Thomas Bell

Interviewed by unknown on October 16, 2013
Thomas Bell, a long time Northside community member and employee at Hillsborough Prison, attended Lincoln High School immediately before the desegregation of Chapel Hill public schools. He reflects on growing up in the Northside (walking to high school football games in Carborro, playing at Hargraves, complying with segregation rules in Chapel Hill), his participation in sit-ins and protests of the Chapel Hill Civil Rights Movement, his time as the first black employee at Hillsborough Prison, and the neighborhood residency shift with the effects of gentrification. Bell discusses his family life and his experience working in the fields with his grandfather, his “kin” relationships with most community members, and his involvement with the community today as an church member and volunteer at Heavenly Groceries.

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Title

Thomas Bell

Description

Thomas Bell, a long time Northside community member and employee at Hillsborough Prison, attended Lincoln High School immediately before the desegregation of Chapel Hill public schools. He reflects on growing up in the Northside (walking to high school football games in Carborro, playing at Hargraves, complying with segregation rules in Chapel Hill), his participation in sit-ins and protests of the Chapel Hill Civil Rights Movement, his time as the first black employee at Hillsborough Prison, and the neighborhood residency shift with the effects of gentrification. Bell discusses his family life and his experience working in the fields with his grandfather, his “kin” relationships with most community members, and his involvement with the community today as an church member and volunteer at Heavenly Groceries.

Subject

Bell, Thomas

Type

Oral History

Creator

Marian Cheek Jackson Center

Publisher

Marian Cheek Jackson Center

Date

2013-10-16

Rights

Open for research.

Format

MP3 (64000 bitrate)

