Chapel Hill race riot

From the July 31, 2002 Indyweek. Web.

Race Riot 

A forgotten, violent confrontation 65 years ago made clear that Chapel Hill and Carrboro weren’t the “Southern Part of Heaven” for everyone

by Matt Robinson

On a hot August night 65 years ago, amid flying bricks and blazing guns, a race riot exploded at the intersection of West Franklin Street and Main, on the border of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. One relatively minor incident at a gas station ignited hours of disorder, which included official fears of a lynch mob and random attacks on passersby, and which culminated in a brief, chaotic firefight between a makeshift armored vehicle of Carrboro whites and a rowdy crowd of blacks. Local history hasn’t recorded it, but on that night long past, classic Southern conflicts of race and class burst out of the shadows and onto the streets of the two Piedmont towns.

The incident underscored the emotional plight of the Depression-era working class, whose energies and frustrations were given voice in racial hatred. It also revealed shortcomings of town services, from recreational facilities to law enforcement. In the process, the event trumped the old canard of Chapel Hill as the idyllic “Southern part of Heaven.”

While some conditions improved in the wake of the event, the dust kicked up by the riot mostly settled back in place. Despite the deeply felt dissatisfaction brought to the surface by the violence, real improvement in local race relations remained years away. The tensions that gave rise to the incident receded back into the streets and homes of the area’s black citizens, and the riot itself became another footnote in the annals of injustice long forgotten.

The discontent that led to the riot appears to have been brewing for some time before that Saturday night, Aug. 21, 1937. Mill closings in Carrboro in 1935 and 1937 cut hundreds of white workers adrift, and the Depression ensured that other jobs were not easy to come by.

Hard economic times made life tough for whites, but the area’s black population faced much greater hardship. Unable to compete economically with their white, working-class poor counterparts, Chapel Hill’s African-American citizens also had to endure the commonplace discrimination of the Jim Crow South. Public services, such as streetlights and safe roads, were inadequate in Potter’s Field, Tin Top, Pine Knolls, and other black neighborhoods. Police protection was virtually non-existent, wages were low, rents were high, and sub-standard housing was the norm. In short, the situation for African Americans in 1937 Chapel Hill was far from heavenly.

Racial animosity had been inflamed of late by another classic Southern conflict, interracial sex. As revealed in interviews and oral research of the time, the black community was indignant over “flagrant sexual relations between white men and negro women,” relations that had gone on in black neighborhoods for over a year. “The men of the [black] community had become pretty much stirred up” by the then-illegal intercourse, noted a UNC student who researched the aftermath of the riot. While black men were forbidden on the most severe of consequences from crossing the color line, double standards ensured that whites knew no such restrictions.

Saturday night’s riot actually began earlier that afternoon, when groups of antagonistic blacks and whites assembled on Main Street, between Franklin and Lloyd streets. Junius Scales, a Chapel Hill resident and student, was an eyewitness to this face-off. Riding with friends in a Model A Ford, Scales was returning from Sparrow’s Pool in Carrboro, a popular place for white people to cool off, when he and his friends came upon the troubled scene. Scales relates his brush with the mob in his autobiography,Cause at Heart. “The Negroes were silent, grim, defiant; the whites were raging, screaming, threatening.” Heedless of the danger, the jalopy carrying Scales and his high-school friends drove right down the street between the menacing crowds.

In the midst of the furor, the teenage driver panicked. He stalled the car out, leaving Scales and his companions trapped. “We were all absolutely paralyzed at being in the middle of a major fracas,” Scales later recalled. After several panic-stricken attempts to restart the car, Scales and some others jumped out to push-start the Model A. Their efforts paid off, and the car sped away from the simmering turmoil.

Scales attributed the hostile stand-off to an arrest the previous night of a black man, who had been apprehended “on an unspecified charge because he had been ‘uppity.'” But the tension taking shape on the border streets was only another crisis on what was proving to be a hectic Saturday for law enforcement.

