Hiding in Plain Sight

Fielding Lewis Fry, the author's great grandfather. Image courtesy David Neal.

Near the end of his life, Fielding Fry, my great grandfather, hand-wrote a brief autobiographical outline on a piece of notepaper bearing the name of the Massachusetts Fire and Marine Insurance Company. At the top, Fielding wrote his birthdate, March 12, 1892, the date of his marriage in December of 1915, the birth of his only child (my grandmother) the following year, and the date of her marriage to my grandfather in 1940. Beneath, a list of his life’s chief accomplishments, milestones, and associations fills the bulk of the page.

Fielding’s work takes up little room. He founded his own insurance agency less than a decade after his only year of college (UNC, 1910)—a business that would later merge to form one of the largest insurance agencies in North Carolina. Most of the remainder of Fielding's outline is devoted to his work on corporate and nonprofit boards, including his stint as President of the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina and as Vice President and co-founder of the Guilford National Bank. He notes that he was elected to the Greensboro city council and that he served as mayor from 1947 to 1949. Fielding could not, of course, capture his whole life on this 5.5 in. by 7.5 in. page. His compact cursive leaves no trace of his talents as a tenor, who “probably sang at more weddings and funerals than any other person in the city.” Fielding had no room to convey the joyful adoration he felt towards his daughter and granddaughters—his “precious girls,” to whom he wrote near daily letters whenever he was out of town. With his long list of accomplishments, it is not surprising that Fielding loomed large in my mother’s family; he embodied an ideal we were taught to emulate.   

But also absent from that list is any mention of his involvement with the Patriots of North Carolina. Both he and his son-in-law, my grandfather, were charter members of the Patriots, founded by hundreds of prominent White citizens in 1955 to fight school integration and maintain “the purity and culture of the White race and Anglo-Saxon institutions.” Nor did Fielding list his role on the national advisory committee of the Federation for Constitutional Government, an effort inspired by Senator Eastland of Mississippi to bring the conservative Southern position on segregation and states’ rights to a broader, national audience. His choice to omit the Patriots from this list mirrors the group’s absence from our collective memory of southern history.

I am thus bound in blood to the continuing legacy of White supremacy. Mine is not the blood of the martyrs, those victims of organized White terrorism, meted out by the Deep-South Klans, sheriffs, and police commissioners. That brutality —gunning down Medgar Evers in his Mississippi driveway, mauling Freedom Riders with iron pipes, baseball bats and bicycle chains at a Birmingham Trailways station or beating marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge—has become the textbook image of Southern racism.

My great grandfather and the Patriots represented a more genteel approach to the fight to maintain White supremacy, one that has mostly disappeared from the arc of the moral story of the new South. That story knows Greensboro as the birthplace of the student-led sit-in movement in 1960. But five years earlier, the Patriots of North Carolina were already putting pressure on state and local governments not to follow the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The Patriots lost their battle to maintain segregation in schools (though not until many years after Brown). But much like their forefathers, who lost the Civil War on the battlefield, they did not disappear in defeat.

 

***

 

When I first heard of the Patriots a few years ago—and learned that it was founded by leading White citizens in Greensboro—I feared that Fielding may have been involved. He and my grandparents made no secret of their love for the Lost Cause. The only portrait in their house that did not depict our departed Virginian or North Carolinian ancestors was of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Over the mantle hung a battle sword that 150 years earlier had hung from the waist of one of our forbearers, an officer in the army of the CSA. Across from the sword was a painted-over portrait of Fielding, stoically gazing past the photographer. Flanking his portrait stood matching table lamps, each plastered over with Confederate currency.

To learn more about who was involved with the Patriots, I turned to the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the very first folder, I found what I had hoped would elude me: a letter, dated September 21, 1955, from Fielding to Erwin Holt, a Patriot colleague and mill owner in Burlington. My great grandfather thanked Holt for sending segregationist literature. Fielding wrote:

I do not know of anything that has caused me as much concern as the Supreme Court decision—it is a damnable thing. Integration in our public schools is something that shall not come to pass—‘Patriots of North Carolina’ will be able to render great aid to our state and school officials.

This was not the last piece of company stationary from Fielding L. Fry & Co., Inc. that I found in the archives. I soon learned that Fielding had been involved with the fight to maintain segregation in the face of Brown from day one.

