For background & more information see:
Freedom Highways in the Tarheel State
Freedom Highways in Durham and Greensboro
See also Freedom Rides and North Carolina Movement for web links.
My journey began impulsively, or so it seemed. Friends were going to volunteer for the Freedom Rides and they invited me to attend a rally with them. I was eighteen. Unfortunately, I can't remember a syllable of what was said. Being a self-involved teenager, what I do recall is being moved to tears, standing up and making my way to the front to volunteer. My friends never did volunteer, but I didn't notice at the time. That was in July.
If anyone asks me now why I went on the Rides, I always talk about Emmett Till. I think his murder influenced the Riders of my generation. We read about it and we knew we lived in a country desperately in need of change.
Seven people stood up at that rally, all of us white. But that was in San Francisco and it was the one and only time I ever saw whites in the majority anywhere in the Movement. We flew to New Orleans where, for the first time, I saw the WHITES ONLY and COLORED signs. What I remember most vividly is a run-down gas station off the highway with the usual restrooms, one marked WHITE LADIES, the other WHITE GENTLEMEN. To the side of the gas station, there stood a listing outhouse, marked simply COLORED. In those days we didn't have any unisex bathrooms, a fact that increased my shock. Even though I knew we were traveling South to remove those signs, hearing about them and seeing them were radically different experiences. I think I sat in the back of that car with my mouth hanging open for several miles.
We took the train from New Orleans to Jackson. The train passed through swamps, trees covered in gray-green moss, standing in oily puddles of green water. It was creepy because even then I knew that when they searched for Emmett Till, the searchers had come across a number of unidentified bodies. I couldn't look out the train window without wondering how many more victims of racism lay in that swamp.
As we walked down the steps to the train depot in Jackson, the crowd parted and we heard murmurs of "Freedom Riders, Freedom Riders." I felt proud but confused. How did they know? That's how young and stupid I was. Freedom Riders were pouring into Jackson almost every day then. A group of seven young people traveling together couldn't be anything else in the summer of 1961.
At the Jackson police station, I refused to state my race, telling them "Nobody knows for sure." That made the FBI curious about my politics. They took me into a room and interrogated me. What race was I? Was I a Communist? I was astounded that the Federal government had an interest in my ethnicity, although not surprised that they assumed my politics. Later, a friend's mother with whom I had lived in Marin County told me the FBI came to her house to ask her if she'd ever had a "colored maid named Candy."
In Parchman, I was in a cell with a lovely woman named Norma Libson. She was 27 and took me under her wing because I was so young and naive. She told me recently I seemed like a "lost child" to her. I guess I was. The cell made me claustrophobic and when I stood inside one in May 2011 at the 50th reunion, I couldn't imagine how I'd endured it with the cell door shut.
One of the Freedom Riders — I wish I knew who this was — made contact with the men in the punishment cellblock, which was directly behind ours. Last summer I saw the narrow passageway that runs between the twoNonviolent Resistanceor did. They've torn it down now, I think. Anyway, one Freedom Rider spoke to a man through the vent over her toilet. He told her they were wearing only shorts (as the male Freedom Riders did) and they had no mattresses, so they were sleeping on freezing steel bunks against their exposed skin (the AC was on 24 hours a day as were the lights). I don't remember whether those were fed once or twice a day, but they were given only bread and water. He said they were starving. We decided to send over our bread, although I couldn't imagine and still can't how that clever woman managed to get it to them.
She removed the string from her mattress (we still had mattresses then — we lost them soon after because of singing) and took the netting from a Kotex. We passed down our bread and somehow she got the net bundle up through the vent and managed to swing it over to where the man behind could catch it.
Whether we did this three times or ten times or once, I can't say. I do remember giving up the bread a little bit reluctantly as there wasn't much that was decent to eat. I'd never seen grits in my life and they seemed like something more suitable for handball than nourishment. And the molasses puddle turned my stomach. For lunch, I think it was processed cheese on white bread. For dinner, there was cornbread that was surprisingly good. So it was a bit of a sacrifice.
One night, in the middle of the night, we were awakened by the sound of running water. In the cellblock behind us, the showers were running. I could feel the other Freedom Riders listening just as I was. Nothing ever moved in the prison at night so the noise was disturbing. Then we heard the clang of a cell door, and soon screaming, the steady thud of something hitting flesh. This went on for what seemed like hours while we yelled through our vents for it to stop.
Eventually, of course, it did stop. It was quiet for a bit and then the cell door at the end of our cellblock opened and Captain Tyson came in with his trusties. They were caressing their hands and smirking, wearing what I assumed were brass knuckles, although I'd never seen anything like that. From behind his back, Tyson took a small net bag of battered crumbs. Then he ordered our cell doors opened and the trusties began carting in our mattresses. It was the only smart move I ever saw Tyson make. We were devastated.
A year later I went to North Carolina to work on Freedom Highways. I rode a Greyhound across country and two sailors decided I needed to be chaperoned. They were from the South and, in spite of their "courtliness," they terrified me. I thought if they knew where I was going and what I was going to do, they'd pull me off that bus and beat me, or worse. Luckily, they got off in Charleston, South Carolina, and I went on to Durham. The funny thing I remember about that bus ride is that in Mississippi, I think it was, the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere (it seemed) and picked up a woman carrying a bag of groceries. I wondered if I was supposed to stand and give her my seat.
