted this house black, it was the Black House. Everything in it was black. The furniture, everything. The desk, everything. And we would hold cultural ( ).
BS: ( ) It is?
BC: Yeah, that is dashiki.
LS: There's none in a zebra stripe.
BS: ( ) I didn't think so. [pause]
BC: So I'm just reading here. I don't know, this from the Carolina Journal? Chapel Hill or here?
BS: Here. [pause]
BC: Alright. [pause] [sound of pages turning] So a, you can tell by reading some of these. These newspaper clippings that we were, we were very active.
BS: OK. you were clearly one of the leaders with black student causes. Were there others?
BC: Yes. I became the first president of the Black Student Union. T.J. Reddy vice president, Charlie Parker was secretary. And there were many others. In fact, while I was here, the first miss UNCC, the first black woman to be Miss UNCC was Diane Scoggins. And she was a part of the student union, the Black Student Union as well as Students for Action.
BS: Where there any specific incidents on campus that you remember?
BC: Incidents? I remember a lot of incidents.
BS: That for the black cause. And I guess getting at the flag incident is what I'm trying steer you too.
BC: Right, right. There came a point in 1969 when we a, took over the administration building. We lowered the United States flag and put up a black flag. And we presented ten demands to the administration. And basically the demands were to be more inclusive academically. We were concerned about the non academic employees. I can't believe, at that time we asked that they be paid two dollars an hour. Shows what the economy was back in the '60s. So yes, that was a big day. It was a very trying day. Because obviously the administration had to decide whether or not to have us arrested or to negotiate. And thank God, they decided to negotiate with us rather than have us arrested. Because we literally chained the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor in the building with us. We chained ourselves in the building. We didn't lock them out; we locked ourselves in the building with them. And a, it was some heated words. But all toward the end of improving the academic opportunities for all students. And to try and get more black students on campus. We wanted UNC at Charlotte to be a real university. In the truest sense of academic pursuit, freedom of speech, call for justice in the community. I also remember a we brought Stokely Carmichael to speak on campus. I was the one who introduced him that day to the university. Great guy. There came upon, I can't remember what date, but the Klu Klux Klan came up on campus. And we wanted to challenge the Klan. But wisdom served to be better that we avoided confrontation. At that time, keep in mind, the University of Charlotte was surrounded by literally just woods. It wasn't built up like it is now. There was only one way into campus that was off 49. We didn't have a back exit. A, Again I have fond memories here. Professors, good professors here. Helped us cause at the time there were no African American professors on campus at all so we had to get right professors to be our academic advisors and supporters to help us navigate through the administrative bureaucracy and make sure our grievances were heard.
LS: Well, actually I wanted to digress and ask. Because we have, you know talked with several people. And you're the first person that mentions the Klan coming. Did they come in response to something or they just came?
BC: I, you know. It was afternoon; I think they just riding through campus. There wasn't a Klan rally.
BC: But they showed up in robes. Once you've seen a Klan robe you don't mistake it for something else.
LS: Not like a dashiki. [laughter]
BC: And they didn't stay long. I think it was you know, again, you have to understand Charlotte Mecklenburg was very intense city, county at that time. Mainly the schools, a lot of the tension that was on campus here at the university was also tension in the community. There's a serious divide about the Vietnam War, there's a serious divide about civil rights, there's a serious divide about police brutality, there's a serious divide. Even though when Dr. King was killed there was not a major riot in Charlotte although some people were arrested. I think people were just hurt. Because the day after King was going to speak in Memphis, his next stop was Charlotte. Out of Myers Park. One reason I was not in Memphis that day, I was here in Charlotte organizing Dr. King's trip to Charlotte. Reginald Hawkins, he was running for governor. Black guy running for governor in 1968. So that was a very trying time. And also you know '68. Dr. King was killed in April. Robert Kennedy was killed in June. All this in 1968. I and a fellow UNCC student named Jim Patterson, white student, he and I were co-coordinators at Kennedy's camp out. You know, people in the South hated the Kennedies. And because I was a chemistry student, I worked in the afternoons in a local lab. Bio-Tech Research lab. And on the day that Robert Kennedy was killed, came on the news. People in the plant that I worked on they, had a, had broke out a wine and started toasting they were so happy that Kennedy was killed. That's the, those are the kind of times we that we were living in. So the racial divide is very thick. Although there were pockets of places where people were trying not just to coexist but really to in the mutual respect of, and UNCC was one of those places. As I've said. I think UNCC as it grew, it was trying to redefine its own identity. From being a school of commuters to a residential college, to expanding the degrees offered. You know, I happened to attend UNCC in its formative stages. And I think because of was in its formative stages I think the university was a bit more flexible on how to handle people like me as a student. [laughter] You know you had to do your grades here. A but, nobody was given grades here you had to study at this school. And a, I'm very grateful for, to a, having had attended here. I learned a lot here.
