Fact Friday 259 - The Charlotte Civil Rights Hero You've Never Heard Of
Only a few in his hometown know the name. He wasn’t much for self-promotion. But Anderson was a crusading journalist in the South during Jim Crow, and his work exposed discrimination against Black people long before what we think of as the civil rights era. Eight decades later, another Black man is telling Anderson’s story, which recasts the legacy of someone we do remember. In an age when we’re all reconsidering what we thought we knew, Willie Griffin is digging in a forgotten corner, and what he’s uncovered is news to us.
Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare.
Willie Griffin, a soft-spoken, bespectacled historian, has talked nonstop for more than an hour and rarely glanced at his notecards. Behind him, in the back room at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille, a projector displays a series of old newspaper clippings, photos, a chart or two, all about an area of history—Black history in particular—that’s been largely overlooked. The subject of this evening’s presentation to a local history and philosophy club is the Double V campaign, an effort led by a Pittsburgh newspaper during World War II to honor Black servicemembers and call for the full integration of Black people into American society, including the military.
Griffin is the staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, a Charlotte native, and a civil rights scholar whose research focuses on the untold history of his hometown. His talk wouldn’t seem to promise a dynamic presentation—a former teacher, Griffin just clicks through dozens of slides, explains each, and sometimes wanders into tangents—but he keeps the attention of 21 people, mostly in their 60s and 70s. I look around the room on this Thursday night in September 2019 and half-expect the crowd to be drifting off. But their eyes are fixed on Griffin, with his neatly trimmed beard and wooden bead bracelet. Several club members have pushed their dinner plates aside to make space on the long table to take notes. No one glances at a phone or starts a side conversation.
About five minutes in, after an overview of the roots of the civil rights movement in the 1930s and ’40s, Griffin clicks to a black-and-white photograph of a man who’s central to his presentation tonight, to Charlotte’s civil rights history, and to the research Griffin has done over the past decade. The man in the photo wears a pinstriped suit, tie, pocket square, and thin mustache. His name was Trezzvant Anderson.
Anderson was born in Charlotte in 1906 and lived much of his life here. For most of his 56 years, Anderson worked as a journalist and, in the age of Jim Crow, uncovered example after example of discrimination against Black people at a time when few dared tell those kinds of stories. He went on to write and publish a book, Come Out Fighting: The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion, 1942-1945,about the first all-Black tank battalion in U.S. Army history. Griffin, who found out about Anderson by chance during his research, believes Anderson is one of the most important and unsung civil rights figures of the 20th century.
Trezzvant Anderson began his career in journalism and activism in the late 1920s, not long after he dropped out of Johnson C. Smith University and around the time he landed a job with the federal Railway Mail Service, which took an official photograph of Anderson in 1938 (top). Anderson later served as a war correspondent in Europe and followed the first all-Black tank battalion in U.S. Army history. He published a book, Come Out Fighting, about the 761st Tank Battalion. Photo from Civil Service Personnel Records.
“He never pushed himself out there. He never wanted to be the person in front. It was always about other people’s stories,” Griffin tells me. “He wrote in-depth stories that history did not capture.”
Griffin, 45, wants to make sure history captures Anderson’s story. He’s writing a biography about Anderson, tentatively titled Come Out Fighting, an expanded and revised version of his doctoral thesis from UNC Chapel Hill; it’s scheduled for publication late next year by Vanderbilt University Press. As the Levine Museum’s historian since 2018, Griffin travels throughout the city and tells Anderson’s story as part of a larger inventory that the South, and Charlotte in particular, are conducting of its own complicated, oft-forgotten past.
“Here is somebody who is turning over new information that nobody has known about before,” says Robin Brabham, the founding head of the Special Collections Department at the UNC Charlotte library, who invited Griffin to speak to and join the history club. Brabham adds that even though he’s studied local history for decades, he’d never heard of Anderson either until Griffin told him. “It just seemed like an opportunity to sort of spread the gospel.”
