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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 >>

Black domestic servants tended to know more about the white community than white residents knew about them

Atwater argues that the black community in Chapel Hill generally knew more about the white community than the white community knew about them. He believes certain white residents like police officers had a particular interest in the black community, but black domestic servants were well-situated to hear information.

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:
Do you remember if the white community ever came to those events? At all, just as spectators? To the sporting events even?
JAMES ATWATER:
I think some of them may have come say to the football games, cause football obviously is outdoors. I think we have had a few people there. Basketball, indoors, I don't think, I don't recall.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
So it really was sort of an insulated community event.
JAMES ATWATER:
Yes, yes.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Do you think there was-this may be speculation asking you this question, but do you think that the rest of Chapel Hill, the white community, understood what was going on in the black community? Or not? Do you think that they were generally interested in what was going on or do you feel like there might have been, I guess a better way to say it is-a little bit of freedom there to, sort of, do what you wanted. Have your events, have your community come together.
JAMES ATWATER:
Difficult to say. Difficult to say. I think though that you go back to this idea, that practically everyone in the black community-
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Was connected-
JAMES ATWATER:
Was connected either directly or indirectly to the university. And I think many of the people did, say ask, how the families were doing, and I think they had a general idea of what that family was doing. Now, some of them probably went into more specifics to try and get an idea what that family was doing in the context of the black community and say, have kind of a picture of what was going on in the black community. But, I would have to say, people who had probably more interest than anybody else-law enforcement. They probably wanted to know. At that time, no black was on the police force, so they probably wanted to keep up with the kinds of things that were going on.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Do you think that that worked both ways? Do you think that the African American community had a sense of what was going on in the white community?
JAMES ATWATER:
Oh, I think they did, yes, I think they did. Because again-
JENNIFER NARDONE:
You had to-
JAMES ATWATER:
Well in a way, yes, you had to, but from the standpoint that domestic servants-some people, perhaps occasionally, that the servant doesn't really understand what we're saying or what we're doing. But, often, the servant does. And of course if a servant who's just a bit discreet, they'd never indicate, but they know exactly what's going on.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Right. Right. Well you said that you worked for a while at the North Carolina Inn yourself. Did you experience that while you were there? That sort of, hearing and knowing what was going on or being-
JAMES ATWATER:
Yes, that's what I was saying. That's what I meant a while ago because a couple of time maybe the political discussions of what we need to do and so on, and this waiter doesn't know, he's not paying attention to us. Or they don't even see the waiter. Yes, have you read Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison?
JENNIFER NARDONE:
I've read it several times.
JAMES ATWATER:
It's that same kind of thing. Well, that's not exclusive to whites or anyone else, but I think in the southern, I think we can say at one point in the South.