African Americans faced numerous slings and arrows in Greensboro during the age of Jim Crow. These include, of course, the segregation of public accommodations like the Woolworth’s lunch counter. Neighborhoods, too, were intentionally segregated. As residents consider the impact of residential segregation on the city today, it’s worth paying attention to how the city came to be segregated. An important part of this story is what happened when a black man tried to move into a white neighborhood more than 100 years ago.
In December 1913, Greensboro newspapers reported that an African American man named William B. Windsor — a 10-year veteran teacher in the Greensboro public schools who would later serve as acting president of Bennett College — had purchased a house on Gorrell Street at the corner of Martin Street in an eastern Greensboro neighborhood occupied by white people.
Windsor, “a tall, exceedingly light Negro, with few of the facial characteristics of the race,” was someone who “might easily pass among strangers for a white man” as well as “a man of considerable intelligence.” His appearance, intelligence and professional success did not mitigate the perceived threat — in fact, they may have made it worse — and white Greensboro panicked.
Whites living near Windsor’s new home demanded a segregation ordinance, which they hoped would force Windsor out. Several other Southern cities — including Baltimore, Atlanta and Winston-Salem — had already enacted ordinances limiting where African Americans could reside. A segregation ordinance for Greensboro, passed in February as “an emergency measure,” went into effect “immediately, without the 20 days’ notice required for an ordinary ordinance.” Commissioners considered the case an emergency because “residents of that section of the city came down on the authorities with blood in their eyes, promising that if something were not done for their relief by means of the law that they would see to it that their own interests were defended.” Greensboro’s ordinance was a copy of one put in place in Winston a year earlier.
During the uproar over Windsor’s purchase, the Greensboro Record made veiled threats of violence, noting that “violence (against black homeowners) is a rare thing” in the city, “yet the habitation of this colored woman may be made very uncomfortable to say the least” (at the time this article was written, local whites had come to believe the house would be inhabited by Windsor’s sister).
A group of residents of the neighborhood also demanded that the mayor and board of commissioners strip Windsor of his job, arguing in a petition with 500 signatures that they believed “the close intermingling of our houses and the association of our children would be extremely detrimental to both races: and would probably result either in familiarity or constant friction, each of which might lead to dangerous results.” They also claimed to fear “great damage to the value of our property as many of the white people would wish to move out, and would find it impossible to sell their property for any reasonable price.”
This group considered Windsor’s decision to purchase the property “reprehensible and … dangerous.” Such a person should not be working in the public schools, the group argued, and asked that “you remove him at once, and select in his place someone of his race who will realize the responsibility of his position and his obligation to both races.”
After it became clear that the ordinance would not affect Windsor, as he had purchased the property before the passage of the ordinance, the Record noted ominously that “He is a man of sufficient intelligence to know what will happen if he persists in remaining.” Violence turned out not to be necessary, however.
Initially unwilling to sell the property, Windsor gave in to the intimidation. A “committee representing the protesting citizens from South Greensboro” paid Windsor $2,700 for the property, which it promptly resold. Windsor’s sister had paid $1,800 for the property and Windsor had made improvements (including installing plumbing and electric lights) costing $1,202. Factoring in interest on the property, the Record calculated that Windsor lost $428 on the property.
Greensboro’s segregation ordinance became null when the North Carolina Supreme Court declared Winston-Salem’s ordinance invalid in 1914. The ordinance may have been short-lived, but it is significant nonetheless, as it reveals just how determined some whites were to keep their neighborhoods segregated.
After the court’s decision, with laws requiring residential segregation no longer permissible in the state, segregationists would turn to other measures to keep black and white people in separate neighborhoods — measures including restrictive covenants, intimidation and violence.