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Interview with Humphrey Cummings

Cummings, Humphrey
Sanders, Bridgette; Stickel, Lois
Date of Interview: 
Cummings, Humphrey; Reddy, T. J., 1945-; Caldwell, Ronald R. (Ronald Ranord); Cone, Bonnie, 1907-2003; Black Panther Party; University of North Carolina at Charlotte; African American college students; African American neighborhoods; African Americans--Study and teaching (Higher); Black power; Police brutality; Race relations; Social history; Urban renewal; Black Student Union (University of North Carolina at Charlotte); Wilmington Ten Trial, Wilmington, N.C., 1972; North Carolina--Charlotte; North Carolina--Charlotte--Second Ward; Interviews (Sound recordings); Oral histories
Humphrey Cummings discusses his memories as a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He reflects on the role of the Black Student Union, race relations on the campus, and the changes that the campus administration implemented in regard to these issues. Mr. Cummings also relates his perception of Vice Chancellor Bonnie Cone and her interest in helping individual students. In addition to discussing student activism, Cummings discusses the changes he has seen in the physical make-up of Charlotte and in race relations over the forty years that he has lived in the city.
North Carolina--Charlotte; circa 1960 - 1979
Interview Setting: 
Office of Humphrey Cummings in North Carolina--Charlotte
University Archives Collection
Collection Description: 
The University Archives Collection consists of interviews which are associated with the history of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and are generally conducted with faculty, students, alumni, and staff of the university.
Interview Audio: 
LS: ( ) recorded ( ). OK
BS(Bridgette Sanders): [laughs]
HC: Technology, technology.
BS: Oh yes. OK. Today is Tuesday December 14, the year is 2004. This is
Bridgette Sanders the co-interviewer and I am here today with
Humphrey Cummings of Charlotte North Carolina.
Lois Stickel and I are conducting this interview from Mr. Cummings office located in downtown Charlotte.
LS: OK. And our first question is what is your name?
HC: I am Humphrey Cummings.
LS: OK. Where did you grow up?--
HC: In.--
LS: Are you from Charlotte?--
HC: No. Actually I was born in Richlands, North Carolina which is near Camp Lejeune out on the coast.
LS: OK, and when did you move to Charlotte?
HC: The first time I guess in 1964 I believe it was and then I left and went to the military and returned and I've been here more or less ever since. So. Forty years or so, Charlotte.
LS: OK. So you said 1964.
HC: Mm-hum.
LS: And, what was the black community like then?
HC: Well, it was much different in terms of the physical layout that it is right now, I'm sure, I don't know, how long all of you have been in Charlotte but the neighborhood known as Brooklyn, which was in what is now second ward, was still in place. First Ward which is, been gentrified at this point, was a much different, had different wealth to it. And a, I guess third ward existed more so then the stadium and the condos that were actually houses out there. Fourth ward of course a bit run down and decrepit. So, most of those areas where inhabited by black folk. And they are what we call the inner city court at this point. And so it was a, somewhat accessible much more [phone rings] I this is base able on being youthful then anything else [phone rings] much more vivacious, much more entertaining, much more exciting because I had come from a country, rural background so I was in the city. Churches appeared to be much more prominent and much more apart of peoples' daily lives. As did speakeasies [laughs], I guess it was know, not too different from today but much more compact I guess I'll put it that way. But it was a, an interesting time. Charlotte was certainly growing by leaps and bounds even then. And a, the black community I would say at that point it had more political, much more visible political (clot) and in that to use a phrase from the '60s, leadership today from an old person, has been co-opted in a new respect and that point I think it was much more grass roots. Much closer to people [phone rings] and a, and overall contrast with today to use the old cliche, the more things change the more they stay the same. So, physically there were some differences a, in terms of the politics I think there were some differences, I don't know whether they were worse, and a, asthetically a huge difference.
LS: What year did you enroll at UNC-Charlotte?
HC: 1968. I believe.
LS: And what was your first impression?
HC: Actually, I was very impressed. My coming to UNC-Charlotte was a function of my belief at the time, that hasn't changed, it was new, exciting, on the cusp of the state and ready to kind of emerge into the butterfly it could be from the dormant cocoon or the infant cocoon. I guess it had started out being. Of course, Bonnie Cone was the chancellor at the time, well actually, the vice chancellor and she had been the president of the college preceding. And she was very instrumental in my coming in that I had decided while in the military I was going into a, of course, ( ) GI Bill, select a college. And she had actually written me a note in her own hand it appeared, I'm assured it was, and actually told me about university and about it's potential and a, and invited, welcomed me. So, of the places I had applied it seemed like they were actually recruiting me and really wanted me to come [phone rings] so. I did and the excitement that she had sort of conveyed was not incorrect. [laughter]
LS: Oh, I thought you were going to say it's not there.
