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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Harris, September 5, 2002. Interview R-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Civil rights movement does not affect the taxi business a great deal

Civil rights protests did not affect the cab business a great deal, Harris remembers. While his company began by serving only black customers, by the 1960s white customers in need of a ride felt comfortable riding with black drivers. De facto segregation had become de facto desegregation, even as battles over the issue raged outside of the cab's doors. While civil rights protests did not affect the cab business, they did affect Harris's life—he spent three days in jail for participating in a march in 1960.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Harris, September 5, 2002. Interview R-0185. 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

KIERAN TAYLOR:
When did the industry desegregate, the cab industry ?
JOHN HARRIS:
It was a slow process, but eventually they had two cab companies, two white cab companies. Two major, they had a lot of little ones. Bessemer had a cab company. Terra Cotta had a cab company, but your two bigger ones were the Yellow Cab and Blue Bird Cab. They were well-organized white companies. Of course, by the time that, by '48 we had just about, we would get calls just about anywhere. If white folks found out that they didn't, that Yellow Cab or Blue Bird was too slow, they would try us, and of course, we had, we hauled all of Irving Park's help to and from work, and then on occasion they'd say, "Well, we need a cab. Who do we call?" "United." So that's who we used. I used to go and pick up, we had a lady that rode with us all the time. Any time one of her children of the people she worked for needed a cab, needed to go somewhere. She would tell them, "You call John Harris." Say, "He'll take care of you." So it was that kind of confidence.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So starting in the late '40s just after the war you think things started to really break down.
JOHN HARRIS:
Yeah. It had started during the war, but it really broke down during the war.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So that by the '60s you were driving—
JOHN HARRIS:
It was just old, by the early '50s it was just old hat for us.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So you would drive to a white neighborhood and pick up a phone in.
JOHN HARRIS:
Yeah. We get anybody that would call us.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Do you remember the sit-in protests and—
JOHN HARRIS:
Very well.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
What was driving like during them? Did it affect driving at all?
JOHN HARRIS:
No. No. It was, you had, it was select. People were select. But when they would, when whites would call you, you just take them where they want to go. It was, you would find it odd, but you could make, the interesting thing was that you could make a living if no whites ever rode with you. But you could make a better living if they did. You see what I mean?
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Right.
JOHN HARRIS:
Because they're part of the riding public. So eventually we just saw it just disappear. People just want a cab. I just need to get to point A from point B. So color wasn't—it just got to be where it was just natural. So with the taxi industry anyway.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
I was just wondering if the protests caused any chaos downtown that made driving difficult or anything like that. Not that you noticed.
JOHN HARRIS:
No. Not really. No. Nothing. No. There's always that, it's always been that black-white thing. But we're in the business, we were in the business to serve the public. Now if you were white and you wanted to go somewhere, we would take you and tell you how much it costs. If you were black we did the same thing. But we didn't make too much difference. It was business as far as we were concerned. I'm going to tell you it happened so—I went to jail during the sit-ins. I was working then I was working at the post office. I worked at the post office for about sixteen years. They, Jesse Jackson was a student, president of the student body at A and T, and I had a friend of mine to call me. We were both working the night shift, and he said, he called me. He said, "What are you doing? I said, "I'm getting ready, I just got off. I'm getting ready to eat dinner. My wife's fixing me dinner." He said, "Well, come on. Let's just run down there and just protest a little bit." So I said, "Okay." I told my wife, "I'll be back. We're going to protest. I'm going to do a little protest march from the church down to the Carolina Theatre." So that's where we got arrested. I didn't get home for three days.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
They held you three days.
JOHN HARRIS:
They held us three days. They took us down to the old polio hospital in massive. I had, I was working at the post office, but I was driving a cab too. So I called in the post office and had my wife call in the post office and told them I was in jail for protesting. Well, they didn't hold that against me. In fact I guess that was the only reason, and so I had a bunch, I had my little pouch because I drove cab in the afternoons before I went to the post office, and I had my little pouch full of change, and we went, and they took us. They took us to the polio hospital first. Then they transferred us to the National Guard Armory and I was hungry, didn't get to eat and when I walked in here. When they took us in there, they had all these vending machines, and so the young protesters leaders of the protest, they said we're going to boycott these machines. They turned all the machines around, and I'm sitting here with all this change, and I'm hungry. So I said well that's out. So the next morning, we didn't get anything until the next morning. They brought us some thick bologna on two pieces of bread. Now you're talking about good. I just, I just nibbled it because I was so hungry. But we ended up staying there for about three days. They let us go. We never did have to go to court. They had somebody that was, took care of everything. In fact I had a niece that was living with my wife and I, my wife's niece from Connecticut. She was a student at Dudley High, and they were all in that thing together. So they didn't, we didn't ever have, none of us had to go to court.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
About what year was that?
JOHN HARRIS:
That had to be, I don't know it must've been the early '60s, yeah whenever. It was during the time of the sit-in.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
During the first sit-ins in 1960.
JOHN HARRIS:
Yeah. That's when it was.