Alton Harris

Alton Harris

[This text is machine generated and may contain errors.]

Alton Harris
Amber Harris

Heather White

Wednesday, December 28, 2016
East Carolina University

[This text is machine generated and may contain errors.]

Heather White (00:03)
It does, it picks up over whoever's talking, if you just put it closer to who's talking. That's great. So today is Tuesday, December 27 2016. And we're here.What's your name? Sir?

Alton Harris (00:15)
Alton Ree Harris.

Heather White (00:16)
Okay, what's your name?

Amber Harris (00:17)
Amber Annet Harris.

Heather White (00:18)
Okay. Is it okay that we're interviewing you? Yes. Okay, so we're here talking about the community that's adjacent to the Tar River and was adjacent to the Sycamore Hill Baptist Church. Can you tell us about your connection to this area?

Alton Harris (00:32)
Well, I was born and raised right here, down on reach down over the buses. What is the name of the bus was no traffic destined to be familiar with this Evans street bus where Mr. James Hagan, and Eleanor Haven, they had the playground down here for the kids and we had a playground, that playground down there. But it was for the whole area for the whole neighborhood for everybody. Sycamore here was up on the ceiling. And I was there from a little boy growing up until I left and went into military. But this treatment here was for nothing. But both sides of the street. Credit Union over there was black neighborhood houses was across the street or whatever was Pitt street. So we knew everybody from Pitt Street down to dare to speak down there that they didn't bring back in college Side Street. That's the street. The last one they got down to is Ree stree. But there was a screet other side of the street called side street. And everybody from the river knew all the friends, friends knew each other. So and it was very tight. Neighborhood. Everybody knew each other. How the families like she said, it takes a village to raise a child where we were a village. How the parents know everybody else's child. So there wasn't any problem.

Heather White (02:35)
And you said you also attended the church down here?

Alton Harris (02:37)
I attended Sycamore Hill as a little boy, and I stayed there until it moved got burned down. Didn't move to Eighth Street. From Eighth Street, it moved to Hooker road. So I've been with all three churches. How do I intend to go in place?

Heather White (03:05)
Do you have any memories of growing up down here you'd like to share with us?

Alton Harris (03:11)
Well, yes. The closest member the one that told you about how we we live now here but we went to school. In a car lock to news, cm Eppes , baseball, that was our high school. Okay. We had a walk down here. Our way up to CM Eppes high school to dumb to black, all black. And the strangest thing about it. There was Greenville high school that live up the block for me that was all white. I could stand in my front yard and look at the school but we couldn't go there. We couldn't even walk up to fourth street to go there. We had to go up Third street. Everybody had to go. You can go you can go up fourth street because the white school and you know back then this was segregated. But it was the same that we couldn't go down to speak to a white student. We had to go third street and walk all the way. And another thing a lot of people don't know that ECU if you see going down 50 ECU see that wall field for Ree Circle. Has a brick wall there and there's a sink. You did you know why is that sink because then there was a white pool with a swimming pool. White only and Well, the story here is that one black guy swam in it. So rather than making the segregated integrated they close the pool. Cemented it over, and over the years that's fine. You got that circle. That wall sits on a pool with a white pool. And that used to walk up there on Saturdays when the school is not there we could walk past the school and go look at him swim. I got my name they say no Micah called me catfish. I got my name pulled out learn to swim right there. Wow

Heather White (05:52)
So we've heard stories of people getting in trouble for going swimming in the river I guess.