HC: [laughs]
LS: OK. OK. And were you one of the first black students.
HC: No, a. My class, oh my goodness, that challenges my memory. Was small, but not unique. There were some folk ahead of me. Ronald Coldwell, Dr. Coldwell now. He's in Nashville. Let me see if I can remember some of the other folk. T.J. Reddy, who, well I don't know if T.J. was actually enrolled and in, he probably was, and who is in Charlotte still, I believe. I'm trying to think. James, Steve, Clowner who is a physician, I'm sure where at this point. A, but I came in with a class which was probably the largest class at UNCC at the time that included a host of people from Charlotte and quite a few from the Western part of the state. That class probably amounted to somewhere about twenty some or thirty ( ). Large class.
LS: When do you think the college began to become more active in black student involvement?
HC: I guess without tooting my own horn. During our era.--
LS: ( )
HC: And yes. And so not so much of who we were as to what America was or so like it at that point. Actually, I think we were pretty late in the game so to speak in terms of advocating some of the things and making some of the demands and insistent on some of the things. Not the least of which being an African American Studies program, a black studies program, and a. A, so. It, it began to change at that point. And a, that's saying not so much based on rumor as based on the time.
LS: And, and who were some of the leaders?
HC: T.J. Reddy, Ronald Coldwell, some folk from the community, ( ) in terms of giving some of the moral support and instrumental guidance for a. Ruth (Sloan), I can't remember the date she used to ( ).
LS: ( )
HC: Yeah, that's it. Sarah, Sarah, what's her last name? She's from Concord. Octavia, now Caldwell. She married Ronald Caldwell, who was a (a class ahead of me). Let's see ( ), James Cuthbertson, this was the class that I came in with you see. Dot, or Dorothy Dae, I strive to remember her maiden name.
LS: Oh, oh.
HC: She'd married Norris Dae who was in that class. Dorothy ( ) as well, from I think Morganton or the Western part of the state.
LS: Now you.--
HC: Host of them. [laughs]
LS: Now you didn't mention Ben Chavis.
HC: Ben Chavis of course was very instrumental. He was probably the, quote, ring leader, end quote. In the sense that he certainly took a leadership role in, his one of the people who relied on national figures and national sources and national [phone rings] kind of issues that he would bring [phone rings] to our attention. So he was, he was right up there, not the one.
LS: OK. Do you remember specific incidents on campus of a?
HC: Oh. The things that I remember are probably not that great in terms of a, there lasting impression. I can of course remember the flag raising incident which was herald in the local press and local media, not that any ( ). But the things that I probably view as a, equally or much more significant probably didn't catch the media's attention as much. Those being things like, insisting and ultimately prevailing on the African American Studies program. Things like the Student Government which the university never previously having funded, like programs on campus for the black student union at the time, but any black program. Things like insisting on what we call symbolic representation in that the newspaper and the literary magazine, jus the art on campus. I think the black hue or representation, those kind of things I think went a long way in helping and assisting and causing change to come about. I can especially remember literature that the university sent about as I explained that I thought Dr. ( ) was very instrumental in my coming, at the same time all of the official literature, yearbook, and all of that were quote lily white, is the common phrase. And so, insisting what was labeled black symbolic representation I thought was equally important though not as eye catching as far as the community at large.
LS: And how did the administrators, or Bonnie Cone, respond or how did they handle conflict?
HC: Well, the administration in my estimation was of course a I guess from an older perspective, that would always be the case, was a go slow, kicking and dragging their feet the whole way. Dr. ( ) on the other hand was much more a personable person. I mean, I don't know that I believe that she was on the cust so to speak in terms of making broad sweeping changes. But she was always very interested in the person, and what the person's issue, what the person's problem or person's concern was. And so she addressed issues basically from a how can I help you, what can I do for you, or you know, what kind of a system do you need ( ) channel your particular need or interest. And so, I, I hesitate to use it but I will, because she was much more motherly, ( ), individually supportive in my estimation then she was a, a pace setter ( ). So from that perspective she was probably a, again if you look behind the surface, probably as important to the students' reason for being there, that is getting an education and getting out, as the, was more, sweeping things that one might have noticed.
LS: Now were you there in December of '67? When ( ) came?
HC: Yes. Oh yes.
LS: Tell us about ( ).
