austin arrives in durham
Like black children throughout the South, Austin attended segregated schools that received far less funding than white schools did. He pursued secondary education at the segregated Kittrell College in Kittrell, N.C., which focused on industrial education and teacher training. Austin greatly admired Kittrell's president, Cadd G. O'Kelly, so much so that when O'Kelly was hired as the vice president of the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race in Durham (now North Carolina Central University) in 1917, Austin followed him.
Right: The Rusty Seven, ca.1921: Louis Austin (back row, far right) and six friends who attended the National Training School in Durham. Courtesy of the James E. Shepard Memorial Library Archives, Records and History Center.
Austin graduated from NCC's Academy Department in 1921. His graduation was delayed when NCC president, James Shepard, withheld Austin's diploma because the young man and his friends had played a few practical jokes on campus.
During his time at school, Austin worked as an insurance agent at the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, where he made connections with many of Durham's prominent black leaders.
the carolina times
Black-owned newspapers provided a voice for African Americans across the country as most white newspapers rarely reported on black communities. The Standard Advertiser, started by Charles J. Arrant, was one of Durham's earliest black-owned papers and was closely connected to the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Austin began his career in journalism at the Standard Advertiser as the sports editor.
After starting an anti-crime initiative in the paper, Arrant was killed in a shootout with local mobster Dave McNeil. Following Arrant's death, the paper changed hands. Under the leadership of E.G. Harris, the newspaper's name was changed to the Carolina Times. Harris, active in the North Carolina Negro Historical Association, aimed to highlight the achievements of African Americans across the state.
In 1927, Richard L. McDougald, Vice President of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, an affiliate of North Carolina Mutual, approached Austin about taking over the paper. He believed that the current leaders “were not competent to operate the paper because of a tendency toward an immoderate consumption of alcohol.” That year, Austin purchased the paper with a loan from Mechanics and Farmers Bank.
Left: Richard L. McDougald (far left) and employees of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank in 1918. Courtesy of the James E. Shepard Memorial Library Archives, Records and History Center.
1930s direct action
During the Jim Crow era, Durham's African Americans were subjected to many economic inequities that Austin sought to address through direct action. Most white-owned theaters in the South had separate seating for blacks and for whites, but Austin openly defied those boundaries. In the 1930s, Austin bragged about sitting in the “whites only” section at the Carolina Theatre of Durham during a concert. Austin also defied segregation by drinking from white water fountains and sitting in the white section at the bus station. Austin saw these public actions as key to fighting oppression and he criticized other black citizens for following Jim Crow laws.
In February of 1936, Austin organized a boycott against white-owned businesses that had moved into the black neighborhood Hayti, yet refused to hire its residents. The boycott caused these businesses to lose most of their black customers. Shortly thereafter, local grocery stores like A&P and Kroger hired black clerks.
Austin's activism grabbed the attention of both African Americans and whites in Durham, many of whom saw his combative tactics as radical. The attention that Austin drew brought verbal and physical attacks on him and his family. On at least one occasion, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in Austin's yard. Austin refused to back down, and his supporters stood guard at his home.
"Mr. Austin symbolizes that rare brand of fighters throughout history whose dedication to a principal is so great, they endure personal sacrifices, reprisals against their families, public vilification and peril of life and limb, but remain steadfast to the end. We can now appreciate more than ever Mr. Austin's relentless, and sometimes heartbreakingly desolate, fight against segregation and discrimination."
Pauli Murray, Civil Rights Activist
HOCUTT V. WILSON (1933) AND THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA
During the 1930s, Louis Austin helped mount voting rights campaigns in Durham, challenging white supremacists’ repression of the black vote. In 1932, he helped create the North Carolina Independent Voters’ League and joined with Raleigh's black newspaper, the Carolina Tribune, in a campaign to register black voters as Democrats. Austin advised African Americans to leave the Republican Party, which had failed to support blacks' rights for decades.
