About Our Guest
Paul M. Gaston, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Virginia, specializes in history of the United States South as well as American Civil Rights. A former President of the Southern Regional Council, he was well known in the area during the 1960s for his Civil Rights activism.
Born in Fairhope, Alabama, Paul Gaston arrived in Charlottesville in the fall of 1957 as a junior instructor of history at UVA. During his time in Charlottesville, Gaston became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement and local race relations. He was involved in several demonstrations, most famously the 1963 sit-ins at Buddy’s Restaurant, which is remembered as one of the pivotal events leading to the desegregation of the Charlottesville area.
Gaston has published several books and articles on Civil Rights and Affirmative Action, as well as the history of the United States South.
JAN PAYNTER: Hello, I am Jan Paynter and I want to welcome you again to our program, Politics Matters. We are very pleased to continue our discussion with Professor Paul Gaston, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Welcome back, Professor.
PAUL GASTON: Well, it is my honor to be here.
JAN PAYNTER: Professor, why did you decide to teach history at a southern university. I know you had the opportunity to—you had the offer to go to Princeton as well and back to Swarthmore. What factored in your decision?
PAUL GASTON: When I met Mary in college, we were in the same year. We both started a year out—a year beyond wherever I supposed we should have been. I said—and then we both—we had the same feelings about racial inequality and that something ought to be done about it. Because of the place where I had grown up that justice came from when you restructured society with the school, the colony, these things you—we had these things so that once people became accustomed to a different way of living then they would change. We wanted to be involved somehow in the world that was changing the south and it was pretty clear in the early 50s that that was a big issue in the country. And we wanted to be a part of it.
JAN PAYNTER: Well, I know that Mr. Jefferson believed strongly in egalitarianism, he de-emphasized titles. And I am assuming that those things as a Fairhoper appealed to you. What did you find from 1957 on when you came here? How did the reality and the expectation of that egalitarianism fit together for you or did it?
PAUL GASTON: I don’t know if I really expected—well, let’s put it—I thought that the university was, in a sense, at war with itself. It didn’t know that, it had a lot of cognitive dissonance, I think. But it was the Jeffersonian ideas, I mean you could argue with them that Jefferson had slaves, and according to this recent book, that he treated them pretty badly. There is a difference of opinion about that. But what I thought of and what a lot of scholars thought of, people like Dumas Malone and Marril Peterson, who Dumas was the Jefferson professor when I came here and Mariel succeeded him. And I thought that both of them were—had a point of view which they described as a Jeffersonian Point of View which would not be—in a sense it would be like what my grandfather had said, well, integration, that would be the right principle but it is the wrong place.
JAN PAYNTER: Well, that is what occur to me when I was reading the book was that this theme kept resurfacing which was again, how do you conjoin two rather opposing points of view? How do you accomplish your goal in the case of Fairhope of establishing the community and not having it shut down at a time when there was no integration? And then you come to UVA and you have a Board of Visitors and townspeople who are not in love with the idea of integration. So, how do you approach this and not compromise your principle which to me goes to the heart of what occurs throughout your book which is “Remaining true to yourself” and yet being pragmatic in order to accomplish your goals, what every decenter faces.
PAUL GASTON: Life was—it was easier for me, partly because the students, or some students, played a leadership role, for example, in 1960, I think it was, there was a theater—a movie theater at the corner—-
JAN PAYNTER: The University Theater?
PAUL GASTON: The University Theater. And they did not admit black viewers to the theater, there was no segregation because they did not have a balcony and you could not have segregation if you did not have a balcony. So a black student, a very interesting guy, I keep up with him now, he is teaching somewhere up in Massachusetts, he was admitted as a graduate student in history and he had been a member of SNCC, the Southern Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; the organization for the youth in the civil rights movement. And his name was Virginius Thornton and Virginius was pretty well fed up with—and he was a real activist, always involved, he got arrested going into a library and I can’t remember—Petersburg maybe. And he got into Virginia as a graduate student in history and he decided to organize a boycott of the University Theater. Two years later, after we had a sit-in and caused a lot of people to change, including the University Theater, they had decided that they would now be open to blacks as well as whites. But at that time, there was a clear picture of how the students—the majority of students felt. And in addition to boycotting the theater, the protesting students also picketed.
JAN PAYNTER: You, yourself, were very involved with a stand-in– or stand-out, I guess it is at Buddy’s restaurant. I wondered if you would share that story with us?
