Joe Fryar Interview
Joe Fryar was born in 1951 in Chattanooga, Tennessee and has lived there ever since. He is son of Bryan and Vera, brother to Nancy, and husband to Joan. He is father to Bryan, Allison, and Emily and is grandfather to Joey, Blake, Thomas, Lauren, Peyton, and Abigail. He graduated from City High School in Chattanooga. In the past, he has owned an auto parts store but currently drives shipments of supplies all over the south. This interview describes his interesting and perhaps surprising perception of the civil rights movement, mainly as it pertains to Chattanooga.
Joey: Where did you grow up?
Joe: I was born and raised in Lookout Valley here in Chattanooga
Joey: I live there now, you know, and it's not really racially diverse at all. There are a lot of white people around there now. Was it like that when you were growing up?
Joe: We didn’t have many blacks, Lookout Valley in general wasn’t black, but one black family had moved in and somebody burnt a cross in their yard and they moved out the next week. Another time a black boy was dating a local white girl in the valley and somebody burnt another cross in a different yard, and they moved out too. It’s hard for me to think about people not living in my neighborhood because they’re black. Living in Lookout Valley, I really wasn’t around blacks until high school. My grandfather had a black guy work on his farm growing up, his name was Norman. I always liked him and thought a lot of him. We didn’t really discuss life or anything, but I really respected him because he was a hardworking guy. I didn’t see him as black, I saw him as a normal, hardworking guy that helped Papaw with the chores around the farm. In fact, Papaw bought me a new German bicycle one time and it was really expensive, over 100 dollars. That was a lot of money back then. I gave my old bicycle to Norman for his kids to have and I can still see him standing there with a big smile on his face when I gave it to him. Prejudice was never really in my life at all. It’s kind of funny that it was that way because I never grew up around blacks, but I went to high school with several blacks and had many black friends. A lot of people start prejudice young and carry it on into adulthood, but my parents always said we are made in the image of God and he loves us all no matter the skin color. I always thought about that.
Joey: Were you ever made fun of, teased, or anything about Norman working for your grandfather?
Joe: No, nobody really ever said anything to me about Norman working with Papaw or ever really made fun of him either. Papaw had a great reputation in the valley as far as the kind of man he was, a man of high integrity. I think people wouldn’t have said anything about him or Norman unless they didn’t like Papaw.
Joey: You said earlier that prejudice was never really a part of your life. Why was it like that for you?
Joe: My parents really influenced my heart and mind incredibly now that I reflect upon it. Now that I think about it, they changed my life. I think that the black people back then felt your heart by the way you were talking to them. They knew whether or not you were talking them out of love or out of hate. My parents never raised me in prejudice because we were so Christian, you know. I had several black friends growing up I used to play ball with. I remember all of the signs saying “whites only” or “no negroes” out in public, you know and I never really knew why. I was curious as to why they said things like that and I went to work with my aunt downtown for a lawyer and I asked her, “Why does it say whites only?” and she said, “well that’s just the way it is, that’s the way it ought to be. you can’t have blacks mixed around with the white people”. I didn’t really know what to think and I didn’t really know why she was saying it was that way. So I went home and I asked my parents the same question and my mom and dad said “No she’s wrong. Everybody was created equally by God and he doesn’t see the color of skin. You are just the same as all the blacks in town.” It was a scary time, though.
Joey: Wow. Sounds like you had some great parental figures in a time like that. Do you remember your first negative experience with the civil rights movement?
Joe: When I was in grammar school, in '62 or '63, we went to Nashville on a class trip in 6th grade at S&W cafeteria and they started rioting outside the cafeteria and I had never seen anything like that and the police were out there hitting them with their baton things and it was an unbelievably scary experience. I went to an all white school and all the teachers were going paranoid. They were huddling around us protecting us from what was going on outside. I remember a bunch of people crying.
Joey: What about high school? What was it like?
Joe: City was always integrated. I went to class with black guys and there were never really any major problems. Probably the least trouble of any integrated high school in town. I always thought about other schools that always got in fights that you would see on the news. I was really worried about your grandmother at Central. Brainerd always had fights too. The media just wasn’t all over it as much as they are now with like social media and everything. You just didn’t know that much about it. You would have to read about something in the newspaper the next day or two and it really wouldn’t be that much about it.
Joey: So you would say that City, where you went, was the least troubled of the high schools in Chattanooga?
Joe: We had a fight at City and four guys had a black glove on for black power. They didn’t play sports or anything or didn’t really associate with other black people. They fought with 5 or 6 other black guys and white guys who fought them in the boys bathroom. I don’t remember seeing the gloves on those boys anymore, or for that matter, I don’t really remember seeing the boys anymore. You just didn’t hear about instances like that so privately. Your grandmother told me one day about a fight that broke out at school one day, I think it was in ‘68 and it scared me because we were dating and I wondered if she was alright or not. She was locked in the home ec. room with other students. I remember on the news, when you would watch tv, just covering the riots in Birmingham and Nashville and Montgomery and even here in Chattanooga. In ‘64 they had sit ins downtown in Woolworths and McClellan’s and they would sit in at the counter, you know, and they would put up signs that would say “we’re closed because of security” so they wouldn’t even open it to anybody. When you get older and reflect on times like that, you just wonder how people could hate other people that much just because of the color of their skin. It was a bad time.
Joey: I can't even imagine a fight breaking out at McCallie just because of race issues...What about Chattanooga as a whole? Not necessarily just schools, but societal situations?
Joe: I remember people were throwing bottles down on broad street and market street when I was driving downtown all the time and I was always scared that my car was going to get hit. Of course the police were there, but that didn’t do much. They were out on the sidewalks and yelling and throwing those bottles. I don’t know why they specifically chose to do that, but they did. That was probably in ‘67. Traveling always made you frightful because of the riots you know out in LA and you never really wanted to go places like that because it would make you scared. You didn’t really think about visiting places like that back then because you were so scared to go.
Joey: This is all great stuff. I'll finish with one last question, do you remember anything about Martin Luther King as it pertains to Chattanooga? For instance, do you remember where you were when he died? Do you remember anything about the day he died and what went on in the city?
Joe: I was a junior in high school at City when MLK died. See, your grandmother went to Central where McCallie is now on Dodds Avenue, but Central had a lot of trouble. The school went on lockdown and teachers had baseball bats. At City, we had fewer blacks and they just played football. We never had much trouble that day. After MLK died, it got better in Chattanooga, but I think it got better because the thoughts went off of the riots and things and focused on Vietnam. When I took my physical in Knoxville, I told my parents I would probably never see them again but I didn’t pass they physical because of my motorcycle wreck.
Through my Grandpa Joe's perspective, I get an almost unlikely story about a wealthy white kid growing up in the racist south, and not seeing color as an issue. I think that it speaks volumes about not only him, but the foundation that was built for him through the teachings of his parents. Typically, there are stories of white southern racists. Rare are the stories of white Christians who made the choice to not see color.