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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Frank Gilbert, Summer 1977. Interview H-0121. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Tensions rise in Conover during civil rights protests

Gilbert remembers integration in Conover, North Carolina. He does not recall much controversy regarding school integration, but he does remember tensions at some local stores. An African American cafe owner tried to bring some African Americans to a white cafe and one white Conover resident drove them off with a gun; some African American boys who tried to get refunds on milkshakes at a drug store faced threats from the owner; and, Gilbert remembers, African Americans in Winston-Salem burned down white shops. The civil rights movement did not change much for African American workers at Conover Furniture, Gilbert remembers: African American employees continued to take the jobs white workers did not want.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Frank Gilbert, Summer 1977. Interview H-0121. 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

PATTY DILLEY:
Yes, I remember your wife was talking about that. I was in the band at Conover. Do you remember when they brought in integration to the schools here?
FRANK GILBERT:
Oh, yes.
PATTY DILLEY:
What happened then when they did that?
FRANK GILBERT:
Didn't too much happen in the schools as it did the eating places. More happened there.
PATTY DILLEY:
What happened?
FRANK GILBERT:
They first started to bus colored kids in the first grade—they first started with them—then by the time they grew up, why, it was all right. Yes, I remember—it was in 1953, wasn't it?—when the first school was integrated in the United States in Little Rock, Arkansas. Oh, they had a time there with Orville Faubus.
PATTY DILLEY:
What happened when they did the schools here?
FRANK GILBERT:
Never too much happened.
PATTY DILLEY:
How about the eating places?
FRANK GILBERT:
We didn't have too much eating places. We had two colored cafes and one white one. I don't think there was but one white one in town. One of these fellows run one of the colored cafes. He got a bunch of, I don't think they were local colored people—they were mostly from Claremont—but they all went to the white cafe up there and eat. And that man that run that was man like Mr. Bolick; he'd get pretty fiery sometimes. And the first thing he done… They let the colored people eat up there, but they had a certain place for them to eat. But this old boy, he was going to eat up front. I didn't see it; I seen the crowd milling around out there. But before long, they began to leave. I asked one of them, "What's the matter that you're leaving so soon?" Because I always got along with colored people good, and I'd kid them a lot and all. He said, "If you'd seen that gun Mr. Lynch brought out, you'd know why we're leaving."
PATTY DILLEY:
Gosh.
FRANK GILBERT:
He had brought his gun out and told them, now, if they wanted to eat, come on back where the rest of the colored people eat; if they didn't, just get on away. And they left. I don't think they ever did try it anymore.
PATTY DILLEY:
They never did try it. Is that down at that…
FRANK GILBERT:
Then they had a skirmish up at Bowman's Drug Store.
PATTY DILLEY:
What happened up there?
FRANK GILBERT:
A bunch of young black boys had ordered themselves a milkshake, and after they had about half of it, took it back in and wanted their money back; they said it wasn't sweet enough. It was a bunch of young colored, maybe some of them high school age and younger. He got in an argument with them, and I passed the drugstore about the time it was happening, and I knew one of them. I said, "What's the matter?" "Mr. Bowman sold us some milkshakes that wasn't sweet enough, and we wanted our money back, and he wouldn't give us our money back." I said, "Are you telling me the truth?" "I reckon I am." I said, "I don't believe you are. You know the girls who work in there didn't make milkshakes no different from what they sold anybody else." Said, "We thought they was different, anyhow." And Mr. Bowman come out there and he was real red, said, "The best thing you can do, boys, is leave here. The next time I come out, I'm coming out with a pistol." I didn't know whether he would or not, but I told them boys, I didn't know Bowman, but I said, "Now, the best thing you boys can do is just go on away like he said and don't cause no trouble. You can't get anywhere by causing trouble anyhow." They went on off and never did any more about that.
PATTY DILLEY:
Gosh. So those were the main controversies that opened up integration.
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes, that was about the only troubles I know of they had around here.
PATTY DILLEY:
This is the first mention that I've heard of it, and I've been trying to find out, because I knew something must have happened. I mean something's bound to happen.
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes.
PATTY DILLEY:
And I couldn't find anybody that remembered anything exactly. about that.
FRANK GILBERT:
It was a lot better here than it was lots of places. We didn't have too much… We didn't have no big trouble, I think. Now Winston-Salem down there, they burned half the stores down in Winston-Salem, the colored people did. I had a cousin; I saw him up here at our meeting last Sunday or Sunday a week ago. He had a nice clothing store, and they burnt it down.
PATTY DILLEY:
One of your cousins.
FRANK GILBERT:
One of my cousins' store.
PATTY DILLEY:
Gosh, that's too bad. That kind of thing does happen.
FRANK GILBERT:
I reckon they had to have a little revolution to get what they wanted.
PATTY DILLEY:
I guess so. But I'm glad to hear that this area didn't have a whole lot of problems. Of course, there's not a whole lot of blacks that live in this area compared to other places, too.
FRANK GILBERT:
No. There's a pretty good little settlement of them over there, but they always was pretty decent. All that ever I knew were pretty decent kind of people. There was a lot of them descended from them old Bakers and Clines.
PATTY DILLEY:
Yes, there's a lot of Bakers over there. There's a lot of them.
FRANK GILBERT:
One was Frank Baker. Me and him got to be pretty good buddies. He used to help us around, help a plow and do anything that you wanted him to. I said, "How come there's so many Bakers over there?" "Well, I just can't tell you. There is, come to think of it. There's near about() more Baker$ than there are niggers, ain't there?" [Laughter] He was just full of fun like that. He was the first colored man I learned to know when I come to Conover. We worked together for Brady.
PATTY DILLEY:
After they had the civil rights case and everything, did that change where blacks worked in the plant? Were they able to get better jobs in the plant after all this integration stuff?
FRANK GILBERT:
They didn't right here. I was working at Conover Chair when that happened. Didn't have a bit of trouble up there. Of course, there wasn't but a few worked up there. This old Walter Smith that I was telling you, and Rat Rheinhardt.
PATTY DILLEY:
Where did they work in the plant?
FRANK GILBERT:
Most of the blacks worked over at Conover Furniture and Brady's. A good many of them worked over there.
PATTY DILLEY:
When you were working at Conover Chair, what jobs did the blacks have in the plant? You said some of them were janitors.
FRANK GILBERT:
Old Walter Smith worked down with me in the machine room part of the time, and then he filled cushions part of the time he had. And his wife worked there, too. I never did know just what she did. She didn't work around the machine room. Then little Rat Rheinhardt. That was the only colored people worked there while I worked in there. There wasn't many then.
PATTY DILLEY:
I guess you had a lot of them working with you at Conover Furniture, though, at Brady's.
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes, there were a whole lot more worked over there. In fact, there was some work over there most white men wouldn't do, and they never did mind doing it, it didn't seem like. I believe they had a will to work.
PATTY DILLEY:
Well, I guess if that was the only job you could get, you had to take it.
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes. [Laughter]
PATTY DILLEY:
So they would do jobs up there that those other people wouldn't want to do.
FRANK GILBERT:
That's right.