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Greensboro’s untold story: The gay scare of ’57

Greensboro’s untold story: The gay scare of ’57

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Published by Terrance Heath
On Feb. 4, 1957, a Guilford County grand jury emerged from its closed session and issued a bundle of indictments of a scope unlike any before or since — against 32 men accused of being homosexual.
On Feb. 4, 1957, a Guilford County grand jury emerged from its closed session and issued a bundle of indictments of a scope unlike any before or since — against 32 men accused of being homosexual.

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Published by: Terrance Heath on Jul 29, 2013
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Article published Sep 17, 2006
Greensboro’s untold story: The gay scare of ’57
By Lorraine Ahearn
 On Feb. 4, 1957, a Guilford County grand jury emerged from its closed session and issued a bundle of indictments of a scope unlike any before or since — against 32 men accused of being homosexual.After witnesses named the men during police interrogations, the suspects were tried one by one in a Greensboro courtroom for crimesagainst nature, almost exclusively with consenting adults.The now-obscure episode, which some longtime residents came to call "the purge," was the largest attempted roundup of homosexuals inGreensboro history and marked one of the most intense gay scares of the 1950s.Unlike sweeps of subsequent decades, involving raids on public parks and gay bars, Greensboro's 1957 trials focused on private acts behind closed doors.The purpose, in the words of the police chief, was to "remove these individuals from society who would prey upon our youth," and to protect the town from what a presiding judge called "a menace."Some 32 trials in the winter and spring of 1957 would end in guilty verdicts, 24 of them resulting in prison terms of five to 20 years,with some defendants assigned to highway chain gangs.Based on dozens of interviews over a four-week period with those who recall it, this is the story of what happened.
The trigger 
Beginnings of a panic
 The first time Wallace "Wally" Pegelow laid eyes on his son was when his mother-in-law brought the baby, a few weeks old, to theGreensboro jail."My husband can never know that I brought this child here," Pegelow, then 19, would remember her whispering before she hurried out,careful not to be seen leaving the basement of City Hall.Months before, detectives had come to Fort Bragg to arrest him, and the Army had taken the young paratrooper's stripes. By the time of his mother-in-law's clandestine visit, Pegelow had been in jail long enough to sense that this was no mix-up.But as he sat in his cell waiting for his court date, little did the New York native realize that what was about to unfold would cast ashadow over the rest of his life — and to an extent, over the city where he would go to trial.It was the winter of 1957, and almost daily, newspapers carried stories of what Greensboro headline writers called the "morals trials."Then-prosecutor Horace Kornegay, who later became a congressman and who is now retired, said recently that he thinks all thedefendants are dead and he has only a vague recollection of the incident.But at the time, say lawyers who were in practice in the 1950s, the cases had the effect of a bombshell. Pegelow and 31 other defendantswere accused of a crime so deep and dark that even the stories below the headlines never came out and said what the men had allegedlydone.In 1950, homosexuality had for the first time become an explosive political topic in the course of the McCarthy loyalty hearings — and had been classified as a mental illness by the psychiatric community. But even seven years later, it was hardly talked about in places likeGreensboro.Publicly, officials hinted only of "unnatural relationships" between the men on a long list of names detectives gathered during a series of interrogations.Before the months-long investigation was brought to an abrupt halt, that list came to include the manager of a country club, a judge, twolawyers and a policeman who was part of the investigation. None of these high-profile suspects was ever convicted, according to the typewritten docket book that is the only record of the cases at aGreensboro courthouse. But between the names that were struck through with capital X's, rendering them illegible, remain the entries of the less prominent. These men were put on trial that year at the Guilford Courthouse — some more than once before prosecutors wonconvictions — and after imprisonment were typically paroled on the condition that they not live within a 100-mile radius of Greensboro.
 