Trezzvant Anderson’s hidden history—and that of the city and region where he lived and worked—illuminates a priceless reward of any historical research: the enrichment of our understanding of the present. History is about not only what happened but also the lessons we can draw from what happened, and what the people and events we choose to remember say about what we’ve become. One of the chief subjects of Anderson’s crusading journalism was a white man, Paul Younts, who unlike Anderson is remembered in Charlotte—but in a way that sanitizes the story of who he was and what he did. Griffin, a Black man who grew up off Beatties Ford Road, the traditional boulevard of Black Charlotte, has chosen to exhume the true histories of both men in an era when we’re all reexamining the interplay of race and history. What he’s uncovered has shaped our history, and his own.
At Dilworth Neighborhood Grille, Griffin uses Anderson’s story as a springboard to discuss the Double V campaign and how its promise, the idea that Black veterans had earned their respect as full citizens, went unfulfilled. Griffin wraps it up after an hour. Then members, in observance of club tradition, ask questions and share their takeaways from the presentation. This takes another 45 minutes. Most members remark that the main thing they’ve learned is this: Trezzvant Anderson existed. They’d never heard of him.
Neither had I, a Charlotte native who grew up in the Mallard Creek area. My father, who’s lived in Charlotte for nearly 50 years, met Griffin in spring 2019 and told me excitedly that I should meet and talk with him about his research into my hometown’s civil rights history. Over the next year, Griffin and I talked about Anderson and civil rights in Charlotte four times—three in person, the last via Zoom after COVID-19 sent us all home. Griffin resembles his research subject in at least one respect: He’d much rather tell the stories of others than his own. Even though Griffin speaks in public frequently—his job at the Levine Museum requires it—he’s not comfortable in anyone’s spotlight. Over the course of our discussions, Griffin repeatedly asked me to minimize his presence in the story you’re reading. I told him I’d do my best. But, unavoidably, all the information about Anderson in this story comes from Griffin’s research.
Griffin’s story matters, too, and not just because of the work he does. Griffin grew up in Lincoln Heights, on Charlotte’s west side, part of an area defined by the three highways that fence it off from the rest of the city: Interstates 77 and 85 and the Brookshire Freeway. As a child, and later as a student at East Mecklenburg High School, Griffin lived alongside local civil rights leaders and didn’t know it. Neighbor Allegra Westbrooks was the first Black public library supervisor in North Carolina; Griffin mowed her lawn. Another neighbor, Bertha Maxwell-Roddey, co-founded what became the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, founded Charlotte’s Head Start program, and served as the first chair of the Afro-American and African Studies Department at UNC Charlotte.
Griffin’s maternal grandfather, Fred Griffin, helped integrate Charlotte’s white-dominated trucking industry in the early 1960s when he insisted on working as a freight checker, a position inaccessible to Black men at the time. Griffin didn’t learn about the social significance of his own grandfather until graduate school. “Seeing him among those other important individuals really hit me—that I had a lot of work to do to understand my own place in history, and my own responsibilities and legacy that were left for me,” Griffin told this magazine in 2018. “So it was at that point when I really jumped headfirst into trying to understand as much about Charlotte’s local history as I could.”
Another of Griffin’s key grad school revelations came from a book: Timothy B. Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, published in 1999. Williams was an NAACP chapter president in Monroe who fled to Cuba and hosted a radio show on Black politics and music that could be heard as far away as Los Angeles. Griffin had grown up believing that Charlotte was a quiet oasis during the ’50s and ’60s, far removed from the marches and violence in cities like Birmingham, Memphis, even Greensboro. Now his eyes widened, and he thought, There was no way in hell that nothing was going on in Charlotte, and this guy was happening right here in Monroe!
The more he found, the more he looked. He started by looking for the moment when activism came to town, and to him, that meant one thing: “protest in the streets.” Historian and Charlotte native Davison M. Douglas, now the dean of William & Mary Law School, had written briefly about an unnamed Charlotte-based journalist for The Pittsburgh Courier, a Black weekly newspaper. In 1940, the journalist had led Johnson C. Smith University students in a march to protest the local post office’s employment practices. Griffin began asking around: Who was that?
