Felix and Margaret Gaiter

Civil Rights in Knoxville

He's a retired contractor, first black to complete a building at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; she's a retired Knoxville schools Parent Involvement Coordinator, first president of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center Board

Felix: I was the first black to go to Oak Ridge in a restricted area. I worked at Oak Ridge when they built it, as a brick layer. I'm from Alabama, I came up here and worked and was called from here to the Army. Then I went in the Army and I served a couple years. Went to three theaters: Europe, the Philippines, and Japan. I came back here and married and worked at Oak Ridge. I knew of the injustice of the black workers out there, riding the bus and whatnot, and then I worked at KCDC, remodeling houses. I went back to school at Austin-East to get my high school diploma. I knew I had to have it. I was a grown man.

Margaret: He had a 10th grade education and went back to Austin East for night school. He graduated around the same time as our twins.

Felix: Then I started doing churches in the neighborhood. Then I went to correspondence school. I had to have that to be a contractor. Then Oak Ridge did away with segregation out there. The war was over. They said, "Anybody that don't like it, step forward." Didn't nobody step forward, so you can see how important the job was to them. Then I get to work on trying to get a contract to build out there. I was a union mason. I asked a lot of people to help me. The minister wrote me a letter, the Urban League, YMCA, everybody. So I bid a building job, and I got it. They should have done it before. I bid two or three times before I got one. And when I did get it, I had friends on both sides, and one of them heard these three fellows talking in the rest room.

The first one said, "I wish him well. He's a veteran, and why shouldn't he, he's a taxpayer?" Number two says, "I hope because of who he is he's going to be lenient towards us." (I'm not! I'm gonna treat him like everybody else.) The third one says, "I hope he builds the damn thing and it fall down and kill 'im." That's how bad it was.

One more thing, my son and I bid some more jobs out there at Oak Ridge. Bids are always held at the best building with the best furniture for the board room. That's where you'd bid, all at one time, all the bidders standing flush. This time, we didn't get it. But we came back out, and there was a black man standing at the door. He says, "Are you Mr. Gaiter?" I say, "Yeah, my name is Gaiter." He said, "You made me the proudest person in the world." I said, "What'd I do?" "You two are the first blacks to go into this building except me, and I clean it up." So that made me feel good.

Margaret: The twins were born in '49 and our son was born in '53. That's one of the things that I feel every now and then. With Felix, trying to encourage him to be a full-time contractor, to stay in it, he could do it, knowing all the time that he was perhaps given a raw deal. And then to get the children and try to bring them up without bitterness. One of the things I can remember is that the twins—they had those water fountains and things, "colored" and "white," but they couldn't read... I remember going to see him one time, in Birmingham, and I never will forget, going down the steps to the train, they had letters on them, all the way down, and they spelled out C-O-L-O-R-E-D. Can you imagine, steps?

The group we have now, when I hear my grandchildren say, "We're going to eat out," little do they know that if it hadn't been for the Rev. James and some of these others going and marching and protesting and writing letters, they would not be able to go in those restaurants and eat today. And they know so little, they look at you so strange, as if it's a fairy tale, and say, "Mimi, what do you mean you couldn't go?" And the Bijou Theatre, I remember going up those steps, on the side you know, we didn't have a lot of money, so it wasn't that often, going up to sit in the Colored Balcony.

Just sort of supportive and making telephone calls—I really cannot rightfully take credit for being a civil rights pioneer—but I take this recognition on behalf of Rev. W.T. Crutcher, Rev. R.E. James, Matthew Jones, Frank Gordon, Woody Wilson (who was the director of the Knoxville-area Urban League), those people who are no longer with us to receive the credit, but they were the first on the front line. Certain people couldn't let it be known, because if they found out you were working with civil rights, they'd take your job. All these pastors took the lead because they did not have to depend on these people

And Zimbawe, a local man, who is still out there working on our behalf, I just have to give credit to him. And Abdul-Ahaud, I call him Mojo, I don't always agree with his method, but he's done a lot towards the gains we've made here in this city. All of those... some were known, some were unknown. But I accept this honor on their behalf.