The campaign to register blacks was viciously opposed by white Democrats. Josephus Daniels, editor of the News and Observer (Raleigh), asserted:
"The Democratic party in North Carolina is a white man's party. It came through blood and fire in allegiance to that principle. It cannot be abandoned now without peril, and small minds bent on immediate satisfactions should not be allowed to repudiate it."
Nonetheless, thousands of African Americans attempted to register to vote as Democrats.
In 1934, Louis Austin and black movie theater owner Frederick K. Watkins became the first African Americans elected as Democratic Justices of the Peace in Durham. The Pittsburgh Courier proclaimed that their “election marks the beginning of the 'New Deal' in the South.”
Left: Josephus Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, was a leading political figure in North Carolina throughout the early twentieth-century. Many of Daniels’s editorials used racist rhetoric to persuade white readers of the dangers of African American voters. Josephus Daniels pictured left with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., ca.1940. Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum.
WORLD WAR II AND THE DOUBLE V CAMPAIGN
During World War II, African Americans formulated a strategy that the Pittsburgh Courier called the Double V, whereby blacks fought for Victory abroad against the Axis Powers, while fighting for Victory at home against the forces of white supremacy and racial oppression. Louis Austin was the leading proponent of the Double V Campaign in North Carolina.
Victory at home against racial oppression proved elusive. In July 1943, Annie Williamson, an African American woman, sat down in an empty front seat of a crowded Wilmington bus. She was beaten mercilessly and arrested by two white policemen. Austin challenged the Jim Crow-era injustice and pointedly asked Governor J. Melville Broughton, “What would you have done if Mrs. Williamson had been your sister, mother, daughter or wife?”
The following year, on July 8, 1944, Private Booker T. Spicely, a Philadelphia resident stationed at Camp Butner, N.C., boarded a Durham bus. When the white bus driver, Herman Lee Council, demanded that the soldier move to the back to make room for whites, Spicely resisted, asserting, "I thought we were fighting this war for Democracy." Subsequently, Spicely moved to the back of the bus. As Spicely exited the bus, Council followed him, and when the unarmed soldier turned toward the bus driver, Council shot him twice, killing him.
At the trial, despite witness testimony supporting the charge of second-degree murder, the all-white jury deliberated for just 28 minutes and deemed this to be a case of self-defense. Council was found not guilty.
This case sparked a resurgence of African American activism in Durham. Austin and other activists reactivated the Durham NAACP branch and named it for Private Spicely to ensure that Spicely’s death would not be in vain. In the Carolina Times, Austin wrote, "Pvt. Spicely has lighted a torch in Durham that will never go out.” Austin insisted that the murder and humiliation of black soldiers would “never crush the spirit which exists in the breast of the Negro.”
Left: Durham’s segregated bus station. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
“SEGREGATION MUST AND WILL BE DESTROYED”
During the postwar era, Austin declared, “Segregation must and will be destroyed.” In 1947, he organized a racially integrated football game in Durham between the white Vulpine Athletic Club from Philadelphia and the black Willow Tree Athletic Club from Washington, DC. The Chicago Defender hailed the game as “the first football game between Negroes and whites in the South.” The game, which was played in front of a non-segregated crowd of 3,000, resulted in a 6-6 tie.
Background: Organized by Louis Austin, the black Willow Tree Athletic Club (pictured here) from Washington, D.C. played against the white Vulpine Athletic Club in what was heralded as the first integrated football game in the south. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library.
VOTERS FOR BETTER GOVERNMENT
public schools and integration
After the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) outlawed racial segregation in public schools, white officials across the South, including North Carolina governors William Umstead and Luther Hodges, blocked enforcement of the ruling. In 1956, the N.C. General Assembly, dominated by the Democratic Party, passed the pupil assignment plan and the Pearsall Plan, which decentralized public school authority and delayed integration.