Griffin’s grandfather, a minister in Charlotte for 30 years, connected him to people he could interview for his master’s thesis at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Of the more than two dozen people Griffin interviewed, only two remembered Anderson: Reginald Hawkins, a firebrand local activist and the first Black person to run for North Carolina governor; and James F. “Jim” Richardson, a JCSU alumnus and postmaster who served for 10 years in the General Assembly in the 1980s and ’90s. (Richardson died in 2003, Hawkins in 2007. After Richardson’s death, Congress renamed the post office on Beatties Ford Road after him.)
Hawkins told Griffin that the journalist was a Charlotte native named Trezzvant Anderson, who had recruited him to help organize the student march against the post office. Griffin began to drop the name with his other interview subjects. When Griffin did that with Richardson, the older man’s face lit up. “Now, boy! That’s who you should be asking about,” Richardson replied. “Trezzvant Anderson was the civil rights movement.”
Willie Griffin, the staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, grew up along the Beatties Ford Road corridor, the historic main avenue of Charlotte’s Black community and where Trezzvant Anderson grew up as well. The city plans a streetcar line to connect the corridor by rail to the city center. Griffin began researching Anderson in graduate school. Photo by Jonathan Cooper.
Anderson attended JCSU but dropped out in 1927. He’d written for the student newspaper, and although he had gotten a good job in another field, he wanted to continue his work as a journalist. The Charlotte Post, the city’s established Black-owned newspaper, hired Anderson soon after he left school.
It was a time when newspapers relied heavily on correspondents, who would file dispatches that often took the shape of opinion pieces or outright calls to civic action; the professional standard of facts-only reporting took hold in American journalism only after World War II. The barrier-free approach to newspapering fit perfectly with a phenomenon that would grow in the decades to come—a string of Black-owned newspapers that concentrated on issues important to the Black community and unabashedly stumped for their concerns.
The late ’20s were the early years of the Great Migration, when hundreds of thousands of Black people left the farms and plantations of the Deep South for factory jobs in the large, industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Black newspapers in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis fed a market hungry for information about the places they’d left, cities that relatives had moved to, and issues central to Black people’s lives then and now: racial discrimination and just compensation for their labor.
Anderson had landed a job with the Railway Mail Service (RMS), a branch of the Postal Service that processed mail and shipped it throughout the country by train. The work provided him with a good monthly paycheck, $154, and required him to work only 10 to 12 days a month, which gave him the perfect pretext to work as the Post’s “roving reporter” throughout the Southeast. Anderson’s route usually took him from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta to Knoxville, Tennessee, and all the cities and towns along the way.
Anderson, who was young and unmarried then, would deliver the mail, stop in a city or town for a few days, find a story of interest to Black readers, and send dispatches back to the Post. Within three years, his missives from the South appeared in prominent Black papers throughout the country, and he held staff positions at the Associated Negro Press, The Norfolk Journal and Guide, The Carolina Times, and The Afro-American, the renowned Baltimore-based paper founded in 1892.
He kept riding from place to place and reporting on discrimination against Black people, especially in their search for jobs and economic opportunity, as the Great Depression gripped the country. He reported on a lynching in Tarboro in 1930. In 1932 in New Orleans, he wrote about a protest of Mayor Thomas Semmes Walmsley’s efforts to prohibit anyone not registered to vote—which meant, overwhelmingly, Black people—from holding jobs as longshoremen, a vital occupation in the South’s leading port city. Several hundred Black residents attended the protest, and even white newspapers and political leaders spoke out against the measure. But the mayor enacted the ban, and nearly 2,000 Black longshoremen lost their jobs.
Anderson’s work was dangerous. White business interests of the day frequently targeted Black publications, and Anderson was concerned enough to sometimes write under pseudonyms. “There would be efforts to intimidate me, or perhaps even lynch me,” he once told his editors, “should my name appear over the story.” Yet he kept at it throughout the 1930s, balancing his journalism with the RMS job, which provided money and mobility.
In 1939, Anderson convinced the publisher of The Carolina Times, the venerable Black-owned paper in Durham, to open an office in Charlotte and hire him to staff it. The Times did. Anderson also continued to write for The Afro-American—which turned out to be the vehicle he used to report on the discriminatory practices of Charlotte’s postmaster, a prominent civic leader whose name still takes up public space in this city: Paul Younts.
