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

Part 2

Kennelly: When you were coming here, did you think you were coming as a pioneer? I mean were you conscious of what it would mean to come to a school that was all white Except for the one black student here and the two coming with you.

Yates: I think that my work experience during high school had provided me with enough contact with white people that it was not much of a concern by the time I got around to coming here. In fact, I can recall that one gentlemen that use to bring his automobile to the dealership where I worked--his son, who was about to enroll here the same time that I was going to enroll, we had occasion to talk about that. So I didn't really feel I was coming into a completely foreign environment. That, plus the fact that this was an opportunity to get a college degree which was something I had not thought about all my life, even though I had been doing very well through school. It was more just to do well at whatever I was doing, more so than looking ahead to the possibility of going to college. When the opportunity came along, I supposed I just grabbed it. I wasn't particularly concerned about other social aspects associated with my being enrolled in a school like Virginia Tech at that particular time.

Kennelly: Was that gentlemen that brought his car in--I assume he was white?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Did he make any comment just to the fact that it was interesting that you both were going to the same school?

Yates: Well, I didn't talk to him. I talked with his son who was enrolled.

Kennelly: So you had contact with a fellow classmate?

Yates: That's an interesting question you raise because I don't think there was any particular concern shown at that time as far as I recall. It would have not been unexpected as far as you really think you're going to Virginia Polytechnic Institute because they don't have black students there.

Kennelly: But you don't recall that as being an issue?

Yates: No, I don't.

Kennelly: At that point what was your career goal? Had you decided what to do?

Yates: Well, there was no question what we were studying, engineering because that was the only condition that we could enroll in VPI, was to study engineering. I didn't know a lot about engineering, so I decided that I had been working in this automobile dealership all these years that mechanical engineering had to be the right thing for me. So I chose mechanical engineering. I didn't really have any firm occupational goals at that time, but I guess as I went along with my studies, I realized that a lot of my fellow students were looking to go to graduate school, and I decided I would give that a try.

Kennelly: And it turned out that for you, engineering was a good choice? You weren't doing engineering when you wished you were doing something else?

Yates: Well, no, it turned out to be a good choice.

Kennelly: I understand that before you came to school, Dr. Walter Newman, who was the president of the university, and Dr. Paul Farrier, who I think was director of admissions, came to Booker T. Washington High School, along with the principal, your family, the families of Floyd Wilson and Lindsay Cherry, the other two incoming students and yourself. Why did they do this?

Yates: Well, I think the concern of the administration at that point in time was to bring as little publicity to the fact that black students were coming here as possible. Because in that way it was probably easier for Tech to go to Richmond to get some funds, and I think they didn't want that to be an issue. So I think their purpose in coming to Norfolk was first of all, to let it be known that they did not wish us to live on campus. I think that was one of the main purposes of that trip: to lay down the ground rules--we wish you not to live on campus. When I think back, that's the only thing that really stands out, that we not live on campus. I can't think of any other particular ground rules laid down at that time.

Kennelly: Was there anything said about social contact with coeds?

Yates: No. I guess there were probably one hundred and fifty female students. No, that was not a real concern, at least in things that came up during that visit.

Kennelly: I just want to make sure I understand. To get more money from Richmond, they wanted it not to be known that there were black students at Virginia Tech?

Yates: Well, they wanted it to be kept as quiet as possible.

Kennelly: Even from Richmond?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Was it keeping a low profile?

Yates: Well, it was keeping a low profile, in general. Because I think anything that would have put a spotlight on this situation, from their viewpoint, could have been disadvantageous to the school.

Kennelly: But one wonders on the other hand, if there was any kind of government pressure, federal government pressure to be integrating the schools.

Yates: Well that's a very interesting point because there was no litigation associated with my enrolling here or Irving Peddrew the year before. On the other hand, it was probably--foreseeing that eventually that this would happen anyway and therefore to avoid the publicity associated with blacks enrolling here--that they sort of wanted us to enroll quietly. To keep that reality as quiet as possible.

Kennelly: Do you recall having any special feelings about that meeting? It seems a little intimidating that the president of the school comes to visit you in your high school.

Yates: Well, no, because we did have my parents there, teachers there, my high school principal was there. We felt protected you might say.

Kennelly: Did you feel okay having these ground rules given to you?

Yates: Yes, in my own case, I was more concerned with getting a degree. These things were not important to me.

Kennelly: You had your goal in mind, and you could put up with these things?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: How did you actually get to Virginia Tech when you first came here back in 1954?

