University Archives header Black History Oral Histories
Black History at VT: Black History Timeline First Black Grads Black Women Oral Histories

Oral History Interview with Dr. Charlie Yates, Class of 1958
Dr. Charlie Yates as a Senior at VPI, 1958

Part One

Kennelly: You're listed in the Bugle as being from Norfolk. Were you born in Norfolk?

Yates: No. I was born in North Carolina.

Kennelly: Did you grow up in North Carolina?

Yates: My parents moved from North Carolina to Norfolk when I was about two years old. So essentially I grew up in Norfolk even though I spent most my summers in North Carolina until I was about thirteen or fourteen.

Kennelly: Where in North Carolina?

Yates: A little tiny place called Harrellsville in North Carolina, south of Suffolk, Virginia, about forty miles or so just below the Virginia/North Carolina line.

Kennelly: And that's where you were born? Did you have family there that you would go to in the summertime?

Yates: Yes, I had both my paternal and maternal grandparents.

Kennelly: Could you say what their names are?

Yates: My maternal grandparent's names were Benny Sharp. I guess his actual name was Starky Benjamin, but everyone called him Benny, and my grandmother's name was Emma Harrell. My paternal grandparents were Thomas Yates and Lillie Yates.

Kennelly: So were they both from this small community?

Yates: Yes

Kennelly: Were they involved in agriculture?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: In what way?

Yates: Tobacco, peanuts, corn, primarily; a little cotton.

Kennelly: When you went for the summers, were you helping?

Yates: Oh yes! I suppose by the time I was ten or eleven years old, I spent the entire day out in the tobacco field with my adult uncles doing what was referred to as priming tobacco in that area. It has various names in different parts of the South, but in that area we called it priming tobacco. Sometimes it's called cropping tobacco.

Kennelly: What does that mean?

Yates: Well, you go out weekly, and you pull the leaves that are ripe. We cure those, and you therefore harvest the tobacco over a period of probably about six weeks. It's not done that way anymore. It's done entirely different now.

Kennelly: Did you also help with cutting, stripping, and housing--those type of things-- while you were growing up?

Yates: Yes, yes.

Kennelly: Just whatever needed to be done?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Between the two sets of grandparents were there separate operations?

Yates: Separate operations. Though I tended to live mostly with my maternal grandparents, during each week I would spend a day at least with my paternal grandparents helping them in their operation. Typically, that's how I earned enough money over the summer to purchase my school clothes for the coming year.

Kennelly: They would pay you to make it worth your while?

Yates: Yes. Yes.

Kennelly: So, you were actually providing your own clothes from labor when you were around ten. I believe you had two sisters and a brother.

Yates: Two sisters and a brother.

Kennelly: Did they go down too?

Yates: Yes, as they became of age, they would also go down. I was the oldest, so I was the first to get involved in that activity.

Kennelly: Was that community an integrated community?

Yates: No, definitely not. Well, first of all it was very rural, so it is a little difficult to talk of integration unless you're talking of school systems. The school systems were segregated. I'd say life in general was segregated at that time. A lot of the--particularly African American farmers were sharecroppers. My grandparents happened to own their own property, but most of the African American farmers were sharecroppers.

Kennelly: Both sets of parents owned their own property?

Yates: Yes, yes.

Kennelly: I guess I was thinking in terms of contact. When you were in North Carolina, was there much contact with white people?

Yates: Not a lot. Sometimes we would actually be working together. In addition to my grandparents, [we would work with] other farmers in the area, and sometimes there would be whites working along with us. But other than that, there was essentially no contact.

Kennelly: Would you work for white farmers or African American farmers when you worked for other farmers?

Yates: In my own case, I worked for African American farmers, and some of those African American farmers also had whites working for them.

Kennelly: Was that pretty typical--a young person your age? Would there be other kids your age working?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Was church a big, important thing in this community?

Yates: Church was very much segregated, but yes, church was important. There were at least two churches very close by, in the township of Harrellsville. Both Baptist churches at that time tended to hold worship services once a month. So at least twice a month there would be church services in the immediate areas. Then at other times times of the month, there would be church services at other African American churches but in other communities.

Kennelly: Was that something your family would attend?

Yates: Oh yes!

Kennelly: Was it an important part of your life?

Yates: Yes, a very important part of my life. I frequently say it was, in fact, that experience I had working with my grandparents, particularly my maternal grandfather who was an extremely proud man. He thought that he was the best farmer around in terms of being efficient about going about his daily activities. I think some of that rubbed off on me. The fact that he thought he was as good a farmer as anyone around him was, I think-- very early on, what made me want to be the very best at whatever I did. Particularly when I started elementary school. I'm sure that attitude had a lot to do with the success that I enjoyed in elementary school.

Kennelly: Did you go to elementary school in Norfolk?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Was that a segregated school? Was it a big school?

Yates: The elementary school...that was a long time ago. A reasonable size elementary school.

Kennelly: A regular urban school?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: You went to Booker T. Washington High School?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Was that also segregated?