Alton Harris (05:56)
We lost, we lost a lot of friends in that river. Because sometimes we swam down there. some of us made it some of us didn't. I'm one of the lucky ones I'm trying to think of something but this the most crucial thing that I could tell you right now is about that school. And then again the main thing I can take there was three tragedies not treasured but three things happen at a time. Sycamore Hill burn down this is not a coincidence This is me talking. Sycamore Hilll burn down. After Sycamore Hill burned down. The talk was that they were gonna integrate CM Eppes but before it happened, it burned down. Now the strangest thing that I say and I tell people they said they had it had faulty wiring. But as it had in the world, that it had faulty wiring now that is going to be integrated. That when it stood up there from industrial from the Industrial School owned up to Eppes High School Fred advisory for the Legion graduate from there me and my wife graduated from there. A whole lot of people graduated from that. I think that last class was '69 last class of '69. And they said they were going to integrate now from industry I think they went back and forth. This is 30s How in the world that he gets the phone to wires. But at the time that he said they were going to integrate. It was it was fall toward the end it was falling to Brian back then it burned down. And I said to cover up CM Eppes Sycamore Hill. Greenville High School burned down, three big fires. I don't know why this happed, you could save up faulty wires on what. But those three fires back to back. Like I say it doesn't take what kind of science to know something was going on. And it's still going on now but it's camouflaged. And those are the three things that I really want people to know what happened here in Greenville. And then when they come through here and took all of this ran on, they don't know how many people that were in Sycamore Hill and how many people that lived down there the elderly died because you took them out of their environment. They lived all their lives and to move them from here to distant places although they die. People actually died the older people, younger people could handle it. The older people could not have just now they probably went. But after that we had a lot of funerals in Sycamore Hill was a lot of graves right over here. I've been out here with the guys ECU that had those sounds too find. Trying to find a bone Oh yeah, things divining? Yes, we walked down here all day to see if there was any more bones and everything. So we are saying that the bone Oh, they move some of the graves. But we say a lot of those bones and brains just swept up and carried somewhere. But you know, and from the time that I knew about it, they said there were only 100 People died. Only a 100 graves were moved but it's kind of hard to talk about.

Heather White (10:34)
And we appreciate all the people who have come out and shared this story. I think one of the things that we realize is there's just so much that's not in the history books, and it's not if we don't preserve it now. It's not going to be there. It's just going.

Alton Harris (10:48)
You don't have James Hagen and Eleanor Hagen playground. That playground. Evans street, end of Evans street. She provided that playground for everybody. All over three people came from the Eppes park. People came I don't know y'all know that. They came from what we call over to hill. River they all have that area. up that way towards. CL [Inaudible] out the kids came down here to this park to the playground. All the kids over there I'm trying to give you kind of give you a landmark now. But anyway, we called it Glen we called it over the hill, for Greenville recreation, utilities. All of that was black and all the children. They came this this don't know downtown. They call uptown. Don't set up town. This is downtown. Downtown fresh. Everything but the blacks. The reason why they called it downtown. Everything that we need. It was right here. It was a national gaurd amory. There was a supermarket called Spain supermarket. We had our own grocery stores. We had our own little shoe stores. We had Dr. Battle. We had our own doctors. Dr. Graves are right there on the corner. Evan, first dentists, black dentists, behind black lawyers. Everything is right here. So I see how the person that come through here. Wanted to get rid of that because we didn't have to go into place to have anything to ask for anything. Now as we move on down Evans street, there was all of the stores this out to the mall now. JC Penney got hot. They were right down the street here, bro. This you know, so be this walk a couple places and go back home. All the stores and stuff are right here. And then we had our own stores or supermarkets in [Inaudible] his dad it was real estate. He was right next to Flanagan. So we had a fair amount we had everything. So we didn't need no we didn't need to move to go anywhere. But redevelopment developments that they need this area for something I still haven't found out what they really need this or they move out of this took our homes, like our houses and stuff and moved us out of here to have this this is nothing new to me. And here we are trying to get a bit of a town and they built a playground and don't get me wrong. We have a playground down here too. But this is a different time. We are trying to move forward and they build a playground and everybody thinks it is nice playgrounds not going to satisfy me because a lot of my people a lot of my friends a lot of people that raise have gone on because of this place. I think I come down here sometimes to see them from harassment and credit union, the post office the only thing Going down here now they're still here is when we were down here is the courthouse. Everything else. Courthouse is the only building stay down here and everything else, they move from down here to the stores and moved them out to the mall. But with the mall called the new first colonial I can definitely call this, you know a lot of things that I can see him think that will come up. It's not nice.

But you know, and that's the thing that we want to recognize is history is not one sided. And this is a side that people often overlook, because nobody talks about it. And so that's why we really wanted to be able to talk to people who live down here and work down here and worship down here. So we just appreciate you so much.

We had about 10 to 20 white fellas back over there on Pitt Street it wasn't all black, we got white family down there. How did we get along, very well. The children even though the children walk from there to Greenville High School, we bought until the end was over, they played they played on the playground with us. Even though it was segregated, segregated it to the people that wanted to be segregated, but let's say even with the children right now, you take two children and put them out there, they will play they play. But it's the parents. Whats he doin playin with her, whats she doing playin with him. Come here little Johnny. And the child want to know why you call him Johnny Wait, we were having fun. This way it was back then, we had fun. White friends, white families this long story.

