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Stories of the Civil Rights generation of activists, both Black and white, who were born in the 20s and 30s.

Loud As The Rolling Sea: Paul Graham

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Diane Chiddister
/
via Yellow Springs News
Paul Graham is in his 90s now with rich memories to share of his career as a chemist, as a student at Antioch College in the 1940s, as a father and husband, as a civil rights activist, and as the son of parents who came to Dayton as part of the Great Migration, the movement of Blacks from the south to the north in the early decades of the 20th century.

Now in his 90s, Paul Graham is a soft spoken, retired chemist living in Yellow Springs, where he went to college, launched a career and a family, and eventually became a prominent civil rights activist. His parents had come north, like so many blacks in the early 20th century, and moved to Dayton, where they joined other family members and settled down.

An extended interview with Paul Graham
Listen to an extended version of Dr. Kevin McGruder's interview with Paul Graham.

Transcript (edited for length and clarity):

Paul Graham: My uncle worked as a janitor in one of the buildings in downtown Dayton, as a matter of fact, at that time. It was really the largest building in the city of Dayton. The building still exists. At that time, it was called the U.B. Building. It was owned by United Bretheren. Whenever any relatives visited, particularly from Kentucky, one of the big attractions was taking them up to the top floor of the U.B. Building, to see all over Dayton.

Dr. Kevin McGruder: Paul Graham went to a segregated high school in Dayton, where he excelled as a student. And when it came time to go to college, a counselor suggested he try Antioch.

Paul Graham: I had no idea of what it was, whether it was even though I was only 20, 25 miles from home, it was not a school that I would have considered on my own.

Dr. Kevin McGruder: Do you remember where you were considering?

Paul Graham: Yes, I applied to a couple of Black schools. Talladega was one, Tuskegee was another, and I had almost completed an application at Harvard, of all places, primarily because I heard quite a bit about the chemistry program at Harvard.

Dr. Kevin McGruder: Antioch accepted him and as he enrolled, he says the college was in the process of trying to diversify student body. There were no Blacks, he says, in spite of its liberal reputation. There was segregation also in the village of Yellow Springs. When Paul finished college and settled in the Village to raise his family, he got involved in efforts to force the integration of facilities in the Village that were supposedly open to the public, like the bank, the movie theater, the restaurants and the barber shops. It was the early 1960s. He joined with villagers, both Black and white, who mostly believed in peaceful protest.

Paul Graham: A good many of them were Blacks who had been in the military. There were particularly Friends, Quakers. One of the early participants was Hardy Trolander, who was at one time, you know, president of Yellow Springs Instruments.

Eventually all those restaurants opened. And then we got to barbershops. One of the reasons for barber shops was because at that time, again, there were students at Antioch, some Black students who, when they were here, you know, wanted haircuts.

There was one Black barber in town. Initially even he was sort of reluctant to cut the hair of Blacks because his white customers, you know, some of them sort of resented that. But he eventually, you know, sort of turned around and another barber shop went out of business and then the third one continued operation. And so that was why this particular business sort of became the focus of civil rights activity in Yellow Springs.

Dr. Kevin McGruder: And this was Gegners.

Paul Graham: Yes. And I volunteered to be the focal point of this concerted effort. And so with Hardy Trolander as my witness, I went into this barber shop to seek accommodation and of course, was refused. And the college students in the area, particularly Antioch students, to some extent students at Wilberforce and Central State, had become very much involved. However, students, as the case with most young people anytime, were much more active and not quite as reserved in their activities as the older people. And our activity consisted primarily of picketing the barbershop for a period of two or three years.

Every Saturday we would have, all day long, at least three or four people picketing the barbershop. And that sort of escalated to the point that it became not only on Saturday but daily. And the students who were much more impatient than we were, amped up their picketing activity. The students decided they were not only going to picket the barbershop, but they were going to have sort of a mass demonstration and they went, you know, in the street and prevented the traffic from going down [Route] 68.

And so the county sheriff came in, other types of police organization came in and there was a so-called riot that occurred in Yellow Springs. It was nothing like a riot. The only riot, I think, of a riot or some type of real conflict, was on the part of police who were dragging people off the streets and throwing them into police cars and had tear gas, but no violence. As a matter of fact, that was part of the - again - this is also based also on Martin Luther King's principle of being, you know, no violence. I mean, the reason why police efforts sort of ramped up. They claim that, you know, people refused police orders literally were dragged off the street.

And even though I was very much center point of a lot of activities at that time, I was not in town at that time. I was attending an interracial conference in Richmond at Earlham College that day. And it wasn't until I was on my way home that I heard on the radio there was a riot in Yellow Springs. You must believe I really burned up the road getting home because a riot in Yellow Springs, as a result of my involvement - we started receiving threatening phone calls at home, threatening mail. As a matter of fact, I received mail from Mississippi, particularly, you know, the phone calls threatening our children, like specifically calls saying things like, you know, "you must remember you have children" so I really burned up the roads, getting home.

By the time I got here, streets were clear and you know, nothing. People were in jail. And, well, the main thing is that there was no riot. And unfortunately we did see a lot of publicity in the area, newspapers all over the area and even beyond, you know, the story of the big riot in Yellow Springs. But the thing is that shortly after that, Gegner closed and barbershop went out of business

Dr. Kevin McGruder: And so ended the drawn out protest that's become legendary in Yellow Springs.

Paul Graham was interviewed for this series in 2014, and his story was edited with help from community producer Tom Amrhein. Loud as the Rolling Sea is produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO and hosted by Dr. Kevin McGruder.

Funding for this project comes from The Yellow Springs Community Foundation, the Yellow Springs Brewery and from Rick and Chris Kristensen, Re/Max Victory and affiliates in Yellow Springs.