A second letter to Holt revealed more of Fielding’s motivation for joining the Patriots. Referring to the editor of an Episcopal Church newsletter, who had scoffed at segregationist literature, Fielding wrote:

The most charitable procedure would be to have a lunacy commission appointed and remove him from society. One thing is certain, either he is insane or I am. This is one subject that has no middle ground. One is for integration and a mulatto race or segregation and a citizenship composed of whites and negroes. I feel that I have a solemn duty to do everything in my power to keep both races pure.

As I continued through the file, I read official correspondence from the Patriots, which listed on its letterhead its board of directors, including “Fielding L. Fry, Greensboro.”

 

***

 

Before launching the Patriots as a statewide effort, the Greensboro group first organized under the banner “North Carolina Citizens League,” founded with echoes of the Confederacy:

1.    To maintain Racial Segregation
2.    To preserve State Sovereignty
3.    To promote Peace and General Welfare and the best interests of all Patriotic Citizens of North Carolina

The League was started by eight of Greensboro’s elite White citizens. Fielding L. Fry was the second person to sign his name in support of the League. It is important to name names. Among those who signed up with Fielding were: John W. Clark, president and treasurer of the Randolph Mills of Franklinville; Eugene Hood, a former executive at Cone Mills; Stark Dillard, owner of Dillard Paper Company; Pierce Rucker, Sr., former cotton broker and head of Rucker Moving and Storage; and C. Leroy Shuping, Sr., attorney and state Democratic Party powerbroker. By the time the Citizens League had morphed into the Patriots of North Carolina, Fry was joined by hundreds of others: lawyers, business owners, insurance men, as well as members of the General Assembly, of the UNC Board of Trustees, and of local school boards. At their height, the Patriots attracted upwards of 20,000 dues-paying members from around the state. For their president, they recruited UNC anatomy professor Wesley Critz George, who had become a leading advocate of the “scientific” basis for segregation. George, steeped in eugenics, argued that it was paramount to avoid “any compulsory programs that would tend to bring about the mating of well-endowed…creative people”—Caucasians—“with poorly endowed, uncreative people”—Negros.

The North Carolina Citizen League's original charter. Image courtesy David Neal.

The North Carolina Citizen League's original charter. Image courtesy David Neal.

Thus armed, the Patriots devoted the bulk of their financial resources to printing pamphlets in support of segregated schools and racial purity and against the NAACP – and mailing them to members of the General Assembly, local school boards, state school administrators and other church and civic leaders. They held rallies across the state, including one in March of 1956, at the old courthouse that I see today from my office window in Hillsborough. A frequent speaker for these rallies was I. Beverly Lake, Sr., who became one of the leading statesmen defending segregation, first as the Assistant Attorney General who argued against Brown in the U.S. Supreme Court, and later as a segregationist candidate for governor. The key question the Patriots sought to address at these assemblies was “[a]re we going to have a white or a mulatto posterity?” Although the Patriots’ plan of establishing a local chapter in each of the state’s 100 counties never came to fruition, several active local groups formed and were instrumental in defeating two of the three North Carolina Congressmen who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto. Like their colleagues in the emerging Citizens Councils in the former Confederate states, the Patriots were better organized and better funded in their campaign to maintain White supremacy than were the proponents of civil rights.

 

***

 

In the quiet reading room of the archives, holding those letters from Fielding, I fought back tears. How could such a slim piece of paper hold such a heavy history? But I continued to dig, and I learned how the Patriots helped to push the state to avoid complying with Brown.

 

Until recently, North Carolina maintained a reputation as a moderate-to-progressive Southern state. A business-friendly Democratic Party dominated politics for nearly all of the last century, governing with a style that has been dubbed “progressive plutocracy.” The reputation carried over to the state’s response to Brown. This was no Alabama, with its vicious racists. No Mississippi, with words like “interposition” and “nullification” dripping from the governor’s lips. No National Guard called out to escort Black pupils attempting to enroll in a previously all-White school. No massive shut down of entire school systems at the threat of token integration. And yet, with little grandstanding, the governor and General Assembly devised ways to fend off public school integration that were more effective than those of their more openly defiant Southern neighbors.

