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Southern Cultures 8.3 (2002) 97-105

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Southern Voices

An Ironic Jim Crow
The Experiences of Two Generations of Southern Black

Angela Hornsby and Molly P. Rozum


"They did not knuckle under to the institution of slavery or, following that, the institution of Jim Crow-ism," reflected Edwin Caldwell Jr. on evaluating some two hundred years of his family's history in North Carolina. Descended from November Caldwell, coachman and slave of the first president of the University of North Carolina, the Caldwell family has been entwined with the cultural "ways of the South" through more than five generations. Caldwell's great grandfather opened the first school for African Americans in Chapel Hill in 1868, and the family is rich in educators, doctors, and scientists.

For most of his adult life, Edwin Caldwell Sr. (1911-1995) managed the DKE fraternity house located on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In his position at the house and in his relationships with its members, Caldwell Sr. became an influential cultural "broker" between the black and white worlds of segregated Chapel Hill. He also served as a powerful masculine role model for his son, who, like himself, grew up having to negotiate a southern "Jim Crow" world.

Edwin Caldwell Jr. was born to Edwin and Pearl Caldwell in 1935. In 1957 he received a bachelor of sciences degree in chemistry from Hampton University. Repeatedly denied employment at the University of North Carolina due to racism, Caldwell Jr. headed a lab at Columbia University's Delfield Hospital in New York. He later returned to North Carolina to work for Chemstrand in Research Triangle Park. Caldwell Jr. has supported black students through their sometimes stormy matriculation at the university and has been a vocal supporter of university employee rights. He also served on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board, participated in local voter registration campaigns during the Civil Rights movement, and was instrumental in electing Howard Lee the first black mayor of Chapel Hill.

In 1995 father and son were interviewed for the University of North Carolina's Southern Oral History Program (sohp). The following poetically enhanced excerpts from the Caldwells' interviews focus on the system of segregation that dominated race relations in the South for much of the twentieth century. The Caldwells show that despite the degradation inherent in Jim Crow, a black man could amass some social capital from both the black and white communities in which he lived by cultivating the respect of influential members of the white community and displaying a subtle mix of accommodation and resistance to segregationist practices. The narratives of the Caldwell men challenge generalizations about how segregation worked and emphasize the ironies and cracks in the system of segregation—the moments when rules were disregarded by whites as well as blacks.

Edwin Caldwell Sr. began working for the DKE house at a salary of six dollars a week, although he often brought home ten times that amount in tips. It is clear that he continually [End Page 98] negotiated his power with whoever might be the "boss man" while building relationships with students to provide checks on potential "bad" men. He served as a cultural broker for "both sides"-the DKE students and alumni and the local black community.

I'd always be nice to them . . .
And never talked back to a boss man.
See you had a boss about every year, new boss.
In the late years some of them got pretty bad.
And I really didn't talk back to them then.
I would just tell them what I was going to do and what I wasn't going to do.
If you got to the place where they couldn't—I found out they couldn't fire me, really.
See the alumni run that house. . . .
They [white alumni and students] knew that I took care of that DKE house.
And all my black people knew that I took care of that DKE house.
You couldn't walk through that yard of...


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