Griffin already knew that Anderson had stirred up something that involved the Postal Service. Some of the interview subjects for his master’s thesis had mentioned it. Richardson had told him that Anderson wrote about discrimination in the Postal Service’s Charlotte office and organized the 1940 student protest in response.
Richardson and Griffin’s grandfather, the trucking pioneer Fred Griffin, were members of the Charlotte Black Shriners chapter, one of numerous and influential Black fraternal organizations that formed during segregation. During his research, Griffin learned that in the ’50s, Anderson had exposed the misdeeds of leaders in another of those organizations, the national Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, and that the Elks likely would have “blackballed” anyone who crossed them. It was the first time Griffin had considered the possibility that it wasn’t just entrenched white interests that had buried Anderson’s legacy.
In 2008, while Griffin worked on his doctorate at UNC, he learned about a trove of Anderson’s personal papers at the Atlanta University Center Consortium’s Robert W. Woodruff Library. The consortium consists of four historically Black colleges and universities, including Morehouse College, where Griffin earned his bachelor’s degree in history with a concentration in African American studies in 1999. A fellow doctoral student, researching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had come across Anderson’s name and a reference to the papers.
Among the papers in Atlanta, Griffin discovered a 1941 letter from Kelly Alexander Sr.—then the Charlotte NAACP chapter president and later national NAACP chairman—that recommended Anderson for the presidency of the national postal workers’ union. The year before, Alexander wrote, armed local NAACP members had protected Anderson after midnight in his home on Beatties Ford Road against “car-loads of whites, probably Ku Kluxers,” who were responding to “the recent Post Office investigation.” The reference eventually led Griffin to write the Postal Service to request any records they’d kept on Anderson. He expected a few pages that detailed his employment history, maybe his mail routes.
What the Postal Service sent Griffin in 2010 was a 200-page dossier that covered all 14 years of Anderson’s employment—and spelled out how Anderson learned of Younts’ discrimination against Black employees and job candidates, how Anderson’s reporting led to Younts’ conviction of a federal crime, and postal officials’ reactions to them. Griffin was ecstatic. As far as he knew, no one else had the records. No one else even knew to look for them.
“I mean, shit, I was blown away,” Griffin says now. “I already knew Anderson was pretty important, but when I got those papers—‘Whoa. Damn. This is it. This is what I really needed. This is the gold mine. This is the jackpot.’”
Younts wasn’t just the postmaster in Charlotte. He was a popular and well-connected real estate broker and developer mentioned often as a potential political candidate. In the ’20s, Younts developed at least seven of the 12 homes on the 2000 block of Lyndhurst Avenue in Dilworth—single-story, Craftsman-style bungalows, six of which remain standing today. His real estate business took the lead in developing Park Road Shopping Center, which opened in 1956. He served as president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce in 1957. The same decade, as a state highway commissioner, he shepherded the widening of Wilkinson Boulevard and directed state funds toward the expansion of I-77, one of the highways that divided Griffin’s neighborhood from the rest of Charlotte.
In 1961, Younts ran the North Carolina Trade Fair, and The Charlotte News named him Man of the Year. When he died 10 years later, The Charlotte Observer wrote: “Few big things got done in Charlotte over the past 40 years that Paul Younts didn’t have a hand in.”
Decades before, as postmaster, Younts had also refused to hire Black people as mail carriers or promote them to those positions because, he argued, white mail carriers wouldn’t work with Black ones.
Anderson had a head start on his own research. A longtime employee of the Railway Mail Service, Anderson knew all about racial discrimination in federal civil service jobs. Some of it was expressed through policies with thinly obscured racial motives, like a requirement that job applicants submit a photograph, which allowed managers to hire based on race.
Other times, the racism was more direct. In 1939, a Black man named John T. Richmond, who was applying for a mail carrier job in Charlotte, earned a high score on his civil service exam. Younts stuck him in a job as a postal custodian, someone who maintained and cleaned post offices—essentially a janitor. Anderson, who still maintained a residence in Charlotte, found out about the Richmond affair—and about Paul Younts—through his connections in the Postal Service. Anderson decided to write about Richmond and Younts in his column, “News and Views of the Postal Service,” which ran in The Afro-American. He thought enough bad publicity might force Younts to change his ways. If not, the press might catch the attention of federal authorities.
