ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW WITH DR. ANDREW BEST April 14, 1999 Interviewer: Ruth Moskop Transcribed By: Sabrina Coburn
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RM: Good morning.
AB: Good morning.
RM: My name is Ruth Moskop and I am here to interview Dr. Andrew Best in his office at 401 Moyewood Drive in Greenville, North Carolina. Dr. Best, do I have your permission to record this interview?
AB: You certainly do.
RM: I'm delighted.
AB: And this is a beautiful Wednesday morning. The weather is fine and it's spring weather and I think that I am mentally capable of moving forward.
RM: I feel the same way. It is a beautiful day. The sun is shining. It's not too hot yet. The lowers are blooming all over the place. That's a good reason to talk about housing...
AB: Housing. Yeah.
RM: ...in Greenville, North Carolina.
AB: Public housing.
RM: Yeah. Public housing. (0:45)
AB: As a little bit of a background, and we may find these words somewhere else in some of the transcriptions, I came to Greenville and opened my office on January 1, 1954, primarily for the practice of family medicine. Of course, as a family practitioner, with my background as a country boy growing up to achieve some measure of success on the educational ladder, being an MD, and corning back to Greenville, I had concerns for health and healthcare delivery beyond the confines of actual of treatment disease processors. I had some thoughts as a person who is interested in-my understanding of healthcare had a large component of preventive medicine in it. My understanding was, based on my observations and training, that the whole subject of preventive medicine had some roots in housing and environmental conditions and family attitudes. And that the informative area that really went into preventive medicine and health itself-overall health, healthcare and of course, healthcare delivery-applied throughout the whole package. I had gotten to know many people as my practice developed. I was one of the few doctors who would make house calls, even in those early days and I still make house calls, even at this late stage. My philosophy was to take healthcare where healthcare was needed and if I had to make some sacrifices, then okay (3:23)
RM: Tell us some of the things that you became aware of in the course of those early house calls.
AB: In those house calls, I would observe very carefully the conditions of the home in which I was called to see a patient. The idea for pushing with public housing as a project here in Greenville was born out of an observation. In one of the house calls that I made on a patient, I could tell you that the house overall on the inside was what we would call uninhabitable at it's best or worst. And the patient who was complaining of signs and symptoms consisting with a case of pneumonia was lying in bed with multiple blankets as well as overcoats piled on her in an attempt to keep warm. (4:37)
RM: Can you tell us more uninhabitable? Tell us more... (4:38)
AB: Well, the house was, on the inside, very dirty and had the appearance of being unkept.
RM: Where was the house?
AB: It was in a slum area, which we called Skinner Ravine. That's in a kind of depression on the railroad, actually on Third Street beyond the railroad before you go up the hill to Pitt Street, heading toward Greene Street and downtown. As I walked in, the house was supposed to heated by a coal heater by using soft coal as a fuel, but there was no fire in the heater and the person trying to survive with a deep cold and cough ...
