Published Date

January 1, 2000

Resource Type

For Departments, For the Classroom, Program of Study

This resource was developed as part of the Migration and the American South project.

Interviewer: John J. Beck, 3/19/1999

Mrs. Donna Dodson moved to Warren County, North Carolina in the early 1980s. She moved there from Montclair, New Jersey where she was born and had lived all of her life. Her mother’s parents had moved to New Jersey in the late 1920s as had her father’s mother. Both her father and mother were born in New Jersey. She now lives on a piece of property in Warren County that she bought from family members. She is employed as a secretary at Vance-Granville Community College in Henderson.

Note: [ ] with text in the brackets denotes editorial insertions. Empty brackets denote segment of taped interview that could not be accurately transcribed.

Q. Was it your grandparents that lived in this area [Warren, Vance, and Granville counties, NC]?

A. On my mother’s side, they were in Franklin County, and on my father’s side they were in Warren County. [Franklin County is below Warren county]

Q. Your grandparents were the ones who left this area?

A. They did, yes.

Q. When did your grandparents leave?

A. Well it must have been … All their children were born in the North. So it was a little better than 70 years ago maybe. Late twenties [ 1920’s].

Q. Where did they go?

A. Basically to New Jersey.

Q. Both sides?

A. Yes.

Q. Did they go up together?

A. No, my mother’s mother and father went together, but my father’s mother just went up. My grandmother and her husband were separated at the time so she just went up.

Q. Did her husband follow?

A. He died at a very early age. I think he was about 39 years old if I’m not mistaken when he died. They didn’t have a lot of contact that I know of.

Q. What town did they live in?

A. Basically Montclair. Somehow or another, they ended up in Montclair, both sides.

Q. What did your grandfather do for a living?

A. That was always questionable to me. You know as young people, you don’t ask a lot of questions. The only thing I remember him doing is he constantly had a newspaper, and he was always looking at the racing section, and I think he spent a lot of time at the race track. But if he had a job, honest to goodness, I don’t know what it was. My grandmother, his wife, she did housework.

Q. How about your other grandmother?

A. My other grandmother was sort of enterprising. She decided, she got a big house–I considered it a big house as a small child—and she had four bedrooms and a bathroom on the third floor that she rented out. And the second floor had four bedrooms and a bath and a “humongous” first floor and a basement. And that sort of worked for her.

Q. Did she ever remarry?

A. No.

Q. How many kids did she have?

A. Four.

Q. How about on the other side [your other grandparents]?

A. Three. [children]

Q. Were you close to your grandparents?

A. Oh yes. We lived with my grandmother on my father’s side when we were small until I was about 7 years old. But we always visited my other grandparents every week.

Q. Did they ever talk about where they came from?

A. Yeh, they used to talk about what it was like working on a farm or living, you know, they came from big families. My grandmother, my father’s mother, had, there were eight of them [in her family]. My grandfather’s side there was about 8 or 9 of them. I guess that’s one of the reasons they got out of the area to see if they could do anything but farming.

Q. Did they own their own land [in North Carolina] or were they sharecroppers?

A. No they owned the land. They actually had acreage. As a matter of fact, the school that is next to me, where I live in Warren County, that land land was donated to the school by my grandmother’s brother. Well she gave up her land to him because she didn’t want it. He was one of the few of them that stayed here. He had, I know at one point he had about 88 acres of land. You know that dwindles when you have a lot of children and you start dividing it up. So we ultimately bought about 2 acres from one of his sons when we moved here.

Q. So some of that land is still in the family?

A. Yes. It’s still around. You can sort of point to it.

Q. Warren County was where your grandmother was from. Your other grandparents from Franklin County, did they own land?

A. They did, they did, but my grandfather gave up the right to this because he didn’t want to stay down there. But his brother was a big tobacco man, farmer, whatnot. He stayed there so it’s sort of like the land stayed, but the ones that kept it divided it up with their children.