Griffin found precious evidence of Anderson’s campaign in his Postal Service documents and in the archives of The Carolina Times and The Afro-American. In September 1939, Anderson wrote to Emmett J. Scott, the former chief aide to Booker T. Washington and a prominent figure in the Republican Party: “I am trying to bring pressure to bear upon the Postmaster to make him change his attitude, and give us this carrier to avoid trouble in 1940 … and if we get this one, we are going to yell for more, later on.” Younts ignored the pressure, which compelled Anderson to turn it up.
In his columns, Anderson called on Black Charlotteans to take to the streets. He announced a mass meeting at Second Ward High School, where several hundred attendees committed to a get-out-the-vote effort “to vote against anything or anybody favored by Younts.” He also recruited prominent Black political leaders, including Thurgood Marshall, Claude Barnett, and Mary McCloud Bethune, to write to Younts about the Richmond case.
He submitted an open letter to the Observer to bring Richmond’s story to the attention of white residents. The letter ran on a Sunday, and Anderson wrote that every Black minister in the city “will pray a special prayer upon the conclusion of his sermon” for Younts to promote Richmond, the father of six children. “If pleas to God, Himself, from the pulpits of my people cannot cause us to receive this favor,” Anderson wrote, “then our hearts will be heavy tonight.”
Younts continued to try to ignore the problem away. Griffin found a letter from Younts to U.S. Senator Robert Reynolds in which Younts explained that Richmond should be happy he got hired at all. “There is no one,” Younts wrote, “who feels more kindly toward the colored race than I.” In June 1940, after he’d ignored Anderson’s appeals for months, Younts traveled to Washington, D.C., to try to get Anderson fired from the Railway Mail Service. Two months later, the “car-loads of whites” began to roll past Anderson’s home.
Unintimidated, and with election season approaching, Anderson decided on a different angle of attack. He knew Younts had been using his employees to try to deliver the Black vote for his preferred candidates. Younts threatened to fire Black postal workers if they didn’t solicit votes, count and check ballots, and take certain voters to the polls. Younts also oversaw a local congressman’s campaign and toured the state with Postmaster General James Farley, who was challenging President Roosevelt for the Democratic presidential nomination. All of this activity violated the Hatch Act, which Congress had passed the year before, a law that limited the political activities of federal employees and protected them from political coercion in the workplace.
Working with Hosie Price, a Black lawyer from Winston-Salem, Anderson notified the Office of Postal Inspectors, the Civil Service Commission, and the FBI about Younts’ practices. In October, he broke the news in The Carolina Times that all three agencies were investigating Younts, and just before the November election, he published details of the case and a full list of the federal charges. Younts became one of the first people ever indicted under the Hatch Act. In 1941, he pleaded no contest and was fined, and the Postal Service fired him. Younts was called up to active Army duty later that year.
The detested photograph requirement didn’t last, either. On November 7, 1940, two days after his reelection and a week after Younts’ indictment, President Roosevelt revoked it by executive order. Anderson wrote in “News and Views” to thank Roosevelt “on behalf of the 20,000 colored postal workers.” Two weeks later, having accomplished his goal, Anderson discontinued the column. Anderson lost his RMS job in 1941, having caused too much trouble for the Postal Service. But he continued to write for The Carolina Times until 1943, when he enlisted in the Army and served as an overseas correspondent in Europe, where he embedded himself with the 761st Tank Battalion he later wrote about in his book.
This summer, inspired by the George Floyd demonstrations that swept the country, monuments fell like rain: three statues of Confederate soldiers on the N.C. Capitol grounds; a monument to former vice president, slave owner, and ardent racist John C. Calhoun in Charleston; the famous statues of Confederate generals on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Charlotte’s are less conspicuous, but they’re there. Some carry the name of Paul Younts.
