Louis E. Austin and the Carolina Times

Above: Louis Austin, reading the Carolina Times, 1947. Courtesy of the Durham County Library Historic Photographic Archives.

Louis E. Austin, just one generation removed from slavery, was born on January 24, 1898, in Enfield, N.C. in an era marked by increasing oppression of African Americans. Austin's parents, William Louis Austin, a respected businessman, and Carrie Austin, taught their son strong ethical and moral values. This led him down a lifelong path of activism in the long Black freedom struggle.

When Louis was about seven years old, his father taught him that African Americans were not second-class citizens. At his father's barbershop, which was frequented by white customers, Louis offered to shine a customer's shoes saying, “Shine, capt'n, shine, capt'n.” He was immediately reprimanded by his father who told him, “No man is your captain. You are the captain of your own soul.”

"I don't know any single individual... who meant more to change in this city and elsewhere than L.E. Austin" 

T.R. Speight, Durham NAACP Member

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.

Above: James E. Shepard, founder and president of North Carolina College for Negroes from 1910 to 1947. He often clashed with Austin on tactics to improve the lives of African Americans. Courtesy of the James E. Shepard Memorial Library Archives, Records and History Center.

the austin family

In 1926, Austin married Stella Vivian Walker in her home of Muskogee County, Oklahoma. Stella attended the Tuskegee Institute and worked in the lab of botanist and inventor George Washington Carver. After marrying Austin, she worked as a teacher in Durham and was active in St. Joseph's African Methodist Episcopal church. The Austins’ only child, Vivian Louise, was born in 1927.

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.

Courtesy of the Durham Morning Herald.
Courtesy of the Durham Morning Herald.

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

One of several locations of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company in Durham, ca.1940. Courtesy of Preservation Durham.

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.

Violence and intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan against African Americans was rampant across the state of North Carolina throughout the Jim Crow Era. Much like this scene in Robeson County, Austin reported that the Klan burned a cross at his home in an attempt to silence him. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

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


Top: Courtesy of the Baltimore Afro-American. Bottom: Courtesy of the Daily Tar Heel.

In the midst of the Great Depression, black colleges were as badly underfunded as black primary and secondary schools. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which mandated equal facilities for blacks and whites, students who attended the all-black North Carolina College for Negroes (NCC) in Durham suffered because of weak financing from the state government. Unlike the nearby all-white University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), NCC had no graduate or professional programs.

In 1933, Louis Austin and two local black attorneys, Conrad O. Pearson and Cecil McCoy, and a courageous young NCC student, Thomas Raymond Hocutt, initiated the first legal challenge to segregated higher education in the South. These men drove to Chapel Hill to register Hocutt for classes in UNC's pharmacy program—no black college in North Carolina offered such a program. After UNC registrar Thomas Wilson refused to register Hocutt because of his race, Pearson and McCoy filed suit on Hocutt's behalf.

Hocutt lost the case, in part, because NCC president James E. Shepard refused to provide Hocutt's college transcript. Shepard opposed the use of legal tactics and argued that black students were best educated at black schools. Nonetheless, this lawsuit was one of the early, important actions that propelled the nation toward the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that outlawed racial segregation in public education.

Voting Rights

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.

Durham committee on negro affairs

In 1935, Louis Austin joined with other black leaders in Durham, including North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance president C. C. Spaulding, North Carolina College president James E. Shepard, and attorney Conrad O. Pearson, to form the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs. This organization registered black voters and challenged inequities in education, employment, and access to public facilities.

In 1936, Austin helped create the North Carolina Committee on Negro Affairs, which sought to advance black interests statewide. Efforts by the two committees yielded important political gains that year. Approximately 4,000 African Americans voted in Durham and black voter registration in North Carolina reached 50,000.

The first executive committee of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs. Courtesy of the James E. Shepard Memorial Library Archives, Records and History Center.


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.

Private Booker T. Spicely. Courtesy of the Camp Butner Society.

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.

the 75 foot rape

Racially motivated prosecution of African Americans continued after the war. Mack Ingram, a black farmer, was convicted in 1951 of sexually assaulting a white woman in Yanceyville, N.C., even though evidence proved he never was within 75 feet of her.

