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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 >>

Reflections on race, integration, and child-rearing

Salter and Doris recall the hostile environment they and their children experienced at work and in school. The Cochrans tried to instill in their children the values they learned from their families to prepare them to deal with life in their community, teaching them understanding and strength. As they remember the treatment they endured from whites, they reflect on their luck that they were never harmed and recall their efforts on behalf of integration.

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 mentioned that there might have been a few white colleagues you felt you could go to as resources.
SALTER COCHRAN:
My cousin was one, Jarman. And Cromke, he has a son practicing in Rocky Mount now. And a doctor, kind of wishy-washy, named Frank Fondran. He was from South Carolina.
DORIS COCHRAN:
There were a few nurses who were equally decent.
SALTER COCHRAN:
But they always would try to be snide, they were resistant to change. But I survived, even though I have high blood pressure, diabetes, and all these other things. It's an experience I don't think I would go over again. I wouldn't expose her to it. Through ignorance and being unaware of what did existߞwe were naiveߞwe came back down here after I went to Korea. I think the children may have suffered some, but because of my wife, she gave them the supplementary education that they didn't get in school. The negativism we had was from our own race. Some teachers and administrative personnel gave my kids a hard time. Changed grades on my oldest child to make a friend of his first.
DORIS COCHRAN:
I tried to explain to [my children] in preparing them for school that our condition here, because we had traveled some and had been among loving family, and had been able to go other places and see people of all backgrounds getting along, they knew that this was a possibility. Plus, I had talked to them about the fact that there are places in this world where people understand each other, and live and work together, and thrive. So it wasn't as if they weren't prepared when they started school. It was difficult in some ways, because it's hard for a child to be in a hostile situation. You can't reinforce or prepare them totally for the day to day insults that they had to suffer. But I was determined to have a home where they could talk about these things, and try to grow in spite of them, and prepare them to be stronger. I think it really did that, made them very strong people. My family, just as his, was totally integrated. My grandmother was white, Irish Catholic. The difference was here, where Salter's relatives lived, there was not a recognition of the white part of your family and the black part of your family. But in my family, both sides all lived together. There was a German grandmother on my father's side, and an Irish Catholic on my mother's side. In reality, by their seeing the pictures of their ancestors, and by our talking about them, they knew that this could be a reality, and was. While they were in school, they found in many instances that their own people were loathe to accept them because they were the professionals' kids. This was an insult to them because of lack of understanding, and the threat that they might have posed to them. There were little things that were difficult. I didn't want my children to say, "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am," because I thought it was servile. I just didn't like it, and I told the teachers exactly how I felt. I said, "Allow my children to call you by your name, Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Jones. But don't ask them to address you as ma'am, because I would rather they would not." There were books in the school system that referred to black slaves as being happy. I would go before the school board, I think I attended every meeting that they had, to bring up things of this nature that were offensive to me. They got tired of seeing me, and used to tell me, "Well, you're the only parent who ever comes up here." I said, "I think I'm the only one who's free to come." I would find myself before the school board, constantly asking to be recognized so that we could be more effective in making this thing called integration work. One thing that used to really worry me was the prayers that were said, not in school but before meetings. They always addressed Jesus. This was OK, but there were some Jews in that group. I used to say, "Do you realize that you've just omitted or insulted or eliminated other religions? This isn't fair, and doesn't recognize the fact that there are other people in this world." So it went on an on, this was consistent all the way through their schooling. Ultimately, I think my children benefited by recognizing what they were dealing with, and dealing with it overtly. And you can be strong and reinforce yourself in so doing. I know with Leslie, my oldest child who lost her sight when she was 13, we had to go to Butner for her to get mobility training. There were people who were very kind, but there were some stereotypical statements that might have been made from time to time, and I would always come right forward with them, so they would recognize what they'd said. I'd say, "You may not realize it, but this is offensive to me." I would say it before my children so they could understand that you don't just let things like that pass, because some people just take it for granted that that's the way life is, and it isn't. I think in that way, I prepared my kids for living, and made them stronger. At the same time, I think there were some aspects that embittered them, too. I didn't want that to happen, because so much is lost in being bitter.
SALTER COCHRAN:
And I think the bitterness came because I was on the school board for 12 years. With the integration of the systems, the manner in which the administrative personnel and some of the teachers reacted to my children increased that bitterness. I would say to them, "Is that necessary?" My wife would go up first, and then I would bring it up in the school board meeting, about how teachers treat people differently in the classroom. They would treat my child with an approach of jealousy, and then they would put down the poor kids. Up and down, they were putting down both people, in different ways. I would speak out against it. We had several incidents serious enough for people to lose their job, but we didn't press the situation. One we should have, but I don't see how that would have accomplished much.
DORIS COCHRAN:
We had a family decision with the kids to try to decide how far to take some things that happened. By and large, when we first integrated, it was a very hostile environment.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
Were your children the only children that integrated the schools?
DORIS COCHRAN:
Yes. The only ones in the county. What happened was, all of those parents who had signed depositions and met with us for months preliminary to integration fell out at the end. They said that we thought we were better, and that we should be at the white school. So we couldn't win.
SALTER COCHRAN:
They said our kids think they're too good to go to our school, the all-black school. So they integrated, and after they got over there, they were criticized too.
DORIS COCHRAN:
It was not easy, but it was necessary.
SALTER COCHRAN:
So you can sum our conversation up by saying that basically, we've caught hell, but it could have been much worse.
DORIS COCHRAN:
We could have been South Africa, Salt! [Laughter]
SALTER COCHRAN:
We look at the television, and say, but for the grace of God, there goes me! Looking at the poverty and drugs that exist today.
DORIS COCHRAN:
It has not been just a hum-drum existence. It's not very often that we sit down and talk about all these things together, so it sometimes surprises me, listening to what went on, that we were able to make it through life without any big catastrophes. I know many times when my husband was out on calls, I would be afraid for him, because he would go on farms that were owned by people who had black tenants, and they didn't want those tenants to be treated by a black doctor. They threatened him several times.
SALTER COCHRAN:
They owe me hundreds and thousands of dollars for treatment, and I never got paid.
DORIS COCHRAN:
Plus he was threatened, and told to get off the property. So I just used to almost shake in my boots, waiting for him to come home. Every now and then, an emergency telephone call would come through from the police, and I'd just know somebody had killed him while he was out there. So it was not just the ordinary civil rights fight, it was a matter of getting through this by the skin of my teeth! You felt that you were really in jeopardy, because there were so many people who felt so very negatively about you, and had so much hate in them that you felt they were capable of almost anything. Salter was just oblivious to it, he just went out regardless.
SALTER COCHRAN:
I used to carry a gun.
DORIS COCHRAN:
That was after he came back from Korea. It was frightening at times, but you got past that night, and went to the next day, and there was always something going on. We were able to meet a lot of people who were active in civil rights. Fred Shuttlesworth.
SALTER COCHRAN:
That's King's boy.
DORIS COCHRAN:
My father knew Dr. King very well. We came across so many interesting and courageous people, and it fueled us.
SALTER COCHRAN:
We had groups coming through, like the Quakers.
DORIS COCHRAN:
When we got ready to integrate the schools, the Halifax Voters' Movement backed a group of Quakers that came and taught black children, all during one summer, to prepare them for the physical presence of a white person in the room with them, which would not have been acceptable to some of them.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
Was that a part of the Freedom Schools?
DORIS COCHRAN:
This was completely backed by the Friends. The Halifax Voters' Movement got in touch with the Friends, knowing they were going into communities for a summer, and working with students who were potentially going into integrated situations. The summer of '64, the Friends came to Weldon, and we had summer school.
SALTER COCHRAN:
I think they came a couple of summers, and they worked hard, about six to eight weeks, on physical encounters and how to do homework.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
So some of those children who went to those schools may not have actually ended up going to integrated schools in the fall.
DORIS COCHRAN:
Eventually they did, but not that year. Ours were the only two that went.