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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 >>

A visit to Philadelphia helped Atwater realize how segregation limited his life in Chapel Hill

Atwater noticed the pervasiveness of Chapel Hill's segregated society through comparison with his trip to Philadelphia as a child. While carnivals and restaurants were integrated in Philadelphia, he encountered "colored" signs and segregated buses in North Carolina.

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:
Can you talk a little bit about what those were specifically, or maybe if there was one particular thing that stood out in your mind as "wow, this is different here." We don't have this at home.
JAMES ATWATER:
One thing was, the amusement park outside Philadelphia, which is, it was Woodside Park, I think. And we would go to that park and get on any ride that we wanted to, at any time. Carnivals would come to Chapel Hill, for two or three days or a week or whatever, and I don't remember that the carnivals really segregated-we got on the Ferris wheel, we got the ride or whatever, but I think the atmosphere probably just wasn't the same. We had to stand around and wait until you felt it was safe to try this or try that. And the other thing was in Philadelphia-we didn't go to that many restaurants, but any place we went to, we just went there, paid our bill and got whatever we wanted. No signs on the doors or in the bathroom or getting a drink of water out of the water fountain. In Durham I remember especially Sears, in their store, the water fountains were right at the entrance, near one of the entrances to the store, clearly marked, "white" "colored." I think one day I dared to drink out of the white fountain.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Really? Did anything happen?
JAMES ATWATER:
Nothing happened. Nobody was there.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
You were alone?
JAMES ATWATER:
No, I think I was with somebody at the time.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Did they say something to you, do you remember?
JAMES ATWATER:
I think it happened so fast they didn't have time to say anything. Getting on the bus in Chapel Hill. My grandmother took my brother and me to a summer camp one time, and the summer camp was in I think it's called Bricks, North Carolina. Yes, okay. I don't know if it's still there or not. Anyway, we took the bus from Chapel Hill, went to the bus station, and it may have been the first time I'd ever gone on a bus. Of course, I got on before my grandmother, and the first seat I saw, I sat down. And she said, "no, no, you can't sit there."
JENNIFER NARDONE:
How old were you? Do you remember?
JAMES ATWATER:
Probably ten. Nine or ten, I'm not sure.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Did you ask her why, or did you just already sort of know?
JAMES ATWATER:
No, I don't think I knew. She probably said "no, we're gonna sit back here," or something like that. And there I could see, white people got on, they sat up there.