Yates: I believe we took the train that came into Christiansburg.

Kennelly: The old Huckleberry?

Yates: This was a regular train that ran from Norfolk through Christiansburg. I don't know it's final destination.

Kennelly: Oh, okay.

Yates: So, that's how we got to Christiansburg. An African American gentleman, who owned a taxi company in Christiansburg, S. B. Morgan, met us there. I guess within the past five to six years or so he's probably passed, but he brought us over to Clay Street here in Blacksburg where we took a room in the house where we lived.

Kennelly: Did he acknowledge that this was something different?

Yates: Oh, yes, he was really expecting us. I guess I would have to say that most of the African Americans in the community were aware of what was going on then. The change that was taking place. They were very much aware of it.

Kennelly: Were there many African Americans working at Virginia Tech then?

Yates: I don't think there were very many. There were a few, but mostly in service staff type positions. I know a gentleman who worked at the old cleaners, and those types of jobs.

Kennelly: Did you feel welcomed by the African American community?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Was there a special effort to welcome you?

Yates: Yes, there was a special effort made. Because we essentially lived in that community, we became part of that community. We were students that came over to campus during the day, and once our studies were over, we were back as part of the community.

Kennelly: You were saying with the Hoge family. How did that work out? There were three of you living there?

Yates: There were four students. During my four years, there were four students. Maybe in my senior year, there were three students.

Kennelly: I guess I mean did you miss living in the dorm? Was there a more homey feeling?

Yates: Well, there were positives, and there were negatives. The positives were that it did allow us direct access to the African American community. If we were living on campus, we would not have had this because living as cadets, there were certain restrictions about when you can go and when you have to come back. Also, the fact we were living off campus instead of on, we did not have all the responsibilities that a cadet would normally have. But there were also some negative aspects--getting together to study with my regular classmates. We were able to do that a lot, but not always at a convenient time because we were not living on campus.

Kennelly: So did you get together and study with classmates?

Yates: Oh yes. A lot.

Kennelly: So there was that comradeship...

Yates: I can think of almost no negative aspects of my academic life during that time in terms of interacting with my fellow students. Now I understand there were some professors who were not happy about having African American students in their classes. But I can think of no circumstances where I can think of being treated unfairly by those professors. So in terms of academics... [Tape 1, Side B]

Yates: I imagine my life would have been much different if I would have lived on campus.

Kennelly: As far as the Corps, what kind of things wouldn't you have to do?

Yates: March in formation to breakfast in the morning. Same thing for dinner. Lights out at a certain time. If I needed to stay up all night and study, I could do it, and no one would be concerned.

Kennelly: What about hazing? Did you go through hazing in the Corps?

Yates: No, not really. There was not a lot of hazing then, generally. I probably was exposed to less because I didn't live on campus. We, the African American students would have to participate in such activities like parades. We had to participate in any daytime Corps activities. And even though you would probably be dressed down by upperclassmen in those kinds of situations, there was never anything very serious about that.

Kennelly: It wasn't like hazing in the sense of doing something awful to somebody?

Yates: No.

Kennelly: When you were an upperclassman, did you do hazing to the lower classmen?

Yates: No, again because I was really never on campus enough to be in that kind of situation. As a freshman, it was required that you always walk on the right hand side of the walkway wherever you were, and you spoke very loudly to all upperclassmen: "Good morning, sir. Good afternoon, sir." That was a must. Then in my freshman year I didn't have any difficulties with that. I did notice that when I became a sophomore, some of the freshmen did have a little difficulty with addressing me as, "Good morning, sir, Good afternoon, sir." But it never really caused a problem.

Kennelly: Did you call them on it?

Yates: Oh yes. I did a couple times. Sometimes I've thought back on this and said you have to be out of your mind. Here you are one of about 4,500 white students up here, you shouldn't be doing that. Not very smart. But it was never really a problem.

Kennelly: Were there any repercussions from your doing that?

Yates: No.

Kennelly: But you felt that was the whole way of doing that and that was the way of following procedures. Definitely from the Corps standpoint they should be called on it?

Yates: Yes, right. There were a couple of occasions on which I could have--the terminology then was you could write up somebody...give to them demerits for not following some rules. But I never felt it was appropriate to follow through on that because it was only a very few occasions. Then again it was surprising how well we were able to interact with the other students.

Kennelly: Did you know Irving Peddrew very well?

Yates: Well, as roommates, if you like, the three or two years.

Kennelly: Had he felt things were terribly difficult before you came? I mean the first year he was all alone.