BS: Speaking of handling people like yourself. How did the administrators particularly Bonnie Cone handle some of the conflicts that came up like the flag incident.
BC: Well, she was very gracious. You know, Bonnie Cone was the mother of the school. We also locked her up into the administration building. She felt that a, that we had done. That we had. She said that she felt if we really wanted this African American studies program we didn't have to go to that length to get it. That's what she said. And our part to her was, Dr. Cone we would not be discussing having a program if we didn't do it. So you know, so I would just say she was very gracious. Obviously, she could have ordered. She could have picked up the phone and called the sheriff or state police because you know it was a state school. Like had happened on other campuses. You know, the governor at that time sending the National Guard at A and T, sending the National Guard to other state schools. The National Guard was not sent to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Although there were some who wanted the administration to call out the National Guard. It would have escalated into something not so nice.-
BS: So not even the local police?-
BC: So, so the administration. Yeah. The local police department came. But they sort of, they sent plain clothes officers. There was no major police confrontation. And I think that's because the university did not want the situation to escalate. Now keep in mind this is during the Vietnam War. People had a very passionate connection with the United States flag during the time of war. So when we took down the flag, even before we put up the black flag, taking down the U.S. flag caused us to receive some choice words from some of the students here, some of the white students, who were very angry that we would dare to pull down the American flag because some of their loved one's that were also fighting in Vietnam. They were saying how could you do this? And of course we didn't stomp the flag, we didn't burn the flag. We folded it up nice and handed it. Our purposes that day, we were putting up a black flag. Because we were trying to make a statement for a African Americans and for black people to be taken more seriously by the university. And it resolved the confrontation; something good came out of it. As I said in the lecture, we set up a committee to form the studies. The African American studies department. And I really want to emphasize that involved hundreds of hours of planning work. You had to meet twice a week, sometimes each meeting last two or three hours. Faculty, administrators, and students. And you know, we didn't have that many students. That means most of us had to go to all the meetings. But we were disciplined. We'd say we're going to make this demand; we're going to follow this through. And it took several years; you don't just start an academic department. It took maybe six years. Of constant meetings and work for the establishment of the UNCC African American, African studies program. And I'll say today that in most of the other universities, those programs have been dismantled. UNC at Charlotte has one of the strongest African American, African studies programs in the whole United States. Why? Because of the way it was set up. It was set up to be a permanent part of the university. Not as some of those special programs where you throw a few dollars at it. You know, that's not what we wanted. We wanted a degree conferring department where you could major in African American, and African Studies. And now I'm just told by the director. They're going to make graduate program where you can come get your masters and doctorate in African American African studies. So, forty years later [laughs] we're making progress. Sometimes progress takes time.
BS: After some of the conflict that had happened on campus did or how did the climate of the college or university itself change?
BC: Well you know. Clearly I was elected while I was a student militant. I mean, even though I look kind of ominous in this picture here. And I ran against a very popular guy. John Lafferty was a very popular guy on campus. In fact, he was the vice chair of the student union. And so for the students to elect me, I took the job very seriously. I, I didn't see myself being elected to use, to misuse the office. I tried to make sure that we would have the best lectures and programs on that campus ( ) serve. And a, so I would say that we also witnessed a maturity, a maturing of the student body. There was a time in the cafeteria, all the black students would eat together, all the white students would eat together. Never a time when you would see black students and white students eating together in the cafeteria. After a period of time, I would say nine months, we started eating together. Started playing pool, pool thing in there, started playing pool, playing chess. I was a pretty good chess player. And so, what may sound like a little small thing was very significant. In other words, there wasn't much interaction. Even on campus at the beginning, between blacks and whites. That's something that had been grown and learned.-- [cough from interviewer]
BC: And as a result of the interaction, there were more opportunities to dispel the myths demystify. Because everybody had stereotypes about the other. Whites had stereotypes about the blacks, blacks had stereotypes about the whites. And so it came up on a time when we decided to dispel the stereotypes and all these students to try and make the university a community.