HC: ( Stoke)'s visit was energizing. It was a, oh what's the word. [laughs] It a, created quite a (furrier) but at the same time it was I think, you know, one of the a, more significant events in terms of giving black students the sort of validation of their purpose, of their a, demand for a, quote a place at the table. He was riveting, exciting, invigorating, just a wonderful, wonderful event. Of course, I don't know that it endured like student effort or movement or whatever to the large community. But I think it's served it's purpose for black students and I think therefore it was the right thing, the important thing, certainly one of the things that I look at as a milestone in my experience there.
LS: So were you in. You were in the room already? Because since they asked some people to leave?
HC: They did indeed. A. I don't know where in the, in the scheme of all that. I was sent there as an observer, I was not one of the one's instrumental in him coming. A. So a. I was not approached [phone rings] with the request to leave, and didn't leave. And a. Actually I think I learned about, well, actually the speeches I remember was sort of (he's not going to tell us all to get out). Was either disinvited or not invited or deemed to be objectionable. I'm not sure how it came about. But it sort of didn't affect me in terms of my personal status. So it was more or less a non-event for me personally. And so, I remember the incident but I don't know I put a lot of stock in it. I guess in terms of now having gone to law school and ( ). A free speech issue, and a free association issue and all of that. But at the time, eh. [Laughs] [Laughter]
LS: ( ) [Laughter]
LS: OK. How do you think that. Well, before I talk about, ask about the climate of the college changed. When do you think it peaked, or what do you think?
HC: Well, I think before the flag raising incident was probably the peak. A. And more so from the stand point that a, I think the administration came to the realization that all of this quote other stuff was outside agitators or you know, Ben Chavis's ratings, or something else that they could dismiss more readily then the fact that a, again I must admit that I was not instrument in it happening, but much more so in having to come to terms with the fact that it was their students, meaning black students and some white, who were there. Who were at the base of that flag pole, where ( ) you know and fist raised in the air and therefore these are our people that ( ). So I think in terms of a seminal event, that probably the seminal event. If you can pin point one.
LS: OK. And then after that, how did the climate of this campus ( )?
HC: The climate changed I guess in the sense that, again, no one was in a hurry, quote, to do the right thing. But I think that it changed in the sense that yeah, we got to come to terms [phone rings] with these issues. We have to address them all be it slowly. To use one of the Supreme Court phrase, "with all deliberate speed". A, but a, but that we do have to address them. We do have to make progress and we do have to move forward on the issues.
LS: Was there a Black Panther party or rumors that the?
HC: There was a Black Panther party, and I'm trying to think of the guy's name, unfortunately died, he was a chemist. And a.
LS: Was that ( )?
HC: Yes, in terms of (Grant). I don't.--
LS: Who was white?
HC: No. Black. Who, probably had some connections with national members of the party. There was a house over in Greenville where people met and claimed to be adherents of the party. A, I guess ( ), and T.J., and Ben and a few others had some dealings with people who may or may not, I don't really know, had been part of the party. And so, the intensity exists that the language of the party was language that we embraced and used to our advantage and other aspects of it where things that we shied away from. There were people who wore the garb, and there were people who did not. And I never saw an official roster, so I don't know to be perfectly honest whether one can say it in fact existed or people emulated it, it's existence in the local community. [phone rings]
LS: But there were some, like, programs [phone rings] you know, lunch programs, and.--
HC: Absolutely.--
LS: And patrolling the streets.
HC: Yeah. Yes. And that as I say was done a lot out of the house on (and Granville). --
LS: ( )--
HC: Yes, that's what it was called. And a.
LS: So [beeping] who owned that house?
HC: I have no idea. [laughs]
LS: Everybody could just go to it?
HC: A yes, excuse me one moment. --
LS: ( )--
HC: Who owned the house, I don't.--
LS: Oh, oh neighborhood activism, OK.
HC: Yes, there was some activity going on. Now, we, meaning the.
LS: ( Is that recording?)
BS: It says recording. [laughter]
HC: We meaning the more main stream as I would call it. Students in terms of doing outreach, and there was a significant part of black empowerment in that day that a, (decided to be much more global and not just insolent to your student status. Did things such as tutoring programs, (Maxwell) was installed or hired as a coordinator for black studies, classrooms without walls, and things like that. So, there was outreach in the community in the traditional sense of, and I'll call that the traditional sense. And there were those who participating in the, at that time, more radical aspects of, sort of, beating the hunger and hungry. Thinking in terms of income redistribution although they had no ability to bring it about in a real sense in terms of patrolling in black neighborhoods and carrying out programs before. But a, I was probably on the fringes. I knew about them, heard about them, [phone rings], visited here or there, but was not intimately involved enough to know, just how entrenched or expensive they were.
LS: And what year did you graduate, or?
HC: '72.
LS: And by then, would you say that the activism was sort of dead?