RM: It must have been wintertime. (5:50)
AB: Yes, it was wintertime. I could look through the floor at the ground. Another thing that caught my eye was that the mice were playing across the floors of the home. When I examined the person and prescribed for her ills, I knew that my medicine was going to have a hard time bringing the patient to full recovery under such horrible conditions, surroundings, and environment. Having had some knowledge of what public housing did in my native Kinston, having known some people, and having visited in the public housing units in New Bern, the idea was borning my head. And in my mind, the question arose as to why we couldn't or shouldn't have public housing in the city of Greenville which was comparable in size to Kinston and New Bern. With those thoughts and concerns in mind, I had grown friendly through the years with the existing Mayor S. Eugene West. I called him for a conference. This was probably in December of '60 when we first started talking. He was very much concerned and very agreeable to some of my thoughts and ideas. So, as the result of that conversation plus other conversations in terms of fashion, strategy, support, and approaches to solving problems, he decided that we would call for a straw vote on the whole issue of redevelopment for some of the areas downtown. When the idea for federal funds for redevelopment of businesses and certain areas downtown came through, they added public housing to the ballet. The straw vote and the people passed the idea for redevelopment and for public housing. The mayor was running for reelection, and in association with this reelection was the straw vote on public housing and redevelopment. The mayor lost by nine poor pitiful votes. We knew that there did exist a group of what I call "Slum Lords", people who own this run-down rental property. They were highly against the move and of course, they had a candidate, Mr. Charles King, running against the incumbent Mayor West. Mr. King, was a puppet of the "Slum Lords". It was pretty well known among those of us who were knowledgeable and interested in progress. He had won by nine votes. This really was very depressing to my friend the mayor. On that Wednesday, after the vote came in on a Tuesday, I left my office and rode over to his office, which was across on North Greene Street, because he was not only the mayor but he was one of the CEOs of what we called West Construction Company. This was a company involved in doing a lot of construction, cement work, and brick buildings; a general construction company. He was associated with that business. So, I went over to his office and I tried to cheer him up at his loss. The way our contract read, the protocol was that ten days after an election, that the new mayor would be installed. I said, "You have ten more days in office, so it would be well for you to go ahead and appoint a housing authority and at least we can hope for then was that there would be a body in place to kind of safeguard and be a caretaker. We know that the new mayor isn't going to lead any efforts to advance what we're trying to advance. We know that realistically and practically." He said, "You know, I hadn't thought about that." I said, "Well why don't we go ahead?" So, he proceeded to appoint five members to what we call a housing authority and these members were referred to as commissioners, Commissioners of the Housing Authority of the City of Greenville. Having created this from his standpoint of the mayor's appointment and creation. As expected, the other crowd cried foul. They said, "Well, he's a lame duck and now he's created this Housing Authority." So, they filed an injunction and this injunction was heard by a member of the State Supreme Court. Oh, I think Judge Susie Sharp, one of the early female members of the State Supreme Court. I wouldn't be totally sure as to which one. Anyhow, it was one of the ladies who were on the Supreme Court. She heard the plea from the folk who I guess that's from the cons, heard their plea that this new Housing Authority as set up by the lame duck mayor should be declared null and void. (13:51)
RM: How long did that process take?
AB: Well, you see, during that ten days, the next few days it was created and the mayor...At that time it was '61 and Terry Sanford had already been installed as the governor and I was out of town the night the Housing Authority was sworn in and I didn't know the mayor was going to put me on it, but he did. So, when I got back home, I found that he had been trying contact to me. So, when I called his office he said, "Well, we swore in the people at the Housing Authority last night and you were absent." I said, "Yeah. I went down to have a meeting with the Governor who was visiting down in Roper." He said, "Well, will you come down and let the City Attorney swear you in?" That was probably on a Thursday or Friday that we were sworn in. It took several weeks for this injunction to find its way to invalidate the Housing Authority based on the fact that it was created by a lameduck mayor. Judge Susie Sharp slapped them down. Her ruling was that the mayor had full power until his successor was installed. So, that put an end to that. The mayor's term of office was two years. So for the next two years, the progress of public housing in Greenville was say more or less at a standstill. Then the ex mayor ran again at the end of that two years of having Mr. King as the mayor. The ext time around, we redoubled our efforts to get elected the man who had initiated the whole program to start with. We were successful in getting him elected all over again to the office of mayor. From that point on, we began to see some great strides in public housing here in Greenville. Now, the whole idea and the whole project of public housing has been a boom and blessing to the city as a whole and especially for minorities. Our first project was Kearney Park, which is over in South Greenville and it was agreed that these first units or the first project would be designed to take of the people in the downtown redevelopment area who were displaced by the redevelopment activities downtown. (17:17)
RM: Can you describe those activities? Was that when the park was built? Was that that area?
AB: Well, the redevelopment...
RM: The Town Commons.
AB: The Town Commons was a part of the redevelopment. They felt that they were run down slum houses all along the river edge and down Reed Street and Cotanche Street and...
RM: I've heard those described as shacks.
AB: Yeah. They were shacks.
RM: Almost just platboard put up like you put your tools in. Is that accurate? (18:00)
AB: There were only a few what I would call houses in the whole area which could be described as standard housing that were really up to par with acceptable living conditions. Nothing lavish, but the whole area was identified for redevelopment, including the north side of First Street, which is the land going down to the river. That was cleared out. That became the Town Commons. They went into the southern edge of the Tar River and put the retaining wall in and all of that kind of stuff to keep erosion and to have something to build behind. That was a part of redevelopment. (18:57)
RM: Prior to that, where the retainer wall is, were there dwellings there?
