L.B. Jeffries, a building contractor, had city hall in an uproar that July day in 1912.
Greensboro's three city commissioners (the city was ruled by a commission system during this period) had just awarded Jeffries a contract to build a new public school for white students on West Lee Street.Two other contractors whose bids were nearly twice as high as Jeffries' were outraged. So were the city's other contractors, who refused to bid because Jeffries was involved in the competition for the contract.
Newspapers as far away as Baltimore reported the ruckus over Jeffries.
What was the problem? Did Jeffries have a reputation for doing shabby work? Was his contracting company in unsound financial shape? Nope to both questions.
It was just that he was black.
Ugly change Jeffries was caught up in an ugly change that was taking place in Greensboro and throughout the South at the time. Until the turn of the century, black craftsman did work all over Guilford County. They built buildings, made brick, harnesses and carriages and musical instruments. They were in demand.
Jeffries, for example, in the 1890s had done much of the work on the new black college in Greensboro, known today as N.C. A&T State University. Later, he was a key subcontractor on the project that built the city's first white high school.
But feelings among whites against blacks began to harden all over the South as the 1890s came to an end. Conservative southern-born whites once again had firm control of state governments. Yankee carpetbaggers who come South after the Civil War were either gone or had been destroyed politically.
In the Piedmont, more and more whites were leaving farms to come to Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem looking for jobs and new skills. Someone had to make room for them.
It was the blacks.
In 1899, Southern Railway, which had a big operation in Greensboro, fired all of its black conductors and replaced them with whites. In High Point, white workers at a lumber mill objected to working along side blacks and petitioned management to fire them. In Winston-Salem, white women began being employed in the tobacco factories. Their families objected to them working so close to black men.
Skilled black builders such as Jeffries found it harder to compete with white contractors, who had an advantage because they could socialize with well-to-do whites - the people most likely to need the services of a contractor.
A society divided To make it even more difficult for blacks, state government adopted a constitutional amendment in 1898 that legalized and even strengthened the barriers that already existed between blacks and whites.
Jim Crow was firmly in control.
With all this going on, Greensboro must have been a pretty bleak place for blacks.
In fact, Greensboro was viewed as a progressive city even then - as witnessed by the commissioners' decision to buck the tide and give Jeffries the school contract, although the commissioners probably did so for economic reasons rather than out of fairness.
Even if they had denied Jeffries the contract, it's doubtful if he or any other black would have protested.
Until the 1950s, when blacks in Greensboro started risking arrest to challenge the city's segregationist ways, few in the black community complained - at least not loudly.
``Blacks generally believe life was better here for blacks than elsewhere in the state,' says Frenise A. Logan, a history professor at N.C. A&T State University and an expert on Southern blacks before and after the turn of the century.
'Nice nasty town' One black citizen early in the century summed up Greensboro as a ``nice nasty town.'
In some respects that view still prevails. Blacks have been known to criticize the city for racial insensitivity, but in the next breath say Greensboro is better than many other cities across America - especially those in the North.
And Greensboro and Guilford County through the years have had some legitimate reasons to think it has been ahead of the rest in race relations.
The area never had a huge slave population like eastern North Carolina. At most only about 30 percent of the farmers in Guilford owned slaves. Guilford County had a large Quaker population that protested slavery vigorously before the Civil War. Their presence probably helped keep the slave population small.
Guilford apparently didn't think slavery was worth a war. The county was against leaving the Union, though it later joined the rest of the state in doing so.
When Greensboro established public schools in the 1870s, city fathers started one for blacks in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church and funded it almost equally as the white school on Lindsay Street.
By 1920 Guilford's two big cities, Greensboro and High Point, could brag that nearly 90 percent of its blacks could read and write - highest in the state.
Even after the state officially disenfranchised blacks in 1898, Greensboro never really enforced that law.
``There was an awful lot of pressure on blacks not to vote, especially those from the lower income groups,' professor Logan says. ``But there was never a time when blacks didn't vote here.'
In 1951, Greensboro was one of first cities in the state to elect a black to the city council - Dr. William Hampton. In 1968, it elected the first black, Henry Frye, to the state legislature since the Reconstruction Era.
Greensboro was first city in the state to declare it would obey the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown versus Board of Education decision that required public school to integrate - although the first blacks didn't enter the school system until 1957 when Josephine Boyd enrolled at what is now Grimsley High School and five blacks entered Gillespie Park School.
