Saturday, February 10, 2018

Caswell County, North Carolina: School Integration

Caswell County School Integration

If the US Supreme Court in 1954 ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, why did it take until 1963 for comprehensive school segregation to begin in Caswell County, North Carolina, and until 1969 for a county-wide integration plan to be adopted?

It took fifteen years for the Caswell County Board of Education to comply with the US Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In 1969, the Board of Education implemented a county-wide integration plan. For the fall term, Yanceyville's white and black first through third grade students were assigned either to Oakwood or Jones Elementary Schools. Bartlett Yancey Elementary housed fourth through seventh grades. Caswell County High School (formerly Caswell County Training School) functioned as N. L. Dillard Junior High School, serving eighth and ninth grade students. Tenth through twelfth grade students attended Bartlett Yancey High School.

From a legal viewpoint "all" the US Supreme Court did in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was to decree that the plaintiffs were deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The Court asked for further argument as to what should be done about it.

And, in its next pronouncement on the issue in 1955 (a case generally referred to as Brown v. Board of Education II) the Court kicked the matter back to the lower federal courts with the direction that desegregation proceed “with all deliberate speed.”  It was during this period of slow-walking the decrees of the US Supreme Court that the modern Civil Rights movement was born. Rosa Parks did her thing in 1955, was arrested, and sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. Marches and other forms of protest followed, some led by a little-known Baptist minister who had a dream.

So,what was happening in North Carolina during this period. Governor Umstead was ill and died. He was replaced by Luther Hodges, himself a segregationist. Hodges wanted to appease his political base while still adhering to the decrees of the US Supreme Court. This resulted in the Pearsall Plan: a system of local—not state—control, freedom of choice, and vouchers. The freedom-of-choice system allowed students to attend the school they wanted, and the voucher system allowed parents to use state money to support their child’s education in a private school. In effect, the Pearsall Plan did little to integrate North Carolina’s public schools. With a few exceptions, such as in Greensboro, most schools in North Carolina remained segregated.

Under the Pearsall Plan described above, the Caswell County Board of Education appears to have done all within its power to avoid integration, dragging the issue through the courts for years. The Board used various excuses to refuse admission of black students to white schools. They even told one student that he could not transfer to Bartlett Yancey High School because he would receive a better education at Caswell County Training School, and used that argument to deny admission to the white school. When the parents of one black student asked that his child be reassigned to an all-white Caswell County school, one Caswell County School Board member stated that the board could not reassign a student on the basis of race because that was against the law -- strangely relying upon Brown v. Board of Education.

It appears that the Caswell County Board of Education relied for many years upon the 1955 North Carolina Pupil Assignment Act, which in essence afforded local school districts complete latitude in delineating student placement, even though this Act was on its face in violation of the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

It was in 1955 that a contingent of fifteen African-American Caswell County parents began protesting school assignments on the basis of race, initially by written petitions to the Caswell County Board of Education. Of course, these petitions were ignored. Much can be learned from the Caswell County Board of Education Meeting Minutes.

In 1957, black parents petitioned the Caswell County Board of Education to obtain placements for 43 children at white schools that were much closer to their homes than the African-American campuses to which they had been assigned. The Board rejected the applications in August 1957 and continued to deny subsequent applications through 1962.

Even though a federal court had ordered integration of Caswell County schools, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated school integration as a prerequisite for federal funding, it was not until the late 1960s that the Caswell County school system was in substantial compliance with the law -- allowing parents to choose which school their children would attend. As late as 1967, only 57 black students had enrolled in predominately white schools.

On June 9, 1960, applications for reassignment to schools previously attended solely by white students were timely filed on behalf of Samuel Malloy Mitchell, Charlie Jeffers, Alexander Jeffers, Sylveen Jeffers, Nathan Brown, Lunsford Brown, Sheliah Brown, Charlie Saunders, Jr., Fred Saunders. Except for Charlie Saunders, Jr. and Fred Saunders, it was requested that each of said minor plaintiffs be transferred from the Caswell County Training School, a school attended solely by Negro students, to Bartlett Yancey School, a school attended solely by white students. With respect to Charlie Saunders, Jr. and Fred Saunders, request was made that they be transferred from New Dotmond Elementary School, a school attended solely by Negro students, to a "school nearest their home, based upon a non-segregated system without regard to race or color."

