The Gift of Itself

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New book reaches across the lines of color, gender, and class to retell the history of a small town.

By Bill Giduz

A new book about Davidson history sheds light on aspects not covered in earlier volumes. Though Davidson histories written in 1988 by Mary Beaty and in 1923 by Cornelia Shaw are valuable documents, they are college-centric reflections of their time. College archivist Jan Blodgett and Vail Professor of History Ralph Levering have written a new book, One Town, Many Voices: A History of Davidson, North Carolina, to give citizens representing all the town’s constituencies a say in constructing Davidson history. Blodgett conceived of One Town, Many Voices fifteen years ago at a meeting of Common Ground, an interracial group dedicated to dialogue between Davidson’s black and white communities. Blodgett recalled, “an African-American minister new to town brought to my attention that the previous histories included nothing about the African American community. they were invisible. when i heard that, a light bulb went on in my head. Isaid, ‘I could do something about that!’”

So she began a systematic effort to seek out and interview citizens all over town to compile a history that reflected not just the experiences of the campus community, but also women, mill workers, African Americans, and local people who owned or managed businesses.

Blodgett conducted about 20 formal interviews, inviting people to tell their own stories and those of their families and ancestors. she constructed the history of past generations through many sources, including the college archive where she works. She consulted meeting minutes for trustees and faculty, letters from college students, faculty and alumni, and a college publication that featured a column of town news from 1886 to 1940 that included announcements of new businesses, and news of young women going away to college and returning home for holidays. Early editions of the yearbook, Quips and Cranks, included essays by graduating seniors that shed light on campus and town life.

Blodgett also visited the National Presbyterian Church off ice in Philadelphia to research Davidson’s black Presbyterian church, and the archives of predominantly black Johnson C. Smith University and Barber-Scotia College for records of Davidson residents who attended those institutions.

She approached her research with the understanding that the color line in Davidson still exists, and that there may be some reticence among black citizens to tell their stories to an unfamiliar white “busybody.” To create some comfort with her subjects, she attended church services in the black community, sang with gospel choirs, and attended meetings. “First I had to just spend time with people,” she recalled, “to attend their events and earn their respect to give them confidence that I would take care of their stories and not misconstrue what they had to say.”

Blodgett had compiled material for four chapters when Levering joined the project in 2006. As a specialist in contemporary American history, he agreed to write the section covering 1941 to the present. He conducted comprehensive research in the Davidson College archives, which maintained not only college records, but also many town records.

Because they were researching different eras, Blodgett and Levering faced different challenges. Blodgett explained, “Ralph’s greatest challenge was weeding through tons of information available and narrowing it down. Mine was piecing together stories where there wasn’t much information available.”

Levering conducted more than 50 interviews, working through a list of 30 to 40 prepared questions in sessions that ran up to two hours long. The sessions included information both substantive and frivolous. One notable interviewee was town resident Doodle Brown, who talked about growing up in a diverse, working-class section of Davidson in the 1950s. Kids in his neighborhood picked fights and played pranks. They once oiled the railroad tracks so that a train stopped in Davidson couldn’t get any traction from its wheels.

The book recalls decisive moments and comic incidents. It covers the dire straits the college faced during Reconstruction, when young men were called back to the family farm. In World War II young men were drafted into the military, and President John Cunningham faced a severe drop in tuition income. He pleaded with the War Department to defer Davidson students from service since many of them were studying for the ministry, but Washington was unsympathetic.

It covers the Class of 1906 freshman rock-throwing war against the Class of 1905 sophomores, which helped usher in student government and the Honor Code at Davidson. Another notable revolt was in 1855, when the entire student body left campus to protest strict rules and their enforcement by the faculty.

The authors strive to outline incidents from different perspectives, and let the reader determine where the truth lies. Levering titles his chapter covering 1961–1984 “The Times Were Changing.” He explained, “To describe what happened during the famous boycott of Ralph Johnson’s barbershop in 1968, I used the metaphor of two tectonic plates coming together. There was the slow-moving plate of segregation, tradition, and the way things had always been done. And it collided with the fast-moving plate of integration and excitement over societal change. You shouldn’t blame either side for their actions. It was just the circumstances of the time.”

During regular business hours, Ralph Johnson cut hair only for whites. Many protesters took pride in the success of their actions as Davidson’s contribution to the Civil Rights struggle. But to Johnson it was just another expression of discrimination in a lifetime of discrimination by white people associated with the college.

Likewise, white citizens were proud when town schools were consolidated and integrated, sending black children to the established white school on South Street. But to many black residents, the closure of their Ada Jenkins School was an affront, sucking the life out of a vital community touchstone.

