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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ashley Davis, April 12, 1974. Interview E-0062. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Black Student Movement and conditions paving the way for the food workers' strike

Davis discusses the nature of the Black Student Movement (BSM) and conditions for the cafeteria workers when he arrived at University of North Carolina in 1968. Davis explains how Preston Dobbins, a leader of the newly forming BSM, had worked to hire Otis Light to work with service workers on campus. By 1968, poor working conditions and lack of opportunity for moving into management had begun to take there toll on the cafeteria workers. These things combined, according to Davis, generated conditions conducive for a strike.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ashley Davis, April 12, 1974. Interview E-0062. 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

But let me just say this, I came to Carolina in the fall of 1968, and already you could tell that we were going to get into a lot of things that were coming up, you know, with BSM activity. And I think that at that time, Black student movements thrived a little more on controversy. That seemed to be a binding place for black kids, for controversy. It's a lot different than I say it is now, because it didn't have all the programs that it has now, that can keep people busy anyway. There was no choir, no nothing, no this and that. At that time, just an organization. And at that time, the political atmosphere was very high. Well, right after I had been here awhile, too, if I remember what happened correctly, what happened was there had been some funds… and like I say, this is what I know, and there might be something else…that some people in the Sociology Department had gotten together and people with BSM, Preston Dobbins, I believe, had gotten together some funds and hired a guy by the name of Light here in Chapel Hill, Otis Light…I think it was Otis that did it…who worked with the cafeteria workers. Now, the cafeteria workers and the janitorial workers and other workers here had considered a strike. They were disastisfied. The situation was that in the cafeteria at that time, the University was running it, it was highly inefficient. It was obvious to everybody that it was inefficient. I mean, you come up for a soda, you'd have one black lady to dip the ice, hand it to one black lady to put the soda in and then give to one black lady at the counter and she'd give it to you. This kind of thing. I mean that it was really just prone to problems. But this was due to mismanagement by the University, from my understanding by talking to workers prior to the strike and all, they had had prisoners, for a few guys that had just gotten out of prison and stuff, hired as managers in the cafeteria system and all. And these guys would call the ladies names, just treat them generally like dogs.
RUSSELL RYMER:
When did Otis start…
ASHLEY DAVIS:
Start working? Now, my problem here is that I get so confused with my years. I think that the first strike was in the spring of…
RUSSELL RYMER:
The first one here was in the spring of '69.
ASHLEY DAVIS:
Right. I think that was in the spring of '69. Because this is what I'm saying, Otis had started working in the fall of '68.
RUSSELL RYMER:
And when he started working, he was hired specifically to work with…
ASHLEY DAVIS:
…to work with the people. This is what I understand. Now, only on one or two conversations did I run into this, this is what Otis was hired to do. Just to work with them, helping them to get themselves together and talking. O.K. Now, in this talk, I must emphasize that there were two particular groups of workers who had high potential. The Monogram Club, which was on campus over there where the Admissions Office is now, groups of ladies that worked down there, very active and outspoken. And then you had a group of ladies who worked in the Pine Room, and I think that this was the major center of the strike right there. It started with these ladies in the Pine Room.
RUSSELL RYMER:
Why were they more susceptible than others?
ASHLEY DAVIS:
Well, because I tend to think that they had two or three combinations of people down there who were…a Mrs. Smith, you'll probably interview her…
RUSSELL RYMER:
Well, I haven't, but…
ASHLEY DAVIS:
Well, someone probably will…Mrs. Smith and some other ladies down there, really seemed to be out with the system. They were actually running the Pine Room and all. Mrs. Smith, I think, was ordering stuff, she was generally doing the managing. What was happening was that these ladies were managing the cafeteria system, but none of them were made managers, you see. So, they had no black managers as such. They had four managers, but the managers that they did have were kind of mean to the ladies, talking mean and they were making people do all kinds of stuff, like they would make you come to work and work four hours in the morning, say from six to ten, split your day and then you would go back to work from two to six. Now, that's an eight hour day, sure, but what do you do from ten until two? You see, and what they would do is just sit around from ten o'clock until two o'clock, if they weren't working, because you had to go back to work at two o'clock. Well, a lot of these people lived in Durham. And I mean, these people, from my understanding, wrote letters to people in the University and you get the same old bull jive from people who would say, "Oh, yes, we understand." But I think that the real situation was that the people up in South Building, the Chancellor at that time, Chancellor Sitterson, I don't think really had a hold on what was going on with fiscal policy. With a school this size, a tremendous campus, it's hard to keep a hold on what money is being spent for. And the cafeteria was constantly losing money and so it really got to where the workers were being oppressed, because the cafeteria was losing money and so when Otis worked with the people awhile, and so the people, Preston, and Preston told Jack and everybody that the ladies were thinking about a strike. And they talked with people who were in housekeeping early in the spring, late in the fall and early in the spring, about going on a strike with them.