Or, curiously, “General” Paul Younts. If you’re northbound on I-77, a large green N.C. Department of Transportation roadside sign less than a mile north of the South Carolina line identifies the stretch of interstate as “General Younts Freeway.” The DOT approved the name in 1965. Nearby, along the exit to the North Carolina Welcome Center, stands another sign, which appears to be a silver-and-black historical marker. It reads, “General Paul R. Younts Expressway. Honoring a distinguished business, civic and military leader. Member of North Carolina Highway Commission 1961-1965.”
The sign isn’t official. The N.C. Historical Highway Marker Program, administered by the state government, places its silver-and-black signs at historic sites throughout the state. But when I contact its office, a spokeswoman tells me no one with the program knows who put the Younts sign up or when.
Paul Younts was never a general. He did serve in the Army, enlisting shortly after the outbreak of World War I, then served as state commander for the American Legion of North Carolina. From 1944-46, he commanded an Army personnel depot in Greensboro. When the Korean War began in 1950, Younts’ name circulated as the prospective commander of a National Guard artillery base in North Carolina, according to the Greensboro History Museum, which keeps five boxes of his papers. That post was usually held by a brigadier general. But military authorities decided Younts would have to take advanced artillery courses at Fort Sill in Oklahoma to earn his star.
A sign at the North Carolina Welcome Center off Interstate 77 just north of the South Carolina line identifies Paul Younts, a longtime Charlotte civic leader, as a general, which he never was. Trezzvant Anderson’s reporting helped lead to Younts’ 1941 conviction for violating the federal Hatch Act, which protects federal employees from political coercion in the workplace.
“Believing that a second appraisal of his record later would result in a more favorable outcome, Colonel Younts declined to act on the Board’s recommendation,” according to the museum’s website. “Nevertheless, he decided to serve as commanding officer of the IV Corps Artillery in North Carolina on an interim basis. When it became apparent that the Board would hold fast to its original decision, Younts requested that he be relieved of his command.” The museum calls its collection the “Col. Paul Younts Papers”—colonel, not general.
Nonetheless, Younts certainly allowed people to refer to him as a general. The Charlotte Observer began his 1971 obituary this way: “The General will be buried Wednesday.” Younts, a white man with cachet, celebrated a distinction he never earned. Trezzvant Anderson, a Black man whose reporting led to Younts’ dismissal as postmaster and a finding that he’d violated federal labor law, is hardly remembered at all.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Charlotte several times. On May 30, 1963, King spoke at the Charlotte Park Center (now the Grady Cole Center) to students from six Black high schools at convocation (above). On September 21, 1966, he returned to Charlotte to speak to more than 3,000 people at JCSU (below) about moral action and his opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War.
In January, the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Willie Griffin speaks to about a dozen people in a choir room at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. The 130-year-old church occupies a 9-acre campus on Beatties Ford Road, near where Trezzvant Anderson once lived. Griffin says one of the questions people ask him most frequently is, “What would have happened if King had come to Charlotte?”
In fact, he tells the group, King visited Charlotte several times. In 1963, 10 days after Johnson C. Smith students had marched in uptown to protest segregation, King spoke to the graduating seniors from six local Black high schools and urged them and civic leaders to keep pushing for integration.
As Griffin lists the high schools, a few people in the crowd add, “West Charlotte, West Charlotte, too!”
Griffin focuses on a man in the crowd who wears a blue suit with no tie. “You were there?” he asks.
“I was there,” the man confirms with a nod. Later, to me, the man declines to identify himself.
But men like him are the kinds of people Griffin says he’s working for. So much of the energy in discussions about monuments and symbols and flags boils down to a battle over history, whose stories are remembered or forgotten, distorted or embellished. The George Floyd protests can be seen as a large-scale heart’s cry from people usually written out of our national narrative that they and their stories matter. Finally, after more than a half-century, and after one historian’s decade of dogged research, Trezzvant Anderson’s story has a chance to be told.
“The next movement will be a personal movement, a movement within ourselves. Us coming to our own reality and making up our own minds,” Griffin tells me. “Learning from history, and then deciding, and becoming better people.”
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
CharlotteMagazine.com, "How a Local Historian Uncovered Trezzvant Anderson, the Charlotte Civil Rights Hero You've Never Heard Of," by Emily Ethridge, August 11, 2020.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass