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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Evolution of the <cite>Hocutt</cite> case and its role in the legal struggle against segregation

Pearson draws distinctions between the <cite>Hocutt</cite> case when it was first introduced in the state court system and later when it was conceived as a federal case. Additionally, he addresses the involvement of the NAACP, particularly that of attorney William Hastie, in the case. Pearson then goes on to discuss the place of this case within the broader context of legal struggles against segregation in education leading up to the <cite>Brown</cite> decision of 1954.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218. 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

WALTER WEARE:
Now, this was when it was filed as a federal case, you're talking about?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No, filed in the state. And the judge said he would hear it, but he thought we were making a mistake, and that in his practice, he would rather have a case where a Negro was suing a white man because, you know the old Southern idea of an aristocrat looking after the well-being of a Negro. His name was Barnhill. And we wrote to the NAACP and asked them for help; and they sent Bill Hastie down. Bill Hastie had already graduated from Harvard in the first tenth of his class, and was considered very brilliant, a legal scholar. He'd gone back to Harvard to get his S.J.D., and he was working on his S.J.D., and NAACP sent him down. He was really a brilliant man, no question about it, a scholar. And he amazed… The courthouse was filled. And his performance just amazed the people; they hadn't ever seen anybody as brilliant as he was. And his colloquy with the judge and so forth, and how well-mannered he was, soft-spoken, no anger. He made quite an impression. And, in fact, it was the start of his career. He later became a solicitor in the Department of the Interior under Ickes. And I think he became an aide to someone during the war. And I think he went to the Virgin Islands as a district attorney, U.S. district attorney, and later became governor of the Virgin Islands. After that I don't know whether he became a district federal judge—I think he went directly to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Philadelphia and New York and so forth. And he had quite a career, made quite a reputation as a legal scholar.
WALTER WEARE:
Did he see this as a case that could be won, do you think?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I doubt it, because he didn't think that we should appeal it. He didn't think that we had laid the proper groundwork, and didn't think that the Supreme Court was ready to hear a case of that sort. It would have been interesting if the case had gone to the Supreme Court of the United States, to see what they would have done. Because they had Plessy v. Ferguson before them, which grew out of whether a man could be segregated on a boat. And they had said that he could. Then they went into the field of education. It would've been interesting, historically, to know just how they would have acted on it. But after we got into the federal courts, we began to get relief, and cases sprang up all over the country. No one had ever thought about challenging the state. Maryland had a dual system, and Delaware, Texas, Kansas, North and South Carolina, Virginia—all had dual systems. And there was no black university in the whole South. It isn't one [Negro university] to this day that is supported by the state. This doesn't speak well, does it, well of the separate but equal doctrine.
WALTER WEARE:
This did not get beyond, then, the state level?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No. Now, the Hocutt Case, we didn't appeal it. We went back to the drawing board, and decided that all cases of this nature, we would bring to the federal court. And we began having some success in the federal court. Then some of the states started setting up separate law schools, to keep Negroes out of the white law schools. Texas set up one; North Carolina set up one; I don't think Virginia set up one. I think Texas set up an elaborate law school to keep Negroes out of the University of Texas.
WALTER WEARE:
This was what, Texas Southern?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I forget the name of that school now. I don't know whether it's in operation now. South Carolina set up one; Florida set up one. But I think they eventually closed the school in South Carolina and Florida. And I think the school in Texas has been closed. Then North Carolina Central. And there's another one called Southern, I think, in Louisiana that's still operating.
WALTER WEARE:
Did you think that the NAACP, in part, had this in mind as a short-run gain? That is, if you couldn't integrate an institution like the University of North Carolina that you might get separate professional schools?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
That was probably the idea at that time; they wouldn't support that idea now.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you think Hastie was aware of that?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
He wouldn't have supported that idea. I don't think, in my judgment.
WALTER WEARE:
What about the NAACP in general, the office, Walter White?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I don't think they would have either. At the same time, suits began to spring up on two issues. On the Plessy v. Ferguson, the separate-but-equal doctrine, they started bringing in law suits to force the state to equalize the schools. And that went along for a long time. And the next thing was the salary schedule. They paid white teachers in the public school system one salary, and Negro teachers a lower salary. And then Virginia brought a suit and the courts forced the state of Virginia to pay the same salary. And North Carolina did so without a law suit, because they knew that they couldn't win, so they went on and equalized the school teachers' salary.
WALTER WEARE:
You don't think that the NAACP might have used this threat to have integration when they didn't think, perhaps, it was possible to get these lesser demands, such as equal teacher salaries?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I don't think it was part of that policy then. Do you remember Judge Waring in South Carolina, who ruled in favor of the NAACP on a case there in South Carolina? He was a federal district judge. I think he suggested to Thurgood Marshall that they should stop bringing these separate-but-equal equalization cases, and argue that discrimination is inherently wrong. And the NAACP changed its policy, and then they filed the suits, and that's where Brown was born. And this judge, when that case was brought in South Carolina—it was a three-judge court as I remember—and he voted that Plessy v. Ferguson should be overruled, and discrimination inherently was wrong. And you'd have to integrate the schools. I think it was two-to-one, or something like that. But he incurred the wrath of the people in South Carolina. And I think when he lost all of his friends he eventually, I think, left and went to New York to live. I think his name was Judge Waring.
WALTER WEARE:
This was what, in the forties? This was long after the…
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
That was the forerunner of Brown.
WALTER WEARE:
There was a time, then, after the Hocutt case, when the NAACP was arguing for equal salaries and that sort of thing?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Now, see, first you had the Hocutt case. It awakened people to the idea that state schools should be open to everybody. And you had a slew of cases on that issue. Then you had Plessy v. Ferguson that said you can have separate schools, but they had to be equal. And you had a slew of law suits to equalize the schools. Then you had Brown to come along next. But that idea was generated, as I understand it, by Judge Waring, who was a United States district judge. He planted the idea in Thurgood Marshall's head. And the NAACP changed its policy.