Heather White (17:18)
And we we just appreciate it so much. And you know we hope in the future to go back and even do more interviews with folks. So we'll we'll definitely if you are willing, come back and talk to you some more about other things.

Alton Harris (17:32)
I am going back in the closet and bring up some more.

Heather White (17:38)
Okay, well, you you take notes and keep up with it. Because as we we definitely want to get all of those. We just thank you so much. But what I'm going to do, we'll go ahead is anything else before I stopped recording that you can think of. Okay, yeah,

Amber Harris (17:53)
This one isn't saying yes, good history. I, you know, I relived have the stories is, is it was not folklore, the statute. And so, you know, living here in Greenville and listening to the stories, you know, from my dad and, and frilly, Freddie, Lilian and everybody, it's all it actually is start. It started me too. Because, you know, they're my parents. And these are these are my family here. Yeah, you know, I was born and raised in Sycamore hills, Wales. And so what I'll say is, you know, I guess I can say I am a descendant of these rich grounds that are here. And I'm just happy to be here. And I'm happy to know that this, beyond bricks and mortar recognizing Sycamore heal is an acknowledgement of the black community that was displaced. In the 1960s, I'm happy to be standing here with my dad, and with other Greenville residents that remain here and have lived here to endure this pain daily. Even those residents from Greenville, that it moved to fall in a move away, I'm happy to stand here. And also happy to stand in the gap for those that have gone on before us. Even though the town Commons is actually beautiful, and are really, you know, really good, right? What that says it's beautiful. It's beautiful. However, for the individuals that I've just named, and called, these sacred grounds here will forever be home in their homes, they're sure enough, we live across town and all this kind of stuff, but this is still home, not physically, but in their hearts. And so this public acknowledgement means a lot to them can somehow help in the healing process? So I just want to just must Thank you for that acknowledgement on behalf of them. And I'm glad that this is public. I do not care what the people in the community say, I do not care what bless your heart says. People are very, very critical. But this is very real. And until you have lived it, we should not comment. And so those are my thoughts. And if WNET was here, and would ask me, I would say the same thing. This is very real, and it's very painful. But this acknowledgement actually means a lot. It's a start of a healing process. And so I just like to go on record by saying that.

Heather White (20:40)
We appreciate it. And I think for us, that was the big thing. The bless your hearts and certain things. We recognize that people didn't, weren't seeing past that this was a whole community that didn't make the choice to leave. And there needs to be an acknowledgement. So we appreciate the willingness of everybody to come out and talk to us so we can preserve this so.

Amber Harris (21:03)
Sacred and hallowed grounds.

Heather White (21:05)
Yes, ma'am. All right, with that you could have ended it any better.

Alton Harris
Photographs of Alton Harris taken at the Town Common, Greenville, N.C., accompanied by an oral history interview, for the Beyond Bricks and Mortar project. Harris was born on Reade Street and attended Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church. He describes the downtown area he remembers from childhood, including the close-knit neighborhood as well as the thriving businesses that furnished everything for the black community. The playground supervised by Eleanor Hagan is also remembered fondly. Brown describes the effects of segregation and racism on the downtown community and on his childhood. He recalls three significant fires (the church, C.M. Eppes, and Greenville High School) and discusses the possible connections between them. He has painful memories about the redevelopment process, recalling that many of the community's elderly people died from the stress caused by displacement. Interviewer: Heather White.
December 27, 2016
Original Format
oral histories
Local Identifier
This item has been made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. Researchers are responsible for using these materials in accordance with Title 17 of the United States Code and any other applicable statutes. If you are the creator or copyright holder of this item and would like it removed, please contact us at
Preferred Citation
Cite this item
Content Notice

Public access is provided to these resources to preserve the historical record. The content represents the opinions and actions of their creators and the culture in which they were produced. Therefore, some materials may contain language and imagery that is outdated, offensive and/or harmful. The content does not reflect the opinions, values, or beliefs of ECU Libraries.

Contact Digital Collections

If you know something about this item or would like to request additional information, click here.

Comment on This Item

Complete the fields below to post a public comment about the material featured on this page. The email address you submit will not be displayed and would only be used to contact you with additional questions or comments.

Comment Policy