Levering said he was surprised in his research to develop an unexpected theme for the book—civic engagement. He said, “The book shows that there have always been people who have reached across the color line and the class line to try to make Davidson a better place, to deal with racial issues and problems like housing and inequality. Not to sugarcoat things, but there is in the book a common thread of a love for the town and willingness for the different constituencies to work together.”

The authors confirm that they, too, committed to writing One Town, Many Voices out of heartfelt love and respect for the town. “We wanted to give the Town of Davidson the gift of itself,” said Blodgett, “because it’s clearly an amazing place to so many people.”

The Davidson Historical Society raised more than $25,000 from Wells Fargo and dozens of community members to publish the book. All proceeds from sales will go to the Historical Society.

Both authors hope that One Town, Many Voices is a beginning, rather than a conclusion. The interviews they conducted are stored in the college archives, and have been transcribed. Local students set up an interview booth on the Village Green on Town Day and conducted interviews with residents who stopped by. Levering said, “The greatest legacy of this book 100 years from now will be the interviews we conducted.”

One Town, Many Voices can be purchased at the Davidson College Store, Main Street Books in Davidson, or online at www.bkstr.com.

{Excerpt from One Town, Many Voices}

The Often Rocky Road to Racial Integration

In the 50th-anniversary year of integration at Davidson, observations of the unblinking eye of history in One Town, Many Voices are especially compelling, as in the excerpt below.

The most significant changes in Davidson during the 1960s involved major steps toward racial integration, first at the college and then in the town. These changes were historic, for Davidson had been highly segregated since its earliest days. The changes also were difficult to achieve because relatively few black students enrolled at the college in the 1960s and because some individuals of both races—notably diehard white segregationists and black barber/landlord Ralph Johnson— resisted specific changes in race relations as fervently as other whites and blacks supported them.

Integration at the college proceeded slowly. Responding to a letter from nine Davidson graduates who were serving as Presbyterian missionaries in the Congo, in February 1961 the Board of Trustees agreed to admit up to three qualified Congolese students as part of the college’s foreign student program. The first African student, Benjamin Nzengu, enrolled nineteen months later, in September 1962; the second, Georges Nzongola- Ntalaja, came in September 1963. At the time, Nzengu recalled later, “racism was everywhere”; he remembered being asked to sit separately from his white friends when they dined in local restaurants.

On May 17, 1962, before either African student enrolled, the trustees, encouraged by a 53-14 faculty vote to end segregation, instructed the faculty to admit “properly qualified” students without regard to “race, nationality, creed or class.” Two years later, college leaders happily announced that two African Americans, Leslie Brown and Wayne Crumwell, had agreed to matriculate at Davidson in September 1964.

President Grier Martin was happy partly because officials at the Ford Foundation had made it clear earlier that the college would not be considered for a grant until black Americans had enrolled as students. Once Brown and Crumwell were on campus, the college applied to the foundation for a $2-million challenge grant, by far the largest amount that the college had sought from a foundation up to that time. When the grant was approved the following June, Martin was on course to raise the funds needed to transform Davidson from a good but needy regional institution to a more prosperous college with a national reputation. Martin’s ambitious fundraising also permitted him to increase salaries and benefits for all employees, including working- class blacks and whites from the town’s west side.

Partly because only thirteen African Americans enrolled at the college during the six years from 1964–65 through 1969–70, being a black student at Davidson in the 1960s was highly challenging. “You’ll never get a Negro to come here and enjoy it,” Leslie Brown commented in December 1967, “unless you have a larger Negro student body.” Wayne Crumwell’s comment that was quoted in the same article was equally perceptive: “Both races have their hang-ups. The Negroes are suspicious of white people’s motives and the whites have this sense of superiority that is part of their heritage.” As Crumwell also observed, “What good is integrating if the feeling behind it is not real?”

For some white students, feelings of equality had not yet emerged: when members of his fraternity heard the news that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot, William Brown recalled, a group of students came out the front door celebrating. Some white townspeople reacted with similar expressions of joy. More positively for black students, starting in September 1966 college officials decided that the Confederate flag would no longer fly atop campus buildings on football Saturdays, and that the band would not play “Dixie” during football games. Moreover, the housing supervisor at the college, Scotty Nichols, recalled that she “never had anyone refuse to have a black student as a roommate.”

The December 1967 story also noted that the three black students interviewed (out of the five then on campus) “agreed that life was gradually becoming easier for Davidson’s Negro students, and that the college and student body has tried to create a more natural environment for Negroes.” Two black students became the first African Americans to accept bids from fraternities that fall, for example, and Calvin Murphy helped to organize the Black Student Coalition about the same time. Conditions for black students continued to improve gradually, most notably for the social life of black men when African-American women were admitted as part of coeducation in the 1970s. Growing numbers also helped: in welcome contrast to the handful of blacks at the college in the 1960s, ninety came between the 1970–71 and the 1978–79 academic years, with larger enrollments thereafter.

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