On a fall afternoon in 1964, the school bell at North Durham Elementary rang, and a 12-year-old sixth grader walked out into the cool air on his way to his first day tossing the town’s afternoon newspaper, The Durham Sun, onto driveways and porches and into yards.
The paperboy was small for his age. He had a lot to learn about his job, but he knew where to start.
He’d been told to go the laundry mat at the corner of Elizabeth and Dowd streets where 160 issues of the six-day-a-week afternoon daily, were piled and waiting for him to fold, stack and lug toward delivery.
“Oh my gosh, I guarantee I wasn’t more than 60 pounds,” state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., D-Durham, says today. “Maybe 65 pounds. I was not a big kid.”
In 1991, The Durham Sun merged with the The Durham Morning Herald to form what is now The Herald-Sun.
For two years, McKissick was a paperboy.
The weight of the papers was crushing, but the money earned made it worth it. The young McKissick went downtown to Addison’s Play World on East Chapel Hill Street to buy a wagon, he said, “The best investment I ever made.”
His parents moved to northern Durham when he was a small child, he said, “So it’s interesting, I saw it change in terms of one gentrification when whites moved out and blacks moved in, and now, of course, what you see today, is blacks being displaced and young white families moving in.
“So, it’s kind of gone 360 degrees,” he said.
The young paperboy’s father, Floyd B. McKissick Sr., was an eminent civil rights advocate working to abolish Jim Crow laws who, in January 1966, would become the national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
McKissick Sr. had been the first African American student admitted into the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. Later, he had successfully filed lawsuits that enabled his children to enroll in previously all-white schools in Durham.
McKissick Sr. was famous, and naturally, McKissick Jr. was known around town as “Floyd’s boy.” But, the new job changed that.
“’Paperboy. Hey! Hey, paperboy, come over here,’” McKissick recalled. “They’d call me, paperboy. ‘Hey paperboy!’ ”
The junior McKissick was recognized for his own work by the people of Durham for the first time.
About a dozen subscribers a week regularly called him to their sides to ask him to read their papers aloud.
“You could always tell somebody wasn’t literate, when they picked up the paper and had it upside down,” McKissick said. “That was a clear sign.”
On Wednesdays — coupon day in The Durham Sun — well over a dozen people would ask for help reading the ads.
Frequently, McKissick was asked to interpret legal documents for subscribers before they initialed dotted lines, he said.
Being the “Paperboy!”
After North Durham Elementary’s school bell rang during McKissick’s first week carrying papers, he was accompanied on his route by The Durham Sun’s paperboy supervisor.
Together they went throwing the news, down Elizabeth Street to Geer Street over to Glendale Avenue back up to Dowd Street and up and down residential stretches everywhere in-between.
The supervisor explained which papers to throw to which houses and “gave me all the rules,” McKissick said.
The paperboy paid the paper 17 cents per customer per week after collecting 30 cents a week from each subscribing household. A profit of 13 cents per subscriber per week, not a poorly paid gig for a sixth grader in 1966.
McKissick was told, “First of all, what you want to do, is get out there every Saturday morning to collect. It’s best to start at 7 a.m., and collect all of it by 9 a.m. Before people go and start spending it.”
Some subscribers were paid monthly by employers. From them, the paperboys collected on the first of each month – simple.
“Then, he identified a few families who were on welfare. For those on welfare, they would pay once a month, on the 15th of the month,” McKissick said. “Because, back then, apparently welfare checks came on the 15th.”
He added, “You had to know these things.”
He also had to heed the rules of the Sabbath. McKissick collected from Seventh-day Adventists, for example, only on Fridays and always before 6 p.m.
“I had a 99 percent collection rate,” McKissick said. Still proud, the senator’s boyhood achievements have reverberated down his life’s path, helping frame his life today.
To shape a Senator
McKissick remembers routinely being buttonholed away from his route by passersby announcing, “’Come, come listen to that little boy talk; listen to ’im talk,’” he recalled. “’He talks so proper.’”
Maybe it was the highly educated family in which he was raised, McKissick said. Or perhaps due his having to overcome a slight childhood stutter – by painstaking speech therapy sessions requiring repetitive phonetic sound outs – McKissick refined an unconventional pattern of speech.
“I think I acquired a way of speaking when I was young – I mean in the second grade – that perhaps caused me to sound a little bit different than other kids,” he said. “But it was something that I ran into routinely, ‘Come listen to his li’l boy talk,’ as if I was some animated creature. Mm-mm, it was just the way it was and I didn’t worry about it.”
Walking his old route, the grown up McKissick theorized aloud about former Durham families who’ve been displaced recently by gentrification. He suspects they had to move to rural, more thus affordable areas.
“It makes you wonder if they have access to jobs, access to transportation, access to the ability to navigate where they need to go day-in and day-out,” McKissick said. “It’s a radical change. But, perhaps it’s a natural evolution and I think we need to be mindful as a community as to how we balance those competing interests.”