BS: Now you were on the track team. And as part of the track team, I'm sure you had to travel with the track team. You had to interact, or did you drive separately, or did you ride the bus with everybody, or?
BC: [laughs] I'm laughing because you know. We had a track team, but it was like two track teams. All the sprinters were blacks; all the long distance runners were whites. So when I ran the 400 yard relay, four guys running a hundred and ten yards. Everybody, I, used to pass the baton to was a brother. And when we would go to, now keep in mind at that time UNCC a, athletic competition against schools that had not yet integrated. Like Lenoir Rhyne ( ) So when would go to run track against the schools in the mountains. And we'd get off the bus, and people were say what high school ya'll from? We'd say UNC-Charlotte. They couldn't believe I guess I look kind of young back then. But a, you know, we ran so. We had fellowship on the bus, there was no racial distinction. But I'm saying on the track itself, it was like UNC at Charlotte sent two track teams. A black team and a white team. It's not like they sent one team. But that's, had nothing to do with the coach. That's just how the game, you know. Black folks run fast over short distance. [cough] White folks run long over a long distance. Just you know, maybe it was from slavery, being a runaway slave. But my coach used to tell me I ran like a runaway slave, I always looked back while I was running. [pause]
BS: What was the climate, what was the climate between black and white students before the flag incident. You touched on that, and someone that I talked to said, Ben and TJ they were just one of the guys. Is that how you saw it or how it was?
BC: I think that's accurate. The need for survival on campus, the fact that we were black militants was not obvious. Because we were just on campus. We not trying to rock the boat or disturb the boat as soon as you're on campus. That came later. So when we first arrived yes. We were just on of the guys. But we were one of the few guys, you have to understand that. [laughs] In the whole university, there were twelve. And sometimes some of those twelve had night classes. So at any given time you only see five or six black faces on campus. Excuse me during the first year, TJ was at Johnson C. Smith. He transferred from Johnson C. Smith. And a, we were very active and I think that I don't ever remember not being welcomed to. Always had my antenna up. Something going on when we were not wanted I would have been able to sense it. I think we were more liked out of curiosity. I think people watched us to see what we were doing. So I can't recall any negative things that happened on campus.
BS: Was there a black panther party?
BC: In the community, not on campus. Well, let me put it this way, there was the beginning of a black panther party and I was involved with that.
BS: Bringing it to the community?
BC: Bringing it to the community. Well again. The black community of Charlotte. Charlotte was like the biggest city of North Carolina. Charlotte was like a big country town. It really wasn't like a city. And they had a town mentality. A lot of people migrated to Charlotte from South Carolina, Georgia, heading north, stop off in Charlotte and stay. And so a lot of injustices went down in Charlotte nobody would challenge the injustices. Because we were students out here we felt that somebody had to speak out. And we would go to the city council meetings, we'd go to the school board meetings, we'd go to the county commission meetings. Even though I was a student I got very much involved in the life of the Charlotte community. In fact I ran for city council. 1969 That's the picture you saw. So, I ran for city council wearing a zebra dashiki. Kinda frightening people. But a there were as I recall police brutalities incidents in the community. And hardly nobody was speaking out against the police brutality. So we became began to speak out and of course before the Black Panther Party got started in California was because of police brutality. That's why it's called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. In the ten point program that the Black Panther Party spoke more about the right of black people to defend themselves against hostilities. And at that time, that was very appealing to me. But it's again part of an evolution, because the Black Panthers were against culture. They had a ( ) what we call cultural nationalists. So there's a split between the Black Panther Party and Mala Korena's group called US. But on campus we were trying to celebrate black culture at the same time being noticed in the community things. We didn't take sides in that dispute because I felt that it was wrong for any group black people whether in the community or on campus. To declare the other group as the enemy. To me that was crazy . You can't promote unity by declaring another brother or sister an enemy. So, my tenure with the Party, the Panthers was very short. But yes, that was part of my evolution also.
BS: Was that how the, is that where the Black House grew out of, or was that separately?
BC: Black House came out of the cultural side. The Black culture, the Black House was a part of Charlotte black cultural social issues. So at one time, you know I had myself stretched in many different places. Student leader on campus, I did the black cultural association, I was also with the Panthers, and every once in a while I had my foot in the church. In those days, you didn't join on one organization. You join on as many organizations as you can. I was in the NAACP, I was in SCLC, I was the Black Student Union, Black Cultural Association, if it was black I was in it. [pause]
BS: (Did you touch on black advocacy) When did you see activism start to wane on campus?