HC: Waning. A, anyway, I think that the university sort of took the approach of well, you've got your black studies coordinator, you've got funding for the Black Student Union, you've had a black homecoming queen, ( )something I ( ) remember. [laughs] We're sort of done it, you've had enough already, go away. [laughs] Leave us in peace. [laughs] We're there, quote, unquote. A. Sort of declare victory. And the war's over. So, so I think they're interest shall we say, in quelling, well, in satisfying demands had reverted back to where it was before the peak of activism.
LS: Was, was Bonnie Cone still there?
HC: She was, yes. I'm not, I'm trying to think. She was ( ) but still had an office. And I'm trying to remember if she had actually stepped down when I left. I don't think she had. I think it was the year after, but I'm not sure.
LS: And, one last question. And then we can take that recorder off. What did you think, was it '72 or '73,when you heard about the Wilmington incident and that Ben Chavis was involved. Did you react to that?
HC: Oh, yes. Now that was a, in my humble opinion, a real, whether it was a set up job or whatever. I to this day of course, and I don't think anyone will ever know, what or whether or not Ben and Jim and the others were actively or actually involved. In the matters that were, they were charged with. But yes. I a, went to the, one of the trail proceedings, and ( ). (of Carolina very small town) it was cramped and. As well as, and I guess I should mention a (Ann Carven) also something of a champion of, with those respect they choose and wrote letters. ( politicians). And monitored a lot. It was strange. I can remember, I'm trying to remember what was happening exactly but I can't. But I can recall that WCBS in New York was recording on the incident, events, and there was nary a word on whatever that was at the time, and I can't remember what it was at the time. [laughs] And The Charlotte Observer. And so I thought that particularly strange. But that was part of our monitoring program to make sure that a, the word got out. That people knew that there could be marshaled as much as possible in terms of political support and, and a just not letting the, quietly put away so to speak by the judicial system. A, in the, in the situation that I think most people at the times certainly and probably more since, believe was a political job rather than a ( ) process.
LS: Were you in law school at the time?
HC: No. Well, before it was all over probably. I'm not sure. I was graduate school for sure, before it was all over. I was in graduate school before I went to law school. So I had left ( ), and was still going on and a, I would read about it from time to time.
BS: Well, I have one more question before we (contact the Supreme Court, or before they contact you.) You touched on it a little bit I think in the beginning of our, the Charlotte community at large, how the black community. How were the race relations between the city and the black community? I think
Lois and I kind of talked about what's his name, (Brookshire).
LS: Yeah, (Brookshire).
HC: Yeah, (Brookshire).
BS: And how he was handling.
HC: Well, I can't say that I intimately knew in terms of you know, I made some appearances before the city council myself along with Ben about some issues, Chavis. But a, in my estimation at that point the city's response to the black community was not unlike the response that I described with the administration on campus, a (Alexander), the a, (loan) vice city councilman [phone rings] was supposed to quote handle this and quote keep them in their place, end quote, and keep them quiet and all of that. So from my perspective, the a city administration was even more paternalistic and less engaged in terms of realizing that it was a new day, new time, or maybe it was just we got a that we got a three hundred, six hundred whatever the number is police department so we don't give a ( ) hoot. [laughs] Then the, then the campus authority. So I, though if you read The Observer archives I'm sure that you'll see, hear, and read that progress was steadily being made. But to me it was at a snails pace rather then in all deliberate speed. And a, it was just a you know we have quote crowned one or two black leaders and if we deal with them we don't need to deal with the populous at large with the issue at large, they will tell us what we need to do and they will insolate us from it and that's our approach. A, and so I, I did not have a lot of confidence that the, the community at large in terms of the powers that be were interested in the issues. They were much more interested in making sure that they was no quote adverse publicity in terms of police beating up on people's heads that would make the six o'clock news. They were in terms of addressing issues.
LS: And what were the big issues? You mentioned the police?
HC: Well, strangely enough I guess if you're around for forty years you do see some things. Back then one of the issues was whether or not there would be a review board of some sorts to oversee police action. And of course that came about I guess in the last ten years, so it started in the '60s, didn't really flourish until the '90s a, or something like that. So that is the kind of speed of which the city dealt with issues.
BS: ( )
HC: Yes, [laughs] One of the issues was of course black, well they called it urban renewal, black removal, as the term was. And of course that went ahead, full speed ahead. A the interesting thing to note on that is that the current, how the manger of the oh what was it, did they call it model city director at the time, yeah, so yes.
