Peninsula 1963: As different as black and white [Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)]
(Daily Press (Newport News, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 25--In the pivotal summer of '63, life on the Peninsula was the best of times and the worst of times -- depending on which side of the color line you lived on.
For some, jobs were plentiful, homes were affordable, stores were stocked and the new Space Age had all eyes turning to the moon and limitless possibilities.
For others, it was understood -- and usually advertised -- that certain jobs, homes and businesses were off limits. For them, public schools court-ordered to desegregate were in their fourth year of Massive Resistance. Daily life had boundaries.
That summer -- what some pundits called "the summer of Negro discontent" -- segregation was in force in Hampton Roads, if not at the forefront.
It didn't erupt into pickets, marches, riots, arrests and trials here as it did in neighboring Danville or Farmville -- street dramas calling for integrated schools and better jobs for blacks that captured the attention of civil rights leaders, Hollywood stars and the international press.
Here, segregation was more of a simmering mutual understanding.
"You go, you do your own thing, you go to your own restaurants," recalled Joe Whitaker, 79, a long-time Newport News resident and City Ccouncil member. "They had 'colored' toilets, 'white' toilets. Water fountains. And that was in the '50s. It was getting a little better in the '60s."
The good life
Better, but not good enough for many blacks in Virginia and around the country. Desegregation was taking too long, and major civil rights groups were organizing a massive march on the nation's capital on Aug. 28 to force the issue.
Daily Press editions from that summer indicate life was good on the Peninsula. It was business as usual for city councils, school boards, women's clubs, garden clubs, bridge clubs.
Topping the music charts was "It's My Party (And I'll Cry If I Want To)." In the theaters, you could see "No Time For Sergeants," "Splendor in the Grass," "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."
It was the comics heyday of "Pogo," "Beetle Bailey," "Blondie," "Nancy," "Li'l Abner" and "Yogi Bear."
Salem menthol cigarettes urged smokers to "Take a puff -- it's springtime" and Winston promised to "taste good ... like a cigarette should."
The Peninsula metropolitan area had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, from 1.5 percent to 3 percent. The income buying power for each household was $7,188 -- nearly $400 higher than the national average.
Homebuilding was up, and with all that buying power you could snag something like a two-story brick colonial at Warwick on the James for $29,900.
You could furnish it with a washing machine and refrigerator for $198.88 each, a gas range for $99.95, and a five-piece sectional sofa for $199.95.
A Gwaltney ham went for 39 cents a pound and whole fryers for 24 cents a pound. A bunch of celery cost a dime, and a cucumber four pennies.
A man's suit was $35.90 and a dress shirt $5, while a woman's two-piece seersucker outfit cost $5.99, and a blouse $2.99.
The other life
But for black residents, where you lived, your leisure activities, what you bought and where, and how you paid for it was largely a matter of race.
Throughout the pages of the Daily Press, the distinction stretched from cradle to grave -- from birth announcements ("A daughter born to A/IC and Mrs. Eugene E. Gentry, Negroes, Hampton") to obits ("Gwendolyn Yvonne Braxton, five weeks old, a Negro").
Classified ads specified which jobs, apartments and homes were available to "coloreds."
Even business communities were segregated. It was universally understood that shops and theaters along Washington Avenue were designated for whites, Whitaker said, and Jefferson Avenue for blacks.
"They didn't want you on Washington Avenue," Whitaker said. "You could go into the store, but certain things you couldn't do in the store, like trying on clothes. You couldn't try on a dress or a suit. You couldn't put a hat on your head."
Black customers who wanted to buy, he said, had to pay cash -- no credit or layaway.
Coming up with the cash was another matter.
At the time, Whitaker was a father of four with a good job as an inventory controller for a national lumber supplier. He was also on a committee that lobbied local employers to hire blacks.
"We were trying to get jobs for our people, and they would not hire them," Whitaker said. "We couldn't get a car dealership to even have them sell a car."
Typical work for blacks, he said, was "unloading boxcars, loading trucks -- that kind of thing."
His own father supported 11 children by wielding a "chipping hammer" high on scaffolding at the Newport News Shipyard -- "hard and dangerous" labor, he said, typically allocated to black workers.
School teachers in the area could start out making $4,200 a year, but at the time white teachers required only a teaching certificate, while black teachers needed a bachelor's degree and taught at predominantly black schools.
Police officers earned a starting salary of $4,000, with a $3,000 raise in one or two years. But there were few black police officers at the time, Whitaker said, and they couldn't arrest a white man. "They could contain him," he said, "but they had to call a white police officer to arrest him."