While police in other Southern cities sometimes responded brutally when blacks challenged segregation, Greensboro's officers stayed in the background when four A&T students staged the sit-ins at the Woolworth Lunch counter downtown in 1960.
The 1963 desegregation demonstrations downtown also were successfully carried out without any rough stuff. Jesse Jackson, who as A&T student body president led the demonstrations, later praised the city's police for its handling of the situation.
Progress wasn't easy Yet, despite all this, progress was never easy for blacks. As veteran civil rights leader George Simkins has said over and over, Greensboro blacks have had to fight for every inch of gain - from integrating golf courses to opening up the school system to creating a district system for electing City Council that guarantees black representation.
All resulted from court suits, threats of suits, confrontation and in some cases arrest - Simkins was charged with trespassing after trying to play at whites-only Gillespie Park Golf Course.
Unlike German immigrants, who were the first to establish a permanent settlement here in about 1740, the first blacks certainly didn't come here of their own free will. Without doubt, they were brought here as slaves, probably by those first white settlers. By 1754, the number of blacks in the area numbered 500.
The first black to make a name for himself in Guilford County was an outsider, a freed black named Thomas Carney of Maryland, who fought with distinction for the American forces during the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781.
Blacks among first residents When Greensboro was founded in 1808, blacks were among the first residents. By 1829, the city had 486 whites and 122 blacks - 96 of them slave and 26 free.
One of those blacks was named Gill. He must have been free because in 1839 he was paid $34 to plant elms along North and South streets as the city's two main unpaved streets were called.The trees grew so beautifully that the city later renamed the streets North and South Elm.
The number of blacks in the city and county grew steadily in the three decades before the Civil War. By 1860, there were more than 3,625 slaves and 693 free blacks in the county.
The Quakers in the New Garden (now Guilford College) and Centre communities were openly critical of those who owned slaves. In 1825, the North Carolina Manumission Society, an organization devoted to ending slavery, was organized in Centre, a community that still exists south of Greensboro.
``Slavery is one of the greatest curses that God in his wrath, ever permited to visit the southern counties,' thundered William Swaim, a Greensboro newspaper editor and a leader in the society.
In 1830-31, the state passed a tough act that forbid teaching slaves to read or write. Perhaps because of the Quaker influence, a Guilford senator introduced an amendment to exempt Guilford from the act. The legislature said no to the amendment.
Slaves were educated Nevertheless, slaves were educated in Guilford - at a school in New Garden and on George Mendenhall's plantation in Jamestown. Mendenhall often bought slaves, educated then, taught them a trade and freed them. Blacks from the Mendenhall plantation helped build the state Capitol in Raleigh during the early 1840s. Another tended to the needs of President James Buchanan when he visited the University of North Carolina at CHapel Hill before the Civil War.
The courts in Greensboro dealt harshly with slaves who got into trouble, but at times judges and juries here showed fairness. Early in the 18th Century, Benjamin Benson, a free black in Delaware, was kidnapped and brought South and forced back into slavery. In Greensboro, he sued for his freedom. The court ruled in his favor.
The city's earliest white churches allowed slaves to attend services, though they were often confined to a balcony. First Presbyterian Church, which in 1824 became the first church formed within the boundaries of Greensboro, had four slaves among its 12 charter members.
Slaves were of course freed after the Civil War, but nothing much changed at first. Most of blacks continued to live in slave quarters and continued to work for their old masters, only now they received a small wage.
After the war, a white Quaker named Yardley Warner bought a 35-acre plot in south Greensboro and sold plots to former slaves. This first planned subdivision in the city came to be known as Warnersville and it produced the city's first black leader - ex-slave Harmon Unthank.
Unthank served on the county school board and also became a director of a savings and loan association organized by a white minister.
But unlike blacks in eastern North Carolina, who had the numbers to elect a few blacks to Congress, blacks here were not numerous enough to achieve any real political clout after the Civil War.
Working and watching Mostly, they worked hard and watched the white folk have good times. A group of northern newspaper editors arrived in the city in 1871 to promote better relations between the two regions. They were entertained royally at a banquet and dance at the Benbow House hotel on South Elm Street.
As quoted in Gayle Fripp's 1982 book, Illustrated History of Greensboro, one of the editors wrote of that evening:
``The neighboring fences and trees were crowded with recently legalized 'men and brethren' of African 'scent' watching with intense interest the movements of brave men and fair women in the mazes of the waltz and polka.'
During this period, if something needed fixing or built, blacks were often summoned to do the work. Between 1870 and 1900 blacks constituted half of the skilled laborers in Guilford County, including the builder L.B. Jeffries.
