Greensboro civil rights history comes alive in A&T archive
The most interesting experience I’ve had in a library special reading room was perusing the boxes of discovery materials in the federal civil suit filed by survivors of the Klan- Nazi shootings, which are housed at the Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill. Activity in the reading room was tightly controlled, but researchers were offered tea in an adjacent chamber every afternoon.
The FD Bluford Library Archives at NC A&T University is not nearly as elaborate in its rules and research protocols, but because of the intimacy of the history contained in its materials and the campuses’ physical proximity to the events detailed, I hold more affection for this scholarly refuge.
The prize possession of the archives is the Inventory of the Dr. George Simkins Jr. Collection.
Simkins, who died in 2001, served as president of the Greensboro NAACP from 1959 to 1984. It bears repeating for those who do not know his legacy: He is Greensboro’s singular giant of progress in civil rights, an eloquent and no-nonsense fighter whose activism formed a clean through-line in the quest to realize the goal of equal protection under the law.
My wife, an African-American woman, is employed by Moses Cone Health System. As an item of information in contemporary life, that is a simple and unremarkable fact. Yet, it was because of a US Supreme Court decision in response to a lawsuit filed by Simkins that Moses Cone Memorial Hospital and Wesley Long Community Hospital were forced to admit black patients and hire black doctors.
Simkins also did other things, like getting arrested at Gillespie Park Golf Course for playing the segregated course. It was a city facility whose upkeep was supported, in part, by black taxpayers. There was nothing complicated or difficult to explain in Simkins’ expectation that he should be able to enjoy the course like every other citizen. Yes, he founded the political action committee that now bears his name, which is known for leveraging the black vote in favor of candidates for election that are deemed friendly to the black community, but he was also a key part of the coalition that eventually battered down establishment resistance to create a district system of electing city council members. We take those things for granted now.
The essential rightness of Simkins’ position, which was consistent from one battle to the next, is not really debatable anymore. What is remarkable about his papers is how they expose both allies and adversaries as having missed the mark in their judgment of the historic trajectory.
In response to a request by Simkins for assistance, assistant counsel Constance Baker Motley writes in a July 1957 letter that there is no legal action the national NAACP can bring to challenge discrimination against blacks by a local Howard Johnson restaurant. It’s essentially a state issue, she avers.
“Breaking down discrimination in places of public accommodation in the South seems, at this point, a long way off since such action will be, as in the North, dependent on the enactment of state laws prohibiting such discrimination,” Motley wrote. “However, with the breakdown of discrimination in schools, many of these places of public accommodation may voluntarily change their policies with regard to serving Negroes.”
Two and a half years later four A&T freshman, in an act reminiscent of Simkins’ defiant play at the golf course, would simply insist on being served at a Woolworth’s counter, making it known that they would not wait to enjoy the privileges of full citizenship.
Responding to a letter giving notice that Guilford College would not allow Decelia C. Johnson to attend because her race, Simkins expressed his regret to the registrar in a devastating missive that exposed the absurdity of such obstinacy.
“While the Russian astronauts are circling the earth, and while our country is trying to win to our side the peoples of Asia and Africa — areas which the president of our college departs this date to visit — Guilford College is saying ‘our admissions policy does not permit us to admit members of the Negro race,’” he wrote in 1961.
“The Greensboro Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hereby protests the stated policy of Guilford College of denying admittance to qualified Negro students. We feel that such outright discrimination is detrimental to our nation in this crucial period in history when all our resources are needed in common effort.”
Guilford College is no longer a bastion of segregation, but in other respects change has been more incremental.
Next year, two white men, Bill Knight and Robbie Perkins, will vie for the position of mayor. Based on his consistent opposition to the reopening of the White Street Landfill, Perkins can be expected to command the black vote, which might give him an edge. Perkins’ entry into the mayoral race and Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan’s announced plans to retire leave two vacancies in the council’s at-large seats, but that’s another story.
Knight ousted the city’s first black mayor by appealing to newly annexed white residents with a platform of fiscal conservatism and misgivings about efforts to address the grievances of black police officers.
If George Simkins were around today, he would almost certainly be developing a pragmatic approach to circumvent the political limitations of the moment.
Jim Schlosser, one of the great journalistic voices of the city, reported in the Greensboro Record in 1982 that the Greensboro Citizens Association — since renamed the Simkins PAC — would not endorse a primary slate in the following year’s municipal election, alluding to a white backlash.
“Last year, association-backed candidates ran strongly in the city council primary,” Schlosser wrote. “Afterward, several white groups mobilized and worked against most of the black-endorsed candidates.
“As a result several were defeated in the general election, including Prince Graves, the only black on the council. His removal resulted in an all-white council.
“Simkins hinted the association strategy from now on will be to endorse only in fall general elections — and to hold off announcing the slate until just before voting day.”