Though only a youth, Levander McArthur somehow knew he was in the right as impulse took over and he invaded the Reeves Community pool — then off-limits to African-Americans.
“I climbed the fence and jumped into the deep end of the pool,” McArthur recalled Thursday afternoon while revisiting the scene of his “crime” that occurred during the 1960s when segregation ruled. The act by the Mount Airy resident now in his 60s took place as 25 to 30 local blacks picketed the center — then known as Reeves YMCA — to protest its swimming ban.
As the group held signs and sang while marching back and forth at the corner of Pine and Renfro streets where the pool is still located today, McArthur’s dive seemed to catch everyone by surprise.
“I took it upon myself to climb the fence — that wasn’t part of the plan,” McArthur said.
It was a hot summer day and the pool was filled, with whites only, and his dive — while now afforded a kind of legendary status — produced a predictable reaction at that time.
“People grabbed their kids,” McArthur remembered. “I guess they thought the water was going to change color.”
Mount Airy police who had been at the scene to monitor the picketers reacted quickly as the youth left the pool just as he had arrived, via the fence. “As soon as I came down, the police had me by the seat of the pants.”
While gathering by the pool to reminisce Thursday afternoon, McArthur, along with two other local residents who picketed the center, Leonard Moore and Deon Dodd, could smile about that memorable event in the 1960s which remains vivid to them today.
But it was no laughing matter at the time for those who happened to be born African-American. This was true all over the South and even Mount Airy/Mayberry was no exception. In the decade of the 1960s as the city’s most-famous native son Andy Griffith starred in a popular television show ironically built around small-town values and love of one’s fellow man, discrimination ran rampant here.
While Alabama had its bus boycott and blacks staged sit-ins at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, Mount Airy was experiencing similar events that few outside the local African-American community are even aware of today.
In August 1963, five black women staged sit-in demonstrations at a business known as Mount Airy Pharmacy, and were arrested after they refused to leave its lunch counter, records show. While African-Americans could order food, they weren’t allowed to sit down and eat.
The next day brought sit-ins at another local establishment, Randleman Drug Co., resulting in more arrests.
“A lot of the young people don’t realize the struggle,” Surry County NAACP President Faye Carter said of the obstacles faced over the years by local African-Americans who desired nothing more than equal treatment.
While Mount Airy’s sit-ins and picketing of the community center pool easily could have been forgotten with the passage of time, records of those historic events recently were assembled in conjunction with the local NAACP’s 50th anniversary.
Carter spent three months tracking down minutes from long-ago NAACP meetings, compiling notes and documents from various members “and pulled out some of the history,” she said. This occurred in conjunction with plans for a Black and Gold Gala that will be held Saturday night to celebrate the milestone.
The NAACP official says the task was not undertaken to open old wounds or cause anyone embarrassment, but to chart the NAACP’s progress from its early days.
The by-product of Faye Carter’s research is page after page documenting the evolution of race relations in Mount Airy, both its tribulations and triumphs, in stark detail. It’s a testament to the fact that while those relations have improved in many ways, the struggle continues.
“Even in this 21st century,” Carter said, “it’s still appalling to me that the minds of some people have not moved from the 1960s as far as racial discrimination and other issues are concerned. And it just really shouldn’t be.”
Black And Gold Gala
Saturday’s Black and Gold Gala to mark the first 50 years of the NAACP in Surry County will be held at the J.J. Jones Alumni Auditorium. It begins at 6 p.m.
Heavy hors d’oeuvres will be served and a band is to provide music during what Carter described as a program of celebration.
The event also will include remarks by individuals who have witnessed the civil rights struggle firsthand.
“We are going to have different people that were involved back then, who are still around, to do testimonials,” Carter said.
Tickets to the gala cost $25 and can be obtained by contacting Carter at 789-3194, Anise Hickman at 351-5344 or Teresa Spencer, 786-4162.
Wednesday is the ticket-purchase deadline.
Didn’t Come Easy
Though an evening of celebration is at hand, it was a long time in coming with many obstacles along the way.
Surry County Branch 5459 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People officially came about in 1962, but the idea for the group was hatched earlier.
“It started back in 1960,” Carter said, when some local women had a dream of organizing the branch.
This was partly triggered by one of them, Louise Conrad Waddall, sitting on her porch on Virginia Street each day and watching employees going in and out of local textile mills. None were black. Waddall had been a domestic worker in local homes and knew a better livelihood was possible, according to the historical accounts compiled by Carter.
The Surry women eventually contacted Charles McLean of Winston-Salem, state field director for the NAACP. He came to Mount Airy and provided direction on what needed to be done to organize the branch.
That led to its charter being issued in the latter portion of 1962 after a roster of 109 signatures was generated. The group’s first officers were John Lovell, president; Alice Rawley, secretary; and Treasurer Sherman Dyson. It met initially at Zion Baptist Church and later at the Madoc Center on Virginia Street. Meetings now are held at Spencer Funeral Home.
Much of the efforts in those early years focused on the hiring practices of local industries, which included NAACP members writing letters and visiting officials of companies to ask them to hire blacks. That process gradually produced results, according to the records, which also detail much attention given to educational equality.
An Era Of Protests
Then there were the sit-ins and the picketing of the community center pool.
While both drugstore sit-ins in Mount Airy produced arrests, when the cases came to court, Carroll Gardner, the presiding judge, offered a lengthy address to the youths involved. It led to him imposing a sentence that would mean no criminal convictions on the defendants’ records.
Carter today sees irony in the fact that African-Americans often were allowed to work in local residents’ homes with those folks’ most-prized possessions — their children — but then couldn’t eat at a restaurant. “It didn’t make sense.”
In the case of the pool protest, there also were arrests, McArthur, Moore and Dodd recalled, although McArthur believes this was mostly an empty gesture to defuse a tense situation without anyone actually being hauled off to jail. “I guess you could call the arrests tokenism more than anything.”
“We were marching up and down the street,” Dodd said Thursday in recalling the event.
Meanwhile, whites also had congregated in the area and were taunting the protesters.
“There were hecklers,” McArthur said, “and people riding by saying whatever.” When the police grabbed him by the pants, McArthur said his mother implored officers to let him go.
The protesters’ efforts that day led to the pool finally becoming integrated by way of a court order. Before that time, the center offered activities for black youths to participate in, but would not allow them to swim.
In the late 1970s, Carter even joined the staff of the community center in an office position. The facility that originally operated under the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) umbrella is now part of the city government recreation department.
While events of the turbulent Sixties opened doors to African-Americans in terms of admission to restaurants, schools and other establishments previously for whites only, there’s at least one constant problem: employment opportunities.
The local NAACP records show that discrimination in that realm has been a concern over the past 50 years.
Carter said she has received 12 to 15 complaints about job discrimination from residents of Mount Airy and Surry County during her four years as NAACP president. “And we haven’t resolved all of them.”
Such complaints are forwarded to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), a federal agency in charge of enforcing discrimination laws not only linked to race, but sex, religion, national origin and disabilities.
“I have even gone with one young lady to the EEOC to file her complaint,” Carter said.
The NAACP also gets involved in court cases, with voter registration another priority.
There is a need for organizations such as the NAACP to remain vital and ever-diligent concerning racial discrimination — “just being vigilant,” Carter said.
“It’s not just Surry County, it’s across the country.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.