Chapel Hill’s chief of police, W.T. Sloan, was constantly in motion on that summer day, investigating allegations of a peeping tom on the porch roof of UNC’s Spencer Hall, dealing with a ball-game fistfight that left one man unconscious, and fielding requests for assistance from the volatile border area. “The police telephone was constantly ringing,” noted Chapel Hill alderman and UNC employee Peter L. Burch in a UNC memo about the day’s events.

At around 10 o’clock that night, a group of black citizens came to the police station concerning “a disturbance in Potter’s Field,” the old name for Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood. The nature of this disturbance is not specified, but was undoubtedly related to the tense racial situation evolving on the edge of town.

“Later that night the explosion came,” remembered Scales, a former UNC student activist imprisoned in the ’50s for his work in the Communist Party, in an interview with historian Yonni Chapman 60 years afterward. A minor event triggered a massive meltdown of public order where the mill town met the college.

Around 11 p.m., an unidentified white man drove into Yarborough’s service station on the southwest corner of the Franklin Street and Merritt Mill Road intersection. As he pulled up to the station, a rock smashed into his car’s windshield. Infuriated, the driver got out of his car and punched a black Chapel Hillian named Tom Atwater.

Atwater grabbed a gallon jug and was about to strike back when James Horne, a white attendant at Yarborough’s, intervened. Horne picked up a beer bottle and smashed it over Atwater’s head.

Chief Sloan arrived shortly thereafter to find a bloodied Atwater and an agitated crowd. Sloan assessed the damage, and took Atwater to see a doctor. On the way, he dispatched one of the town’s two other policemen to Yarborough’s. The officer, Hubert Yeargan, was accompanied to the service station by Chapel Hill Alderman R. W. Madry. Horne was arrested and taken to the jail at Carrboro Town Hall a few blocks away, but tempers at the gas station remained hot. Many blacks on the scene thought that the wounded Atwater had been arrested by Sloan instead of escorted to medical care, and this perception served only to incense the growing crowd.

Sloan left Atwater with a doctor, and responded to another call. He returned to the edge of town shortly thereafter to find the situation deteriorating. Dozens of angry blacks had followed the police and the arrested Horne to the Carrboro jail. Alderman Burch interpreted this group’s intent in light of the traditionally white practice of storming jails in order to carry out a lynching. He reported that “a large group of negroes formed with the intention of taking Horn [sic] from the officers or from the jail.”

Concerned about the possibility of a black mob pursuing vigilante justice, Carrboro Police Chief R.H. Mills nervously spirited Horne away to the Hillsborough jail a dozen miles north for safekeeping. The handful of remaining authorities persuaded the agitated blacks to disperse.

Sloan and his assistants, joined by Carrboro Alderman C.D. Hearne and a Mr. Blake, tracked the group back to Yarborough’s, where the tension–and the crowd–only increased. The five white officials found themselves vastly outnumbered; Sloan estimated the crowd by that point had reached around 300. The heat was rising as people in the group continued shouting and began throwing rocks and bricks at passersby and shooting into the air. Taking over the street, the mob blocked all traffic between Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

The thin blue line of law enforcement must have felt a bit too thin at that point, as Chief Sloan rushed to his headquarters to call in reinforcements from Durham. Upon his return, he found a group of blacks trying to overturn a truck driven by a young, white man. The truck managed to get away, and headed toward Carrboro.

Shortly thereafter, a new sound rang out across the area. Over the din of the shouting and furor, the alarm siren at Carrboro’s fire department began to wail what some said was a “riot call.” Within minutes, a flatbed truck came barreling out of Carrboro down Main Street, barricaded with railroad crossties and carrying several whites armed with rifles and pistols. The whites opened fire as they burst through the mob, passing the service station and turning around at Betty Hunter’s store, two blocks away on West Franklin. The truck raced back to Carrboro, its occupants constantly shooting into the crowd.

Although taken by surprise, the blacks fought back. In his report on the incident to the mayor of Chapel Hill, Sloan asserted, “The negroes were returning the gunfire very promptly.” Black residents fired from windows of houses lining the street, and at least one man, Sinclair Farrington, reportedly climbed on top of Yarborough’s and was shooting from the roof.