LS: ( )
HC: He's been around with Charlotte for quite a well, so you know. That went on full speed ahead and of course Brooklyn was no longer Brooklyn and Fourth Ward and First Wards were re-gentrified and blacks were shuttled off to who knows where. So housing was a big issue then, it continues to be a big issue now. A I guess the progress is that a housing bond for low or affordable housing was voted in by the populous in a recent election, so that took about forty years as well [laughs] as thirty years for the review board. What are some of the other things that lingered from that? Well, I guess the issues of poverty will always be the ones that are, is the umbrella under which all of the issues fall. And so a, they continue of course with Bill James's latest rantings. And so basically again, the more things change the more they stay the same.
LS: OK. Any final thing you want to add about the years at UNC Charlotte or ( )?
HC: Well, I think two seminal events in my life I guess from a personal perspective came to pass while during this period. One was that I was in the U.S. military and I think that was just one of the better things that happened to me in terms of my world view, my ability to quote pull myself up by my bootstraps and get a, an iron footing in the world, and.--
LS: Were you in Vietnam?
HC: No, during that era unfortunately my brother got two terms. He was ( ) person. And at the point that I was about to be sent to, at least my unit was sent, they had a rule that they wouldn't have two siblings sent at the same time. So his misfortune my fortune so to speak. Not that he was seriously injured or anything, but he did have quite a state of some sort of viral illness that no one has ever identified. But he recovered. And the other being UNCC. UNCC was of course a growth opportunity for me. And one that I think was a rewarding, enlightening, a real growth opportunity. There is probably a nothing like immersing yourself in a situation where you are at the same time responsible but yet have a, a backup plan or, or cushion, or failsafe mechanism, in that you're run but not totally not responsible in terms of your parent's can still bail you out if necessary or feel obligated [laughs] I guess to bail you out if necessary but at the same time being on your own, being among people of different backgrounds, of different viewpoints, of different ( ) and experiences. So, that was a rewarding growth opportunity. I guess by the time I got to graduate school and law school I was more cynical and I don't think those experiences were as life altering as the first two (experiences). And of course, I think all of them in the way I received information and what I was able to do with it all attributable to having great parents in the beginning.
LS: ( )
HC: Yes.
LS: OK. Thank you.
HC: Sure. [break in recording]
HC: I don't remember David that and. You know David had talked about the ( ) as well. The reason you don't remember is because he wasn't there then. [laughs] [laughter]
HC: Oh OK. So the mind can do a lot of funny things and people's memories are you know worlds' apart so to speak. I never profess to have a photographic one or even a good one for that matter. So I will always welcome critiques from other folks who were contemporaneous with it at the time.
LS: Well, actually we've probably. I think we've talked to talked, I think we've talked with six people. You're the final one. Nobody's really contradicted each other. I mean, they have quite a different version. --
HC: Takes yeah.
LS: Of course, or sometimes some people have said I wasn't there but I heard this.
HC: Yeah.
LS: And so. There's no.
BS: ( )
HC: Yeah I can imagine.
BS: He held ( ).
HC: I can imagine. And, and it would be because he was you know, in the heart of it all. He was on both ends of the spectrum in terms of he was very articulate and so he would be with us quote baby step people and he'd be out there with the radicals. He would be in a position to know and to remember. Plus of course he's an artist, an artist always has great colorful ways of portraying whatever the situation is, portrayed or an event ( ).
BS: Alright, then we have ( ). [laughter]
BS: ( ) I can convince you.
LS: Yeah, ( ).
BS: ( ). And we've also talked to Dorothy Dae.
HC: Oh.
LS: James Cuthbertson.--
BS: Lafferty. ( )--
HC: Yes. [phone rings]-
LS: ( )
HC: ( ) I don't know Jerry (Springer, Springs) in Detroit. He usually comes in for Christmas. You might want to grab him and his wife over in Springs ( ) at the time. Of course, if you can get Ben that would be great.
LS: He doesn't return our ( ). [laughs]
BS: We really do wish we could get him.
HC: Well, I may call him. I think it would be beneficial to have his take on it all.
LS: We would love for you to do that, we would.
HC: [laughs]
LS: OK. One more. [pause] You still steadily in the news. Google, you can sign up.
HC: Right.
LS: To track someone.
HC: Right.
LS: Any public ( ).
HC: Yeah.
LS: And a, recently as about the election. But even since the election.
HC: Yeah, afterwards he was, was with the, what was the name of that church, the United Church of Christ for a while as a, oh I don't remember what the title was, Community something or another. And he did. And of course he was with the NAACP for a while. And a, a, so he was, a, yeah. He's been very instrumental on the national scene. As I say, he was the linkage so to speak back then. And that continued to today. [pause]
LS: Well, give him our names.
HC: [laughs]
LS: Bridgette who.[laughter]