We Shall Overcome: A Q&A with Civil Rights Activist Margaret Howard Taylor

By Ryan Hiemenz | January 19, 2024
Margaret Howard Taylor

As a junior at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the 1960s, Margaret Howard Taylor was arrested and taken to jail for three days alongside 35 other Black women for sitting in a “white-only” restaurant. After she was released and upon graduating from Shaw with a degree in Business Education, Howard Taylor pursued a career in teaching. Unable to find equitable work in her home state of North Carolina, she traveled to Chillicothe, Ohio, where she became the only Black teacher in the area for three years. Howard Taylor went on to teach for 32 years before reluctantly retiring in 1998.

She continues to teach in different capacities today. On January 18, Howard Taylor visited Arcadia University and shared her story with the community during the event, “The Lived Experience of Margaret Howard Taylor as a Student Activist During the Civil Rights Movement.” This event capped off a series of events to honor the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., organized and hosted by the 2024 Dr. Martin Luther King Committee of the Office of Access, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Howard Taylor’s peaceful activism was inspired by Dr. King’s courage in enduring suffering because, as she and others in their jail cell sang, “We shall overcome, someday.”

Q: What was it like growing up in Wilson, North Carolina?

A: Growing up in North Carolina, as a teenager, trying to help a mother who was trying to raise six kids alone. You had to work in the fields. So every September I would miss the whole month because I was out in the field picking cotton. Four dollars per hundred. Now, it took a long time, all day, to get that hundred.

For lunch, we were taken by the owners to a store where we would buy either Baby Ruth, Honey Bun, or Coca-Cola, and that would be your lunch unless you brought something left over from home, but there was nothing ever left over with six kids. So I depended on whatever money we would make to help us buy lunch.

I not only worked in the cotton fields, but I also put in tobacco. That means you would go in at the tobacco field and, uh, break off the bad leaves and throw them away. Or, you worked in the tobacco factory, which is what I did for the four years of college. Overnight. So it was, it was rough.

But I didn’t mind helping Mom because she would work on weekends helping the white families that she washed clothes for to make extra money. And then Monday through Friday working at the tobacco factory where they separated the good leaves of tobacco from the bad.

Q: What made you want to become a teacher? 

A: Oh, I had some very good high school teachers. The one that sticks in my mind most of the time when I think back is the one who kept asking every student, “In five years, where would you want to be? What are your plans for the future? What are your plans for the future in education?” She pushed education, and if you had an A or B average in her class, she definitely would ask you about a college. The one she kept pushing on me was Shaw University, the one that I attended and graduated from in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I was also being told by my uncles and aunts, “You have the skills.” I had a great aunt who was a school teacher and had crosses burned on her lawn in Goldsboro, North Carolina. I have always wanted to be in charge of the class. So when we played as a kid, I would always be the teacher. So my uncles and aunts would say, “Yeah, she’s gonna be a teacher when she grows up.” So that kind of stuff just stuck with me. But I have a love of teaching.

Q: What was it like trying to find a teaching job as a Black woman in the South during that time?

A: Oh, it was bad. I went on several interviews and one that stands out in my mind is the one that I went to not far from home, I would say about 15 minutes from Wilson, North Carolina. The job interview required that I not only teach business typewriting, as it was called at the time, but the job came with coaching the girl’s basketball team, and I didn’t think I could do that. However, everyone that I spoke to would say, “Oh, yes, you can. Oh, yes, you can.” The salary was only $2,500. So I heard about the job in Ohio, where you didn’t have the problems of prejudice as we had it in North Carolina. So I decided to go there instead and taught there three years before deciding to leave.

Q: How did your experience teaching in Ohio differ from North Carolina?

A: In Ohio, we didn’t have the problems that we had in North Carolina. It seems like everything in Ohio was already combined. Black people could go where they wanted, and they could go into clubs and restaurants and not get questioned about or locked up as was done to me in North Carolina. I wish I had more Black students, but the white students were so nice. And the teachers were so nice there. I didn’t have any problems. They were always willing to assist me with anything that I needed. In North Carolina, I went on several interviews and none really appealed to me. So I decided to go 1,100 miles from home to teach in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Q: What made you decide to participate in the sit-in at that restaurant?