Yates: Yes, that was obviously a difficulty being all alone. My impression was that when he eventually left here that he had a somewhat more negative attitude than I did, and apparently that grew out of his being the first black student which I don't think was quite the same as my experiences coming along a year later. I never really could appreciate just why he felt as negative as he did.

Kennelly: I understand that you left your rifle in a classmate's room so you didn't have to carry it back and forth from drills.

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Did you visit in the rooms with the cadets?

Yates: Whenever we had an activity such as a parade, drill practice, or anything like that, I typically would go too. In this particular case, it was the room of a couple of students who would always let me come there and dress and again let me leave my rifle there in the room. I can really say that we really became friends. I have had contact with both of them in the last couple of years. So it has held together over the years.

Kennelly: Did you have an interest in a military career?

Yates: Well, I did. I really wanted to go into the Air Force to take my training, but I learned my senior year the Air Force gave us lessons out at the airport theatre. The idea was to give us an opportunity to see what we found out about flying. What I found is that I don't like height. It's a little hard to fly an aircraft if you don't like height. I'm very uncomfortable at the top of the Empire State Building. [laughter] I just don't like height. I decided on the basis of that experience and the lessons that I took that I didn't want to do that. I decided that especially because at that point I had been accepted to grad school at Cal Tech. Also because I had gone to summer camp. At that camp, after your junior year, you would spend four or five weeks at summer camp. Which I did.

Kennelly: Like summer ROTC camp?

Yates: Yes. I was at McDill Air Force Base at Tampa, Florida. That's where I spent my summer. I had an opportunity to talk to a lot of the Air Force officers, and what I learned was that most of them were not involved with professional work associated with their college training. Since the Air Force put you where they needed you independently of what your college background might have been, I decided that if I was going to be a reasonably good engineer, the Air Force was not where I wanted to be. Especially, if I wasn't going to fly. So I requested and it was approved, that I was able to resign my commission about three months before I graduated.

Kennelly: Did you get a scholarship to Cal Tech?

Yates: Yes, I worked the summer in between graduating from VPI and [going to] Cal Tech. I worked for an aircraft engine company in New York. Based on my savings from that job and the scholarship from Cal Tech, I was able to complete the master's program there.

Kennelly: Did anyone at Virginia Tech help you to get the scholarship for graduate school?

Yates: It is something I pursued more or less on my own. But I'm sure the department head and others had to support me in terms of recommendations. It's always required. I'm sure that they did that. I don't remember exactly who at this point, but I'm sure they did. That's the kind of thing they would have done.

Kennelly: Was there something like a mentor, someone who took you under their wing?

Yates: No. I guess I sort of picked up on that from my fellow students. The fact that graduate school could be very important. So I pursued it on my own more or less.

Kennelly: It sounds that the students you were hanging around with were very academically focused.

Yates: I think the interview that you refer to, I make mention of the fact of one of the student's with whom I had a very close relationship, another graduate, Dean Mook who is now a professor in Engineering Science and Mechanics here. In fact, he was one of the first students who went into that program.

Kennelly: So another student who really pursued and was successful in their academic career?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: You mentioned earlier--the man back at Booker T. Washington wanted to show that his students could compete. Did you feel adequately prepared when you came to Virginia Tech?

Yates: Yes. I did. I've often noted that, because at that point in was when the State of Virginia mandated that we have equal but separate school a result of that, a lot of teachers in my high school, because they did not have the opportunity to go elsewhere, were extremely well prepared. I'm sure that in today's environment they would be teaching at college level. But the opportunities did not exist then. As a result of that, together with the fact that the community structure was quite different then where not only could your neighbor adults discipline children but also the teachers could, the teachers had probably more of a greater interest at that point in the success of the students. Discipline was not nearly as much of a problem. As a result of that, I think that we were very well prepared. I think that this was one of the statements Mr. Perry wanted to make, that the students coming out of Booker T. were very well prepared, even though we did not have the level of support that the white schools had in the area in terms of equipment and that kind of thing.

Kennelly: When you came to Virginia Tech, you felt like you could compete with the other students with no problem?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: I understand that you were in the YMCA cabinet and that you were active in the YMCA. I notice your photo isn't in the yearbook photo of the YMCA. I wondered if that was a deliberate omission. You also aren't in the Squadron C picture. You were in the Squadron C?

Yates: I'm not sure why I wasn't in the Squadron picture. I don't recall if I was not aware and just missed or why that came about. And the YMCA picture, I guess I'd have to make the same comment because there, in particular, I don't think there would have been any effort made by anyone to keep my picture from appearing. I don't think so.