"You get used to it," Whitaker said of segregation.
Still, some progress was made that summer. The Daily Press reported that owners of motion picture theaters in Newport News and Hampton, citing "the inevitability of integration," quietly lowered their segregation bars, as did a majority of restaurants, hotels and motels.
"Negroes," the Daily Press reported, "are known to have obtained service at several facilities."
'Tomorrow and tomorrow'
A major flashpoint in Virginia at the time were the public schools.
In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered public schools to desegregate, and a state board was tasked to review applications of black students to attend predominantly or previously all-white schools and assign them accordingly. All summer long, placements were being announced.
Hampton and Newport News adopted integration early on -- to a point. They kept their public schools open and formed what Whitaker calls a "freedom of choice" policy that permitted integration but didn't necessarily facilitate it. At the same time, many black students didn't want to attend white schools. The result was relatively little integration.
Other districts stubbornly dug in their heels.
Prince Edward County shut down its entire public school system, and four years later its white children were still attending private schools while black children went without formal education. In July 1963, protests began in Farmville, the county seat.
More protesters took to the streets in Cambridge, Md., on the Eastern Shore, for weeks of demonstrations that degenerated into riots, tear gas, gunfire, state troopers in steel helmets and National Guardsmen on patrol. Finally the city was placed under a modified version of martial law. It took 10 hours of talks with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to broker a racial peace pact.
Protests erupted in Danville in May over unfair employment practices, and a week later demonstrators were dispersed by high-pressure fire hoses and nightsticks; about 30 were arrested.
"Tell our white brothers we will be here each day," a protest leader told the Associated Press. "We will be here tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow."
They were. When NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in mid-June, Kennedy appealed for calm in Danville. As Martin Luther King Jr. prepared for a July 3 visit, the city obtained a federal injunction to bar him from leading or inciting unruly demonstrations.
Even without King, demonstrations continued until late August when seven black children entered Danville public schools without incident, finally breaking the color barrier.
Black students fared less well in Surry County, which chose to adopt and tweak the notorious Prince Edward County model. The parents of virtually all of Surry's 431 white schoolchildren enrolled them in a new private school, while 19 of the county's 22 white public schoolteachers resigned to teach in the private system. The board authorized the superintendent to accept the other three "when they are submitted."
Leave it to history
Other flashpoints erupted in other cities, other states. Risings in Richmond, in Lexington and Wilmington, N.C., in Harlem and the Bronx, in Baltimore and Chicago, in Jackson, Miss., and East St. Louis.
In one Louisiana town, 33 child demonstrators were jailed after a "freedom sing." Alabama Gov. George Wallace was still barring the schoolhouse door to blacks.
Against this backdrop, President John F. Kennedy unveiled a landmark civil rights bill which critics blasted as federal overreach. A Daily Press editorial called it a "vast new expansion of the federal government's powers over the states."
After conferring with 18 of his colleagues, Sen. Richard Russell, a Georgia Democrat, said forcing business owners to unwillingly accept those of a different race as guests created "a special right for Negroes," more appropriate to a "socialistic or communistic state."
The "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" had been in the works for weeks, and now organizers decided to incorporate support for Kennedy's civil rights measure.
Critics feared violence and mayhem, and even the country's six black congressmen were divided over whether it was worth the effort and the estimated $110,000 cost.
On the eve of the march, a Daily Press editorial conceded that while "Negroes have a number of absolutely correct grievances," the march was a "purely political carnival" orchestrated by the Kennedys and "militant leaders of the Negro race."
It listed the organizers' 10 key "demands," which included:
-- A guarantee to all Americans access to public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education and the right to vote;
-- Withholding federal funds from programs which discriminate;
-- Desegregation of all school districts;
-- A ban on discrimination in federally supported housing;
-- A massive federal training program for unemployed workers and "meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages"; and
-- A national minimum wage act that offered a decent standard of living.
Such demands, the editorial chided, "might properly be called 'The Moscow Charter' or the 'Lenin Doctrine.'"
On Aug. 28, the march and rally went off without mishap, despite an estimated 250,000 descending on the National Mall from all over the country.
On Aug. 30, a Daily Press editorial credited demonstrators for carrying off the event "with consummate orderliness," but left it to historians in the years to come to explain what it accomplished.
Neither Martin Luther King Jr. nor his speech were mentioned.
(c)2013 Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
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