PAUL GASTON: Well, I belonged to the Council on human relations which was an interracial organization of research and agitation that was actually started by Southern Regional Council just after the Brown decision– the school integration decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. And their idea was that we should have these interracial organizations in all of the states to help build—help create an atmosphere sympathetic, not just a school integration but the racial integration in general. A young man, Floyd Johnson, who was the— had just recently arrived in town and who was the president of the local branch of the NAACP called us all over to where he was standing on a chair or a barrel or something and he said that we were going to have a sit in. And I looked at Mary and she looked at me and I said, “well, are we going?” And she said, “of course we’re going.” And so I said to Floyd, “all right, we will be there.” And Floyd stood up with a pamphlet and read to us, as I recall, what women should do if they were assaulted, what men should do to protect themselves if somebody tried to beat them up, and I turned around, I said, “what was he doing all of this for this is Charlottesville, ain’t nobody going to beat us up.” Which was an incorrect prediction. But anyway, we went, the goodly crowd of white and black went down to a restaurant called Buddy’s. It had a slogan that it was a nice place to eat; it may have been, I never did find out, I never ate there. But we sat at the tables and didn’t make any moves I believe, so we stayed until closing time. And then we came back the next day and on that day, they had a bouncer at the door so the people that had been in the sit in were not allowed to comment. And we stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant as though we were wanting to come in. After a while, four men arrived and made some remarks, you didn’t have to be very smart to know that those remarks were indicating that they did not really approve of what we were doing. And then they walked into the restaurant, they were allowed in. Floyd had been at that the head of the line standing outside of the restaurant and he said to me that he was hungry and Floyd said, “well, it’s about time one of your– time has come for one of your sort to be head of the line.”
JAN PAYNTER: So you took his place in line.
PAUL GASTON: You get up to the head of the line. I said, “okay.” So I went up to the front and then these fellows came out and this time instead of verbal assault, they began pushing and still some of the nasty language and I thought, “oh, God, somebody ought to do something, we’re going to have trouble here. No, I am the head of the line, I should do something.” So, I decided that I would go across the street where– is where the Cavalier Motel is now, there is nothing there except one of these enclosed telephone booths, and I said, maybe I’d better go over and called the police. Police, I thought later was not a very good idea, but anyway, I was putting my hand in the place where the phonebook was, I never called the police before, and I was just pulling the phonebook out to look up the number of the police when this very large man, I found out later that had been a professional prizefighter— this great big fellow— and he just put his hands on my shoulders, lifted me out of the phone booth, looked at me in the eyes and said “you ain’t going call no damn police,” and I thought, as I looked up at him—-
JAN PAYNTER: Probably not.
PAUL GASTON: No, I said, “You are absolutely right, I ain’t going to call no damn police.” It was not necessary because the police had watched the whole thing and when they came by, they didn’t— I said what the guys look like and they told me what their names were, they had seen the whole thing. And then one of them, there were two guys about this time out of the four, and the short one, he was very small, he hit me here on the chin and then a time on the side of the face. And he looked puzzled as though he had never hit anyone before he hadn’t hit him back. Police came—and I told you that. And then I asked them, several of the sitters-in and now a standing-out, said that I had to go down and swear out a warrant for these people’s arrest and I really did not want to do this. I became a kind of hero, but I sure did not feel like one.
JAN PAYNTER: Well, it is a very interesting story, I think illustrative of the times because I know Buddy’s, we talked about this before the program, when it became settled law that Buddy had to admit black people, he shut the doors of his restaurant rather than relent—-
PAUL GASTON: That is right.
JAN PAYNTER: —-on that. And that is a very powerful story and you were a huge part of it. So of course you became renowned for that.
PAUL GASTON: Well, yeah, but my stomach hurt. I mean, I did not want—you know, I wasn’t courageous, look what I did, I wanted the whole damn thing to be over with.
JAN PAYNTER: That is just human nature, I think. I think what is fascinating to me about the history of Charlottesville is that you bring out in the book is the changes that took place in a relatively short time. You recount the story of the Martin Luther King coming here to speak, at that time, as you pointed out, the University was hesitant to have too much representation there, so the president, for instance, as you mentioned, did not come. And then five years later, there has been such a transition for the King Memorial that President Edgar Shannon gave a very moving eulogy—-
PAUL GASTON: He surely did.
JAN PAYNTER: —-which I thought was a pointed example of within a five-year span of time, how much you saw changing in Charlottesville, in Virginia, at the University.
PAUL GASTON: Yes.
JAN PAYNTER: It is astonishing.
PAUL GASTON: And if I can use this phrase, “Politics Matters.” Pretty soon Francis Fife was mayor, after that Charlie Barbour, first black mayor. And the politics of the city changed and I think a good part that is a consequence of the controversy over the city.
JAN PAYNTER: It is interesting because politics is always the process, as you know well, of good intake. And how much do you give before rights are taken away, I think is the point that I felt very strongly brought out in your book. The price of dissent is a huge issue and you mentioned, you know, that the loss of money, of friends, of security, I know you had threatening phone calls to your home, and many things like that which came up. There is so much that I would love to ask you about in this book and about your work but I wanted to talk– to circle back to Fairhope and the conflict between principle and pragmatism that we have been discussing and talk about Nancy Lewis, who she was and you write a very moving epilogue at the end of a book about her and I wondered if you talk about the story as it evolved and as a concluded when you got to know her granddaughter, Rosetta Lewis.
