I came to the Department at Chapel Hill for its reputation as the top race relations grad program in the nation. An excellent course with Nicholas Demerath, at UConn, no doubt pointed me there. I was also energized by the civil rights movement in the South and Carolina was the place to study it. Six decades later, my recall isn’t quite what it was for Bowerman’s statistics courses but with a bit of archival digging, memory triumphs!
1) When I arrived in September 1958, at the Chapel Hill bus station, its White and Colored water fountains were still solidly in place. A real eye-opener for this New England Yankee.
2) That year, the University was admitting its first African-American undergraduates. They found the community not so welcoming. A year earlier, the National Student Association had found racial segregation alive and well in Chapel Hill. Black students had no access to theaters and could eat in a restaurant or two only in a “designated” seating area. No University administrator interviewed was interested in changing the situation.
The YM/YWCA’s Human Relations Committee, guided by Anne Queen, set about opening the town for our students of color. I joined up. Business owners told us that their white patrons would object to “race mixing.” We felt that their mostly student patronage would be more tolerant than that, but had no evidence. We sought it in two ways: 1) letters supporting “equal access for all students” from 15 campus organizations, and 2) a Spring ‘59 opinion survey of 1200 students living in independent, Greek and graduate units. Alumni Building’s survey methods machine would come in handy as we moved along. How would respondents feel if Carolina’s Negro students were served in town? 69% favored, 17% wouldn’t care either way, 10% mildly opposed and 3.7% would withdraw business. 67% of those interviewed signed an “equal privileges” petition.
By Fall of 1959, with our evidence of student support for change Danzigers, The Rathskeller and Harry’s were already serving all colors. Other businesses would not do so without an agreement to cooperate signed by all of them and a resolution passed by the student legislature. On February 4, 1960, the legislators with a 2-1 majority went “on record as favoring the proposal that the theaters and restaurants of Chapel Hill serve all students in the University, without discrimination.” There followed months of desultory negotiations with the merchants, punctuated with a lunch-counter sit-in by local black high school students. Uncertainty and the threat of coercion stiffened the resistance of some. The Varsity Theater came around but the Carolina needed an extra nudge. Our picket line stood there for several evenings until all were being admitted if not welcomed. I remember an apoplectic old man cursing and spitting on us. One of life’s unforgettable experiences. The desegregation of downtown Chapel Hill was slow, hard work but by the summer of 1960, it was a social fact.
4) I remember working my tail off at Alumni Building. As a teaching assistant for Doug Sessoms, I learned how to use humor to open minds. I took sterling courses with Vance, Johnson, Gulick, Campbell, Honigman et al. Decades later, as computing replaced calculating, punching, sorting, my students could scarcely believe my tales of data drudgery back then.
In February 1960, fellow student Al Williams and I were discussing thesis topics when we learned of the first lunch-counter sit-ins. I sped off to Greensboro that afternoon to interview the four student initiators at A and T College. I knew, driving back to Chapel Hill, that I had found my project. As the sit-in movement swept across the South, Daniel Price’s IRSS funded “A Study of Student Opinions”, a questionnaire survey of 2600 sit-in participants. It was directed by Ruth Searles, with Al Williams and I (and others perhaps) doing the field research. I used an early portion of the data gathered for my thesis, analyzing the demographics, attitudes and motivations of 800+ movement participants around the state. Al probably earned his PhD with the larger project. I was already committed to a September departure for two years of refugee relief work in North Africa. Time was urging me on. Dick Simpson was my thesis advisor as I hammered out “The Sit-Down Protests.” Some of it appeared later in Wehr, Sociological Inquiry (38:1, 1968).
5) My time in Sociology at Chapel Hill was for me one of rich learning. I was working in a momentous historical context, with competent, congenial guidance. The Department was, I believed, advancing knowledge supportive of societal improvement. I would go on to use that training and experience to study protest movements on four continents over four decades. That professional life can be found at spot.colorado.edu/~wehr. Some of my retirement fun is at www.wehranimations.com.
Submitted September 2015