A: Well now, I had already experienced the good and the bad. The good in Ohio, the bad in North Carolina. I decided to use calm and thoughtfulness about what I was trained in the classrooms of the high school I attended where we were always taught to begin your service by doing things that would make other people happy, make them pleased with you.

So, having worked in the fields of North Carolina, where some families we worked for treated us very nicely, others did not. Some families invited us to eat at their table in the kitchen, the dining room. Others made us sit under trees outside to have our lunch, or whatever sump you could find. So, I wanted better. I could not understand why that made the difference in my using the same bathroom or the same water fountain as others did. So, yes, I wanted to make a change.

Q: What happened when you sat down in the restaurant?

A: Well, I didn’t get to sit down. I was told standing up in the line that I had two minutes to leave because “we don’t serve n—.” After two minutes, they handcuffed us and walked us down to the jail cell. Where I was locked up at that time was only about four doors down from the restaurant.

What I didn’t know when we did get locked up behind three doors, was that they take your bags from you. Your pocketbook. And in your pocketbook, you may have had personal items that you needed once a month. They took the snacks that I had placed in my bag. And we did not get them back.

In the jail, we were so far down in the basement of the building that we could not tell what the weather was like outside. We stacked girls on top of trash cans and they could see maybe that it was raining or snowing, or that the sun was shining. And because we had eaten before taking part in the sit-in, nobody was hungry.

When the jailer brought us food, we didn’t eat it. So, we were told the next food you get, you’ll eat. And we got no more. So when we were finally released, some people went to the hospital, some stayed, and some were treated and released, but we were starved. The water that we got, we begged the lady up above us to hand it down to us and she did in a large, paper container that she had soda in, and that’s what we drank. With the 36 girls in the cell I was locked up in, we had one commode to use, and no privacy. One bunk bed. I slept on the cement floor on my jacket. It was terrible. I wouldn’t want to repeat it.

But we knew we were doing it for a good cause. We had been spoken to by Dr. King to participate in the committees. So we knew what to expect if we stood in that line after we were told we had two minutes to leave the restaurant. We knew we were going to jail.

Q: After you were released and got a job in education, how did that experience impact your teaching? Did you ever bring those experiences into the classroom?

A: With the experience that I had, it was kind of awkward, because of the way I had been treated, to be good, to do the right thing. But in my training in church, you had to do the right thing. You knew right from wrong. As a teacher, you wanted to see improvement in the students, so you did what you were supposed to do. You taught them without thinking, “Oh is she white or is she Black?” In Ohio, like I said, in all of the classes that I taught, I only had one Black girl as a student.

Q: What does a celebration honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mean to you?

A: Martin Luther King’s birthday means a lot to me. As you can probably tell, tears are rolling in my eyes now because of what he gave up to promote equality. It still bothers me every time I do this, make a presentation, because of what I suffered. I could not eat, I could not hold anything in my stomach when I was released from jail. And I imagine the same went for the other 35 students, girls. The girls were locked up in a cell and the boys were locked up in a separate cell, not too far from us. And without food, without water, your body was getting weaker and weaker every day. I hope that no one else has to suffer like that. Nobody. 

But I know that Dr. King suffered even more from all the jail time that he had. He was in jail in August of 1963 when he wrote the Birmingham letter, where he wrote “I Have a Dream.” Things like that bothered me so much that while I was teaching during that time, every time his birthday would come around, I would be asked to come to one of the social studies classes or history classes to make the presentation. To my unbelief, some of the students reacted like, “I wouldn’t have taken that, I would not have suffered like that.” But to participate in those sit-ins, you had to be nonviolent.

Q: How do you view the United States today and what still needs to be done? 

A: Well I view the United States today as a place where everyone should be given an opportunity to do their best, to be in the workforce, to treat people as they should be treated. This is not only Dr. King, this is some of God’s promises to us.

If we do the right thing. So I know this. I believe that the students of today are better, especially the students, both white and Black, Asian or whatever because they are leaning on the things that we brought to them by way of sit-ins and jail time. I do believe that they would be nonviolent. There may be some that aren’t. But I believe the majority of them would be nonviolent. They will continue the struggle for equality for all people.