PAUL GASTON: John Lewis and Nancy Lewis were slaves on a Mississippi plantation. Nancy grew up there, I think, and John was from Virginia and was sold South and the slave trade. And then he met Nancy and their owner allowed them to get married. And someone must’ve recommended that they come to this place that became Fairhope. And they occupied some land that would later become where my organic school was and the colony had already purchased this land. It belonged to a man in Mobile name Boeing, John Lewis had paid the taxes on this land and apparently, this is my guess, that Mr. Lewis left Mr. Boeing, who owned the land, a white guy– he let them live on the land, I think they had 15 acres or something, in exchange for paying the taxes on it. Then it turned out, my grandfather had to inform the Lewises that the colony had purchased that land that they owned it, and Nancy Lewis and John did not own net land. Nancy had to get off the land. She wasn’t going to give it up easily, she really cared about the land, she wanted it. That was a very sad thing. So then what happened next was that there was some land for sale at the county courthouse for nonpayment of taxes. And, my grandfather got on his horse, Dolly, and rode on the horse, it was about 3 miles up to Daphne where the sale was going to be, and got there and Nancy Lewis was there and she wanted to buy that land to have something secure. And my grandfather, he wanted it badly because they did not have much land. Then he wrote in the minute’s book of the colony that he decided to do nothing in the premises. I did not know what that word “in the premises” meant and it was months, two or three months, later that I was reading a copy of Progress and Poverty again and I came across the phrase, “in the premises,” I got an old dictionary and it meant, “in light of previous circumstances”. We screwed her over once, we are not going to do it again.
JAN PAYNTER: We are not going to do it again, so he resolved the issue in a way by including and allowing a black person.
PAUL GASTON: It is not colony land.
JAN PAYNTER: But adjacent.
PAUL GASTON: Adjacent. And Nancy Lewis has her land.
JAN PAYNTER: But I found very moving, I know you went back to visit Fairhope community and it has changed a great deal now and certainly probably not recognizable to what it was, but I found it moving that there was a paving stone there that had Nancy Lewis’ name on it and I believe your mother has a paving stone there as well.
PAUL GASTON: And my father.
JAN PAYNTER: And so I thought that was a fascinating sort of wonderful conclusion in a way to the Fairhope experience even though the community exists as more of an idea then an ideal now, as opposed to an actual physical place and yet there is your mother and there is Nancy Lewis. And how moving that your—that a grandson of your grandfather and a granddaughter of Nancy Lewis came together and became friends.
PAUL GASTON: Yeah, Rosetta was—yeah, I liked her. She—when I had a book sale at the book store for the book, I had it opened with a story of Nancy Lewis. I asked the owner of the book store if it would be all right if I asked Nancy Lewis—Rosetta Lewis to come. And she said, all sure. So we sat next to each other and people would come up and I would inscribe the book to them and then I would say, I want you to meet Nancy Lewis’ granddaughter, Rosetta Lewis. And I felt good that she was there.
JAN PAYNTER: It is just so very moving.
PAUL GASTON: Yes, she wrote me a note said that I told it like it was.
JAN PAYNTER: You have a – in thinking about how Fairhope became gentrified, I think is what you suggest in the book, you include a quote by James Agee which I thought was interesting, which is “the deadliest blow that the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor and that official acceptance is one of the—is an unmistakable symptom that salvation is beating us and the surest sign that fatal misunderstanding and the kiss of Judas.” And I thought that is an interesting comment on the latent racism which is we all know is with us to this day. We have an African-American president elected to a second term and yet the undercurrents remain. And I was put in mind of a quote of Faulkner’s from Absalom, Absalom! and of course his famous leaf has Quentin Compson say, “I don’t hate the south, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t” and that is the contradiction in loving your land and yet seeing what is wrong from the point of view of the socialist. And Faulkner says, “the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering.” It reminded me very much of, and of course Faulkner taught at University of Virginia. So, professor—-
PAUL GASTON: In his first—my first office was across the hall from Mr. Faulkner.
JAN PAYNTER: Well, you have done so much in your career to enlighten and expose the injustices of civil rights and you have worked on the front lines with all of the important leaders of the movement and I am just delighted to have had you here today for a conversation with us–very, very delighted. And I thank you for doing that, Paul.
PAUL GASTON: Thank you for asking me, Jan, that is very nice of you.
JAN PAYNTER: My thanks to everyone at home for joining our conversation. If you would like more information concerning the topic under discussion today, we invite you to take a look at our website at politicsmatters.org . We will be posting a number of books, articles, and relevant links on the history of civil rights there for you. They will also be a comprehensive archive their of all prior Politics Matters programs which you may watch in their entirety at any time. We are in the process of revamping our website which will be completed within the month and we will be including extended versions of recent interviews and that archive as well. As always we are particularly interested in hearing from you with any questions, concerns, and ideas for future programs. We encourage you to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are on PBS, WVPT on the last Sunday of every month at 11:30 am.
Thank you again and until next we meet, I am Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters.