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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Wilbur Hobby, March 13, 1975. Interview E-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Introduction to and growing involvement in labor politics

Hobby explains how he came to be involved in politics and in the labor movement. Arguing that while he was growing up he had little awareness of labor issues, Hobby says that he first grew sympathetic to the movement when he became acquainted with coal miners in the navy during World War II. After the war, when he returned to Durham, North Carolina, he became actively involved in the movement, first through his association with Brownie Lee Jones of the Southern Summer School and eventually with Voters for Better Government, a coalition of laborers, African Americans, and liberal intellectuals. In particular, he focuses here on the actions of the Voters for Better Government during the late 1940s and 1950s, stressing the leadership role of African American activist Dan Martin.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Wilbur Hobby, March 13, 1975. Interview E-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Did you have any kind of orientation in your family toward the union?
No, I grew up and except for that strike, and I didn't know what the strike was about or anything, it was just a lot of fun to me out there eating with them, walking and singing with them, I didn't really know what a strike was. My family as such, was not involved in it. I never did know anything. In fact, Bill, I guess that I was anti-labor to start with, when I grew up a little bit. The first thing that I remember about the union is an anti-union feeling that I had during World War II when I was in the South Pacific and the coal miners struck. You know, I was one of these patriotic fellows, I joined the Navy on Monday after I was seventeen on Sunday and went off to fight for my country and I just felt that if I could be out there fighting for my country, then those coal miners could be mining that coal back here. And I said that on my ship and my ship happened to have a lot of West Virginia and Pennsylvania coal mining people on it. I very damn quickly got put in my place by sons and daughters of coal miners who were on that shop. I guess that at least I learned to keep my mouth shut about the damn thing, I don't know that they changed my mind. But when I came back and got active in the local unions, there was a woman who was the head of the Southern School for Workers named Brownie Lee Jones . . .
The Southern Summer School out in the mountains?
No, this was a school for workers all over the South and Brownie Lee was headquartered in Richmond. She is now retired and living in San Francisco and is about eighty years old. I guess that Brownie Lee probably had more to do with educating me because as I was active . . . I met first a young girl in Durham in 1949 named Carla Myerson. She was a young Jewish girl from Baltimore who was working with the Southern School for Workers. I had gotten active in the group known as Voters for Better Government, which was a political coalition of blacks and labor and liberals from Duke, which had been set up in 1948. They had actually taken over the Democratic party in Durham County in 1948, quite by accident. They had found out about what precinct meetings were and I wasn't active then, I didn't get active until 1949, but they had found out what precinct meetings were and they decided that they would send some people out to monitor these precincts so that the next time they had a precinct meeting, they might be able to do something. So, they sent committees out to every precinct and it wound up that when they got out there, nobody showed up for the precinct meeting. The fact was that they were filling out the forms in the law firm of Fuller, Reed, Umstead and Fuller in the Hill Building there in Durham and they didn't really have precinct meetings. So, when these people got out there and nobody showed up, they became the precinct committee and they went and held their elections and elected the county chairman and all and had the Democratic party. They had just gone out to look and when they found out that nothing was going on, they opposition was afraid to contest the thing because it would show that they had been filling out the precinct applications and running the Democratic party from the law offices of Governor Umstead and later, he became Senator. Well, at that time, he was a United States Senator. Fuller, Reed, Umstead and Fuller was Bill Umstead who had been appointed to the United States Senate in 1947 and I don't guess that he could have afforded that type of expose. So, they didn't really give them any trouble. We defeated him that year, because he voted for the Taft-Hartley law and the labor movement really went out pretty strong and they defeated Umstead for the United States Senate and J. Mel Broughton was elected to take his place. Then, Broughton died in '49 and in '48, Kerr Scott had been elected governor, so when Broughton died, Kerr Scott appointed Frank Graham to the Senate.
Let me stop you there, there are a couple of things and I don't want to lose the threads. Who orchestrated that takeover of the Voters for Better Government? Was John Wheeler involved?
Yeah, but the key black in my opinion, for the first five years that I worked with them, was a small short fellow by the name of Dan Martin. Dan Martin was the comptroller for North Carolina Mutual and he was chairman of the political committee of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs. And Dan Martin, I think, was probably the greatest political organizer that I ever met, just a terrific guy who stood about five foot, one inch. He was chairman of the Hillside precinct and I can remember that in the precinct, there were about a dozen white people. In that election, I think that about 2100 people registered in his precinct and Frank Graham got 1807 votes and Willis Smith got eight. I sat over there that day and as I went by, Dan Martin would make a ninety year old woman with her petticoat six inches down feel like she was the most beautiful woman in the world when she came in to vote. He just had a magnificent personality and was a terrific organizer. He really put that thing together and there hasn't been anybody who could do it like he could. It was a really effective organization from 1949 to 1955 or 1956, when Dan Martin died.