I arrived in Durham in the middle of the night. Only one taxi waited outside and when I gave the address to the driver, he shook his head. "You don't want to go there," he said. I said, "Yes, I do." "Naw, you don't." It took a while but finally he accepted that I did indeed want to go to the address I'd given him. It was a boarding house and when we pulled up outside, no lights shone inside. It was, after all, somewhat past midnight. But a lady whose name I don't recall answered my knock and showed me upstairs to a large room that I had all to myself. It was quite nice, probably the nicest room I'd ever slept in at that time.
The project I'd volunteered for was CORE's Freedom Highways, an effort to de-segregate restaurants renting space from Uncle Sam on the interstate. I remember a woman with epilepsy and a brain tumor. She had an attack and I was awakened in the middle of the night to help hold her down while we waited for the doctor. After he came, I went onto the porch and fainted. Knowing she was dying, she'd hoped to become a martyr to the cause by doing it in jail. She was sent home.
Being the only volunteer with a driver's license, I became the chauffer. I was a poor choice, if a necessary one, because if you turn me around twice, I don't know what direction I'm going in. For instance, once I was driving from Durham to Statesville alone and I stopped in Greensboro for gas. After the attendant filled the tank, I drove out, made a left and then another left and then another left, coming right back to stop by that same attendant. I rolled down my window and asked sweetly (if a bit desperately), "When I drove in here, did you happen to notice which direction I was headed in?"
Jean Thompson and one of her sisters were there along with Rudy Lombard, Jerome Smith, Isaac Reynolds. I knew the New Orleans CORE people from before and after the Freedom Rides. I had sat in with them for a while. I knew the women were incredibly courageous, as of course were the men. But the women did the grunt work, it seemed to me, sitting in almost every day, picketing every day, trudging downtown without bus fare or lunch money. They de-segregated downtown New Orleans and they deserve all the admiration they have gotten through the years.
By mistake, I got a group of inexperienced students from UNC at Chapel Hill and Duke arrested at the Durham Howard Johnson's (of course, I got some experienced black students arrested at the same time, but they didn't seem to mind as much). I sent the white students into the restaurant, telling them to order something quick and then I'd come in with the black students, we'd all sit down, and the black students would begin to eat. But the UNC and Duke students began instead to study the menu, apparently undecided about what would be quickest to order. Finally, we had to go in anyway because I was afraid we'd be spotted in the parking lot.
We sat down and the manager — or perhaps he was the assistant manager — began screeching. In any event, he threatened to call the cops and he did. I said "sit tight," expecting to be told that if we didn't leave, we'd be arrested. The cops came in and I heard them say to the students at the next table, " ou're under arrest." The student next to me turned gray and I think I said something like "Don't worry. He said if you don't leave. I'm sure that's what he said."
Outside, several of the white students began crying. "What am I going to tell my parents?" One girl grabbed me and shrieked, "What should I do?" I said, "Get in the paddy wagon." I was so ashamed, I refused bail when CORE came for the others.
We did some work in Statesville, a small town in the mountains. I remember holding some sort of training classes with high school kids. They probably weren't terribly effective. One young man stayed after class and asked me to bring him home with me. I refused and he grew insistent. I realized he must've been offered money to incriminate me for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The ridiculous thing was that I myself was a minor.
I was still the driver and getting us lost regularly, even though Durham was practically a one-street town. Jean Thompson said she'd look out the car window and think, "Candi's lost," but then, she said, she'd look in the rear view mirror at my face and decide I knew exactly where I was going. I guess my act was convincing. Once, as I recall, in some way I can't fathom, I wound up driving a VW Beetle (the passengers were Rudy Lombard, Jean, and Isaac Reynolds, I think) down the train tracks, past the passenger platform where a group of astonished people were waiting for the train.
We held a huge rally, as I recall, in front of the Durham Howard Johnson. The newspaper reported a hundred or so people but I knew there were at least a thousand. The strangest event, to me, was a young white woman who had supported CORE opened a segregated art theater in downtown Durham. She said the only way she could get the space was to sign a lease promising not to admit "Negroes". She was amazed when we picketed her. We tried to explain that her priorities were a bit screwed up but she couldn't understand why we didn't see the vital importance of having an art theater in Durham.
I remember picketing Royal Ice Cream. They had a hole in the wall through which black customers could buy ice cream cones with seats and a counter for whites. We rested between shifts at a church a block away. When it got cold, there was mulled wine to drink in the church kitchen.
The black section of Durham was called Bragtown and it was a mile beyond the last city bus stop. Families out there relied on "pop stores" for bread and milk, really just somebody's front room stocked with shelves and a few items. I lived out there for nearly a year after marrying Walter Riley, who was head of the Durham NAACP at the time. His father slept with a shotgun under the bed while I was there. He was very kind to me, although in retrospect I have no idea why. I placed the family in great danger, something it took me a while to realize in spite of that shotgun. Walter's mother worked for the sheriff's daughter. I went to pick her up after work one day and the sheriff's daughter indignantly ordered me to go to the back door. Mrs. Riley laughed when she came out. She had a lovely laugh.
Copyright © Candida Lall Pugh. 2011
Copyright © Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Candida Lall Pugh.