AB: There was a line of dwellings facing First Street on an area between where First Street now exists and the retaining wall for the river bank. There was a black church there called Sycamore Hill and through my efforts with the Housing Authority, we were able to get the area of Sycamore Hill and land...I don't remember how much, but it was a nice size lot...declared as a historic area. There was a lot of emotion and sentiment about the church remaining and the church not being bothered with. That served as an issue that we who were pushing forward had to deal with. Actually, this emotional vibration was going on in the community. (20:07)
RM: In other words, the people who would be served by the new housing were not anxious to abandon the church.
AB: That's right. They were not anxious to abandon the church or its position. So, to quiet that concern, we were able to deal with that in a very realistic manner: that coming from North Greenville from the church there on Greene Street, that it would qualify for a historic shrine and that we wouldn't bother that. We would just go ahead and develop around it. I got up everybody, the Redevelopment Commission and the Housing Authority to agree to this and so that was good. In later days, mysteriously, the church caught on fire and was burned. It was burned so badly that by the time the fire department could put it out, it was really uninhabitable and was destroyed so completely that it was foolish to even think of trying to rebuild it. Then after that happened, the Redevelopment Commission decided that they would acquire that property for the church also. The old church building, the old burned out building, so it all became a part of the Town Commons. That's how that got...(21:48)
RM: Well, the Sycamore Hill Church still exists?
AB: Yeah. The church still exists.
RM: Where is that now?
AB: See, they moved to Eighth Street. Now they are in a new building that they just went in about six months ago right off Hooker Road.
RM: How did that building on Eighth Street get there?
AB: That building on Eighth Street was a... They acquired that from a white church. I don't remember the nomination name, but it was a church that had been acquired by a white congregation and this white congregation moved.
RM: It's a big stone building.
AB: Yeah. It's a big stone building. When the white congregation moved out, this Sycamore Hill congregation acquired the property and they held forth there all through the years until they moved into their new church. I haven't been in this new church. I understand that it's very beautiful with a seating capacity of about 700 people and I've got to go. It's one of the things on my agenda is to go through and inspect it because... (23:00)
RM: I look forward to seeing it, too.
AB: I can realize that it is some of my handiwork because I was the impetus, if you please, for the memberships being transferred from downtown area to Eighth Street and finally out where it rests now right off Hooker Road.
RM: Let me ask you, back to housing again. Now, the substandard housing that existed there around First Street, how did it get there in the first place? Was it put up by landlords or had the people who had lived in the buildings...?
AB: Now, basically that property was owned by landlords, who from my recollection, developed that property in the olden days for rental purposes. It was 99 percent minority, more or less a black district, a black area of housing. It was great for us to get those people in what we call a standard house. I mentioned that the first project, Kearney Park, was named after a very memorable minority lady who was very highly respected and influential in the community, Elizabeth Kearney. I had no problems with naming it after her. That gave us a leg up on developing other areas. Now the second project in Housing Authority was over across the river in what we call Meadowbrook. That was the second unit and the third unit that we developed was right here in Moyewood. Now, a little history behind Moyewood development, that this was a white community with a settlement of about maybe fifteen or maybe no more than twenty white homes. It was named Moyewood. There was a lot of open land between this development or this white settlement and the river and areas kind of west of the development. When the city Housing Authority bought that land and advertised plans to have another public housing unit over here, including this spot where we sit now, it developed in what we call "black fright and white flight". These settlers, the people who were here, wanted to move and relocate. They said, "If public housing units come in here, we want no part of it. We want to relocate." So, the city Housing Authority agreed that we would buy all of this property, and the idea, when they first started talking about what they were going to do with it, was to take these family dwellings and cut them up into apartments to house two families. I rejected that. My thoughts were that it would be good for this area to have a mix of private owners and public housing. If you'll notice one of the trademarks in public housing in Greenville is what we call low density. That is we put...Now in Kinston they have high density because they have narrow streets and alleys and a lot of units are rowded right on top of each other, and that was the one thing that I took upon myself. Let's stick with low density, have wide streets, have individual units so they appear more like private developments and have some area around for lawn grass and flowers. That was one of the contributions, I was leader of the band in low density housing for the aesthetic value and the beauty of the whole bit. Now when it came to what we were going to do with these private units that we had bought a few vacant lots, I was sitting down talking with my Housing Authority members to say, "Well, I think of the about eleven or twelve or thirteen houses, I think that I can find some buyers for these houses." So, it worked out that all of these houses that were out here where the white folk had moved out of, I found buyers for all of those houses. (29:06)
AB: Some of the units like one back of me across there, those open lots that we sold, we had people build on that. We had a building; we had pavement built right across there on the vacant lots. There are a couple of lots that we sold that are still vacant, but we had this mix that I had dreamed about of private owners and people in public housing. So really, that worked out.
