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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lemuel Delany, July 15, 2005. Interview R-0346. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Becoming aware of segregation and race relations

Delany speaks about his perception of segregation while growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, during the 1920s and 1930s. According to Delany, he was largely unaware of segregation while he was a child, in part because Raleigh was so drastically segregated that he was unaware of race relations outside of the "black world" that he lived in. He argues that it was not until later, when he began venturing into other areas of Raleigh, that he became aware of segregation and racial discrimination. In addition, he recalls the racist jokes of Jesse Helms, which he heard on the radio, as heightening his awareness of race relations and racism in the South.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lemuel Delany, July 15, 2005. Interview R-0346. 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

KIMBERLY HILL:
How young do you think you were when you first learned about segregation?
LEMUEL DELANY:
That's an interesting question. I don't think we called it segregation. I don't know what we called it because I lived in a black world. I had no dealings with the white world. Even though every day I passed the white high school going to the black high school, but this was not important to me. I didn't, I lived in a black world. I didn't live in a white world and didn't have any dealings with the white world per se. So when you passed the school, you realized it was a school and so I don't know. After I got to be big and started dealing, being forced to deal with these people, then I realized there was such a thing as that going on. In other words when I started having to go up town to buy something and realized that this restaurant did not serve colored people. That's when I became aware of it. But as long as I was in east Raleigh in a black neighborhood dealing with black people all day long and seeing their plight in the black neighborhood, it didn't bother me. I saw the white man come and read the gas meter, the water meter, and all that thing, but I didn't even know he was there. He wasn't interesting to me. He was just something there. Only when I started to go up town to buy a pair of shoes or something and I was told you can't try the shoes on, you can't try the suit on, then I knew it was something wrong. I didn't know exactly what it was, but I knew there was something going on. Of course no television, radio, I think I always remember a radio. Periodically this jackass that y'all call Senator Jesse Helms was on the television talking about the outhouses that the colored folks had and laugh[ing] about the tubs that they had to bathe in and all that. He thought that was real funny. He used to tell all those sad jokes about the colored folks and toilets and that sort of thing. But I knew I wasn't going to run into him. Wish I had had an automobile, I'd run over him.
ESTHER DELANY:
Don't put that on tape. Cut that out.
LEMUEL DELANY:
I would have.
ESTHER DELANY:
You've got to shut up now.
LEMUEL DELANY:
Sure as hell.
ESTHER DELANY:
[To Mrs. Delany] Come get your husband.
MRS. DELANY:
Now you knew he was going to do one thing wrong. You knew that. [Laughter]
LEMUEL DELANY:
Yes sir. But he did it. He was on the radio, and he had a good time talking about you colored folks bath tubs and toilets and all that kind of stuff. But I really didn't—
LEMUEL DELANY:
I never really experienced trouble with white folks until I got semi-grown, semi-grown, and then I had a few run-ins with them. But for example I had a car, automobile that had got damaged for some reason or another. I carried it to this automobile shop to get it repaired, and they repaired it. There was a strip of molding that was supposed to go on there, and the man kept telling me he couldn't get the strip of molding. It was a Chevrolet truck. So I took it upon myself one day and went to the Chevrolet garage and asked the people there did they have this strip of molding. They said, yes. I went back to the man and I said, "Sir Walter Chevrolet has got this strip of molding." "What are you doing questioning my, questioning me about the strip of molding." He went on and on and on and on. It got to be real nasty. So I went to his boss and his boss told me, said, "Delany," not Mr. Delany, he said, "Delany, I know he's a jackass, but he's a good mechanic, and if I fire him, I've got to hire another jackass that might not be as good. So I can't fire him." So he said, "But I know what you're talking about." Incidentally a Jew owned the automobile shop per se. But he had all these crackers working for him.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Did you ever get the molding?
LEMUEL DELANY:
I think so. I don't know. I think the man intervened and made the man get the molding and put on the truck. That was basically what that was, that kind of foolishness.