The truck attack succeeded in scattering the crowd. By the time eight officers arrived from Durham carrying tear gas and tommy guns, the incident was all but over. By 4 a.m., the streets were calm.

Luckily, the hail of 100-200 bullets was not fatal; no one was killed in the barrage. An estimate given by P.L. Burch claimed that between five and 10 people, race unspecified, were hit by gunfire. According to an Associated Press report, three people were seriously injured, two black and one white. The blacks, Charlie Durham and rooftop shooter Sinclair Farrington, were taken to Lincoln Hospital in Durham, where attendants were told the men had been in an auto accident. Farrington, it was feared, had suffered a brain concussion as well as extensive lacerations to his face.

The white, Ralph Neville, was taken to Duke Hospital after he reportedly fell from the truck, was hit by a dislodged crosstie, and then was run over by a car. His injuries, however, weren’t believed to be serious.

Tensions remained high that Sunday. Both blacks and whites were rumored to be preparing for a possible resumption of hostilities, and law enforcement was on alert, ready to call on Hillsborough and Durham for reinforcements in case of another outbreak of violence. Chief Sloan, Chapel Hill Town Manager J.L. Caldwell, Carrboro Manager Winslow Williams, and Alderman Burch, who was also the supervisor of UNC’s Physical Plant, met that Sunday morning to sort out what had happened and to brainstorm ways to quell such disorders should they recur. Having advised local stores to refrain from selling any ammunition that day, Sloan complained that there was little more that he could do. Neither he nor his Carrboro counterpart had the men or equipment to deal firmly with such situations, and the chief feared that the previous night’s events might be a harbinger of things to come.

After meeting that morning with Sloan, Caldwell made plans to purchase weaponry thought to be useful in “handling unruly people,” Burch noted in a memo to his UNC supervisor. This weaponry included a submachine gun with ammunition, 12 hand grenades, and three “gas billies with twelve cartridges.” It was suggested that the cost be split three ways between Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC. The two municipalities and the university agreed, and each chipped in $164.50 to cover the cost of the armaments.

Carrboro’s elected officials were particularly receptive to the weapons procurement. Carrboro was still home at that time to several hosiery and textile factories as well as two lumber mills, and the town’s elite were as much concerned about labor unrest as about racial strife. In the minutes of their discussion of the event and the proposed arms purchase, they noted the utility of having a machine gun and gas bombs on hand “in case of a riot or strike.”

That Sunday night, area authorities remained vigilant. The police were temporarily equipped with guns and gas borrowed from Durham, and UNC held its security officers on standby in case of trouble.

Luckily for all citizens of the area, the precautions turned out to be unnecessary. That evening a hard rain washed over the towns, cooling tensions and keeping folks indoors. Law enforcement breathed easy, and the villagers, guilty or innocent, were spared both the brutality of mob violence and the coercive face of law and order.

But white fears of further violence resurfaced later that week when the Tommy gun and hand grenades arrived. This tension centered on a heavyweight boxing match that Thursday night pitting a white, Tommy Farr, against Joe Louis, the famed “Brown Bomber.” Authorities anticipated that the Louis-Farr fight could be a trigger for more racial hostility. Carrboro temporarily hired two extra officers, and Chapel Hill prepared to deputize some of its employees. The towns’ police force geared up with its new equipment, which arrived from Pittsburgh that morning.

Those precautions also turned out to be redundant. The big fight was postponed due to rain in New York, and no more fighting appears to have broken out between the towns. The area’s populations returned to their tenuous but relatively benign coexistence.

Or was it benign? Rumors and the rare account describe the peace that descended on the community in the aftermath of this violence as one of terror and oppression. “Later the police and the red-necks came down heavily on the Negroes,” Junius Scales recalled in his autobiography. His family’s black household servants didn’t show up for work for three days after the riot: “I heard from them the stories … of violence and threats … sheer terror reigned in the Negro community for three days.” Most blacks stayed indoors in the late August heat during this “reign of terror,” fearful for the safety of themselves and their families.

Lending credence to this fear was an offhand remark by Louis Graves, renowned editor of the Chapel Hill Weekly. As he pointed out in his commentary on the event, had the initial violence not occurred when most Carrboro whites were asleep, “there is little doubt that there would have been a slaughter.”