At a state level, the Governor's Special Advisory Committee on Education was tasked with formulating the state’s response to Brown. This group was known as the "Pearsall Committee," after its chair, Thomas Pearsall. Pearsall was a former speaker of the State House, businessman and down-east landowner. His committee came up with a scheme for staving off integration while appearing to comply with the dictates of the U.S. Supreme Court. The plan to “Save our Schools” was not, according to the committee, an attempt “to defy the Court.” But one of its chief architects has admitted that it was “attempting to maneuver around the Brown case.” The Pearsall Plan—in color-blind language—decentralized pupil assignment, allowed school boards to set up new, local option districts around particular schools, and put up several layers of administrative hurdles that a Black parent would need to clear before even gaining standing to sue to force integration. The plan also contained a “safety valve,” allowing the closure of integrated schools, if approved by local referendum, and vouchers to send children to private school if otherwise they would have to attend school with the children of other races. Governor Hodges attempted to enlist African-American support for what he called “voluntary segregation,” urging Black parents not to attempt to integrate White schools. The governor warned that any school closures following integration would be the fault of Black families. Even as the plan was being drafted, members of the committee were in correspondence with the Patriots, who supplied the committee with White supremacist tracts and segregationist strategies. In coordination with the state’s Committee for the Public School Amendment, the Patriots successfully campaigned for the Pearsall Plan in the special election of 1956.

As a result of the Pearsall Plan, in the decade following Brown, fewer Black pupils attended formerly all-White schools in North Carolina than in Virginia or Louisiana, two states that had more publically announced their intentions to defy the Court. Yet in that same decade, more suits were brought by the NAACP to integrate schools in North Carolina than in any other state—a sign that Black parents refused Gov. Luther Hodges’s invitation to voluntarily accept second-class citizenship.

 

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Ten years after its enactment, the Pearsall Plan was ruled unconstitutional.  But we still hear echoes of the plan in conservative school policy today. In 2013, the Republican-led General Assembly enacted a voucher program to allow parents to receive public dollars to send their child to a private school. Conservatives today would bristle at the comparison of their voucher plan to the one put in place to maintain segregation. But in the 1950s, as now, the underlying rationale was “school choice.” The Pearsall Plan itself was known as a “freedom of choice” plan because it offered several mechanisms for White children to be free to choose schools that were not integrated. Less than a decade after school integration had finally been accomplished in North Carolina, President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Justice worked to end or scale back desegregation orders. Federal courts began abandoning the enforcement of desegregation decrees in North Carolina in the late 1990s. Not long thereafter, the Supreme Court—ironically, in the name of Brown—all but prohibited school systems from taking account of race for the purpose of maintaining a diverse student body.

What has followed in many locales are “neighborhood schools,” assignment plans that, in light of continued residential segregation, mirror the local option districts proposed by the Pearsall Plan. Schools in my hometown of Winston-Salem have become more segregated in recent years, with the effect of concentrating poorer students together. In 2010, in multi-racial schools in which 90 percent or greater of the students are people of color, 92.4 percent of those students are low income. So local sovereignty, that old Confederate veil for racism, has returned to our language and politics; and local option districts—once a strategy of subterfuge to circumvent Brown—now mirror the benign-sounding "neighborhood school."  
 

***

 

My grandparents' stories about Fielding all came back to the same basic point. His character, business savvy, and work ethic were responsible for his success. They never really mentioned what Fielding did start out with, and in doing so obscured the larger shadow the Patriots cast on us today: not just a set of policies, but a self-assured governing elite.

Fielding—like many of the other Patriot founders—was born into a small subset of elite White Greensboro society, the sort whose parties got written up in the local newspapers. As Greensboro's financial growth began to accelerate, Fielding was just launching his career, and he had social access to the captains of industry. He built relationships in the Whites-only Rotary, Country Club, and Chamber of Commerce. His family lineage gave him the customer base and starting capital that allowed his business to prosper. With these and other advantages, Fielding and his Country Club contemporaries accumulated wealth that continues to be passed down the generations, even to me, his great grandson, nearly six decades after his death.

More generally, the White-owned businesses that launched during the first decades of the 20th century have a locked-in advantage over competitors of color, who could effectively enter the marketplace for the first time only in the late 1960s or early 1970s. My grandfather, Reed DeVane, went to work for Fielding in the 1940s. He inherited an ownership stake in the family business, which he sold upon his retirement in 1980, and similarly inherited a position on the Board of Directors of North Carolina National Bank. He was able to enjoy a lengthy retirement, provide for my mother and aunt, and set up generation-skipping trusts that I too will inherit. And so it continues. Just as segregation created exclusion and disadvantage for African Americans that reverberate to the present, so too did it structure advantage for Whites—above all the White elite—that continues to reproduce itself today.    

A letter from the Patriots of North Carolina soliciting members. Image courtesy David Neal.