Austin publicized the extraordinary case in the Carolina Times and related the story to Ted Poston of the New York Post, that paper's only black reporter. Poston published an article that garnered national attention for the case. The U.S. State Department was inundated with requests for information about “the seventy-five-foot rape.” The efforts of the Carolina Times helped give the case international renown and brought pressure for justice for Ingram, who appealed his conviction. Ultimately, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned Ingram’s conviction.

Courtesy of the Carolina Times.
Courtesy of the Carolina Times.


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.

Courtesy of the Nebraska State Journal.

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.


Left: Paul Robeson (standing, far left) and Louis Austin (sitting, second from left) in 1948, during Henry Wallace’s campaign for president. Courtesy of the Carolina Times. Right: Rencher N. Harris (third from right) being sworn in as the first African American on the Durham City Council in 1953. Courtesy of the Durham County Library Historic Photographic Archives.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Austin worked with leaders of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, including John Stewart, Dan Martin, and John Wheeler, and white liberal leaders Wilbur Hobby and Leslie Atkins, to create Voters for Better Government (VBG), a coalition of black, labor, and liberal white voters in Durham.

Earlier in 1945, Austin had run for the Durham city council. Although he lost, it was an important step toward gaining black political representation.

The VBG biracial coalition helped increase black political influence in Durham and in 1953, businessman Rencher N. Harris became the first African American elected to the Durham city council.

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.

From left: Henry Vickers, Floyd McKissick, Andree McKissick, and Evelyn McKissick entering Carr Junior High School. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.

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.

desegregating unc

Courtesy of North Carolina Central University Law School.

After World War II, Austin continued to lead the fight to end segregation in schools. Simultaneously, he pushed for equal funding of black schools. In 1949, Austin and attorney Conrad Pearson helped organize a demonstration by North Carolina College law school students at the state capitol in Raleigh. The students demanded increased state funding for the law school, so the school could satisfy American Bar Association criteria for accreditation.

The following year, African American students Floyd McKissick, Harvey Beech, James Lassiter, and Kenneth Lee sued for admission to the UNC School of Law with strong support from Austin. Weighing the earlier demand for increased funding to the NCC's School of Law against the prospect of admitting black students to UNC, white officials increased funding to NCC School of Law and the American Bar Association accredited its law school. Austin denounced UNC president Gordon Gray, calling him a “slick lawyer” who sought to “keep the Negroes down, but do it as quietly as possible.”

In March of 1951, a federal court ruled that UNC had violated the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of “separate but equal,” and must admit African American students to its law school. That summer, McKissick, Lee, Beech, and Lassiter began attending classes at UNC. North Carolina’s oldest public university was officially desegregated.


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.

Left: Reverend Douglas Moore. Courtesy of the Durham County Library Historic Photographic Collection. Top right: Courtesy of the Durham County Library Historic Photographic Collection and The Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Bottom right: North Carolina Mutual executive R. Kelly Bryant in the “Black Christmas” parade during a boycott against white-owned businesses in Durham in 1968. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.

urban renewal

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.


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.

Final years and legacy

"He could have been a rich man and sold his soul to the white and black establishment. Instead he chose to stick with the people."

Benjamin Ruffin, Civil Rights Leader

Courtesy of the Carolina Times.

Austin played a vital role in the black freedom struggle for over fifty years and experienced both hardship and major success. In 1967, Austin was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law at NCC in recognition for his years of service to the African American communities of Durham, of North Carolina, and of the nation.

In 1971, Louis Austin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away that year at the age of 73. Before his death, when Austin needed a blood transfusion, members of the Hayti community that he had championed for decades showed up by the dozens to donate blood.

Left: Vivian Edmonds, ca.1990. Courtesy of North Carolina Central University Archives, Records and History Center. Right: Kenneth Edmonds, current editor of the Carolina Times. Courtesy of the Carolina Times.

Austin’s daughter Vivian Edmonds became the publisher of the Carolina Times after his passing. Upon her 2002 retirement, her son Kenneth Edmonds took over. Today, the Times is still in publication and is recognized as one of the oldest black-owned newspapers in North Carolina. For over 90 years, the Carolina Times has served the African American community of Durham and North Carolina with the motto...

"The truth unbridled."

Louis Austin and the Carolina Times was on display at the Museum of Durham History from 2018-2019. The exhibit's original curator was Jeanette Shaffer.

This online display was created by Abby Strausbaugh Hjelmstad in 2023.