Although a detailed account of the riot reached the Associated Press newswire and ran in both the News & Observer and the Durham Morning Herald, The Chapel Hill Weekly saw fit not to report the details of the incident. Instead, the Weekly summarized the story, and took the opportunity to sermonize on the shortcomings of local law enforcement. In particular, Graves cited the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen for their failure to allocate sufficient funds for the police. While on his soapbox, the Weekly editor also castigated unemployed working class people of both towns and races, calling them “lawless” and a “rough element,” and finding their “idle time” and “excessive drinking” responsible for the outbreak.

Recorder’s Court Judge L.J. Phipps echoed the ruling class sentiment. Graves published the judge’s remarks in the Weekly, alongside his own editorial on the front page. In his remarks, Phipps made known his frustration with the local unemployed of both races, calling on the police of Carrboro and Chapel Hill to crack down on vagrancy. “Habitual loafers,” men “without apparent means of support,” were most culpable for the disturbance, and the enforcement of existing vagrancy laws would, the judge asserted, “go far to remedying the conditions” that gave rise to the street violence. He sternly noted “there is no reason today for the sort of loafing we see in this community.

“If the police will bring into this court men who make it a practice of loafing on the streets,” Phipps continued, “the State, through this court, will provide work for them,” a thinly veiled reference to the practice of sending prisoners to work on the road gang.

What began as an act of racial hostility was interpreted by town authorities as a challenge to the established order. This challenge would be met with the full force of law, and should that fail, the guardians of the public order had at the ready more persuasive means.

Despite their positions of responsibility for preserving the peace, local officials’ immediate response to the crisis threatened only more violence. Seeing the problem as endemic to the underclass, rulers prepared to use deadly force to rectify the racial unrest between unemployed whites and poverty-stricken blacks.

Although having faded into historical shadow for over two generations, the Chapel Hill/Carrboro race riot of 1937 did leave its mark on the future of Chapel Hill. In the aftermath of the event, some modicum of soul-searching was undertaken by the “responsible” white element of the town, including the press and the UNC administration, and some improvements emerged from these community discussions.

Relieved by the fact that the student body was still out of town for the summer, UNC sought ways to minimize the dangerous tension that the August riot had revealed. A month after the event, the dean of students circulated a memo that expressed tentative support for increased town police, including a call for the hiring of “colored policemen.” Although it recommended upgrading police equipment and staff, it also called for the university to consider improving educational services to the town.

Aside from criticizing the underclass in his editorial, Weekly editor Graves also bemoaned the inadequacies of town funding for police, especially in communities of color. He noted that “there have been several murders” of blacks by other blacks “in which most of the perpetrators have either escaped or have got off with little punishment.” In the most notorious case, a black convicted of murdering another black was sentenced to two years in prison. In expressing this opinion, Graves had his finger on the pulse of the black community, who had come to expect that the roughest element of their race would be treated kindly by the courts, so long as their victims were black.

But Graves went on to note a deeper cause behind the dissatisfaction among the town’s African Americans. Impoverished living conditions plagued Chapel Hill’s minority population. Poverty had ravaged Chapel Hill’s blacks during the Depression, forcing people to sell their homes and liquidate their savings. This left many black workers destitute, living in rented hovels with 30 or more people to a house, in areas that Graves compared to the “worst slums in the large cities.”

Add to this the lack of a community center for black youth, who, Graves said, instead resorted to “cheap dance halls” for their amusement, and the picture presented of Chapel Hill is one rarely documented in town lore. It was a place, he implied, where such outbreaks of anger and hostility as the riot were far from surprising. The deplorable living situations and the dearth of recreational facilities contributed to a debasement of the people, and he laid the responsibility for this upon the “enlightened and prosperous white element” of the village.

Graves singled out the “light house” of UNC for criticism, arguing that academics spent too much time theorizing and not enough time practicing the social remedies they studied. Among the upper class whites of the town, this critique likely sounded poignant and valid.