Leading Patriots, like Fielding, not only accumulated wealth during the period of Jim Crow segregation, they also carried on political influence that resonates today. I wouldn’t argue that there is a straight line connecting the Patriots with today’s conservative establishment. But there are fewer than six degrees of separation between the two. Tom Ellis, who helped to staff the Pearsall Committee, was in touch with leading Patriots, Fielding included, and the successor to the Patriots, the Defenders of States’ Rights of North Carolina. When the Defenders of States’ Rights proposed putting together a newspaper, they wanted Jesse Helms to be their editor. Ellis went on to spearhead Jesse Helms’ successful run for U.S. Senate as a Republican, who mastered the art of “dog whistle” politics, appealing to White racial resentment without resort to overtly racist rhetoric. Ellis took his influence to the national level, launching the Congressional Club—credited with shifting the national Republican Party to a more Southern, conservative base—and salvaging Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign, setting him up for his victory in 1980. Chief Justice John Roberts cut his teeth as counsel in Reagan’s White House, where he pushed for restricting the Voting Rights Act, argued against affirmative action and pushed for removing federal court supervision of school desegregation, which at that time was hardly a decade old. And now Roberts is responsible for defining and enforcing the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which, in recent decades, is most often successfully invoked by White plaintiffs seeking to strike down affirmative action or other race-conscious, remedial programs.

 

***

 

When I first learned about the Patriots, I imagined a sort of Country Club Klan; a snobbish, well-heeled uncle to the ne'er-do-well, poorly educated and poorly nourished Whites who clung to White supremacy because it was all that they had. The Patriots were led by savvy businessmen and successful politicians. I was certain that they fought for White supremacy because they recognized its central role in the Southern economy: a force for dividing Black and White workers and keeping wages low. Unlike the poorer Whites who were drawn to the resurgent Carolina Klan organizations in the 1950s and 1960s, these Patriots were not at risk of being thrust into competition for scarce mill jobs with African Americans.

But when I read their writing, I realized how similar to real Klan the Patriots were. The Patriots did not explicitly condone violence. But otherwise, their rhetoric was in harmony with the Klan’s. The Patriots were worried that school integration was just a small step away from mixed-race babies and a dilution of the imagined purity and refinement of the Anglo-Saxon people. With that dilution, they thought, would come the end of all that was good and noble in Western civilization. The Patriots did not agree with each other (or the Klan) on strategy, tactics or tone. But they all agreed that racial purity was essential to the continued success of America.

In doing so, they concluded that the socially engineered segregation of the 1950s represented the natural order of things. They came to believe in the truth of their own foundational mythology, while forgetting that the racial caste system had been established with the violence, threats, and intimidation of the Klan in the 1870s and the Red Shirts during the White supremacy campaign in the late 1890s.

Fielding came of age during this second Redeemer campaign. He was nurtured by a generation that lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction. In school, Fielding would have read history books telling him that noble, White North Carolinians had suffered through the corrupt, nefarious, and ignorant “Negro rule” during Reconstruction and again during the Populist-Republican Fusion coalition of the 1890s. It was men of Fielding’s father’s generation who built the state Democratic Party around the central organizing principle of “White supremacy,” culminating in restrictions to the franchise designed to remove African Americans from political participation and entrench their second-class status forever.

Fielding and his colleagues looked at the economic and educational development of Black North Carolinians as reflective of their natural abilities and character. They were blind—willfully so—to the systemic disadvantage, exclusion, disenfranchisement, and theft by Whites over the preceding several generations that created the social reality of Blacks in 1955. There is nothing in the Patriots’ correspondence or propaganda that suggests that they recognized Jim Crow as a system built only a half-century earlier, as a deliberate strategy for building political and economic power for the benefit of White southern elites. It took less than 50 years for the peculiar institution of racial segregation to appear natural.

But segregation then was no more natural than is the systemic racial inequality that persists today – an inequality the Patriots helped to maintain. This reality is obscured by today’s vogue for color-blind language, the American inclination to see individual choice as paramount, and our tendency to ignore history. Conservatives tend to see those in poverty through racially tinted lenses of culture and individual choice. The result is a trend of blaming poor people for their poverty, of ascribing moral failings to Blacks who live in areas of urban, concentrated poverty. But it was not individual choices that resulted in highly segregated urban ghettos. It was not a “culture of poverty” that that kept the vast majority of African Americans in North Carolina from living in neighborhoods with appreciating home values or from working at anything but the lowest paying jobs, largely in fields that were intentionally exempt from New Deal programs such as Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Federal law and state industrial policy provided ladders of opportunity for poor Whites to make their way into the middle class throughout the first three quarters of the 20th century. But for those few African Americans who could find a precarious perch in the middle class, their exclusion from those policies made it difficult to pass assets on to their children. And yet the result—Black neighborhoods that suffer disproportionate, concentrated poverty—is viewed by many as a consequence of laziness and poor choices. What is overlooked are the deliberate choices made by White lawmakers to entrench unequal opportunities.  

