Race relations still issue, Eastside resident says

Published 4:25 pm Tuesday, June 10, 2008

In the 1960s, at Tryon Elementary School, you had to say the pledge of allegiance along with your classmates, or you&squo;d be paddled, Joseph Fox recalls.

Fox, a good student, conformed, but every time he got to the &dquo;and justice for all&dquo; part, he recalls wondering where the justice was for black people in his hometown.

That question is still on the table at the Friendship Council, which last month began a discussion of race relations in the Thermal Belt, using Sen. Barack Obama&squo;s speech, &dquo;A More Perfect Union,&dquo; as a starting point for discussion.

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&dquo;We at the Friendship Council saw this forum as a way of getting issues on the table that people are uncomfortable with regarding the true nature of race relations in this region,&dquo; said Fox.

The discussion begun last month will continue next Tuesday, June 10, at 7 p.m. when the Friendship Council meets at the Roseland Community Center to review a survey taken of East Side Tryon residents.

&dquo;I feel like that most black people in Tryon do not feel that they have a voice,&dquo; Fox said. &dquo;It is hard to get a lot accomplished if you don&squo;t have people supporting you.&dquo;

The Friendship Council, formed decades ago by white people after a Ku Klux Klan march through Tryon, seeks to foster goodwill and understanding across racial lines here. Fox is the current council president.

He is also vice president of the Roseland Community Center, serves on the Eunice Waymon, Nina Simone Memorial Project board of advisors, on the East Side Advisory Committee, and in several positions with St. Luke&squo;s CME Church in Tryon, as well as serving on the Board of Christian Education for the 31 CME churches in the Winston-Salem/Greenville District.

Fox earned his undergraduate degree from Pfeiffer University, and a master&squo;s and doctorate at Western Carolina University. Today, he is the business administration department chair at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College.

To foster better understanding, Fox agreed recently to talk about his own experiences growing up in the Thermal Belt. The public schools had been integrated just a few years before he began his formal education, and race relations in Tryon were not good, but discrimination was mostly subtle, unspoken, Fox said.

Only once, in his memory, did things really boil over here. That was after an elderly black man was shot and killed by local police and sheriff&squo;s deputies.

&dquo;There was the shooting of Louis Spencer,&dquo; he said. &dquo;He came out on his porch with an old, rusty rifle and there was a SWAT team there. He died of multiple shots. The story I&squo;ve always heard is that Jerry Ross, who was the Tryon chief of police at the time, said, &squo;I know him. Let me talk to him,&squo; and was told it was too dangerous. Spencer was a recluse. He was standing on his own front porch (when police approached). Even if you want to take someone down, you don&squo;t have to shoot him that many times. It would be interesting to see what the original call to the police was about.

&dquo;There was an uprising about it, folks demanding justice,&dquo; Fox said. &dquo;I had always gotten the story that someone wanted that land (on Hwy. 108). How much of that is folk lore and how much is actual fact, I don&squo;t know. But growing up here, I can see how people would believe it.&dquo;

Fox said he believes that black folks always felt that authority here would just look away.

&dquo;Tryon has been known as the &squo;friendliest town in the south,&squo; but as a black youth, I never felt that,&dquo; Fox said.

He remembers standing at the counter at Owens Drug Store ordering food.

&dquo;It was never spoken, it was unstated, but you got the feeling that you were not ever to sit and eat. It may have been taught to us by our parents, or it was that you knew by the way you were treated. They were so nice and chatty with whites, but you almost got your food thrown at you.&dquo;

Even into the late 1980s, Fox said he could not write a check for his groceries at the A&P Tea Co. in Tryon.

&dquo;I had just returned from a cruise in the Caribbean, and I come back to my hometown and I can&squo;t give a check. It was so ironic.&dquo;

Fox was born in 1961 to William and Hazel Fox. His mother was killed by a hit and run driver 19 years ago and he still resides in her home on weekends. He has a home in Black Mountain during the work week. His father has a small farm in Green Creek.

The Tryon house where Fox grew up on Peake Street is across from where Eunice Waymon&squo;s family lived after moving from Livingston Street. Waymon later became famous as Nina Simone. She was much older, but Fox knew her family and recalled meeting the star as a boy.

&dquo;I remember she showed up in white pants with an Afro,&dquo; he said.

Simone&squo;s sister Frances married one of Fox&squo;s cousins. Fox is also related to Crystal Fox, who starred in the television series &dquo;In the Heat of the Night&dquo; and now lives in Atlanta.

Fox&squo;s grandmother ran the Waymons&squo; country store and Joseph worked for Mr. Waymon.

&dquo;At a young age I saw Mr. Waymon and how he was overeager to please white people. It was a whole different feeling.&dquo;

Fox&squo;s mother wanted something better for him. &dquo;My mother instilled in us – &squo;Get an education, run for student government.&squo; It made us different.&dquo;

Fox said he felt from the beginning of his school days that &dquo;black children were always labeled the trouble makers,&dquo; but he also recalled that Mrs. Leonard and Mrs. Spivey were always very encouraging to him.

As he got older, he became aware that other kids were riding buses to school, while his family and friends had to pay Payne&squo;s Taxi Service for a ride to school. Some years later, buses began serving his neighborhood.

&dquo;As a middle schooler, I didn&squo;t feel welcome walking in downtown Tryon,&dquo; he said. &dquo;There was nothing said. Just unspoken looks. People would stop talking as you walked by. You did your business and left. You didn&squo;t linger.&dquo;

Fox was the only black kid in his algebra and French classes. &dquo;Blacks were not encouraged to take college prep classes. I wanted to go back to the classes with all my buddies, and I talked to my mother. She said, &squo;Well, those classes won&squo;t get you to college. You just need to get through these four years.&squo; She said, &squo;I worked two to three jobs just to get by. I want you to do better and that takes as much education as possible.&squo;&dquo;

Fox says he had white friends while at school, but he couldn&squo;t recall any after-school friendships with white kids until his junior and senior year, when he was student council president and was working on the student newspaper and meetings took place in classmates&squo; homes.

The day after high school graduation, he moved to Charlotte. &dquo;I didn&squo;t see Tryon offering anything to anyone young at that time, black or white. There weren&squo;t any job opportunities.&dquo;

He went to work in Charlotte that summer and earned money to attend Pfeiffer University, a private, Methodist college in Meisenheimer, N.C. He was used to working to earn his keep. He had begun buying his own clothes by his high school years.

College was the first time Fox recalls starting to have close white friends, visiting their homes, bringing them to his. &dquo;I began to see that not every place was like Tryon.&dquo;

He went on to earn his masters and an Ed.D from Western Carolina University. He moved to Black Mountain about 12 years ago and taught at Haywood Community College, and now serves as department chair for the business administration department at A-B Tech in Asheville.

Even today though, Fox said, not all African Americans feel comfortable on Tryon&squo;s downtown streets, or participating in the activities of its long-standing institutions.

&dquo;If they were, you would see more blacks at the Tryon Fine Arts Center and at the Tryon Youth Center,&dquo; he said. Fox said it is a matter of how &dquo;invitational&dquo; those institutions are.

&dquo;Some of the problem is, how do you market to a different culture?&dquo;

That is just the kind of question that will be discussed next the Friendship Council meeting, 7 p.m. at the Roseland Community Center.

On Saturday evening, from 5 to 8 p.m., the Friendship Council is holding a picnic, open to the community, at Harmon Field. Bring a dish to serve seven. Hot dogs and drinks will be provided.