Local News

Mom's embrace of black housekeeper a page in Raleigh's racial history

Posted August 22, 2016 5:32 p.m. EDT
Updated August 22, 2016 6:43 p.m. EDT

— After Cameron Village opened its old undergound mall for a special one-night-only event in May 2015, it asked people for their memories of Raleigh's first shopping center. The winner was a woman who remembered the powerful stand her mother took one day at a lunch counter.

Back in 1962, what's now the library at Cameron Village used to be Boylan Pearce department store. One day, Eleanor Upton took her daughter, Barbara, and their black housekeeper, Sarah Neal, shopping. Eleanor went into Boylan Pearce and gave Sarah some money and told them to go into the Woolworths.

"I said, 'Why don't you go in and get you and Barbara a Coca-Cola or something, and I'll be out in a few minutes,'" Eleanor Upton recalled.

When Eleanor came out, Sarah and Barbara were standing outside without drinks. Barbara told her mother, "They don't served colored people."

"I didn't really understand what was going on, but I knew we had been challenged, that Sarah had been challenged, and my mom was going to make it right," Barbara Geiger recalled.

Eleanor went inside.

"He said, 'We're not allowed to serve colored people.' I said, 'Today, son, you are serving a colored person.'"

And he did, nervously.

Sarah Neal died a few years ago. By phone, her daughter said her mother had never told her the story of the Cameron Village standoff.

"I don't think she knew she was making history, but she really did," Upton said.

Barbara remembers Sarah like family, like a second mother. Upton says she knows she took a stand for equality that day, but she also took a stand for love.

"I never thought anything about it," she said. "It was just the right thing to do. You don't hurt my family."