Kennelly: I just wondered if this whole thing of low profile...

Yates: That's one of those things that if you don't live on campus, you might miss out on--that sort of thing.

Kennelly: Right, right. What kind of activities did you become involved in with the YMCA?

Yates: Bible study groups, I recall. That's the one thing that sticks out in my mind besides the usual meetings. Items or the usual agenda, I don't recall.

Kennelly: Did race prevent you from fully participating in any of the activities?

Yates: It was a concern with some of the activities. Whenever white female students were involved because they were pretty much active as part of the YMCA. Does that make sense?

Kennelly: You're right.

Yates: It meant that there was that contact. So, I can recall that there were some activities where concern was expressed particularly when there were off-campus activities. Concern was expressed about the contact between myself and any of the white female students.

Kennelly: Who was expressing the concern?

Yates: Well, one person who was very much always concerned was a gentleman, Paul Derring. I can recall at least one activity we were involved with, something off campus, and he had made it known that he didn't particularly care that I would be involved in that. But the person who was involved in the day-to-day operation of the YMCA was very supportive of my being involved. I can't think of his name...Stan...I can't think of his last name now.

Kennelly: So you were able to participate in whatever this activity was?

Yates: Yes. Yes.

Kennelly: Was that painful or did it make you angry?

Yates: No, because there were enough people that were supportive of me that the fact that one was not wasn't bothersome.

Kennelly: Were you able to make friends with any of the young ladies involved?

Yates: Yes, I recall there were a couple who were somewhat friends. But that was essentially the only contact we had in the YMCA setting. I can recall almost no female white students in engineering then. So the classroom contact was minimal.

Kennelly: You were the corresponding secretary for Tau Beta Pi, the honor society for students in engineering. You were also recording secretary for Pi Tau Sigma, the honor society for mechanical engineering. These societies are formed to mark those that have confirmed honor upon their alma mater by distinguished scholarship and exemplary character as undergraduates in engineering. So did you feel that holding offices in these honorary societies and just being in them, was that an important recognition by your peers?

Yates: Recognition? Yes, and I think acceptance because I think this was entirely voluntary on their part. No obligation, and I think it was indicative of the kind of relationship that I had with my fellow students. Very normal. Very normal.

Kennelly: That you were an outstanding student and you would be invited to participate in this activity. I'm kind of assuming that you must have kept a good GPA--done well academically here.

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: I wondered about the climate in the Corps, in the general sense, maybe not directed to you as far as race goes. For example, I know the Highty Tighties playing "Dixie" has been an issue. Was that something that was going on at that time?

Yates: Oh, yes. One requirement of the Corps was that we had to attend football games, particularly home games, as members of the Corps. I had to participate in that. I can remember very well "Dixie" was sung occasionally at those games. But, quite frankly, I didn't know what "Dixie" was then.

Kennelly: Did someone run out with a Confederate flag?

Yates: They may have. That wasn't an issue for me because I didn't even know the significance of that.

Kennelly: So it wasn't like you were feeling harassed?

Yates: No.

Kennelly: Did you think that your strengths were recognized at Virginia Tech as a student?

Yates: Yes, as a student I think so.

Kennelly: I saw a letter from Irving Peddrew in the Collegiate Times about his decision not to go to the ring dance. It seemed from reading that, it was a painful decision. I understand that your class officers met and decided to ask you to attend the ring dance. I was wondering how you felt about this. If it made you feel like an outsider that they would need to invite you? If it felt good? I wondered about your perception of that.

Yates: Well, I felt good about that. Not because I felt it was so personal toward me-- because it was progress that the students had made in one year. As I recall, Irving's classmates did not want him to come, but my classmates did. So I saw that as just really progress.

Kennelly: What about the response of the administration. Dr. Newman, I believe suggested that you not attend.

Yates: Mr. Cherry and I were called to his office. I don't remember the exact conversation that took place. But the essence was that he did not wish that we attend the ring dance.

Kennelly: Was it disappointing as an issue? What was your response if you can carry yourself back to how you felt at this time?

Yates: Well, I very distinctly remember how I felt at the time. I felt very good about the action that the class officers had taken. On the other hand, I could not have afforded to attend the ring dance. I was not going to attend the ring dance. I knew that, and so what Dr. Newman did really didn't bother me that much. Had I been planning to go to the ring dance, I surely would have felt differently.

Kennelly: I guess Mr. Cherry decided not to go.

Yates: He had not planned to go either.

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