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Looking back at 1963 voting rights project in rural North Carolina

Eva Clayton
Eva Clayton, who served North Carolina's 1st district in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than a decade, initiated AFSC's 1963 Citizenship Education Project in Warren and Franklin counties. In September 2013, she spoke to her fellow project participants when they gathered to mark the project's 50th anniversary. Photo: AFSC/Bryan Vana

In the segregated South, in the summer of 1963, the first interracial group to live together in Warren County took up residence in a tiny, sweltering apartment over Brown's Superette and Grill. 

Fourteen college students and three adults among them, they had come to Warrenton after local residents approached the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) about starting a project to encourage voter registration and civic activism among the impoverished black majority population.

Fifty years after that summer, the group returned to Warrenton for a reunion during the first weekend of September 2013. They reconnected, reminisced, and heard from local residents how their work had affected the region. All but a few of the original students and community leaders were able to attend, and some brought their families.

Even 50 years later, residents of the local community say that the presence of this team of young people helped to eliminate a lot of fear and encouraged people to register to vote.

It also set Warrenton resident and Citizenship Education Project participant Eva Clayton on the path to Congress, where she served for over a decade.

Eva had been introduced to AFSC in college, and the nonviolent approach to social change appealed to her. She told the group that when she and her husband, T.T. Clayton, came to Warren County in 1962, they found a sense of apathy among local residents. That was when she wrote to AFSC about starting a project in North Carolina.

The Citizen Education Project participants in 1963 (left) and 2013 (right)

Left: In 1963, the students and leaders of the Citizenship Education project. Back row, from left: Charles Webster, Judy Howard, Glenda Gaspard, Jane Luton, name withheld, Judy Beil, Elliott Isenberg, Dot Gill, and Steve Dautoff. In the shadows far right: Betsey Conklin and Nathan Hough. Front row: Gavin Wright, Payne Masuku, Jeff Howard, Bronwyn Baird, Beth Howard, Gwyneth Wilkinson, and Julian Bicknell.

Right: At the 50th anniversary reunion in September 2013. Back row, from left: Thurletta Brown-Gavins, Dorothy Gill Waddell, Gwyneth Wilkinson Love, Gavin Wright, Judy Beil Vaughan, Payne Masuku, Steve Dautoff, name withheld, Jim Howard, and Julian Bicknell. Front row: Elliott Isenberg, Jane Luton, Jeff Howard, Bethany Howard, and Judy Howard.

Teaming with local ministers, the Citizenship Education Project offered over 30 educational workshops in four counties providing information about voting procedures and registration. Their work began just weeks after the murder of Medgar Evers and ended a few days before the 1963 March on Washington.

Judy Beil Vaughan was one of the college student participants in 1963. She organized the reunion and was able to locate nearly all of the original participants with the help of AFSC’s archivist, Don Davis. (Judy also authored a new book, “A Quiet Little Civil Rights Project,” about her experiences that summer as a member of the group.)

Al Webster, the son of the Rev. Charles Webster (a Methodist minister and one of the project’s leaders, who was unable to attend), reflected on the group’s impact:

“I was quite moved to hear the stories of the courage, the conviction, the determination, and resolve exhibited by those who converged on a small community in rural North Carolina 50 years ago with the intention to plant a seed that would bring change. And plant the seed you did. Fifty years later, you cared enough to come back to see firsthand what evolved from the seed you planted and to share the memories and the fellowship formed half a century ago. … Thank you for caring, and sharing and putting forth the effort to make a difference! Every one of you should be proud of what you invested and of what you accomplished.”

Read more about the project in the Warren Record’s article, “Voting Rights Project Remembered”