But, except for some school teachers, black professionals were scarce. Samuel Kipp, in a Ph.D. dissertation about Greensboro from 1870 to 1920, noted that during the 1880s the city had ``no lawyers or doctors, no major government officials, no superintendents or managers and no financiers.'
That began to change in the 1890s. Black professionals began arriving here to work at or to service the needs of the new black college - A&T. Dr. J.E. Dellinger was one of the first local black doctors.
Black-white cooperation A&T was an example of how the black and white community could sometime join together for the common good.
When Charles Moore, a black educator who was trying to convince the legislature in late 1891 to locate the black college in Greensboro, went to the city's white leaders seeking their backing in the quest. He was received graciously.
``They told him if money was needed, they would supply it - they told him to just go right ahead and seek the school,' says Frenise Logan, the A&T history professor who is now writing a book about the university that will be published in connection with the school's centennial next year.
In 1896, James Dudley was selected as A&T's president. A rotund man with a powerful speaking voice, he became almost a cult figure in the black community. He turned A&T into one of the South's largest and most respected black schools. While doing so, he lived in a magnificent mansion, Magnolia Castle, across from the campus.
In 1902, Dudley organized a savings and loan association, aptly called Pioneer Building and Loan Association, and installed a black, Dr. Dellinger, as president.
Dudley also became friends with his white counterparts across town at the new new college for white women, now known as the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Can only go so far He, Charles Moore, black educator and civic leader J.R. Nocho and other late 19th and early 20th century black leaders sometimes circulated in the white community. But they could only go so far - and they had to endure hearing again and again what a credit to their race they were.
``Regardless of status, members of the city's black community did not participate in the general community's social life - their churches, schools, fraternal organizations and almost all other aspects of their social life, entertainment and receration were separate from those of white residents,' historian Kipp writes in his dissertation.
Until well after the Civil War many ex-slaves lived in Greensboro's white neighborhoods, residing in shacks behind or near the homes of their ex-masters. One slave quarters stood until well after the turn of the century at the corner of Market and Greene downtown. One elderly ex-slave stood and wept at the site when it was torn down.
But eventually blacks were isolated to the city's southeast and southern sections - in two communities known as Jonesboro (the area around A&T State University) and Warnersville.
According to Kipp, most lived in ``small, tumbled down houses, shacks and boarding houses ... which were across the tracks and partially beyond the corporate limits of Greensboro. Most working class blacks lived a precarious hand-to-mouth existence on the margins of the town's economy and society.'
By 1898, blacks had lost their right to vote and they were being dismissed from factories. By 1910, according to Kipp, Greensboro had no black factory workers. Those who were employed by mills did menial outdoor or janitorial work.
By that same year, only eight percent of the skilled workers in Greensboro were black - a decline of 42 percent in 40 years.
Domestic workers Blacks survived by becoming domestic workers. As late as 1940 in Greensboro, 40 percent of the black working force did personal service work for whites, according to Duke University historian William Chafe's book, Civilities and Civil Rights.
By day, these blacks worked in the finest homes in the white neighborhoods then returned to their own wretched neighborhoods, which until well into the 20th Century had unpaved streets and were without sewerage and water services.
The black neighborhoods became havens for illegal liquor houses, pool rooms and dens of prostitution. One of the most notorious sections was the Bull Pen - along the Southern Railway tracks just off East Market Street. After the turn of the century, a white policeman, Bob Skenes, teamed up with a black female evangelist, A.J. Lewis, to clean up the area. Lewis was so grateful to Skenes that she named her church for him. Skenes Chapel Holiness Church survives today on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Except to collect rents or to pass through on the way out of town, whites rarely found any reason to linger in the city's black areas.'
An exception occurred in 1898 when white leaders went to A&T to hear a speech by famed Negro educator Booker T. Washington. Also, history was made in the early 1940s when white and black school children gathered together on the Bennett College lawn to hear First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt speak.
But the idea of any relationship with a black organization or institution would have seemed radical prior to 1960. Greensboro Senior High School (now Grimsley), the city's white high school, never played Dudley, the city's black high school, in any sports until well into the 1960s. Just as well: Dudley turned out a series of great athletes, including former pro basketball player Lou Hudson and former Harlem Globetrotter Curley Neal.
Dudley also educated David Richmond, Ezell Blair Jr. and Franklin McCain - three of four young men who while students at A&T staged the 1960 sit-ins at the whites-only lunch counter at the Woolworth Store on South Elm Street.