Q. Did they have anything negative to say about the South, where they came from?

A. Not really no. I never heard that. They wanted to experience more opportunity. And I guess its very much the same today with the young ones. But it’s a hurry-up, speed-up kind of thing I want it now, you know. They were willing to work and, you know whatever it took, whatever they could find. But now they want it right away. But no, they never said anything about regretting it. Its, some of them, when they died, did come back to be buried here, but most of them stayed and were buried up there. They really made a home for themselves.

Q. Were your parents buried here [in North Carolina]?

A. No. They’re all buried in the North. But some of their children that were born here have comeback, and they’ve been buried here. It sort of got to be a split decision type thing becauseparents up there were from the South the children were from the North. They don’t know what todo with them unless the parents tell them “Well, I want to go back or keep me up there.”

Q. Now that next generation, which would have been your parents, what kind of work did your parents do?

A. My father was self-employed as a carpenter/painter. e had his own business like that.

Q. In Montclair?

A. In Montclair. My mother worked for Teeterborough Aviation. It was a government facility for making implements for airplanes and what not. That was a tremendous job at that time.

Q. That was the fifties, sixties?

A. Fifties.

Q. Sixties.

A. Yes.

Q. How would you describe Montclair? Is it a smaller town like Henderson [in North Carolina]?

A. It’s a town, and under 50,000 is a town, I think. It’s always been considered a town. It never got to city status. But it was also a place that was somewhat renowned for the layout or its proximity to New York and its easy access for one thing.

Q. So some of the people that live there commuted to New York?

A. Oh yes. They still do that. That’s very much one of the drawing cards there. One of the bigger things is that Montclair isdivided into Montclair and upper Montclair. And its, you got, basically in upper Montclair you’ve got very well-to-do people. I mean its just a matter of a street dividing them. It just became a place well known, a nice place to live. It was suburban, outside of New York outside of, it was 8-10 miles north of New York. And it’s just, it was somewhat affluent. There were names, Funk and Wagnalls. I think Funk lived there. Larry Dobie is still in Montclair, the ball player. It just was a nice place to live.

Q. What was the ethnic/racial composition as you recall?

A. When I was n school [1950s-1960s} it seems to me we were very much equally divided white and black. And it was like Italian [the white population] basically, nothing else. No Spanish, no Africans, or anything like that. It was just a basic culture there. I understand now it’s very diverse. They have to cater to about 19 languages in the school system now.

Q. You left about 20 years ago so when you left it was still predominantly white and black?

A. Well it was beginning to change. Neighborhoods were beginning to be defined by race. In the neighborhood that we lived in we bought the last house whites lived in. There were only 9 houses on our street, but they were all black on our street. But I mean it was a nice, quiet neighborhood. Everybody kept up their homes and yards and everything. That was one of the things everybody was looking at. So you wouldn’t want to do anything less than your neighbor was doing because they were always looking.

Q. As a kind growing up were the neighborhoods typically integrated or segregated by race?

A. Integrated really because, as I say, when I was growing up….. I’ll say it like this, My grandmother was more than once mistaken for white. And they would automatically do that. And she has insurance in a company that would never have sold insurance to blacks had they realized who she was. When she had children, they put her in the white section of the hospital because they did not know who she was, or they were guessing. And the people that she lived next door to were very well-to-do white people. They had a dairy farm like that in the back of them. They sold chicken and eggs and raised cows and what not. And it was a mixture in there. And it was at a time that it was very hard for blacks to buy anything, but she got through it.

Q. Do you think that was typical or do you think it was because your grandmother was an exceptional business woman and was lighter-skinned?

A. I think maybe just accepted because it would not draw attention to the neighborhood or anything like that.

Q. I know when I was a kid growing up in Philadelphia area—-I don’t even know why I remember this—-I know were were going to sell our house to move to Minnesota. This was in ’60 or ’61. I remember there was an issue because a Philippino couple had come to look at the house. My parents weren’t exactly great liberals, but they wanted to sell the house. And there was some discussion with the real estate agent who said that that had been a mistake, and they weren’t supposed to show the house to the Philippine couple and “blah, blah, blah.” Obviously in the North there was this sort of “unofficial” segregation. Certain areas were white or black.