Finally, in response to federal court rulings in lawsuits filed on behalf of seven black students, the Caswell Count Board of Education was forced to allow students to enroll in the school of their choice beginning January 1963. The process was fraught with conflict.

In Caswell County, 16 students entered four public schools on the order of U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Stanley, Judge Stanley, on Dec. 21 [1962] found that the Caswell County Board of Education was not properly administering the North Carolina Pupil Placement Law. The county was ordered to give "every school child presently enrolled" in the school system "complete freedom of choice of school he would like to attend during the second semester of the current 1962-63 school year."

When the children appeared at school to enroll, one of the parents, Jasper Brown, was harassed by two white men. In the ensuing altercation, Brown wounded the two men in self-defense. Despite requests from the NAACP, there was no police protection provided for the children or their parents. Brown later surrendered to the police and was placed in custody.

The case was originated by the North Carolina NAACP State Conference in 1956 and has been argued by NAACP Attorney Conrad O. Pearson who will defend Brown. Under the direction of NAACP State President Kelly Alexander and Charles McLean, field secretary, parents are being urged to transfer their children to all-white schools in the county.

Source: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida), 28 January 1963, Monday, Page 30.

"By Committee of White Parents: Integration Plan Keeping Sexes Separate Is Suggested As Alternative In Caswell"

Yanceyville, N.C. -- A committee representing white parents suggested to the Caswell County Board of Education Monday that white parents would be more amenable to total racial integration of schools if the sexes were kept separate. While some members of the board appeared receptive to the idea, the general feeling, however, was that neither the federal court nor NAACP attorneys would go along with the plan.

The two-hour meeting between the board and the parents' committee ended inconclusively but with some indication that the board is embarked on another course also suggested by the committee.

The committee said it thought total integration of the schools should be carried out in two or three stages over a two-three year period, saying the high school and junior high school could be integrated next fall and the elementary schools the following year or in 1971-72.

This, the committee said, would give both school officials and parents some experience in the problems resulting from integration and could prevent a mass exodus of whites from the county.

School Superintendent T. H. Whitley pointed out that the board's proposal to the U.S. Middle District Court for integrating the elementary schools already has drawn sharp criticism from NAACP attorneys. Whitley said school officials will need considerably more time to prepare the maps and get ready for merging of the two races than they have been given so far.

Judge Thomas Stanley earlier this fall ordered the Caswell board to submit a plan for total integration of Caswell schools by geographical zoning before Nov. 1.

In compliance with this court order, the board advised the court it will make the present all-Negro Caswell County High School into a junior high for grades 8 and 9 and the predominately white Bartlett Yancey High into a senior high school but that these also would be zoned geographically.

White parents overflowed the courtroom here late last month at a meeting to discuss the impending integration. At this meeting, a committee composed of one person from each township was named to confer with the Board of Education.

Monday's meeting was the second between the board and the committee.

Vernie Dove, serving as spokesman for the parents' group, said the committee has been give new hope by developments in Reidsville where judge Stanley has agreed to hold a new hearing after being advised that white resentment was so strong to an integration plan prepared by that city's School Board and approved by the NAACP.

Dove said the committee believes Judge Stanley would listen sympathetically if "we could go to a hearing and explain that, as responsible citizens, we just don't believe this plan will work and it will wreck the county."

The plans for total integration of county schools by next fall, Dove said, has no support among white citizens so far as the committee can determine.

He and other members of the committee said they feared if this plan is enacted, many white who are not inextricably bound to the county will move rather than permit their children to attend schools where Negroes are in the majority.

Although 57 per cent of the school enrollment now is Negro, members of the committee predicted this percentage will be considerably higher if integration by geographical zoning is carried through.

The committee's thinking in suggesting a gradual integration of the schools was that white parents would be less likely to leave the county if they could see it working in the high schools before it is tried in elementary schools.

After proposing a plan for accomplishing integration over a period of years, the committee the put forth its suggestion that the schools be segregated by sex with girls going to one school and boys to another. Several committee members said they believed people in their townships would go along with this.

"We're looking for a way to make this thing work,"Dove said in explaining the two proposals by the committee. "A lot of us have our businesses here and we can't just fold up and move to Danville."

Board Member Kodell Loftis told the group, "I think you're trying to convice the wrong people. I think we've got to tell Judge Stanley that."

Members of the committee said they would be glad to appear at any hearing to explain the concern of the white parents.

Whitley said he was certain the board would be interested in obtaining a delay, particularly with the elementary schools. The opposition of NAACP lawyers to the plan already submitted to the court by the board indicates that there will be some delays while the matter is thrashed out in further hearings, he said.

Source: The Danville Register (Danville, Virginia), 19 November 1968, Tuesday, Page 10.

Murphey Elementary School Integration 1962

Judge Edwin M. Stanley ruled that two Negro brothers may enter previously all-white Murphey Elementary School "by presenting themselves at said school for registration at any new semester or school term." These were Charlie Saunders, Jr., and Fred Saunders, and the first date to present themselves at Murphey Elementary School was January 23, 1962. In the summer of 1961, the Ku Klux Klan sent a threatening letter to the Saunders family.

"My first year at Murphy was terrifying. The bus driver wouldn't stop at my house because people like me belonged in barns .My coat was cut off me with a hook billed knife. I was locked in a closet. I was only 6. Thank God my dad was a force to be reckoned with. Mrs. Thompson didn't seem to be concerned. I became a wonderful teacher that cared for all of my students."  Beverly Lea Post to the Caswell County Historical Association Facebook Page 11 February 2018.

The pairing of equalization and integration struggles promised mutually reinforcing dividends for black communities as well as potential legal complications. Despite Brown's central argument that even equalized facilities were inherently unequal, many local officials continued to suggest that the availability of equalized schools deligitimated integration demands. The black citizens of rural Caswell County put that claim to the test in the mid-1950s. In 1951, local officials finally had acted on years of black demands for better conditions by building a new black high school and replacing several small frame schools with modern facilities. Thanks in large part to the dedication of black parents, students, and teachers, the black high school offered academic and extracurricular opportunities that in some ways exceeded those found at the local white schools. At the time of integration, Vanessa Siddle Walker has found, Caswell County Training School (by then renamed Caswell County High School) was still the county's only public high school approved by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.

The improved quality of their schools, along with their desire for caring treatment of their children, disinclined many Caswell parents to seek desegregation. Some, however, continued to worry about the possible perpetuation of resource inequalities as well as their children's lack of preparation for assimilation within white society. With such concerns in mind, the parents of forty-three children sued for integration in December 1956. While that case was pending, the same group of parents filed transfer requests in August 1957. They endured intensive question from the members of the school board, who used every possible argument, including the newness of black facilities to dissuade the petitioners. The applicants focused their formal requests on the proximity of white schools to their homes, but their testimony suggests that broader considerations were also at play. One couple, interrogated for an hour, argued that they were so "bitterly opposed to segregation" that they would send their children to white schools even if whites responded with physical violence. The board rejected these applicants, and it was not until the original lawsuit was revived in the early 1960s that the first black students entered Caswell County's white schools.

In 1962, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that even if, as the evidence suggested, the black schools were equal or superior to the white schools, the plaintiffs "were entitled to prefer" the latter. Moreover, school boards could not hold parents to administrative procedures that were "unnegotiable obstacle courses." In January 1963, the first black students to enter the county's white schools endured relentless harassment. Not surprisingly, a poll that spring indicated that while slightly more than half of local black citizens approved of the court's decision to order school desegregation in the county, only 13 percent of Caswell blacks felt certain that an integrated school would provide a "better education."

Source: Thuesen, Sarah Caroline. Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013; pp. 233-234.

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