Karen Parker was the first black female undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill. Joanne Johnston-Francis, a white student, became her roommate without seeking permission from officials. They both protested segregation in sit-ins at Chapel Hill. Their role as Tar Heels is documented in such books as “Courage in the Moment” and “The Free Men.”
What few know is that their civil rights activism started earlier – as students at Woman’s College (later known as UNCG).
For them, before there was Franklin Street, there was Tate Street.
The Tate Street boycott involved a cinema and two restaurants that would not serve African Americans. The Woman’s College student government voted unanimous approval of a boycott and picketing. A few dozen Woman’s College students picketed in front of the three businesses in an organized manner.
The protest was featured in UNCG Magazine in Spring 2010. A number of key figures were interviewed (the story can be read here.) But two who were not interviewed were Parker and Johnston-Francis, who both transferred to UNC Chapel Hill after that semester.
Karen Parker, wearing her Class of ‘65 nametag at a recent WC Reunion, was asked about her involvement on Tate Street.
“I was picketing at the Apple House,” she said, and she may have picketed the cinema on Tate Street, as well. She additionally recalls participating in a big, silent march in downtown Greensboro.
She has suppressed some unpleasant memories, she says. But she has a few particular memories of the Tate Street protesting.
“I remember a white girl,” she says, stating her name. “She walked right in front of me on the picket line.” They’d know each other in Winston-Salem’s Reynolds High School AP English class, and as interns for two years (as WC students) at the Winston-Salem Journal, Parker notes. That day, the white student disregarded her as she cut through the line to enter the Apple House.
Parker called her by her name. “__, I’m shocked.” It hurt Parker’s feelings, she explains. “She put her head up, and walked right in there.”
“It floored me.”
Another memory: “A bunch of white men were really harassing us, name-calling,” she says. How close? “Pretty much in our faces.”
When did she meet Johnston-Francis? “I thought it was when we were picketing. Joanne thinks it was later,” in Chapel Hill.
Johnston-Francis is not sure either. She knew Parker’s roommate, Linda Lee, an African-American student. “I spoke to Linda on the picket line,” Johnston-Francis recalls. So it’s quite possible she and Parker did meet on Tate Street while picketing, she thinks.
Like Parker, Johnston-Francis transferred to Chapel Hill for their School of Journalism. Looking back, she credits WC/UNCG for the “variety and richness of its student body.”
The first black woman undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill, Parker had no roommate in West Cobb.
As Johnston-Francis tells it, “(Karen) was given a room by herself. I was put in a three-girl room.”
They thought, “Well, this is crazy.”
Johnston-Francis moved in. They became friends. And they both became a part of the effort to integrate Chapel Hill businesses that would not serve African Americans. (A brief overview is here.)
“Karen was arrested first,” explains Johnston-Francis about the sit-ins. “I did not know where she was.”
Ultimately Parker would be arrested twice, over the course of the sit-ins.
Johnston-Francis would be arrested four times. A newspaper photograph by Jim Wallace of her being dragged away by one arm by a police officer at a restaurant sit-in reportedly led to a police policy change: The police chief instructed all officers to carry those being arrested during sit-ins.
“I remember my teeth chattering, when I was arrested,” Johnston-Francis says, when asked about that photograph. She wasn’t sure what would happen next. “We would refuse to accept bail,” she says.
She worked to get more people involved. And she lobbied Congress regarding the 1964 civil rights legislation. “I spent a week or more in DC lobbying Peter Rodino, Emanuel Cellar and others.”
She’d spent much of her childhood in Greensboro, attending white, segregated schools in Lindley Park. She recalls riding the bus to downtown Greensboro for music lessons – she, a white girl, in the front while African-American maids would be in the back. The unwritten rules of segregation were “highly curious and uncomfortable” she remembers feeling at that young age. Her parents were from New Jersey, where she’d begun elementary school at an integrated school. “We were not prepared for segregation.”
She’d gone to that Cinema Theatre as a child, not aware that it was segregated. At downtown Greensboro’s theaters, segregation was more obvious, she explains.
As a sophomore at Woman’s College, she saw a sign in Elliott Hall (now the EUC), announcing a meeting there for anyone interested in the picketing on Tate Street. She went.
“I signed up for various shifts to carry a sign.”
How many shifts? “I have no idea how many times. I was supposed to be studying for exams.” How many? “More than I should have.”
She believes she marched at each location on Tate Street.
The positive experience encouraged her. “My experience being successful there (on Tate Street) led me to believe we’d be successful there at Chapel Hill.” But the protesters in Chapel Hill would meet very strong resistance.
Johnston-Francis’ family had not known of her picketing at Tate Street. They disapproved of her action in Chapel Hill.
“My mother did not know of it,” Parker says of the Tate Street protest and her participation in it. She says a blurb ran on the Winston-Salem TV news and believes that’s how her mother found out about it. “She did have a fit.” She was more upset later with her activism in Chapel Hill.
After Chapel Hill, Johnston-Francis embarked on a teaching career path in Harlem, then moved to Washington state. Much of her life’s work has been in social work of some kind but has also included agriculture, forestry, hospitality, historical research and writing. Now, short story writing and gardening are two passions.
After Chapel Hill, Parker worked at the Grand Rapids Press, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the LA Times for a 15 year stint, the Salt Lake Tribune and then the Winston-Salem Journal, where she’d interned as a UNCG student.
Her education at UNCG served her very well, she says. “I learned so much,” she says. “Literature and other things.”
Dante’s Inferno. Her Homeric Greek class. History class. She vividly recalls an exam where there was one essay question, about Martin Luther. One student got an A, the professor told the class. “The A was Miss Parker.”
“Things did get better over the years” for African-Americans, Parker observes. Johnston-Francis observes the societal changes too. “We have come a long way, but have so far yet to go.”
Though they live on opposite sides of the country, the two have remained friends over the decades. They are linked by their Greensboro years and Chapel Hill years. They talk about every six weeks or so, Parker says.
By Mike Harris
Photography of Parker and Johnston-Francis (Joanne Christine Johnston) from 1963 Pine Needles yearbook, courtesy UNCG Special Collections & University Archives. Photograph on main Campus Weekly page of Parker at April Reunion event is by Wesley Brown.
A brief overview of the Tate Street boycott and picketing is here.
The full story is at www.uncg.edu/ure/alumni_magazineT2/2010_spring/feature_tatestreet.htm