Language

English

Identifier

CR_0102

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

unknown

Interviewee

Bell, Thomas

Interview Processor

Unknown

Interview Date

2013-10-16

Location

St. Joseph CME Church Conference Room, Chapel Hill, NC

Transcription

Thomas Bell
Transcript
CR | Community Routes Marian Cheek Jackson Center
1
Interviewee: Thomas Bell
Interviewers: Zack Kaplan, Michael Batres
Interview Date: October 16, 2013
Location: St. Joseph CME Church Conference Room, Chapel Hill, NC
Length: 02:03:10
START OF SEGMENT
[START 00:02:49]
Thomas Bell: And we attended Northside...
Zack Kaplan: Northside Elementary?
TB: Elementary.
ZK: Okay.
TB: Back in the day, before we graduate, we went to the sixth grade, and then from the
sixth grade everybody went to Lincoln High School…
ZK: Right.
TB: We had a, graduation, at that time, and then you’d go to Lincoln.
ZK: And when you attended these schools, this is when they were both segregated, right?
TB: Yeah.
ZK: Okay. So were you at all in school when the schools were integrated, or when you
were in school was it only segregated?
TB: Only segregated. I left ‘65,
ZK: Okay.
TB: ...and I think ‘66 they integrated.
Thomas Bell
Transcript
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2
ZK: You said you graduated in ‘65?
TB: Mhmm.
ZK: Oh ok, so you were there right before then.
TB: Mhmm.
ZK: Okay.
TB: But in um...I think in... in ‘63, maybe ‘61 or ‘62 they were- they had been talkin’
about, you know, moving some students into Chapel Hill High, so I think, I’m not- I think
around about ‘63 they integrated a few, a few people from Chapel Hill, from Lincoln went to
Chapel Hill High School in I think it was ‘63. And uh...the people that was out of our class, was
uh, Clementine Seth and, Eugene Hines. So they were the first ones before they moved anyone
else in from Lincoln, and then I think after ‘66, that’s when they integrated, and they closed
Lincoln, and then Lincoln became like a...office, for the school system.
[END 00:05:10]
[START 00:05:16]
TB: When we were coming up, we had a theater, for the blacks here in Carrboro, at uh,
where peacemakers garage, that spot right there was a theater, and the man would let us take out
the little billboards of the upcoming movies, and we’d be able to get in the movie for free.
ZK: Oh nice.
TB: And that was uh, and then like, we could go to the uh, they had a milk dairy right
here on the corner, across from Chapel Hill Tire Company, we could go there during that time,
and we didn’t have no stipulations of going to different doors, you know they had one way in
and we could, uh, go to, uh, the dairy, and we also could go to Big Johns but, uh, the Colonial
Thomas Bell
Transcript
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Drugstore was across the street, we could also go there, but we couldn’t sit down or anything like
that, but we could always go, and get medicine.
ZK: Mhmm
TB: You know, and it was, and the amazing thing was, he was, there wasn’t any
drugstores other than the drugstore there, because, well if there was they weren’t in walking
distance. I know for me, my grandfather would send me over to the drugstore, and he’d just tell
me, uh, go over there and tell Big John he need his medicine, all I would do is go over there and
tell him, and give him my grandaddy’s name and whatever and he’d, you know...
ZK: He’d take care of it?
TB: He’d take care of it. And you know you didn’t never, we didn’t never know what it
was because once they sealed it up, that was it, you know, we didn’t never open it up to see what
it was. And, let’s see...then years later they had a burger chef right there, next to uh, next to the
seven eleven here on the corner, right down the street on Rosemary, and that was good, twentyfive
cent burgers, that was great, and we did most of like, we were able, like I told people, we
were able to go all, like, all over Chapel Hill, you know, we knew where all our friends stayed,
even the ones stayed out on, uh, Eubanks Road, where the landfill is, you know we used to go all
the way out there, you know, we’d ride bicycles, we had friends all on Whitfield Road, we would
go out there and, shoot man we’d end up during the day we’d be about, eight or nine of us, you
know we would ride, go to each, each place, like I told, my grandchildren always ask me how do
so many people know me, I told them I said well, you know when we was comin’ up, Chapel
Hill wasn’t that big, it wasn’t but two schools, but everybody interacted with everybody, you
know, everybody knew everybody, and because we was always on this part of town, or this part,
or, we were all over and then, um, as we got on up about eleven or twelve, it started being like, if
Thomas Bell
Transcript
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4
you live in the Northside area, you couldn’t go over to the Carrboro area, or even go on Merrit
Mill Road, but we had to go on Merrit Mill Road because we had to go to school, but you know
it was always like a little, we would, they were our enemies and we were theirs, whatever, and
sometimes we had little fights, but they weren’t nothin’, you know we’d just fight, and didn’t
nobody never get hurt, you know, just little scraps, just to try to be able to let them know that the
couldn’t stop you from going where you wanted to go. It’s not like the bullying thing today, you
know where people get hurt, ‘cause after the fight we would be friends, the next day, you know
we’d probably meet up somewhere, it wasn’t never no, you know nobody ever got hurt, we just
like, a little threatening thing, we’d just throw rocks ‘cause we didn’t have nothing else to do, so
we’d just throw rocks, and then, uh, we’d go to the football games and the football games was
over in Carrboro, there down below the fire station, and that was our tough time then, ‘cause the
white people would sit on the porch, and call us all these racist names, and the, uh, the houses,
you know how the houses are right there in Carrboro, they’re right on the street, and they could
sit on their porch, you know, and so we’d get in the middle of the street, to go through. You
know then sometimes, we’d have to, uh, like, run, you know from one spot, from one point to the
other, but then after the game, it wouldn’t be no problem because there’d be so many of us