After southern governors, including Umstead, declared their resistance to integration, Austin condemned the officials, noting that “no scheme of the lowest traitor was ever more despicable.” Disgusted with the Democrats' pro-segregation stance, Austin used the Carolina Times to support Republican Party candidates.
In 1959, after black legal action and protest finally cracked the walls of segregation in Durham's public schools, Austin championed seven courageous black students who desegregated Durham's schools. These brave freedom fighters included Floyd McKissick’s oldest daughter Joycelyn, whose first job was at the Carolina Times, and her younger sister Andree. Despite suffering frightful indignities at the hands of some white students, these young black trailblazers refused to back down, receiving valuable support from the black community.
Right: John H. Wheeler (standing, far right) addressing Governor Luther Hodges. Wheeler, Austin (seated, left of Wheeler), and other African American leaders opposed the governor’s plans to obstruct the desegregation of public schools following the Brown V. Board of Education decision. Courtesy of the Durham County Library Historic Photographic Archives.
THE ERA OF SIT-INS AND BOYCOTTS
Rev. Douglas E. Moore, who studied theology with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the church had power to centralize action against segregation. In June 1957, he led seven young African American activists to the Royal Ice Cream Parlor at 1000 N. Roxboro Street, where they sat in the section reserved for whites. This sit-in, likely the first of its kind in North Carolina, inspired future nonviolent protests such as the well-known Greensboro sit-ins three years later.
Although most of Durham's black leaders opposed this direct challenge to racial segregation, Louis Austin backed the protest from the start. As he had for decades, Austin opposed the gradualism of the city's more moderate black businessmen. Indeed, about two weeks before the Royal Ice Cream sit-in, the bold editor encouraged Durham's black leadership to take forthright action against racial segregation.
During the early 1960s, as civil rights activists in Durham expanded their protests to movie theaters, restaurants, and other public facilities, the Carolina Times supported boycotts by publishing the names of white-owned retail businesses that refused to integrate and hire black sales clerks. The movement to integrate downtown Durham restaurants yielded fruit in May 1963 as a result of massive black protests and negotiations mediated by newly elected mayor R. Wensell Grabarek.
One of the most controversial issues in Durham during the late 1960s was urban renewal. At first, African Americans, including Louis Austin and the Carolina Times, supported urban renewal because they believed that federal and local funding would dramatically improve the substandard housing and roads in the historically black community of Hayti.
Background: Substandard housing in Durham, prior to urban renewal, ca. 1950. Courtesy of the Durham County Library Historic Photographic Archives.
Despite its promising beginnings, urban renewal proved to be a disaster for Hayti. After hundreds of homes and businesses were razed and the East-West Expressway (NC-147) was built through the heart of Hayti, the community was virtually unrecognizable. Many Hayti residents bitterly declared that “urban removal” was a more accurate term for what had been done to their community.
Background: Protestors marching against Durham’s urban renewal, ca.1960. Courtesy of the Durham County Library Historic Photographic Archives.
HOWARD FULLER AND LOUIS AUSTIN
During the mid-to-late 1960s, Austin continued to be a strong supporter of the younger generation of black activists, notably Howard Fuller, who came to Durham in 1965. Fuller recalled that Austin was “like a bulldog at the ankles of the black bourgeoisie.”
Although Austin was not a fan of Black Power or black nationalist organizations like the Black Panther Party, Austin and Fuller remained allies, even after the younger man embraced Black Power rhetoric and armed self-defense. In an October 1967 speech, Fuller told North Carolina College students that he “did not come to NCC to start a riot,” but at the same time, he had “turned the last cheek. The next time I turn a cheek, I'll follow it with a right cross.” While Austin did not embrace Black Power rhetoric, he remained a fierce advocate for black political power. Before the May 1966 primary, the Carolina Times published banner headlines urging African Americans to vote, declaring, “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People.”
Left: Howard Fuller (right) at a registration table for the Malcolm X Liberation University in 1969. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.