Otha Carneal was a man of integrity, sincerity, honor, and perhaps, above all, kindness and thoughtfulness. And although this was evident in his role as husband, father, friend and citizen, it was also powerfully evident in his business.
After high school, Otha Carneal worked briefly with Hohenberg Cotton Company before joining his father at Selma Electric Battery Company which had opened its doors on Water Avenue in 1927. He worked for the senior Carneal, known fondly as “Poppy,” for many years, learning not only how to repair cars but also how to treat others. Although the elder Carneal was no maverick, he did require the kind treatment of all people – regardless of color – and instilled this important lesson in his son.
In the forties, Otha Carneal purchased the business from his father, renaming it Carneal Auto Service. He took great pride in his work and truly enjoyed the time spent in his office. And it was probably in this very building that Otha Carneal’s equal treatment of and respect for all was best put into action. A social maverick long before it was “en vogue,” Mr. Carneal insisted on one water fountain and one restroom for all employees, believing that there was no difference among the men regardless of the color of their skin.
Although that decision was radical enough on its own, it certainly would not be the last time Otha Carneal went against the grain. When earnest calls for desegregation began in the fifties, a group of men formed the local chapter of the White Citizens Council. With the support of powerful citizens including some influential business and civic leaders, the council rejected the violent tactics of the Ku Klux Klan in favor of economic reprisal. African Americans who were too vocal in their support of desegration, voting rights or anything else that threatened to change the current social or political structure often found themselves unemployed. Even white people were not immune, as those who refused to support the White Citizens Council also risked economic retaliation.
And Otha Carneal took that risk and then suffered the repurcussions. After refusing to join the Council, most whites refused to trade with Carneal Auto Service. Although he had previously held the contract for servicing all the city and county vehicles, Carneal suddenly found the contract canceled without any explanation. Even good friends began to take their cars elsewhere for service, themselves too afraid of the Council’s reprisal for dealing with someone the Council now considered disloyal. And since many African-Americans were still without cars – an expense too difficult for those under economic repression – Carneal found himself without any significant business.
Yet it was the threats to his family that were even more difficult to bear. While the economic threats put pressure on his ability to provide for his family, he and his wife were also receiving daily phone calls threatening their daughter. Unidentified callers would simply say that they knew when she walked to and from Bird School and that they could easily have her disappear. So although the Carneals lived only blocks from the school, their daughter had to be driven to and from the schoolyard to ensure her safety.
When the civil rights demonstrations were at their pinnacle in the sixties, Otha Carneal and his wife made yet another unpopular decision. Their housekeeper came to them, asking for time off to help prepare meals for the demonstrators staying at her church. Otha Carneal told her to do what she needed to do and that her job would be secure when she was ready to come back. She did just that and although things returned to “normal” at home, Carneal and his wife recalled occasions where people would call them names as they passed them by on the street. Some even crossed the street in an effort to avoid any contact with these newfound social pariahs.
And despite it all, Otha Carneal held fast to his beliefs and values. I recall being in his truck in a rather rough neighborhood when we passed an African-American man walking down the street. My grandfather’s window was down and as we drove by, he waved and yelled out, “Hey buddy.” When I realized that he didn’t know the man, I asked why he had spoken and his reply was simply, “Because making people feel special is what we’re supposed to do.”