RM: Well, you were one of the people who purchased the property, too. (29:48)
AB: Yeah. Well, this house here became available to go on the market and one of my friend commissioners, Mr. Charlie Howard, said, "Dr. Best, you're crowded down there on Cadillac Street where you are. Don't you want to buy one of these houses?" I said, "I am a member of the Housing Authority and I don't know if we can get permission for me to buy one of the houses." So, the then Executive Director, Colonel A. E. Dubber, an old Army man-he retired a retired Colonel called the folk in Atlanta and asked them to clarify the rule and what could we do to make it legal for me to acquire this property. The answer came back that I could acquire it if I did not participate in the discussion and proceedings that authorized the sale. So, I was there but I did not participate as we had been directed and all of the other commissioners okayed my buying this particular property of which I did. I got a VA loan and acquired the property. Then I moved here in November of 1968 and here I have been since then. (31:33)
RM: Did you do renovations right away?
AB: Well, yes, before I moved in. I came in and did some renovations to make it more livable for me as a doctor's office. Up what was the living room up front, I designed, along with my cabinetmaker, a piece of furniture that... That counter that you see up front as you come in, that's our design. It's just like another piece of furniture sitting on the floor. There's one spot where you just take it apart, the part that goes out to the door and the part that comes down toward the wall, it can be unhooked there and moved out like another piece of furniture. Of course, I put the wall in this room to give me some privacy to the room what was a bedroom back there, which we now use more or less for administrative. At one time when I fist moved, we had beds back there where I did deliveries right in this building and e would keep the mother sometimes overnight after deliveries. Seldom, if a person had some problems that we would figure it more that an overnight stay, we'd send those people and deliver them to the hospital. (33:00)
RM: Did you have someone else to stay with them on your staff?
AB: Yes. Yes. We had a person who had been trained and had a lot of experience in midwifery to come. If I had a labor case that was in and she was back there in bed, if I finished my office hours and she hadn't delivered, I would go home and this lady who was a qualified midwife would stay with the patient.
RM: What was her name? Do you remember?
AB: Maggie Ward.
RM: Maggie Ward.
AB: She had some experience. She would stay and then she would call me. Of course, anything other than a complicated delivery, she could deliver a baby just as well as I could. So, that worked out very well and we were able to render a public service. It was better on the patient economically because my charges were nothing kin to what the hospital charges for delivery service. From there, we developed two other units out on Hopkins Park, named after Nelson Hopkins, the an that you heard me mention who brought me to Greenville. He was a large landowner and owned a lot of city property and rental property. When we developed the parks over there in South Greenville, Hopkins Park, the Housing Authority developed that as another housing unit. We named it after him, Hopkins Park. Then, we had the property on Fourteenth Street, which is beyond Dickinson Avenue and from there we went to; the Housing Authority owned some property what we called open housing. We had several units...You know where B's Barbecue is, when you go out 43 and turn left at B's Barbecue right up there on the left, you '11 find some more units belonging to the Greenville Housing Authority. (35:19)
RM: It's a big enterprise.
AB: Oh, yes.
RM: What is the arrangement between the Housing Authority and the occupants of the house?