Yates: That was also segregated. It served essentially all the African American students in the city of Norfolk. There were some parochial high schools, but most African American students ended up going to Booker T. Washington.

Kennelly: Was it a very big school?

Yates: It was a very big school. Yes, yes. I guess in my class were probably five hundred graduates.

Kennelly: Could you tell me about what your parents did?

Yates: My father was a longshoreman. Once he left the farm in North Carolina and moved to Norfolk, he became a longshoreman. My mother did domestic work, and later in her life she was custodian in one of the white high schools in Norfolk for several years.

Kennelly: Was she able to work when she had small children?

Yates: I don't recall her working until we were all in school.

Kennelly: So she could schedule it. Was education valued in your family?

Yates: Neither parent graduated from high school. So one goal of my mother was that I and my siblings--we'd all graduate from high school. My father was not that supportive, generally as a father. He was not a good family man, I would say. So it was not a big deal to him, I believe. My mother was very much concerned that we finish high school.

Kennelly: Do you think she regretted not being able to finish [high school] herself?

Yates: Not particularly, because that was sort of the accepted norm in the area where she grew up. To graduate from high school then was somewhat out of the ordinary for most of her peers.

Kennelly: But she wanted that for her children that was important?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: When you were growing up, did you have much contact with other races besides African Americans in Norfolk?

Yates: Not until I was probably fourteen. It seems like for as long as I remember I was working somewhere. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, I was working in a restaurant, which were essentially a white establishment, and a drug store, again in a white neighborhood. So those were my early contacts with non-African Americans. When I was fifteen, I took a job with a new car dealership in Norfolk, and I held that job continuously, working part time during the school year and full time during the summer until I graduated from high school. So that put me in a lot of contact with whites.

Kennelly: What did you do at the new car dealership?

Yates: Oh, general labor--everything...wash, polish automobiles, pick up and deliver automobiles that were having service work done. I would occasionally transport a vehicle from Norfolk,Virginia to Richmond, Virginia. A new vehicle that was being exchanged in order to provide a customer with a particular vehicle that they wanted.

Kennelly: So they had confidence in you as a teenage driver?

Yates: Yes, very much so. The odometer was never connected during this operation. So I was driving by the seat of my pants, if you like. Really not knowing how fast I was going. I never got ticketed, and that was about a hundred-mile trip--a significant drive.

Kennelly: What about those other jobs you had earlier? Was that summertime or was it during the school year?

Yates: Some were during the school year.

Kennelly: Even when you were pretty young, you would go and work after school?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Was the money you earned contributed to the family?

Yates: Well, I was permitted to, more or less, use that for my own needs. I guess there was some contribution made to the family. But that was one way I was able to take care of my day-to-day needs during the school year.

Kennelly: So you'd buy your clothes?

Yates: Clothes, my lunch, and things like that. Unfortunately, I started smoking very early in life, at age fifteen. I'd buy my cigarettes. My mother told me that if you can buy them, you can smoke. Which was a mistake! [laughter]

Kennelly: Was the decision to not go anymore to North Carolina in the summer your own decision?

Yates: That was my own decision. I got to the point where I decided it would be more profitable to stay in my own area to find work. I can recall that the summer I was fourteen, I worked at a hotel, the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach. Well known then, but I don't know if you've ever heard of it. I spent the summer there working on the hotel grounds. That was at a much higher salary than I was able to make in North Carolina.

Kennelly: So did you actually stay there for the whole summer on your own?

Yates: At the hotel? No, Virginia Beach and Norfolk are very close together. So I would catch the bus every morning from Norfolk to Virginia Beach.

Kennelly: What kind of neighborhood was your family living in?

Yates: Although we didn't particularly refer to it at that time as being so, I'd say by today's standards, it would be considered not quite the ghetto but sort of close to that. The houses were typically four family units to a building. These were all being rented--were not owned. I guess until I was almost through high school, my particular house had outdoor toilet facilities. So that would give you an idea of what it was like.

Kennelly: But they were not high rises?

Yates: No, they were not high rises. As I said, a building would have four units in it--so four families in one building, and they were sort of stacked one after another. Not row houses because row houses were typically directly attached. These were separated by three feet or so.

Kennelly: Did you feel safe in your neighborhood?

Yates: Yes, growing up I felt that my neighborhood was rather normal. But once I had experienced other types of neighborhoods, then I was in a better position to evaluate the neighborhood I grew up in.

Kennelly: When you were growing up, did you feel the adults were looking out for kids besides their own kids, more than your parents checking up on you?

Yates: Because we were all living very close together. My parents had no difficulty with neighborhood mothers disciplining any of us. That was sort of accepted then.

Kennelly: Was there any problem with gangs?

Yates: Very little--the kind of thing mischievous boys always get into but nothing serious--nothing nearly like the gangs of today.

Kennelly: Was church important to your family in Norfolk?

Yates: Yes, I'd say because of our background in North Carolina, that tended to carry over into the Norfolk setting.

