Oral History Interview with
Chief Civilian Advisor to the Secretary of War, 1943-1946; Member, President’s Advisory Commission on Universal Training, 1946-1947.
July 27, 2001
by Carol Briley
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
July 27, 2001
by Carol Briley
BRILEY: Truman can you tell me your birthdate, and where you were born.
GIBSON: I was born on January 22, 1912, in Atlanta, Georgia.
BRILEY: Do you want to say something about your parents?
GIBSON: Yes. My father was in the insurance business in Atlanta, and had met my mother, obviously earlier, when she was teaching in Virginia. My father was on a lecture tour, having graduated from Harvard in nineteen nine (1909). The persons responsible for his going to Harvard were W.E.B DuBois, who was his teacher at Atlanta University, and the wife of the leading black citizen in Atlanta, Mrs. [Adrienne] Herndon. Mr. [Alonzo Franklin] Herndon owned a barbershop that catered to white patrons. Herndon always impressed me because he would go to Florida for the winter and give us grapefruit and lettuce upon return. But the anomaly of going from Georgia to Florida for the winter didn’t occur to me until later on.
My father was brought back to Atlanta by Mrs. Herndon, later on, because Mr. Herndon had organized an insurance company, Atlanta Mutual. My father was the first debit collector, manager. Atlanta Mutual later developed into Atlanta Life, which became one of the largest black companies in the country.
After my father’s rise in Atlanta, in I guess about nineteen (1919) or in the early twenties, he decided he would leave the south, Atlanta, and go north. So he organized an old-line legal reserve company in Columbus, Ohio. We moved to Columbus, thereafter.
But the first years in Atlanta were pleasant years. We went to Oligarch school, which was run by little ladies from Massachusetts and the north, and it was connected with Atlanta University. We got a good start in school, and I was in the sixth grade when we moved to Columbus.
My mother had been a teacher in Jersey City before going to Virginia to teach. And she was at a school run by an archdeacon who was her uncle. So their meeting was the result of my father being on a lecture tour and my mother being the teacher.
BRILEY: Did you move to Chicago after Columbus?
GIBSON: Oh yes. We moved to Chicago. I had a scholarship at Northwestern University. I did not know really anything about my father’s activities in organizing his company.
All I knew was, he was away a great deal. But I was very active in everything at East High School in Columbus, and I did not really know too much about his plans to leave Columbus to go to Chicago.
I had already been admitted to Northwestern. I went to Northwestern in the fall of twenty-nine (1929). The head of the black YMCA in Evanston and the Spring Street Y in Columbus, had called on my father. It was a gloomy and cold day. And he advised me to think very carefully about going to Northwestern because the racial attitude there was worse than Columbus, Ohio.
In the meantime, my parents had moved to Chicago. They had taken up residence on Michigan Avenue; so I decided to apply to the University of Chicago. I did apply, and was accepted, and went to the university.
BRILEY: What subjects did you study and what was your undergraduate degree?
GIBSON: I received a Bachelor of Philosophy degree. But early in my second year, I took a course in Political Science with an assistant professor, named Harold Gosnell, who had been working on a study of the Negro in Chicago politics. Several people that I had met, including Horace Katen and others, had recommended me to Gosnell, because he had a vacancy on his staff for a research assistant.
So I started working for Gosnell for a dollar, later a dollar-and-a- half--an hour, which was not insubstantial in those days. That job lasted until I finished law school. But the work consisted of my interviewing black politicians, and covering political meetings, those meetings being a source of considerable activity before the days of television.
The meetings were spirited, the competition was intense--some meetings were amusing and were some serious. In the course of covering meetings (I suppose, I must have been in my sophomore year) I was covering a meeting at the Eighth Regiment Armory--William L. Dawson was running for alderman. He was running against a man by the name of William E. King. And the competition, Mr. Dawson, had just deserted the Republican Party and gone to the Democrats.
King was the leading Republican and the competition was fierce and intense. In those days, answers were given to questions raised in the other camp immediately; so there was no lapse of time.
I was taking notes on one of Dawson’s speeches and people started looking at me queerly. They saw me taking notes. I was in the balcony and someone got word to Dawson, who said, “I understand there is a spy in the house and let him come down, we’ll make him comfortable.”
So, instead of getting into a physical confrontation, which I did not want—I was embarrassed-- I went downstairs and Dawson and I became friendly. And I started working in his law office when I graduated from law school.
That was back when I was also active in many things at the university. But this work with Gosnell consumed a lot of time. (I understand that Gosnell did a book on Truman). He ended up teaching at Howard and died at one-hundred-and-one years of age. Gosnell was very considerate and very kind to me when I was in college. And I graded the exam books in the class that I was attending with him.
BRILEY: So, did these experiences impact upon your decision to attend law school?
GIBSON: Well to be absolutely candid, I didn’t really have too much pressure to go to law school.
During the summers, I would sell life insurance for Supreme Liberty. My first summer selling insurance was spent in Detroit, at the height of the depression. I was canvassing door-to-door, and I decided whatever I did would be easier than selling life insurance. So I immediately decided not to continue work in that area. The law was really an outlet more than a direction.
BRILEY: My notes indicate that you practiced law in Chicago, from 1935 until about 1940. Were there any particular cases, or anything else that stands out in your mind that might be of interest?
GIBSON: Well, there were two factors, two areas-- I worked very closely with a lawyer in the Dawson office by the name of Irvin Mollison, who was later a Federal judge for the U.S. Customs Court. He represented Julian Black, a big real estate holder, who later became Joe Louis’s manager.
So I am busy working away for Dawson and Mollison, and this big—not too big—guy would come in with Julian. And this guy, who would sit with me and eat an apple (and talk, but not talk too much) was Joe Louis. I had never had any interest, or knowledge, of prizefighters, but he talked about his life.
Joe had started out working on a Ford Lincoln line in Detroit, and he had been in Brewster Center. He knew that I had worked in Detroit; so we had a relationship. He was very friendly.
At the same time, Irv Mollison, and Earl Dickerson (who was the chief legal officer for Supreme Liberty Life), Loring B. Moore and Julian LaFontant (LaFontant’s daughter, Jewel S. LaFontant-Mankarious, was the first female Deputy Solicitor General under Nixon) and myself,
represented a Carl Hansberry. Carl had moved into an area covered by a restricted covenant agreement in a Washington Park subdivision area in Chicago--on the south side adjacent to the University of Chicago. And it developed that the University of Chicago backed the white owners’ association in keeping the area covered by the Washington Park restricted covenant agreement active.
Carl moved into the restricted area, bought a place, and was evicted. Whereupon he filed suit, and we represented him in the Lee-Hansberry restricted covenant case. That suit went on for four years and ended up in the US Supreme Court, where we won the case.
Well that was the big case, and being the junior member of the organization, I had to dig up the names of all of the restricted covenant signers, check the records of ownership, and establish that more than seventy-five percent of the owners had not signed the agreement. So that was drudgery being at the low end of the totem pole, and that fell to me. We weren’t paid, and it took a lot of time and energy.
BRILEY: Did you have any other jobs before you went into government?
GIBSON: Oh, yes.
BRILEY: …or did you leave Chicago and go straight to Washington D.C.?
GIBSON: No, in thirty-eight , a group organized an exposition, [the American Negro Exposition, July 4-September 2, 1940], the seventy-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It started out as an individual group of people who were in several organizations. Then it became political and it was sponsored by the state of Illinois, and by the U.S. Government. The man that had organized the activity was sincere and earnest, but was a poor administrator.
So a lawyer, who later became a judge with whom I was very close, decided I should head the organization. And that was a change of politics, because the lawyer was Wendell [E.] Green who ran the Negro part of the Roosevelt campaign.
So I was working wi