 One was Wallace M. "Wally" Pegelow, whose widow today lives in South Carolina and shared his story and personal papers for thisarticle.Pegelow came from a small town near Niagara Falls, where he and his widow both grew up, and he joined the Army at 17, stationed with the 82nd Airborne. He played halfback on a semi-pro football team, the Mac Bulldogs, and friends remember his tough, '50s image.He rolled his cigarette pack up in his T-shirt sleeve and got into fights when he drank beer at the bowling alley.In the fall of 1956, seemingly out of the blue, he would later recall, detectives from Greensboro showed up at Fort Bragg and placed himunder arrest.At first, they wanted to question him about a burglary that occurred in Greensboro, where he frequently visited his girlfriend, later hisfirst wife. Before long, however, his case became part of something larger — what a police lieutenant more than a decade later would describe to a Greensboro Record reporter as "the biggest mess we ever got into."And it all began with a traffic stop one Sunday night in June 1956.
The Arrests
'In trouble again'
 They were a loose group of friends, in their late teens and early 20s, and they liked to go cruising at night — the seedy blocks around theold Greensboro bus station at Commerce Street, the High Point movie theater where one of the defendants worked, the General GreeneBar & Grill, near where the new baseball stadium sits today.The General Greene, with a mix of female prostitutes in the booths and men at the bar, was the closest thing Greensboro had to a gay bar, though it wasn't strictly gay. And hardly anyone used that word. This was an underground culture that survived on secrecy.In one series of letters that police seized as evidence, a UNC-Chapel Hill student from High Point wrote to a male classmate in code."Hilda Sara" stood for "homosexual." He closed his letters with "B.B.B." — "better be butch" — and assigned male friends femalenicknames such as "Thelma" or "Mamie," a nod to America's first lady in the Eisenhower years.As campy and facetious as the letters sound today, an anthropologist who years later taught North Carolina's first state-approved courseon gender and homosexuality notes that there was reason for such intrigue.In larger cities, beginning with Washington, the FBI had recruited local vice squads to conduct surveillance on suspected gays and enlisted postmasters to monitor mail for telltale material such as men's "physique magazines."Even in private conversation, people were discreet."If someone heard a man say, 'I went on a date with Betsy,' that wouldn't raise any suspicion," observed retired UNCG professor ThomasFitzgerald. "People had to camouflage their lives. The '50s were abysmal."Mostly, the letters seized by police give a giddy, carefree look at the promiscuous sex lives of the young men. The one cloud on thehorizon — and the event that would ultimately splash their private lives onto the front page — gets only a passing mention, in a letter dated June 30, 1956:"Jesse and Ray are in trouble again," the student wrote to a friend on vacation in Florida. "It seems that some of their paratrooper friends broke into one of Jesse's neighbor's houses, and stole $900. The police are trying to blame it on Jesse and Ray. Jesse was very upsetwhen I talked with her (him) last night. …"In fact, court records show, police had stopped their car and discovered burglary tools. But rather than charging the Greensboro pair,Jessie Taylor and Charles Ray Roberts, police charged two paratrooper hitchhikers, Pegelow and a fellow married soldier, with possession of burglary tools and conspiracy to break and enter.It's unclear how Pegelow and the others from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune knew Roberts and Taylor, whom defense attorneys recallattracting attention with broadly effeminate manners — and parties that sometimes ended with police arriving.What is clear is that Roberts and Taylor, who city arrest records show had earlier been picked up as a "female impersonator," were aboutto become the key informers against a series of suspects. Under incoming Police Chief Paul Calhoun, who took office in the summer of 1956, the juvenile and vice squads were assigned full time to work a widening morals investigation.Police charged suspects one after another, including an N.C. A&T graduate who was served with a warrant in the Rock Hill, S.C.,classroom where he taught and was arrested in front of his students.Each suspect was, in turn, questioned about a list of names detectives were developing, according to transcripts at the N.C. Supreme
 
Court. Jessie Taylor, 19 when the indictments hit the newspaper, described in these documents how the accusations surfaced."Yes, I talked to officers about this when I was first apprehended," he said under oath. "Yes, one of the officers did tell me that if I didn'tnot only plead guilty, but implicate other people, that they had 20 different warrants they could throw at me."Taylor and Roberts both faced multiple charges of crimes against nature, and the possibility of lengthy prison terms. Likewise, ateenager who accused his employer of sodomizing him revealed in testimony that despite being the state's witness, he was under indictment, as well.The teen also described how police had read a list of names to him when he was taken in for questioning, without his parents present. Atone point, Capt. F.E. Gibson said in the transcript, detectives brought the businessman in and had him face his teenage accuser in aninterrogation room — this in the years before police were required to read Miranda rights.
Investigation 'just escalated'
 Initially, police said parents' complaints prompted the investigation. However, only one of the 32 defendants was charged with havingsex with an underage teen, and the rest involved consenting adults. And with the charging of ostensible victims in the cases — makingeveryone involved subject to prosecution — the naming of names accelerated. The investigation began "to skyrocket," in the words of former Sheriff Sticky Burch, who in 1957 was a major in charge of operations for the city police."It might have started with the (suspects) on the street, but it began to involve people who were upstanding in the community, people inthe Jaycees, people who did paper drives," Burch said recently. "It just escalated to the point where the investigation was called off."The reason the police investigation began and ended is uncertain. Those directly involved — Lt. Maurice Geiger, Capts. Gibson and BillJackson, Chief Calhoun — are dead.In a 1971 Greensboro Record story headlined "Gay Subculture Losing Social Inhibitions," an anonymous vice lieutenant who had worked the morals cases was quoted as saying that the "names of innocent people" had been brought in, and that police suspected a "star witness" had been paid to leave town before others could be implicated.But at the time of the grand jury session in 1957, ending the police phase of the case, Calhoun said only that the detectives' work wasdone."Developments have now reached the stage," Calhoun told the Daily News, "where it is deemed advisable to return the speciallyassigned investigators to their regular units."What had driven the police investigation this far — a period of months, producing 60 warrants and 32 defendants about to face trial — was the need, Calhoun said, to remove those who prey upon youth.Lawrence Egerton, one of the few attorneys involved in the cases who is still in practice, said members of the defense bar viewed itdifferently."There had always been homosexuals, but the police never pursued them with such intensity, never before and never since," he said."The truth? It was a long, hot summer, and the police had nothing to do."
The Era
'You just repressed it'
 In 1957, Greensboro was, as now, the third-largest city in North Carolina. The difference was, instead of 238,000 residents, it had lessthan a third of that population.It was just a town, a town poised, like the rest of the country, on the brink of a social sea change — civil rights, women's rights, sexualrevolution. And as if braced for the floodwaters, the 1950s were the most rigidly conformist decade of the century.In the society pages, women continued to be identified by their husbands' names — "Mrs. John Smith" — and any story mentioning a black person took care to specify race — "a Negro."At a time when newspapers had only recently ventured to publish the word "rape," and when the discovery of a moonshine operationcould still lead the local news, the word "homosexual" never appeared. It wasn't merely taboo. It was practically unheard of."People talked about 'sissies' and 'queers.' But we had no idea what they did," recalled Eleanor Dare Kennedy, who in the mid-1950s wasa college student and a police reporter for the Greensboro Daily News.On her morning rounds to gather items for the police blotter in the years before the '57 trials, Kennedy one day happened upon a report

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