Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Walter Durham, January 19 and 26, 2001. Interview K-0540. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Building tensions between black and white students at Chapel Hill High

Durham describes some of the underlying tensions that led up to the "riot" at Chapel Hill High School in 1968. According to Durham, there were especially tense interactions between white students and black students. He says that bringing these students together was like trying to mix "oil and water." Tension was manifested in white prejudice and black responses to that prejudice. One example Durham gives of this relates to a speech given by George Wallace, governor of Alabama, in Durham: white students were granted dismissal slips to attend the speech, but the assistant principal wouldn't sign slips for black students.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Walter Durham, January 19 and 26, 2001. Interview K-0540. 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

BOB GILGOR:
When you say that tension was building up at school, can you remember what were the causes of the tension? You mentioned one of them, that people weren't listening. What were the things that they weren't listening to?
WALTER DURHAM:
I was thinking of segregation. Segregation is all right. But there's still segregation, people still have a tendency to operate within their own room. And segregation don't have to be segregation between black and white. You got skinheads and you got certain groups that segregate themselves from other groups. But when you build a wall there, between that segregation. When that wall is built there, and then you cannot communicate because there's a wall built there, and you see one getting special treatments over the other one. I remember this one special time. Governor Wallace spoke over there in Durham. And they was letting people go to the speech. And there was a lot of students coming getting their dismissal slips signed. Well, for some reason, the assistant principal, whoever it was, wouldn't sign a black dismissal slip. So you had several of them standing there, and they were signing every white that came there. So then we had to go in to talk to Mr. McDougle [phone rings; tape stops].
BOB GILGOR:
Let's go back to this George Wallace talk in Durham. I assume that at this time George Wallace was still a racist and a segregationist, is that right?
WALTER DURHAM:
Yes. Why it was so important for everybody to go over there, I don't know. But this was just a big event. Everybody was getting out of school to go over to Durham. Once we got over there, there was a lot of tension going on. And then, you know, every time that you would look at TV you would see Alabama, whatever, them sicking dogs on people, sending water hoses, stuff like that. Even though that you wasn't a part of it, still it was just tension, tension.
BOB GILGOR:
So you felt what was going on in the rest of the country?
WALTER DURHAM:
Yes, very much.
BOB GILGOR:
Did your friends feel the same thing you felt?
WALTER DURHAM:
Several of them. Several of them. If they did it wasn't a lot shown.
BOB GILGOR:
Did you talk about what was going on in the country, the problems that were being faced in the South, among your friends?
WALTER DURHAM:
It's just wasn't a topic of conversation. It wasn't something that we sat around and talked about all the time or something like that. Maybe if we were just fortunate enough to be sitting down together someone would discuss it. But it just wasn't a topic of conversation.
BOB GILGOR:
Mainly, I hear you saying that the tension was because of this wall that existed. When you say wall are you saying that the whites and the blacks just didn't talk to each other?
WALTER DURHAM:
Right. It was just like oil and water. And everybody just seems to-went their separate ways. Then, next thing you know, you're walking down the hall, you see a fight, something like that. Whites came with their prejudice ways, and blacks would be responding to it. You had a lot of whites that I guess was raised up in their house to be like that and they didn't see us as being human. So those were the things that you have to deal with? "Why are they out here? Why are they in our school? Who allowed them to come to this school? This is our school." So we was invading their privacy.
BOB GILGOR:
Did you feel that, or did you hear that?
WALTER DURHAM:
I felt it. And sometimes you would hear it.
BOB GILGOR:
So they would actually ask you, "Why are you here?"
WALTER DURHAM:
I never had one ask me that. I never heard one ask anybody else that, just that blunt. I heard them say, "Go back down the lake." You had some that was big and bold enough to do that. And say that. And probably would have fought you too.