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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 >>

Race relations in Durham, North Carolina in the 1920s and 1930s

Pearson argues, based on his experiences during the 1920s and 1930s, that Durham, North Carolina, had much better living and social conditions than did other areas in the South. Although he does not dispute the existence of segregation and racial discrimination, he argues that race relations were typically cordial and that there was little racial discord within the community. Additionally, he argues that for African Americans that were well connected, such as himself, political participation, professional opportunities, and avoidance of certain aspects of segregation were possible.

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:
When you were travelling around for your uncle organizing, you said you saw some terrible conditions. Was Durham really different than other communities?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Oh, yes, Durham was a haven [compared] to some of the towns I saw in South Carolina. Yes, indeed.
WALTER WEARE:
To what do you attribute the difference?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I guess agriculture was the main income in many places in South Carolina, just plain agriculture and tenant farming and so forth. You see, you did have your factories here in Durham to go along with your agriculture.
WALTER WEARE:
So there was more income?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes.
WALTER WEARE:
But there were bad housing conditions, I would think.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Oh, their housing would be about the same all over the South. It might have been better here in Durham, because you had a bank, a building and loan, and the North Carolina Mutual where you could borrow money. It would be very difficult to borrow money in some places in the South at that time from the regular established lending concerns, unless you knew some body.
WALTER WEARE:
You mentioned race relations, you thought, were better in Durham.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Oh, yes. We never had any difficulty along race relations. The status quo people wanted to stay status quo, but as far as having riots and that sort, we didn't have any.
WALTER WEARE:
Were there things that you might be able as a black person to do in Durham you couldn't do elsewhere as far as crossing the color line, or was that about the same?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I doubt it. I think the same rigid lines you had were throughout the South, and subtly in the North and the Midwest.
WALTER WEARE:
Sometimes not so subtle. You told me a story once before that I've never forgotten. I believe you came into a courtroom, and you sat down beside a man. Do you remember the story I'm talking about?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes.
WALTER WEARE:
I thought that was interesting, how it said something about race relations. You had sat down beside a white man?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes. It was in the courtroom. He was not in the right place. He was sitting where lawyers sit.
WALTER WEARE:
The white man was.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes. And another one said, "There's a nigger sitting beside you." He ignored him. "There's a nigger sitting beside you." "Yes, but he's a lawyer." [laughter]
WALTER WEARE:
You knew the white man you sat down beside?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No, I didn't know either one of them. I had seen them; I didn't know them by name.
WALTER WEARE:
He knew you were a lawyer.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes.
WALTER WEARE:
You know, they say that generally there'd be no distinctions made on the basis of class or education and all people would be treated alike. But from what you say about your uncle, he could vote. Could he ride a Pullman car?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Oh, yes, he, Spaulding, and Shepard could ride the Pullman, and they could get a Pullman for you. Dr. Shepard, I think, opened it up by going down there and buying up the people who sold the tickets. I think he greased them, and by greasing them… If you wanted to go to New York on a Pullman car, you'd go down and the man wouldn't sell you a ticket. If Dr. Shepard sent you down there, you could get a ticket.
WALTER WEARE:
Your uncle could do the same thing if he sent you down?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes.
WALTER WEARE:
Could you get a ticket?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I never had any difficulty getting a Pullman.
WALTER WEARE:
It didn't make any difference who you were; it was just who sent you.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
That's right, who sent you.
WALTER WEARE:
What about voting before the Durham Committee? Would that work through that kind of connection, too?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
They had a certain group that they had no difficulty in voting. Most of them were registered as Republicans anyway, and they didn't have any Republican Party; they only had a skeleton crew that handled the patronage.
WALTER WEARE:
So if they voted in the primary, it didn't make …
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
They couldn't vote in the primary, because they didn't have any primary, so it didn't make any difference to the Democrats how many Negro Republicans you had.
WALTER WEARE:
They couldn't vote in the Democratic primary, and the election was decided then.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
That's right.
WALTER WEARE:
When you got out of Wilberforce, then you came back here and worked with your uncle.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
That's right.
WALTER WEARE:
You would have been old enough to vote well before the 1930's, so were you able to vote in the twenties?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I registered, yes.
WALTER WEARE:
But generally speaking, a person would have trouble without these connections.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
You'd have difficulty getting registered.