Kennelly: Was either of your parents or anyone in your family politically active?

Yates: No.

Kennelly: NAACP?

Yates: No.

Kennelly: Any kind of sitting-in?

Yates: No, I don't think my father ever registered to vote, or my mother. They were just not politically inclined at all.

Kennelly: As a young person growing up, did you have any negative experience as far as race a painful or hurtful thing?

Yates: No, not really. It depends on what you mean by growing up. I can recall that after I had enrolled here at Virginia Tech, the summer after my freshman year, I sought a job at the Ford Motor Company assembly plant that was located in Norfolk because a lot of the students here said that was a good place to work. So I decided I'm going to go and see if I can get a job there. I can recall that I went and made an application and was told that they had hired their quota of janitors for the year. I was not looking for a job as a janitor but a job on the assembly line.

Kennelly: The fact that you were an engineering student...

Yates: It didn't mean anything to anyone.

Kennelly: Was it a shock to be treated that way?

Yates: No, not really. It was consistent with conditions at that time.

Kennelly: What did you end up doing then?

Yates: Well that summer, I went back to work with the same new car dealership. The following summer I went to New Jersey and got a job with the Ford Motor Company assembly plant there. I worked there that summer, lived in Bronx, New York and commuted between New York and New Jersey.

Kennelly: You worked in the assembly plant there?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Since you were the oldest sibling, did you have special responsibilities for your younger siblings?

Yates: No, not especially...just sort of informal. If my mother had to go out for any reason, typically I was in charge. My older sister is only a year younger than I am. She never accepted that. But supposedly I was in charge.

Kennelly: So all through school, you were quite successful in your elementary and high school?

Yates: Yes, and that's where I really credit the influence of my grandfather because while my mother wanted us to graduate from high school, there were never any demands put on us beyond going to school, behaving, and passing. I suppose because of my grandfather's influence, I wanted to be the best. So from very early on, even in elementary school, I got good grades, and it carried over into high school.

Kennelly: Was that important to your siblings too?

Yates: No, I don't believe so. In fact, they always complained that it was somewhat of a problem for them, having to follow me. The teachers expected things of them based on their knowledge of me. They didn't think it was particularly fair.

Kennelly: Did they go onto college?

Yates: One sister went on to college, and another sister went into the service after school. My brother also went into the service. After the service he did some work at the college level, but he didn't pursue a degree.

Kennelly: Your physics teacher was instrumental to your coming to Tech. What was his name?

Yates: John Perry.

Kennelly: He had heard of Irving Peddrew. Was he a mentor to you?

Yates: A mentor, a teacher, a supporter--Mr. Perry was always somewhat of an activist, very much involved in education. In fact, he eventually became a city councilman for the City of Virginia Beach, which I point out because it indicates how active he was in the community beyond the high school setting. He was very knowledgeable in terms of sources...where you could obtain scholarships for students. In fact, it was because of that knowledge that I was able to attend college anywhere .... Based on the fact that he was able to point out some sources of income.

Kennelly: Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech?

Yates: Well again, Mr. Perry--because of his somewhat activist nature and once he learned that VT had admitted a black student in 1953, I guess he wanted to show the world that students from my high school, Booker T. Washington, were trained well enough that we could also be successful at Virginia Tech. So he recommended Virginia Tech. I was sort of looking to go to at least a couple of other institutions. I recall that I applied to MIT and got accepted. But they did not offer me any scholarships. So even with the funds Mr. Perry was able to generate, they wouldn't have been sufficient for me to go to MIT which is very expensive, then and now.

Kennelly: So he generated funds beyond the actual school scholarship? He was able to get other funds to help with expenses?

Yates: With the case of Virginia Tech, there were no scholarships offered to us. So all the funds we got had to come from other sources.

Kennelly: What sources?

Yates: There was one that was a local philanthropic organization, and it was called the Lincoln Foundation. That was in Norfolk, Virginia. I don't know a lot about that organization, but I recall its name. Then there was a national organization called the United Negro Scholarship Fund, or something like that, whose objective was to provide funds to African American students who enrolled in primarily white institutions. So we got money from that organization. And I recall that those two, together with my summer work and my work over the Christmas holidays, was what got me through. I was in ROTC in my junior and most of my senior year here, and there was a stipend we got as a result of that. That was on the contract for actively going into the Air Force and taking training, which I didn't do.

Kennelly: It wasn't Rockefeller money then?

Yates: No, it wasn't Rockefeller money.

Main Page - Part One - Part Two - Part Three

University Libraries Digital Library and Archives Special Collections University Archives

Send questions or comments to:
Tamara Kennelly
University Archivist
University Libraries
Virginia Tech
P.O. Box 90001
Blacksburg, VA 24062-9001

Last Updated on: Wednesday, 29-Jan-2003 14:58:56 EST
Site design:
Mohamed Amin, Justin Iovenitti,Tamara Kennelly and Oladunni Akinpelu

Produced by University Archives in collaboration with Office of Multicultural Affairs at Virginia Tech