A. Yes, Yes.

Q. I don’t know where they drew the line, but the guy next door, that lived next to us, was Armenian, and he was a pretty dark-skinned guy, but apparently he was OK. It was OK to sell to Armenians but not Filipinos. When you went to school, were they integrated at that time?

A.Yeh, they were integrated. And I never in the…… I was in school 14 years. There were four of us, four black student that were allowed to go to school to start school when we were four years old in a regular public school system. But they wouldn’t let us go on after kindergarten. We had to spend two years in kindergarten. They were just trying it out. And all of our, I’ve never had a black teacher. So we were, the students were half and half race-wise, but all teachers were white. We had some blacks that were very business-minded and handled a lot of the business in Montclair for years. Especially in realestate. They flourished in real estate. They did real well but, as I said, the school system itself, as I remember it, as I recall, it was pretty much equally divided.

Q. Were there any other people in your area in Montclair from this area [Warren, Vance, Granville counties in North Carolina]?

A. Well, you know, I didn’t know it until years later, and as a matter of fact until I moved here, that we had classmates whose parents were from these areas. We had neighbors that I didn’t realize were from this area. And it’s only been since I’ve been here, that I realized and they had already moved back. This is where they’re from originally. But it wasn’t like it was a known fact or anything. It sort of came out in seeing them in the store or something and wondering “what in the world are you doing down here.” And they had ties down here.

Q. Did you as a kid growing up, did you come back to either Warren or Franklin County?

A. They were the only times I visited. I can remember two occasions where we spent abut a week down here. I was in the sixth grade the first time I came down. And then one of the relatives died, and I think I came back one other time much before I got to high school. Those were my only two experiences.

Q. Do you remember anything about those experiences?

A. They got up real early in the morning to work, and their meals were full course meals three times a day. And there was a lot of grease, a lot of grease. Everything swam in grease.

Q. At home in Montclair, did your mother cook Southern-style?

A. No, No. She didn’t. She could cook but not like that. My grandmother, on my father’s side, his mother, she could cook. She was the one. Everything she made was from scratch. Everything. And leftovers became a whole new meal. [ ] And when I came South and found out people used cake mixes out of a box, I was devastated. I thought everybody made it from scratch. Because I figured, they didn’t, there was nothing on the shelves like that. You know, they wouldn’t dare put [in a cake] anything like that. I really was shocked.

Q. Did you grandmother or your mother serve things like collards?

A. Oh yes. Sure did. but they were very familiar with how to grow it so they could get it go up there. Oh yeh, they served these traditional green, you know, smoked hams, and all that sort of thing. They did other things too. It was just, I just liked cooking from scratch. That’s my biggest memory from my childhood.

Q. Particularly of your grandmother?

A. Yes.

Q. I think you mentioned you are a member of the Jehovah Witnesses Church. Is that what church you attended as a child?

A. Actually not at first. I went to the Methodist Church when I was a kid. But when I grew up and got married and went on my own, we were offered a Bible study by the Witnesses, and my husband and I both accepted. And we made a change at that point. That was about 1970.

Q. That wasn’t too many years before you moved here?

A. No, no really.

Q. Was that AME Zion or ………?

A. No, just Methodist or what they call United Methodist.

Q. Was your husband a Methodist, Baptist [before he joined the Jehovah Witnesses]?

A. No, he wasn’t practicing any religion as such.

Q. Was the church [the Methodist church she attended] predominantly black or black and white?

A. Predominantly, well all black. And you know those are some of things you don’t even notice sometimes. And I didn’t for a long, long time. I just didn’t notice. I don’t know why. I never though about it. I know it was all black.

Q. You just accept what is.

A. I believe I recall now I had some cousins who were Catholic. That seemed to be pretty liberal. But I never investigated it. I know other blacks that were Catholic. [ ]

Q. When you finished, when you graduated from high school, did you go to college?

A. I was on my way to Virginia State and then money got to be the problem. I wasn’t familiar with investigating any other way other than having my parents pay for me to come to school. My parents were separated. And there was money crunch at the time. I picked to go to work for a year, save up, and then I went to business school for a year. When I got out of there, I got a job.

Q. As a secretary?

A. Yes.

Q. Is that what you did most of the years thereafter?

A. Yes.

Q. And you got married. What did your husband do?

A. He was in the Post Office. [ ]

Q. Did he put in his twenty years?

A. No, No. He worked for the Post Office three years, three and a half years, and he decided he wanted to go into his own business, so he set up an auto mechanics shop. And that’s where he was by the time he left and came [to Warren County]. He intended to do that here, but it didn’t work out.

Q. So what did he do?

A. He’s back at the Post Office.

Q. In Henderson or Warren County?

A. Youngsville [a small town in Franklin County] as of tomorrow and then Rolesville [a small town in Wake County] after that.

Q. When you decided to come South, why did you do that?

A. Well, for religious reasons basically. One of my great uncles was a Witness, and he used to come North and visit his children. And he would tell us about the congregation here. At the time it was segregated. And there were not enough servants in the congregation, you know. Well, I won’t say there weren’t enough, there were few in there to get things rolling, to get them going. And by the time we moved here [Warren County], they had integrated and there was still a lack. And, as amatter of fact, there were a few [servants] that had come in from upstate New York. They were not ones that were right here in the area. In our congregation in New Jersey, there were many servants. When we left, it wasn’t like we were leaving anyone in the lurch or anything. We considered making a move where he need was greater than where we were from. And to see if I could help get it going, get things going and what not. Hopefully we have been a help. It has grown.

Q. In the Jehovah Witnesses faith, what is a servant?

A. You have elders in the congregation, a board of elders—-it’s a group not just one person—that oversees the congregation, doesn’t’t’ rule it just oversees it, makes sure it runs smoothly. You’ve got ministers or servants who work right under them to get other things done that would free the elders to do the main work. So that’s how basically it is.

Q. So people who are servants, if they want to go to another church to help that [church], they might go?

A. You know, according to the need. Now, they don’t want to leave the one they’re serving light there in the lurch. Sometimes men have to leave because the job moves them. That’s another circumstance. We didn’t have anything like that. We just had, you know, decided to make the move. It took us just about a year to get it all together.

Q. Your great uncle was from Warren County, and he told you they had a need. And you saw that as a good thing to come for. Did you want to come here [Warren County] for any other reason?

A. No. Because we didn’t have any jobs here when we got here. We hadn’t made any arrangements for jobs. We only made arrangements that we knew we were going to have land. And we actually put [an] older trailer up there for housing for the time being to make sure that we could, since it was such a big step, to make sure we could make that move. If we couldn’t, then we wouldn’t lose but so much you know. We didn’t jump right into everything headlong. And I think we pretty much felt like there wasn’t any reason that we couldn’t be successful in the move. We could whine and cry and wish for the things and hope for the things we used to have, but that wouldn’t make any sense either.

Q. So you hadn’t gotten disgusted with where you lived? I’ve interviewed people who were motivated by that, who wanted to get out?

A. I hadn’t gotten, it was really, I didn’t really want to move so badly like that, but I didn’t mind the thought of moving. And we went back there much more on a regular basis then, than we do now. I’d never want to go back up there again.

Q. In retrospect, why don’t you want to return?

A. I don’t know, people [are] just so quick and fast, and short-tempered. Actually, they’re rude for the most part. I went back up there, and I was in a store to order something, and they gave you catalog to order by number. Got up there, that’s not the number for the thing I wanted. They’re going to make me go all the way to the back of the line again to start all over again by giving me a new catalog. And, they don’t care, there’s no apology or anything about the way they do things, so it’s really changed. And I believe they’re trying to cater to so many ethnic backgrounds that they don’t know how, and they’re not willing to bend. It’s like everybody considers everybody else a foreigner, you know, on the same ground they’re standing. It just got really, it’s not like home. It’s not where you’d like to make a home.