Racial barriers challenged Their action and those by Simkins during the 1950s constituted the first serious challenges to the city's racial barriers. However, blacks were not entirely passive during the time between the Civil War and the '50s.
In the 1890s, a group of blacks sued when the city refused to issue licenses to Negro bars. Blacks complained vigorously about being denied entry to events at the city opera house in 1913. They asked for seating in a balcony - and got it.
But city fathers would tolerate only so much. According to historian Kipp, when a black A&T faculty member bought a house in 1914 at the corner of Gorrell and Martin streets,in what was then a white neighborhood, whites pressured him to sell it. The city then passed an ordinance preventing a member of one race from buying a house in a block where another race was in the majority.
Rigid segregation did create some opportunities for blacks. Black business districts emerged along old Ashe Street in Warnersville and along East Market Street beside the A&T campus. Each had small restaurants, beauty and barbershops, clothing stores, sweet shops, funeral homes.
The East Market Street district included the famous Triangle News Stand, which was really a restaurant with outstanding food, the Palace Theater and, during World War II, John Vines' USO club for black servicemen and dance halls that attracted blacks and whites.
``The dance floors would be segregated by a rope and chaperoned by the police,' writes historian Alexander Stoesen of Guilford College, in a paper about East and West Market written in 1981.
The black side of town even had its own minor league baseball team, the Greensboro Red Birds, who played at Memorial Stadium when the white team, the Greensboro Patriots, were on the road. One ex-Red Bird, a Greensboro youth named Tom Alston, went on to become the first black to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.
About the only blacks who had business ties with the white community were taxi operators - including Taylor Daniel, who in 1903 started a horse and carriage taxi service company that survives today as Daniel-Keck Taxi Co. - and barbers. From after the Civil War until the early 1960s, black barbers had shops in the white district. Only whites could get their hair cut in these establishments.
Redevelopment projects The two black downtowns lasted until the early 1960s when city redevelopment projects bulldozed both. Today Warnersville is taken up by the Hampton Homes public housing project and by a cluster of single-family homes. The only reminder of the old neighborhood is the former J.C Price School, now owned by Guilford Technical Community College.
The East Market Street district includes new churches, Brown's and Hargett's funeral homes, the main post office, a Burger King and other businesses that were rebuilt with redevelopment money or started since the 1960s. The only reminder of the old days is the recently renovated and expanded Hayes-Taylor YMCA, built in the late 1930s and named for two blacks servants, Sally Hayes and Andrew Taylor, who worked for Ceasar Cone. Cone donated $50,000 for the Y with the stipulation it be named for his two long-time domestics.
Segregation officially ended in the early 1960s. Since then blacks have steadily increased their numbers in city, county and state positions. Both the city and county school boards have had black chairmen, Walter Johnson and Jim Mebane respectively. In the 1970s, the Guilford Democratic Party was led briefly by a black - again Jim Mebane. The city council, county commissioners and the state legislative delegation all have black members because of district election systems begun during the 1980s.
The Greensboro Police Department, which didn't have a black officer until the 1940s when Conrad Raiford and J.R. Massey, were hired, now has a black police chief, Sylvester Daughtry.
Yet, despite the obvious progress, racial tensions bubble all the time in Greensboro and sometime explode. In the late 1960s twice the city was placed under curfew when black students rioted in southeast Greensboro, first over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, and again because of a disputed student council at Dudley High School.
Police had to be sent to the Page High campus to make sure trouble didn't break out after black students left classes in protest of school policies they felt discriminated against blacks.
Officially integrated The city is officially integrated, but sometimes it hard to tell it. Most blacks still live in the southeast and southern parts of the city - just as they did in 1890. Social life in the city remains separate - just as was in 1890.
``Greensboro, like the rest of the nation, finds itself face to face with a more intractable form of separation that is insidious but not illegal,' Time magazine reported this past June in a lengthy story about the racial situation in Greensboro.
The city population is about 66 percent white, 34 percent non-white - not too much different than it was in 1890. But other numbers have changed. Skilled black workers have reappeared. The number of black professionals has grown from almost none in 1890 to many today - doctors, lawyers, dentists, professional educators.
And no public fuss is made when a black contractor or subcontractor or architect wins a government contract - indeed, the law now requires that minority contractors get a piece of the public action.
L.B. Jeffries certainly proved that blacks can do a job right. That school on Lee Street came to be called McIver School. It served the city school system until the 1970s. Now it is privately owned building housing studios for artists and small business people.