coming, coming through, and they’d be gone then, you know they’d be got off the porch or
whatever, but it wasn’t never no real conflict with them either, you know they, it was just that
they just did a lot of talkin’ and threatening and stuff like that. And uh, but other than that, it
wasn’t no big problem.
[END 00:12:09]
Thomas Bell
Transcript
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5
[START 00:00:07]
ZK: One question that I had is, uh, about your family. Could you tell us a little bit about
the family that you had when you were growing up here?
TB:It was, my father died when I was uh, about eight. And I was raised by my mom. But
also I had first cousins, that, they were like my sisters and brothers, I was an only child, so they
were like my sisters and brothers. But I had aunts and uncles and, I had a lot of, it was a lot of, I
was kin to a lot of people so like, I would hang out, we’d all hang out together. Because we had,
kin people lived right down from the center, and we had good friends, you know a lot of the guys
we went to school together, lived right here by the center. And so, you know, after my father
died my uncle he came and stayed with us for a little while, and, but, I spent more, I think I spent
more time with my grandfather, probably than I did with, with my grandfather and one of my
mama’s sisters husband, I spent more time with them than I did with anybody else. And uh, I tell
everybody that my uncle was kind of like, shaped me into the person I am. It was that, he wasn’t
a good uncle, because he never did what he was supposed to do to support his family. So I
always said that once I got grown, I can’t live like that, you know. And it was like, it was a lot of
older, a lot of men, a lot of older men that talked to you. The one that really inspired me the most
was my uncle’s little brother Mr. Norman, he lived here on Graham Street, Mr. Normal Burnet,
and uh, he always would tell me, he says uh, “I’m gonna put my dog on you,” but I knew he had
a dog, he had a black dog, but he wasn’t talking about that kind of dog, he called his pistol a dog,
you know, and it would be funny because I didn’t realize all this until I got older, you know then
a lot of times we’d be discussing something and he would always say “ok, ok, ok, maybe it’s me.”
And we would, you know, he always would say maybe it’s him, you know because I’m not
understanding what he’s saying. So then I took that as, a, it’s the end of the conversation, you
Thomas Bell
Transcript
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6
don’t understand what I’m saying, so I can’t make you understand. So I used that as, as a, one of
my tools when I get in a heated argument with somebody or whatever, I’ll just say “well maybe
it’s me” and just leave it at that, you know. And my granddaddy he was real, he was real funny
because he had a dog, and a mule, and he would always, he’d go around and plough, uh, gardens
for people, but that wasn’t, that wasn’t my cup of tea. I ain’t do no ploughing, no, but I’d be with
him, you know, but that just wasn’t me. I didn’t try to learn how to do no ploughing, but I would
always, I could, I was able to uh, take the ploughs and different stuff, I would take all that off the
wagon for him, and like that because I was about fourteen or fifteen years old. And they had
those, they had those, the harrows were like in a V shape and it was made out of cross tie like, it
had the little tooths all the way around it, and I could uh, I could turn it up sideways, and then
pick it up from the bottom and slide it up in the wagon, and then they had like those, uh, single
ploughs, I could pick them up and put them in the wagon, and that’s where, I think I got, that’s
where I got my build from, because I ain’t never lift no weights or anything like that, I was
saying earlier that we lifted weights but I ain’t do much lifting, I would lift a little bit of light
stuff but I got my build from helping my grandfather, and all I would do is go with him and, take
the mule and hook it to the plough and he’d do all the ploughing and harrowing, I’d ride on the
harrow with him because that wouldn’t do nothing just standing on there, and I’d take him a
loose, unhook him put him onto another plough, he’d tell me which one he wanted and I’d hook
him up to that and he’d do the rest, I’d sit in the shade.”
[END 00:06:08]
[START 01:56:55]
TB: But it’s just amazing just, just to see the different changes, you know, and sometimes
you just sit and you think, ok now, when we were small and coming we never even thought that
Thomas Bell
Transcript
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7
we would see this change like this, you know, but then as the, as the people start dying out and
the houses just sit and doing nothing and then, you know, then all of the sudden, you know, there
needs to be a change because, it’s not going to look good later on, so somebody’s going to have
to do something with that, but other than that...I really, I don’t have nothing bad to say about my,
my upcoming and about Chapel Hill, because uh, everything’s got to change, there’s nothing
going to stay the same. Only thing I uh, really got to say is about this building right here
(pointing to Green Bridge), it, you know, like I said I won’t see it but it might blossom one day,
but who knows. But that’s about the only biggest change right there, that it’s...I mean I was just
sitting the other day looking at it and I said, now it would have been alright, it didn’t have to be
that high, you know, see because like I said if the air conditioning and stuff is on the top it’s
going to cost someone some money to, to get it to the top, but, I don’t really know the real issues
with it. But uh, I’ve enjoyed the little porch and the different things that I’ve seen coming
through. Been good...been good.
[END 01:59:25]

Duration

2:03:14

Collection

Citation

Marian Cheek Jackson Center, “Thomas Bell,” Marian Cheek Jackson Center Oral History Trust, accessed September 25, 2020, https://archives.jacksoncenter.info/items/show/166.

Related Content

Thomas Bell is a longtime Northside community member, who grew up walking to high school football games in Carrboro and playing at Hargraves. He attended Lincoln High School before Chapel Hill public schools were desegregated. These days, he volunteers at Heavenly Groceries and is an active member of his church.