BS: Or taper off.
BC: I didn't ever see it taper off. I saw it always growing but taking different manifestations. You know it went from the protest stage to the institution building stage. And I want to emphasize that was what '68 or '69 to the building of this department. Even after I graduated I came back to make sure that the black studies as it was first called the Black Studies Committee and then it was later changed to the African American African Studies Program Committee that they kept meeting. Because you don't want to start something and then just let the ball drop. So protest stage to the institution stage to where I say a more community awareness stage. So I didn't see activism waning. I saw activism expanding its sphere of influence on campus and in the community. See again, answer both questions. I'm giving an answer not just as a student. Because for me by definition a student meant to be in the community. Student not just, did not just mean on campus. I was a student of the struggled on campus and in the community and the struggle was both on campus and in the community. So my, my formal education took part in the classroom setting and laboratory, chemistry lab. The application of what I was learning in the laboratory and in the formal classroom was very much in the community.
LS: Well, I just have one question. You've aluded twice to your activism at the beginning when you were twelve years old. What was there an incident or what was that moment? Or why do you keep referring back to that?
BC: Well I could refer to other things earlier but. When I was twelve, I helped to desegregate the local library in my hometown. Basically, the library was segregated and I got tired of walking past the library without getting a book. So I don't think it was that courageous of a thing to do. You know your cup just runs over some time and my cup had run over that day when I was walking home from school and I wanted to get a book. The library's been integrated since. But a, I was an activist because my parents were activists in their own way. As a little kid I saw them speaking out, fighting back in their own way. And I wanted to hurry up and grow up because I didn't like the way my parents were treated. My mother and father were school teachers. My father was a Brick mason on the side. [cough] I didn't think they got proper respect. And I could not understand why adults black adults at that time were so tolerant of injustice. So I wanted to hurry up and grow up so by the time I was twelve I thought I was half way grown and I've been on this path ever since.
LS: Is there anything else you'd like to add? That we didn't ask but should have asked?
BC: Well, whoever is going to listen to this or read this. I think it's important that they don't see me as an isolated individual. I was one of many. And this campus was also one of many. The 1960s. College campuses like this one were places where black students sacrificed where black students risked their careers and academically speaking. Not just to get something for themselves. It was to get something for the generations that would come behind us. So, I would hope that however this is written that my contribution to the movement for freedom justice and equality, that my contribution to the evolution of the African American, African Studies Program at University of North Carolina would be seen just as a contribution. I don't want people painting me on a pedestal or anything. I was just fortunate to be here. You know there are a lot of young people my age that are less fortunate. Always think about the, a, young students at A and T that, who were killed by the National Guard solely because they were speaking out about the injustices in Greensboro. Or the kids that were killed at South Carolina State University. So you know, when I, when I talk about this I didn't want to be painted as some lone hero or something, I wasn't thinking like that. I was just trying to make my contribution. Because others were making I felt even more serious contributions in a lot other places. I was inspired by what students were doing on other campuses and I wanted to make sure that we at UNCC did not miss our, the chance in history. Did not miss our responsibility, our historic responsibility to help change this institution and all institutions in our midst. And I guess I have to say to Dr. Bonnie Cone and the administrators here. I believe that they also learned something out of the situation. I think it helped this school become a better school. And I think that even today the dynamic of what goes on this campus is informed by what happens in the past and hopefully as we see the school continues to grow and expand, it will not only be a remembrance of this. Sometimes, I don't want people to be sad. There's just too many. We need to celebrate what happened. And even though it's difficult, in a sense there was triumph. That, we had a successful demonstration that day. You know everybody sees it as a incident but I see it as a successful rally you know. And because we rallied that day it opened doors and now we have minority professors on campus, African American professors, Latino professors, Asian professors, other professors. I think the faculty is much more diverse. The student body is much more diverse. And the community. I think UNCC should always see herself in relationship to the community in Charlotte. There's a lot of hurt and pain going on in the community. In Charlotte today in 2005. And I think the university should see itself as a problem solver. As a place where people in the community can come and learn and yes get degrees. But also search for truth, search for solutions, and I think that the city and the county will be a better city and county as institutions like the University of North Carolina at Charlotte continue to restate and replenish its own legacy.
BS: Thank you.