Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Salter and Doris Cochran, April 12, 1997. Interview R-0014. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A confrontational style of integrationism

Salter recalls confronting members of the John Birch Society in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, when they spoke before a group of physicians. His efforts to stand up for racial desegregation in medical practice went beyond speaking out—he argued that a new hospital planned for the Weldon area should be integated, if only because of the additional cost of building a segregated facility. He also remembers his bold desegregation of the old hospital in the early 1960s. That hospital did not completely desegregate until 1972.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Salter and Doris Cochran, April 12, 1997. Interview R-0014. 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

KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
You had said earlier that you wanted to mention the integration of UNC Medical School, which I'm also interested in. Edward Diggs was the first black student admitted in 1951 to the first four-year class, and James Slade was the second, two years after that.
SALTER COCHRAN:
When we got here, Duke was the only four-year medical school in the state, and ECU was just a normal school in 1950. The president of ECU was a friend of Doris'.
DORIS COCHRAN:
Not really. I met himߞLeo Jenkins. I think I was the first black member of the hospital board that was created before the construction of the new hospital in 1972. Our civil rights organization, the Halifax County Voters' Movement, had been pushing for a seat on various boards, school boards, hospital boards, wherever we could make our presence known. So I was appointed to the hospital board.
SALTER COCHRAN:
I was on the old staff [of Roanoke Rapids Hospital] for ten years. I was the only minority. They never would make me chief of staff for anything. I was too outspoken. They had some fear, but I didn't show too much fear. We used to have speakers from the John Birch Society come over from Rocky Mount, and they would tell black jokes. I would get up in the meeting with about 70 doctors there, and I was the only black doctor, and tell them to get the "H" back to Rocky Mount. The Philippino doctor was over there, telling me to "Sit down, sit down!" [whispers]. Most of the speakers were uncomfortable, and they got out of there, and went on back.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
In what situation were you listening to someone from the John Birch Society?!
SALTER COCHRAN:
Most of the Rocky Mount doctors belonged to the Birch Society back in the '50s and '60s. They would come over here as speakers for meetings of the county medical society. That was in the old hospital. They didn't pull too much of that in the new one.
DORIS COCHRAN:
Because things were integrated there.
SALTER COCHRAN:
More than they had been at the other. We still were occupying jobs at the lower end of the totem pole.
DORIS COCHRAN:
I never will forget, speaking of the integration of the hospital. The board was formed for the new hospital before it was completed, so we could be in on the planning of the hospital. The Hill-Burton funds were mentioned tirelessly, to the extent that we could not have double rooms, we must have single rooms. I said, "You're going to spend more money to segregate individually than you would if you were to have double rooms. It would be a lot cheaper." But they said people in this community just would not accept that. So the hospital was built with all individual rooms, instead of accommodating more than one bed per room.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
The hospital in Rocky Mount did the same thing.
DORIS COCHRAN:
Yes, that's right.
SALTER COCHRAN:
But see, the hospital in Rocky Mount integrated before ours. We were one of the last ones. What tickled me about the integration of the old hospital, which was in '61 or '62 that I went over there, until '72 when they built the new one, they gave me courtesy staff membership, because I lived outside of town. But they had been giving all doctors in Weldon courtesy staff privileges, they didn't give them full privileges. Full staff and courtesy staff, I couldn't tell the difference between the two, because you could do everything the other guy did, on courtesy staff. But what tickled me is, we had a place up at Gaston Lake, and we were out having a good time with the kids one Sunday [shortly after Cochran came on staff at the old Roanoke Rapids Hospital]. They had told me I couldn't work the emergency room, the people in the community wouldn't accept it. See, the people in the community accepted a whole lot more things than these doctors wanted you to believe. It was an economic thing. They didn't want you to meet any of the people that may come to you as patients. So this doctor was driving by in his boat, and saw me out there, and I was enjoying the children. His name was Woody Boone. He stopped and said, "What are you doing?" And I said, "Man, I'm out here!" I wasn't working the emergency room or taking care of business or those problems that they had, so I could just sit there and relax, and said, "Well, this is the best life." The next day, I don't mean a week, he asked me, "Would you work the emergency room one day a month?" And they never understood that my wife and me, we'd sit up here, and just say, "Well, go ahead." They found out it was to my advantage to let them do what they wanted to do.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
Just to get this clearߞyou finally got staff privileges at the old hospital in '62, and even thought there wasn't any official policy of integration, you started sending patients to the second floor, which used to be the white ward.
SALTER COCHRAN:
Yes, that's right. They said something about it, but nobody had the guts to come up to me and tell me.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
Was the old hospital built with any Hill-Burton funds?
SALTER COCHRAN:
They received some after it was built. Hill-Burton hadn't been running long when we first got here. The hospital was built in 1914.
DORIS COCHRAN:
In fact, Salter's grandfather donated money to the building of that hospital. David Smith.
SALTER COCHRAN:
My grandfather, who was mostly Caucasian, had about 90 acres. There's his picture up there [points to photograph on wall]. He's the one who had all the money. He owned a block downtown in Weldon. But we didn't receive any of that when we got here in the '50s. They lost quite a bit of money in the crash, my grandmother did. In place of the welfare department, that didn't exist for black people, she was the welfare department. So we were pretty substantially well off. We owned about 350 rental houses at one time, that's a lot.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
So in the early '60s, at this old hospital, do you remember any talk of "Well, we might lose our Hill-Burton funds."
SALTER COCHRAN:
Oh, yeah, they talked about it. I was there. I got sick at that time, and they put me in the hospital. They gave me a private roomߞthey cleared out the morgue! [Laughter] And my wife threatened to send me somewhere else right quick! They got it straight.
DORIS COCHRAN:
I don't think it was literally the morgueߞit might have looked like it, but it wasn't quite.
SALTER COCHRAN:
But they cleared out a room that had no windows in it. I hyperventilated a few times, and had an inverted T-wave, which meant they thought I had a heart attack. My doctor was this Puerto Rican, Angie Patella. Angie was trying to appease and be part of the picture, until his brother came up from Puerto Rico. He was blacker than Angie, and they looked at him, and Angie had a little rougher time after that. He was Castillian.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
So you were sick around '62 or '63?
SALTER COCHRAN:
Yeah, I was overworked, and I smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. My wife threatened to move me, but they never did put me upstairs [in the white section of the hospital].
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
So they were still scrambling and looking for loopholes?
SALTER COCHRAN:
Oh yeah.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
But from what you said, Mrs. Cochran, it sounded like they didn't fully integrate officially until the new hospital was built in 1972?
DORIS COCHRAN:
I believe soߞisn't that correct, Salter?
SALTER COCHRAN:
Yes.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
It sounds like there was a real gradual transition. SC and
DORIS COCHRAN:
Yes, yes.
SALTER COCHRAN:
Well, the babies were in the same place. That's about the only integration they did, in the nursery.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
Until '72, the other patients remained segregated?
SALTER COCHRAN:
Well, they sort of kept them isolated up on OB. It's kind of hard to segregate, since they had to work on available space.
DORIS COCHRAN:
The doctors' offices were definitely segregated. I became a part of the Medical Auxiliary, so I had an opportunity to go in some of the offices to meet with some of the wives, and the offices definitely had "colored" and "white" waiting rooms. So the attitudes were pretty much the same, regardless of where the funds for the hospitals were coming from.