Hancock / Peterborough
Revisiting history in South
Peterborough man relives the heyday of working in Civil Rights
In the spring of 1963, as the civil rights movement was picking up steam in the United States, a 30-year-old Methodist minister in Philadelphia made a life-changing choice. Jim Howard, who had grown up in Pennsylvania Dutch country and was the first in his family to go to college, left his job as a pastor and signed on with the American Friends Service Committee to help with a citizenship education project in North Carolina. With his wife Judith and two young children, Howard headed off to Warrenton, N.C., where the Howards were leaders of an interracial team of 14 college students working with local residents to encourage voter registration in the African-American community, at a time when segregation was the rule throughout the South.
“They thought that as a minister, I’d be able to work with all the people down there,” says Howard, who now splits his time between Peterborough and Santa Fe after recently selling the Hancock home where he and his second wife, Peggy, lived for 21 years. “The Friends didn’t want a confrontational group. We got involved with working on the farms. Our objective was to teach people how to vote. This was a way for them to get power.”
The group was together briefly, and many of them lost track of each other after the summer. But they finally managed a reunion in September, an event that Howard says brought back memories of that turbulent time.
“When we were there, everything was segregated. The black people, especially the children, were suspicious and fearful of white people,” Howard says. “Just 11 percent of the black population was registered. Now, African Americans are leaders in the county and its school system. I think the project eliminated a lot of fear. Even today, 50 years later, residents say the presence of this team of young people helped immensely to overcome that fear.”
Howard recalls that he occasionally drew unwanted attention.
“I was the red-head Yankee walking around town,” he said. “One night, Mr. Brown, the owner of the store that we were living above, called and told me two state policemen were downstairs. I had to go down, and they told me they’d clocked me going 70 miles an hour, which wasn’t true.”
Howard says Mr. Brown, who was a man of stature in Warrenton’s black community, calmly sat in the glider on the store porch while Howard carefully explained who he was and what he was doing in town.
“Eventually I think I disarmed them. I really did,” Howard says. “They ended it by pointing a finger at me, saying ‘Don’t you do that again.’ But if Mr. Brown hadn’t been there, I think I’d have been hauled away.”
The students worked on local farms, picking cotton, peanuts and tobacco, but the heart of the citizenship education team’s work was a series of evening workshops held in churches or community centers.
“We worked to explain why people should vote, how their votes affect taxes, schools, crop allotments,” Howard recalls. “We did role playing, practicing how you would walk into the registrar’s office to sign up to vote. We did mock elections, as a way for people to get to know the candidates. Intelligent voting was the goal.”
After the group left Warrenton at the end of the summer, Howard remained connected with the American Friends Service Committee, organizing work projects in New England and counseling students seeking conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War era. He then went on to a career in organizational development.
“I mostly worked on my own, doing a lot of team building and conflict resolution,” he says. “I believe I’ve done projects in 29 different countries.”
Howard recently retired, although when he’s in New Mexico he has been working with people there on farming and water rights issues.
He says the recent trip back to Warrenton showed him how much things have changed.
“For the reunion, we met as a group, white people and many of the black people who had invited us, in the town’s library, a beautiful new building. We never could have met together in a library in 1963. We had a block of time reserved, but we got talking and laughing and then realized we were running out of time. And then a young black woman stood up to say, “You can stay as long as you wish. I have the key.’”
Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.