Hal Sieber’s public relations battle for school integration

by Jordan Green

Hal Sieber, center, accepts the Peacemaker Award from Carolina Peacemaker Publisher John Marshall Stevenson, right, who eventually became known as John Kilimanjaro, and the Rev. Cecil Bishop in 1972. (courtesy photo)

Hal Sieber was in the prime of his career in the early 1970s when he orchestrated a public relations campaign for the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce to try to ease anxiety on both sides of the race line about school desegregation. Make no mistake, he says: School desegregation and integration were never successfully accomplished.

“The perception of accomplishment and the gains that were made were laudable and historically significant,” he says. “But white people never integrated black institutions in any significant way in Greensboro until recently, while black people were given nominal access and participation in the total community.”

Sieber is 79 years old now. He lives in a two-room apartment in Garden Gate Retirement Community. The walls are lined with Sieber’s paintings of friends and intimates, a print of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and line drawings of civil rights luminaries such as the Greensboro Four and Coretta Scott King. He receives lunches from Meals on Wheels. A nurse’s assistant, Alexis Anderson, prepares his food, cleans the apartment and gives him a bath every day.

His job those many years ago was to run “a community relations program to institutionalize interracial comfort.” He had a pretty good run for five or six years working for the city’s most powerful business interests, pursuing change with the blessings of its progressive elements and guarding his flank against its conservative faction.

“I felt good,” Sieber says. “Some gains were made. Some whites were motivated and emboldened. And the goal of total integration was becoming more clearly defined. There were a number of whites who joined African Americans in their community development and race relations efforts.”

He ticks off the names of the whites that were willing to go the distance because maintaining a reliable historical record and giving credit where it’s due is important to him: JoAnne Bluethenthal, Msgr. Hugh Dolan, Ralph Johns, Mike Weaver, Andrew Gottschalk, Albert S. Lineberry Sr. and Louis Brooks.

Sieber speaks deliberately, as if dictating his memoirs, pausing to spell names and even noting the placement of commas and periods. The silence between his sentences is conspicuous, but when it seems as if he’s waiting for the next question, actually he’s composing the rest of a paragraph in his head.

“When the president-elect of the chamber was experiencing his chamber orientation, he asked the department heads of the chamber of commerce to join him individually at a local country club where African Americans were not allowed as guests to have lunch and discuss chamber and community activities and current state of affairs,” Sieber says. “I refused to meet him at the country club for lunch because all chamber members — that is every chamber member — was subject to the country club’s strict segregation policies. The apparent insubordination on my part ruffled his feathers and his sense of authority as chamber president.

“After many discussions with the executive vice president, William B. Little, I knew that my goose was cooked by country-club racism and the fact that I was dating an African- American woman — the gravest of all taboos at the time. Dr. Lewis Dowdy offered me an administrative and lectureship position when and if I chose to resign, and I jumped at the chance to move from the chamber to NC A&T.”

The incoming chairman of the chamber of commerce at the time, though Sieber does not name him, was Stanley Frank, CEO and chairman of Carolina By-Products. Sieber says he remains friends with the African-American woman, and they talk on the phone from time to time.

Today, interracial couples walk into McDonald’s together without causing so much as a raised eyebrow. Society was not so accepting in the early 1970s.

“My life could have been made more difficult among certain people,” Sieber says.

“For instance, Cesar Cone resigned from the chamber of commerce, withholding thousands of dollars of support because of my activities. Several key conservatives in the community — for instance, Daniel Lewis and Armistead Sapp — already saw me as a lover and impre sario of the N-word. We’re already raising hell and Klanism. It could have also created a problem in personal and professional relationships where social contacts by a close friend would be embarrassing and damaging.

“However, I did not allow my personal dilemma to interfere with my public identification with the integration movement. It should be noted that restaurants, hotels, doctors’ offices, hospitals, funeral homes, taxi services, movie theaters, civic clubs and housing were all more than nominally segregated at the time, certainly looming over our lives as intimidating.”