Q. When you left here, that was not a feeling [you had]?

A. No, No. Not at all. I don’t feel pushed out. I didn’t, you know, it was sort of, its just a change in me.

Q. Do you think you brought any “Northern” ways to the South?

A. No, I don’t think I’ve changed that much. I didn’t come here to change anybody per se, you know. But I did come to be changed if I felt like that’s what I wanted or believe or stand for. I know one of my encounters here with a school teacher. I had a niece and a nephew that stayed with us for about a year, and there was some— they were having a little traumatic time in their family life and what not. And we thought that being so young, we could give them some stability for a few years so it would help. And my nephew was sort of nervous anyhow. He’s only about eight years old. And capital punishment, not capital punishment, what do you call it, corporal punishment, we were not familiar with that either. And he came home from school one day very upset and what not, and he said the teacher threatened to whip him. So I just went over to see her the next day, and I said, you know, “We’re not used to this, and I know that this is what, you know, the way you handle matters, but they’re not used to that. But please don’t ever threaten to whip him, and please don’t ever hit him. I said, if you need to, you could call me at any given second to straighten the matter out. They’re not used to that.” I said “they don’t need any more in their lives than they’ve got right now.” Because that’s, they were so quick and easy to do that, you know. And it scared him to death. He didn’t know what to expect, you know. So, you know, you can’t tell a stranger what not to do to you. But that was basically, I mean, I just, I just told her “Don’t ever, don’t threaten to hit him. Don’t hit him.” It’ the sort of things like that I just won’t let go of.

[Mrs. Dodson discusses her career in the South]

A. I basically got the understanding that if I’m going to work for a lawyer, he’ll be a black lawyer. I did. I, I could go to a white lawyer for business purposes, but I would have to work, for work, you know, is going to be a black lawyer. You sort of see those things, you know, and I was not going to make a big to-do about it and what not, but I’m, you know, I’ll do whatever is necessary to take care of what I need to take care of, which is whatever it happens to be. And needing a job, well I got a job. That was the basic thing I was after anyhow. So we leaned things as we went along because again, I’m in you territory, so too speak. I’m in someone else’s territory. So I don’t come in here and change everything around. That’s not the way it’s done.

Q. Go with the flow for a while?

A. That’s right, that’s right. But, as I said, it’s little things that would to me, for me would amount to integrity for me, to me. I’m not going to start to break that no matter what you do.

Q. Do you recall an incident when you came here that really shook you compared to what you were accustomed to in Montclair?

A. No, I hadn’t, but you know it wasn’t that it wasn’t happening all over, I think. You know, sometimes its better hidden, maybe, I thought. But here its more out in the open, and you know where you stood. Up there, it was probably all behind closed doors. [ ]

Q. So it wasn’t anything oppressive when you came………?

A. And then when I started looking back and think about things [ ] up in New Jersey. And it never dawned on me until, you know, you’ve heard stories and people and things in one area, but then, I reflected, its the same way it was up there.

Q. Warren County (and Vance County too) is one of the poor areas in the state—- did you notice the poverty?

A. Yes. And still, you know, some things haven’t changed in the twenty years I’ve been here. Some houses I remember then are still in as poor condition as then even now. And the older generation just seem like they’re stuck there. Not the younger ones, the ones fleeing to get a better handle on things, are going North and coming back with the good cars, high lifestyle, and Ma and Pa are still living in squalor almost, you know. But they’re “let me show you how successful I’ve been” instead of helping them get out of that and do something else. That’s one of he things that I see that I hate. Some of the places remain the same. I’m thinking of one lady that sits out in her front yard, just sits there and watches traffic all day. A much older lady up in her eighties. Well, she, she’s gotten sick, and her children finally came and got her. In the meantime, in that old house that she would burn wood day and night to keep warm in there because it was so open, so many holes and things, well they finally fixed it up. And that lady never was able to come back and see that house in a better condition. Why do you wait until she gets like that and go ahead and fix it? It’s a very small house, no big deal. Fixed it up, and she can’t enjoy it. I see progression in some people, even in hard times. But I also see that there are still kids in the school system that go no further than the school bus from home to school and back. They have not even been in Vance County. And if they don’t take a field trip, they’ll never get out of there unless they just quit school or graduate from school and go and get out of town. I’m still amazed that it still happens.