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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 >>

Founding of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs

Pearson describes his role, along with that of James D. Taylor, in the foundation of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs in 1935. In particular, Pearson describes how C.C. Spaulding was selected as the first chairman of the committee, in part because of his prominent role within Durham, but also because so many of the committee members worked for North Carolina Mutual. Spaulding's agreement to serve in the position, Pearson suggests, was crucial to the organizations initial success.

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:
It wasn't too long after the Hocutt case that the Durham community became more and more active politically with the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs. I think that was formed in about 1935.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
The way that started was this way. I was working with the WPA, and James D. Taylor, whom I mentioned before, was in the Youth Administration on a leave from the North Carolina College. And we met an Episcopal minister over there in Raleigh named Bob[?] Fisher, and he was complaining about how few Negro people had set the policy in the Negro community, without any input from other people. He was talking about Mr. Spaulding and Dr. Shepard, and that you could duplicate it in every town; you had an undertaker or a physician and so forth. And so to offset it, he had organized some kind of community group. So we came back with the same idea, and we talked about it with the late R. L. MacDougald, who was a liberal-thinking Negro businessman, and he thought it was a good idea. And he sold it to Mr. Spaulding. So we called a meeting, organized a committee, and made Mr. Spaulding the first chairman. It was organized by James D. Taylor and myself, and it's been in existence ever since.
WALTER WEARE:
Was it your thinking at the time that Spaulding would make a good chairman because of his image, or what?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I think that was done to get it started, because there was a lot of people from the North Carolina Mutual in it. And if Spaulding hadn't given his okay … [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
WALTER WEARE:
I'm interested in him and trying to get some sense of what power he had in the community and to what extent he was used and to what extent he used his image to perhaps use others. You're suggesting that he wasn't nearly as clever as Shepard, but I'm wondering if he was clever enough, though, to sort of play off of his conservative image and then get some things done. There's some evidence that he worked with Louis Austin, for example, Austin appearing very radical and Spaulding more conservative.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
He would do Austin a favor and do me a favor. When Louis needed some money, he would loan it. He wasn't a man to carry any ill feeling. He was just a man who had succeeded with a country background. He'd been on a farm down in the eastern part of the state, Columbus County, and he was brought here by some of his kinsmen. And he started working with the North Carolina Mutual when it first got started, as their field representative. He eventually worked himself up the ladder; as others died out, he became president. And by the time he became president, he was a man in his middle age with flowing gray hair. He looked the part. When you said "President of the North Carolina Mutual," he just looked the part.
WALTER WEARE:
Did that help him, too, in the political circles?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
He never was interested in politics. He had a great deal of influence in town.
WALTER WEARE:
In the black community.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
And white.
WALTER WEARE:
I guess that's what I mean by "politics," at that kind of informal level.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes.
WALTER WEARE:
But you see him more as a figurehead in the DCNA, though, the Durham Committee.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Oh, yes, they made him president because that was the only way they could get it started. Of course, Dr. Shepard didn't care, because he figured he was going to control it anyway.
WALTER WEARE:
But it would indicate, though, that he had some power, if people figured that he had to be …
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Oh, Mr. Spaulding had influence in both the white and black communities.
WALTER WEARE:
So he was not one of these classic Uncle Tom figures who was just a white man's Negro.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No, I wouldn't picture him that type of a person.
WALTER WEARE:
Was the community divided one more level, where there were people like that who would in fact be so under the control of white people that they had no voice of their own, no room to maneuver at all?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Durham is a peculiar town. You see, the Dukes started the tobacco thing, and started the American Tobacco thing. Then you had the Erwin Cotton Mill, which is now the Burlington Industries. So they had a mortal lock on common cheap labor, and it was to their advantage to keep peace in the community. So Durham never had the traumatic racial explosions you had in other counties. It was to the [advantage of the] Dukes and the American Tobacco Company people and the Burlington Mills to keep peace in the community. Never had any trouble racially in Durham.