June 15, 2011 09:54

Hal Sieber & the GSO color line

Our friend, Daniel Bayer might have made the introduction. In any case, the call came as something of a surprise: Hal Sieber was stepping down as editorial editor at the Carolina Peacemaker, and he wanted to give me the scoop on it.

In those days, Hal held court at the Border’s bookstore café on High Point Road in Greensboro. The gathering was a salon where topics might range from literature to politics and religion, depending on the day or the makeup of the group. The Borders in Greensboro and its cafe is closed now — a piece of history swept aside like so much of Hal’s world.

I had only two or three months under my belt as a reporter at YES! Weekly, so it felt like a vote of confidence to receive his summons. I didn’t know much about the Peacemaker, Hal or anything in Greensboro, for that matter. The appeal of the story was obvious: A white man operating in a position of leadership within a black institution was making a transition.

As a publicist, Hal took care to ensure that I didn’t portray the break too harshly. He also insisted on contextualizing events with a deep bed of back-story and commentary despite my efforts to steer him towards what I preconceived as the essence. I had to understand, for example, how deeply segregated society remained despite the gains in equality won in the 1960s and 1970s.

He told me about working as a publicist for Project Homestead, noting that the nonprofit’s programs to help low-income people reach the dream of home-ownership were equally available to white and black citizens.

Because the organization’s leadership was black and its offices were located in a black part of town, almost no whites availed themselves of the opportunities offered by Project Homestead. That was evidence, he argued, that the color line remained durable, and that racism limited the opportunities of white people, along with blacks.

Hal died last week of cardiac arrest. He endured a long illness, and suffered the humiliation of having his body and mind betray him, although to his last days he enjoyed many good friendships and sought to help the other residents at the nursing home where he lived.

I will miss him a lot, but am relieved that his burden has lifted. I am struck that Hal left behind a world in which professional, social and intimate relationships between blacks and whites take place with casual ease despite the deep institutional inequalities that remain. I’m equally impressed that Hal was the living embodiment of a mainstream liberalism that is now all but extinct. Likewise, his intimacy with great literature seems almost like a musty relic without his breath animating the words. To sum up, a world has passed away with Hal and something significant has been lost.

John Marshall Kilimanjaro, the Peacemaker’s publisher and a longtime friend, called Hal the “blackest white man in Greensboro” when I talked to him last week. (Likewise, Kilimanjaro characterized himself as the “whitest black man in Greensboro”).

Hal’s second and third wives were black. More significantly, he cultivated lasting friendships across lines of race and religion. That might have been a consequence of the fact that he grew up Catholic in a German-American family in western North Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s. To complicate matters further, his German family had Jewish roots, and his social conscience was pricked at an early age by awareness of the persecution of Jews under the Nazi regime.

Hal’s decades-long role as a social broker in Greensboro’s famously racially divided society gave him a certain amount of transactional power, but it could also cast him outside of the pale. In seeming contradiction, he was someone with a history of prestigious contacts who lived modestly. And as someone who consistently tried to stake out the middle ground of mutual understanding, he was often in a position to be distrusted by both sides, especially when the poles were pulling apart.

Hal was hired by the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce in the mid 1960s to try to burnish the city’s progressive image for the purpose of advancing its business interests, but he used that position to promote inclusion of black people. Kilimanjaro told me that Hal recruited the Peacemaker to join the chamber of commerce and often put in a good word to help black business owners.

During Greensboro’s season of racial turmoil in the late 1960s Hal was distrusted by militant activists in the black freedom struggle as an agent of the white establishment, and equally distrusted within the white majority community as a secret civil rights radical.

I like to think of him as a cultural double agent. Whatever Greensboro is today, it has been shaped immeasurably by the passion, intellect and labors of Hal Sieber.