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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James Atwater, February 28, 2001. Interview K-0201. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Atwater found Chapel Hill segregation paternal and relatively easy to navigate

Atwater considers Chapel Hill segregation as relatively benign, especially compared to nearby Carrboro. Since most black Chapel Hill residents depended on jobs at the university, white residents assumed that allowing more freedom to black residents would not threaten their jobs or their control over black employees. Atwater's family helped him navigate local segregation without fear.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James Atwater, February 28, 2001. Interview K-0201. 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

JENNIFER NARDONE:
Well, you know another discussion, ongoing discussion we've had in our class, and there's a bit of a disagreement among some of the people who have come in and talked to us, about whether or not Chapel Hill during segregation and desegregation was kind of typical of the South or not. Some people say well, segregation is segregation, and there's you know, that the oppression that was felt in Chapel Hill was same as it was, there's an overall quality. Other people have said though that the black community was able to fight for rights, and actually achieve some of them, long before the South in general did. What are your thoughts on that?
JAMES ATWATER:
It's difficult for me because I wasn't there during that period.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Well, when you were there, what was your sense-
JAMES ATWATER:
When I was there, I think when I was there, I think there was no doubt that there was an atmosphere that seemed to be more conducive to establishing relationships and using those relationships to help each side. Now, what I think happens is, the problem is that some people put limits on that without saying so at the beginning. They watch it, and they feel it's going too far, then, and there's a vote, a secret ballot or whatever, you get an entirely different impression. But I think that, as I said, I don't want to bring the word paternalism in it-
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Go ahead.
JAMES ATWATER:
Well, but it was a bit of a paternalistic approach because almost all of the African Americans in Chapel Hill were either working directly for the university, or indirectly. So the people at the university, the university we can say felt it was a global entity, felt it had enough control to do whatever it really wanted to do. So, because they felt confident of that control, they were willing to let people do a few more things they might have been able to enjoy. At that time, some people would contrast Chapel Hill with Carrboro, cause of the economic, social not quite the same level. So the people in Chapel Hill thought that they were a little more confident with where they were and their status, they didn't feel that threatened by African Americans as probably people in Carrboro. Cause people in Carrboro, not quite the same economic level, the jobs that they had, not really jobs that African Americans couldn't do. The ones in Chapel Hill probably thought that way, so they thought they had a little more leeway. And, I think that was what perhaps helped Chapel Hill more than many other cities, and you have to say, a university, people at most universities, they're more liberal in their outlook.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Well that's the sort of image of Chapel Hill that we play with when we think about how things really work. Well, can you remember when you were growing or when you were a teenager, feeling, not so much fear, did you have this sort of knowledge, this awareness of where you could go, where you couldn't go, where your limits or boundaries were because of segregation.
JAMES ATWATER:
Oh, pretty much. Pretty much.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Was that something you talked about out loud with your family or with brothers and sisters or with your friends, or was it something that you just sort of took in?
JAMES ATWATER:
Well, you took it in, from the standpoint that we knew these were limits we had to learn, we had to respect. And of course, we talked about it, talked about it from the standpoint of making sure that we understood exactly what they were, and where they were, and so on. But I don't think it was oppressive, from the standpoint that you're always worried about the wrong step or doing the wrong thing.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Physical danger or something.
JAMES ATWATER:
Or going to the wrong place. Just be careful. You want to be careful. Of course the other thing was that there were always, there really was a clear demarcation. White entrance, colored entrance. Or restaurant-restaurant would have tables in the front for whites, and back entrance for blacks and black tables back there.