This perhaps is the Patriots' final and most troubling legacy – not just the segregation they fought to maintain in the schools, not merely their amalgamation of political and economic power, nor their exclusion of others from it, not just the racist order they sought to maintain,  but the veil behind which they hid it.

 

***

 

The only time I tried to directly interrogate my grandparents’ views on race was in the early 1990s. Having learned about Greensboro’s importance in the Civil Rights Movement from a class in college, I asked them what they remembered about the years of school desegregation and the Woolworth sit-ins. There followed a long pause, punctuated by the tick-tock of a half-dozen wind-up clocks. Sitting under Fielding’s portrait, flanked by those same Confederate-lacquered lamps, they said that they tried to avoid downtown during the civil rights protests. They disapproved of the unrest and struggle and were sure that it was stirred-up by outsiders. They reckoned that race relations had been good before the demonstrations. I left the visit with the sense that they continued to feel bitterness for what had transpired in the schools, streets, and stores of Greensboro in the early 1960s.

I now know that my grandparents were not honest with me. They did not mention Fielding’s efforts on behalf the Patriots. Nor did they tell me that my granddaddy was an active member, considered for the role of Secretary in the fall of 1956. And why did my grandparents choose to remove everything from the decade of the 1950s—and thus all correspondence from the Patriots—before donating Fielding’s papers to the Greensboro Historical Museum? Why this silence? Graves give no answer.

Such refusals to talk about intentional efforts to maintain Jim Crow help to make continued racial inequality seem natural. In living memory, my people were fighting to preserve White supremacy, but I never would have known about their efforts without digging through archives. Their decision to keep secret their fight to maintain segregation made it harder for me to see past the rhetoric that blames poverty—particularly Black poverty—on poor individual choices and moral failings. In this way, we are to the Patriots as they were to the Redeemers. The Patriots believed that the world of Jim Crow segregation was the natural order. They were consummate victim blamers. The Patriots saw the resulting Black poverty as evidence of inferiority. Today we live in a similar delusion – in a world of race-coded, genteel defenses of inequality. It is a world of structured advantage for a certain class of Whites and structured disadvantage for the majority of African Americans, all justified by the myth of meritocracy.

Every generation is thrust into a society that is already riven with problems inherited from previous generations. The typical response, particularly from those who are not being ground down by those problems, is at best a shrug of the shoulders. Chief Justice Roberts recently decreed that "[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." It would be generous to call this thinking naïve. The Civil Rights Movement tore down state-enforced segregation and the threat of violence that would inflict pain to maintain it. But what it left was de facto segregation, a rich White elite, and populist racial resentment. The Klan has never held a monopoly on White supremacy in America. The Patriots gave the same ideology a patina of legitimacy and used it as the organizing principle for resisting integration. Many of North Carolina’s leaders, even alleged moderates, were motivated by this same pernicious myth. Many still are, and don't know it, so well has the Patriots’ work remained hidden. There is an entire conservative ideological apparatus, constantly pushing the color-blind mantra of “free markets” as the solution to every social ill and preaching against any government initiative that might bring balance to the manufactured inequalities that persist today. Such a politics is not just color-blind, it is blind purely and simply: blind to the myriad ways that government has deliberately created pathways for poor and working class Whites to move into the middle class while excluding Blacks from such ladders for generations.

We must refuse Chief Justice Roberts’s childish notion of what it will take to end discrimination. Undoing the systemic racial inequality left to us by the Confederates, Redeemers, Patriots, and architects of the Southern Strategy requires more. The work of White people is to commit ourselves to the long-term struggle to repair the breach in the human family caused by White supremacy. Part of that struggle is unearthing these buried stories that help to show how those in power have, over the generations, employed different tactics to maintain White advantage and restrict Black opportunity.  Ignoring the Patriots’ struggle to maintain segregation blinds us to the complicated legacy that we have all inherited. Owning this history is the first step in creating political space to right the wrongs of structural racial injustice.

All this digging does not mean reducing Fielding to a two-dimensional villain. Such a reduction would be more than false.  It would be too easy. It would obscure the most important point – that brutal, horrific racist systems survive by the deliberate efforts of well-meaning, otherwise decent people. People like Fielding, who are doting grandfathers and civic leaders. People like my grandparents, who are loving parents and charitable souls. People who are a lot like us.