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Couple's Civil Rights Past Helps Bring Them Together

Joan Siler is the second from right. Photo courtesy: Robinson Spangler Carolina Room at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

BB DeLaine helped organize this lunch counter protest in Charlotte . Joan Siler is second from the right. Take two people. They grow up in the same state, contend with the same prejudices. They go to the same college. They fight the same fight against segregation. But their lives remain separate. They move away from the Carolinas. They get married to other people. They have children. Those children grow up. Death ends one marriage, unhappiness another. More than forty years go by, and somehow that shared history brings them together again. WFAE's Lisa Miller has the story of two people making a future together, while heeding the past: Joan Siler and BB DeLaine first met in 1958 on the campus of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. "She was a little freshman my junior year that tried to ignore me," says BB. Joan nods her head and laughs. They met again seven years ago at a Smith reunion. But they don't see each other much. Joan lives in Lancaster and BB lives in Charlotte. Health problems that come with age have caught up with them and the drive can be a tough haul. They keep tabs on each other with nightly phone calls. Every few months they meet up. They sit hand-in-hand in Joan's living room. "What's wrong Babe, why you blushing?" asks Joan. "You're patting. . . " begins BB. "You blushing? Oh, but he looks good to me." Pictures of her daughters and grandchildren cover her wall. Joan's got a good memory. She's the one her sisters call when they can't remember something about their childhood. BB gets calls too from historians. They want to hear first-hand accounts of Charlotte's lunch-counter sit-ins, CMS desegregation, and learn about how his father organized a lawsuit further south in Clarendon County, South Carolina to challenge segregation. The lawsuit was merged into Brown vs. the Board of Education. "I have a book that BB let me use over the years," says Joan. "It was talking about the schools and everything down there in Clarendon. When I look at it I say, 'This is your school?' And he say, 'Yeah, I didn't go to a school like you went to.'" "We talk about it, but I like to agitate and tell her she's a big city girl," jokes BB. "I'm not a city girl, but, you know, he's country," Joan protests. "She likes to tell you how hard times were and I let her know she's a city girl." BB's father the Reverend J.A. DeLaine was not a man content to let his children or any other black children walk nine miles to a rickety school house while white kids took buses to a brick school. "It's a strange thing even about the Klan," says BB. "They respect somebody who stands up to them far more than somebody who weasels under. And Daddy didn't back down for anybody unless they could justify why he needed to back down. It was also known that Daddy carried a gun." And one night he had to use the gun. The Reverend DeLaine received frequent death threats and didn't pay too much attention to them. But in 1955 one finally got him scared. A few days after the threat, his church burned down. Then, night-riders fired shots at his home and the Reverend DeLaine fired back, he said, just to mark the car. It was national news. He had to leave the state for the safety of his family and to avoid arrest. "No, we didn't have anything like that here. But we had the KKK, we sure did," nods Joan. She was somewhat shielded from the discrimination around her in Lancaster. Her father was well-respected in the community. He worked for the railroad and since he was on call a lot, they were one of the first black families in town to get a car. "To keep from mixing the schools and stuff, whatever we asked for they gave it to us," remembers Joan. "But my dad would push things to get what we needed. Like [BB] said, they had a hard time getting buses and all that stuff. We had them." "If they asked for something they got it to keep them quiet. If we asked for something they said, 'We ain't got no money for the negroes,'" says BB. By 1958, both BB and Joan were enrolled at Johnson C. Smith. A couple years later, black college students began sitting down at whites-only lunch counters in Greensboro. BB and other students took note of what was happening. They decided they needed to do the same in Charlotte. BB helped organize the sit-ins, but he had to be careful. He was worried angry whites would target him if they learned who his father was. "So anytime I saw a reporter coming, I'd just fade into the background and not get put on the spot," remembers BB. "And guess, whose picture was on the front page? Yeah, and I thought, 'Oh Lord, Daddy going to kill me," says Joan. Back in Lancaster, her father worried people there would see that photo and he'd lose his job. Joan worried about that too. But she felt she needed to take a seat. "We had a book, you know. They would study their school work while they were sitting there at the counter," says Joan. "Every now and then you'd look up and you'd talk to whoever was right there next to you. But you'd be watching the action of the people that's looking at you and talking about you. You know, you have to kind of watch." A few years after college in 1965, BB became the first black teacher at Garinger High School. Joan moved back to Lancaster in the late seventies. She took a job at First Citizen's Bank. "So he said, 'Well, we gotta hire a black person in here.' I said, 'Well, I am black,' laughs Joan. Then she sighs. "You know, I lived away from home too long. And I thought to myself, 'Boy, isn't this something. Got to come back here for this.'" The couple is now in their seventies. A few years ago, they both got sick and were hospitalized. BB is coping with cancer and heart problems. He's thin, but smiling around Joan. She's doing better now. But she did lose some hair after heart surgery with all the stress. "It used to worry me a lot. But I don't worry about it anymore. I was small, but then I gained all this weight," says Joan. "You live a long time to gather up that much weight, so be thankful for it," BB tells Joan. "Well, B, I wish I could give you some right now," she replies. "I need some now." The past doesn't dominate BB and Joan's conversations. The present gives them enough joy and worry to deal with. But they have a respect for what went before and pride for their separate roles in it.