BY DAVE HART, STAFF WRITER
CHAPEL HILL -- When Alvin Garner and his new bride, Omelia, walked out into the blistering sunlight after their wedding in the parsonage at St. Joseph AME Church, they were startled to find a huge crowd waiting for them.
Not the wedding party. These were just townspeople who had gravitated to the church and gathered outside while the couple was inside exchanging vows. As the Garners walked out, the crowd stood in rows lining both sides of the street and watched.
"Nobody said a word," Omelia recalled.
The people weren't there to celebrate, but they didn't strike her as angry or menacing, either. They just seemed ... curious, as if they had never before seen such a thing.
Which they hadn't. Alvin is white; Omelia is black. According to records, when they were united on June 23, 1968, they became the first interracial couple to be legally married in Orange County.
Until the Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriages in 1967, it was illegal for couples of different races to marry in North Carolina.
This year the Garners are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, and they will hold a service to renew their vows in June. Bishop Thomas Hoyt, the pastor who married them (and later became the president of National Council of Churches), said he hopes to be able to return for the service, if his schedule allows it.
"A lot of people said, 'It won't last,'" Hoyt said. "If they followed the prejudice of the times, they never would have married. But they loved each other, and that's what they followed. They are very fine people, and they've worked together and loved each other for 40 years. They defied the odds."
Those odds included not only societal pressures but fierce opposition from Alvin's family.
"It didn't go over real big with my folks," said Alvin, whose family was from Newport, near the coast. "Before we got married, they sent my uncle and the family pastor up here to talk me out of it."
It was a futile trip. Alvin and Omelia were in love, and they weren't going to let either prejudice or pressure sway them from the course they had set for themselves.
They had met in September 1967. Alvin, in his third year at UNC, got a job at the Goody Shop, a popular restaurant in downtown Chapel Hill. Omelia waited tables there, and it wasn't long before she and the new guy noticed each other.
"She was leaving work one day and was joking around with another one of the waitresses, and she said, "I'm going to get him one of these days,'" Alvin said. "The other waitress told me that."
Listening to Alvin tell the story, Omelia laughed.
"She was not supposed to tell you that," she said.
But she did, and one night Alvin asked Omelia whether she'd like to go out for a drink after work. She said yes.
"We started talking," he said. "One thing led to another, and in November I gave her a diamond ring."
He met her family for the first time on Christmas Day. They welcomed into their Lloyd Street home right from the start.
"My daddy thought he was the best thing that ever happened to me," Omelia said.
Her father, Ed Farrington, was a well-known figure in town, a powerful, hard-working man who had lost his right arm in a sawmill accident.
"Before we went in, Omelia said, 'Now the only thing you need to remember is not to reach out with your right hand to shake his hand,'" Alvin said. "Of course, that's exactly what I did.
"But they were wonderful to me. The one question he asked was if my parents disowned me, how would I get by?"
It wasn't a joke. Alvin's family was appalled, he said, and they made no effort to hide their feelings. For several years his parents refused not only to meet Omelia but even to speak to her on the phone; when they had to reach him they would call through the operator rather than risk talking to her.
Omelia didn't meet his parents until after she'd given birth to the couple's second child, a daughter named Amy who was born in 1971. Omelia had three daughters by an early marriage, and she had given birth to Alvin Jr. in 1969, a year after she and Alvin married.
One day not long after Amy was born the phone rang in the Garners' home. Omelia answered and heard, for the first time, her mother-in-law's voice.
"Omelia called me at work and said, 'Your mama just called direct,'" Alvin said. "I thought, 'OK, that's a change.' A few minutes later my Dad called me and said, 'Do you all want some company?"
Before they came, Omelia had a dream: She and Alvin were driving down to Newport to visit his parents when they were stopped by the Ku Klux Klan. The white robes captured Alvin, but Omelia escaped.
"Somehow I found their house and knocked on the door," she said. "Mrs. Garner came to the door, and I had to tell her the Klansmen had gotten her son. I saw her in a dream before I ever saw her in real life."
When they did come to visit, she said, Alvin's mother scooped Amy into her arms; "She held that baby the whole time they were there," Omelia said.
When his parents got ready to leave, Alvin said, his mother turned at the doorway.
"She said, 'Any time you all want to come down and visit, come on down,'" he said.
Once the barrier had been broken, Omelia and Alvin's parents grew very close; she was one of his mother's most dedicated caretakers before her death in 2004.
The Garners have faced judgment from plenty of people other than his family, of course. There was the man who approached them in a club in Raleigh, slapped his hand on their table and declared that as soon as George Wallace was elected president, "this will never happen again." There was another man who shadowed them for 45 minutes in a grocery store one day, following, never speaking. There was the manager of the grocery store who informed Alvin that he no longer had a job there. There were more stares and glares and dropped jaws than they could ever count.
"When we got married, people said, 'Well, either he's rich or she's pregnant,'" Alvin said. "Well, I wasn't, and she wasn't."
Their children had to deal with the next generation.
"In school, we got heat from both sides, black and white," Amy said. "We've heard all the names you can think of. You name it, we've heard it. But home has always been our comfort zone."
The Garners have managed all of it by meeting anger with good humor, by meeting intolerance with tolerance. They've known other interracial couples, they said, who seem always on the alert for slights and offences. The Garners instead have taken a different approach.
"Live and let live," Alvin said. "You get what you look for, most of the time, and we've never looked for any trouble. We've just lived our lives. We just haven't looked at it as that big a deal."
Alvin and Omelia are both ministers, and they both work at UNC's office of printing services. In June, they will stand in front of their friends and families and renew their pledge of love and loyalty.
"I mean, we know we did things differently than most people," Alvin said. "And maybe at one point the fact that so many people said it wouldn't last was one reason we said, 'We are going to make this work.' But that only gets you so far.
"We're married and have lived together for 40 years, and we're happy with it. As far as I'm concerned, the 40 years is more important than being black and white."
SOURCE:2008 The Chapel Hill News