AB: Well, the Housing Authority has an administrative office and they have certain rules and regulations and they do the administrative managing. Of course, the occupants have to keep up the property and live up to certain standards. If they violate those, they can be evicted. Of course, they service what we call low income people and if they get jobs where their income rises above a certain level, then they have to move out. That's basically what it is. (36:13)
RM: Housing Authority is responsible for the condition of the house and make sure the plumbing is working...
AB: That's right. They have people who are involved in upkeep. I'm trying to think of the name of that group of people. They go around and inspect the housing units and they answer calls if anything goes wrong or whatever it is, if it's the plumbing, electricity or what not, they have it fixed and repaired.
RM: Who takes care of the electrical bills and the phone bill?
AB: Well, so far as I know, if anything goes wrong, the Housing Authority itself. I know when I was a commissioner, we were responsible for upkeep and for restoring or making functional...
RM: Do the occupants themselves pay their utility bills? (37:17)
AB: I really have forgotten, but I think they do. I think they pay some utility bills. I believe. I can check with the policy. One of the girls who works with the Housing Authority is still my patient. I can find out on that and if I'm wrong, when we come back, we'll correct that.
RM: You mentioned, you were talking about the deliveries here in the office here at
401 Moyewood Drive, and I'm wondering how long you had that service available.
AB: Well, from '68 until, for roughly about ten years, until about '78 before I ran out of space. I had to dismantle my beds and use that space for administration.
RM: I see. (38:12)
AB: So, about ten years out here. Of course, in my previous building on Cadillac Street, there was a duplex apartment in which I got the whole building and we cut that wall in between the front room and took the wall out and so that turned all of that into one space. Then, I had some rooms back there where I had some beds. In tat area I had about five beds where I did deliveries on Cadillac Street. That was between '59 and the time that I came out here in '68.
RM: Did you have those beds full many times?
AB: Anywhere, sometimes I had three to five people in those five beds. It was very seldom that I had to tum somebody, like a mother, down. If I had to send her home a little earlier than I wanted to because somebody else was coming in, as long as she was stabilized, we could do that. That was a matter of judgment to do that. Overall, public housing served a great purpose here in the whole area and it has committed people to have the opportunity to live in a decent house. It has contributed to the whole problem and the concern is that it has contributed greatly to healthcare. That's the bottom line, it is contributing greatly to healthcare as well as to livability and... (40:10)
RM: Standard of living.
AB: ...standard of living for the occupant.
RM: That's a wonderful project. I'm thinking that maybe we should just limit our interview to that topic today.
RM: I have one more question though.
RM: How did you happen to be in Roper? You went down to visit with the governor.
AB: Well, the governor soon after he was committed, of course. The black mayor of Roper was a good friend of mine, E.V. Wilkins. He had been ardent supporter of the governor and of course, the governor's platform. Terry Sanford's platform was the promotion of quality education. He was down in Roper to do a high school speech, graduation speech, commencement. So, my friend, Mayor Wilkins, invited me down because Wilkins was a high school principal before he became mayor. From his role as the principal at that time was the high school and through his association with the governor, he got the governor to come down to speak at the school. Naturally, I got an invitation and as a supporter of Terry Sanford in his quest for the office and having met him and got to know him on a friendly basis, then E.V. invited me, too. So, I went down to recognize and to support his presence in Eastern North Carolina. (42:01)
RM: That makes sense.
AB: Yeah. It makes sense. You know most of the higher political power has its roots west of I-95. There was a time when Dr. Leo Jenkins was just like the lone voice crying in the wilderness calling Eastern North Carolina a sleeping giant. He was an avocate of activity and consideration and influence in Eastern North Carolina. When the governor recognized something coming east, there were many of us, a core group who supported activity coming from state officials. It could be the governor; it could be any state official. Come on to Eastern Carolina; you'll have a welcome here and this was kind of the unvoiced idea that we supported and it was valuable in the end. It was a very fundamental part of the progress that we have made in Eastern North Carolina and we have made tremendous progress.
RM: You have been an important part of that progress.(43:29)
AB: Well, I would hope that I have made some contributions and have seen some things. I've helped some things to be and maybe have caused a few things to be.
RM: I think you have Dr. Best. Thank-you so much.
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