Among blacks, though, it was surely obvious that applications of theory wouldn’t solve the complex economic, social and political problems that gave rise to the prejudice and racial tension that exploded that Saturday night. In a town full of segregated businesses and racially skewed hiring and pay practices, laying blame, even partially, on academic indifference would have been dissembling at best, dishonest at worst.

Indeed, economic and social policies laid out by factory owners and politicians bore a direct responsibility for maintaining an atmosphere of racial tension. Carrboro’s sawmills and textile factories operated under a rigorously enforced system of white preference in all non-custodial employment, and caste rules in Chapel Hill restricted black men to low-wage menial labor, with laundry and domestic work for black women.

Despite the acute racial pressures revealed by the August unrest, change in the economic and social circumstance was slow to materialize. During the war years, union organizers from the communist wing of the C.I.O. tried, with minimal success, to equalize pay between white and black university workers, and to end the gender gap in pay between men and women.

More successful were efforts to invest in the black community’s infrastructure. In January 1939, Chapel Hill began work on a recreation center for the Northside neighborhood, which briefly doubled as the headquarters of the U.S. Navy band. Louis Graves and a committee of four blacks and four whites planned the center and oversaw its construction. Eventually a pool was added, becoming Chapel Hill’s first municipal swimming facility for blacks. Still standing, the Hargraves Recreation Center on Roberson Street serves as a focus for neighborhood activities to this day.

Chapel Hill also strengthened its police force in the aftermath of the event, addressing the concern of Graves and others by hiring a third officer in 1938. Although the necessity of hiring black police was also acknowledged, it took 13 years to make it happen. Paid for part-time work, Nathaniel “Bud” Hopkins and Jeff Foushee were employed in 1950 as “Extra Policemen.” Ordered to patrol the black sections of town, these officers had no arrest powers over whites and were unfamiliar with the white quarters of Chapel Hill. Local lore recounts the embarrassing plight of early black officers when asked for directions by travelers to the area. Kept out of white neighborhoods, the officers were unfamiliar with most of the town, and were unable to offer assistance.

Despite this, though, the hiring of black officers was a step forward for the town. Until then, the only place for blacks in Chapel Hill’s municipal service was as a laborer or janitor.

Further mill closings in Carrboro resulted in an exodus of many white families, who found work in Durham’s tobacco and textile industries or settled in Chatham and Orange counties. This emigration accelerated once Braxton Foushee was elected Carrboro’s first black alderman in the early 1970s.

Yet it took three decades for the area’s racial situation to be challenged directly, and that only occurred through years of organized protest against segregation and discrimination. Whites in Chapel Hill reacted to the sit-ins and boycotts of the civil rights movement with brutality–beating, poisoning and urinating on protesters, but unlike 1937, this time blacks and their allies did not fight back. In small ways, their nonviolent dedication and perseverance paid off–after years of Jim Crow, stores were desegregated and schools were integrated.

Why did the Chapel Hill/Carrboro race riot of 1937 fade from public memory? Why have the numerous historians of Chapel Hill chosen not to include this historical nugget in their works? Asked about the event, a volunteer with The Chapel Hill Historical Society checked and reported that those who knew about it remembered it as a blip on the radar of an otherwise illustrious past. Officially, historical narrators have ignored it. It is documented nowhere in town history save the account appearing in the pages of the Chapel Hill Weekly.

When it comes to race, Chapel Hill’s historians enthusiastically laud the venerable negroes who served the university community, and some find humor in retelling the harmful and even fatal pranks committed by white students and professors on their black servants. But preserving the memory of the race riot or other racial disturbances preceding the movement for civil rights appears to be of little importance.

Documentation of the event itself points out the amnesiac desire of officialdom. In its Monday account of the riot, the Durham Morning Herald reported that Carrboro Chief of Police R.H. Mills preferred not to press charges against Horne, the service station attendant who sparked the unrest by shattering a bottle over Tom Atwater’s head. Mills was quoted as saying that he “hoped that the incident would be forgotten as quickly as possible.”

As far as history has recorded it, he appears to have gotten his wish. 

• • • 

[A fire in the 1950s destroyed all of the Chapel Hill Police Department’s incident reports.]