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Oral history interview with Mel Swann by William Link
September 21, 1988
Melvin "Mel" Swann (1936- ) served as a teacher, principal, and administrator with the Guilford County Schools from 1960 to 1997.
In this transcript of a September 21, 1988, oral history interview conducted by William Link with Mel Swan, Swann discusses his early education abroad and at St. Emma Military Academy, and his career as a teacher, coach, and principal at J. C. Price Junior High School. The interview's primary topic is Swann's efforts in relation to the 1971 integregation of Greensboro schools and his role as director of student affairs. Other topics include a comparison of race relations and education locally, as well as the progress of school integration since 1971.
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Oral history interview with Mel Swann by William Link
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
We're in the office of Mr. Mel Swann. The date is September 21, 1988. I wonder if you'd mind telling me just a little bit about some background in your life: where you were born, what kind of education you had, how you came to Greensboro.
I was born in a place called Alabama City, Alabama, which I don't think any longer exists. It seems either it's Ottawa or Ottawa [pronounced slightly differently from the first Ottawa] County, I forgot how they pronounce it down there. I haven't been there since the time I was born. My father was a Methodist AME [African Methodist Episcopal Church] minister. At the time he was pastoring there. And we stayed there probably a year and a half, not quite two years according to my parents, after I was born. And we moved to Bakersfield, California. And that's where I started school, in Bakersfield. We lived in Los Angeles, California. And we kind of, I guess, worked our way
back to the east coast. We lived in Coffeyville, Kansas, and while we were in Coffeyville, my grandmother had a stroke and my mother came to take care of her for part of the year. And she and I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, which is where my mother is from, and then back to Coffeyville.
During that time my father enlisted in the Chaplain's Corps. And at that time chaplain's school was in Cambridge, at Harvard University. And he went to, to Harvard, and my mother and I went to Philadelphia to live with my mother's relatives, and we stayed with them during the war. He finished chaplain's school, was sent to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and then was to go overseas with the 92nd infantry, and got to the port of debarkation and was held up, and was later sent over with the 30th field artillery, which was a predominately white group. This was the, I guess the beginning of some desegregation in the military, of sorts.
While—during World War II, my father was in Germany and Belgium and thereabouts, and we lived in Philadelphia. I went to school there. Incidentally, all my school experience up until—well, even in Philadelphia—was integrated. The school wasn't necessarily integrated in terms of the student body as I recall. But up until that time I had gone to integrated schools. We had white teachers and some black teachers in the school in Philadelphia.
Then he came back from the service and said that we were going to Germany. We were going—my mother and I were on the first dependant ship that left the U.S. bringing U.S. dependents to Europe. And we lived on a post, a military post in Grafenwoehr, Germany, near the Bavarian boarder, and we stayed there for two years. I was scheduled to go to Switzerland to school, but between the time we got there—we got there in early summer—and the time for me to go away to school, enough students came on post—because I was the only one at that time—of school-age to have schools. So the military built the school in some record time.
It was a one room school house. One large room for all grades. I'm not sure how many grades we had, but hypothetically we had maybe one in the first grade, two in the second grade, and I think we went from say first grade up to eighth or ninth grade. And I was probably in about fifth, fifth or sixth grade at that time. And I was the only black youngster on post. And in that class we had a teacher, Mrs. Margery Jones from New York to come and teach us, and she taught everything. Of course we had the one big room and then we had restrooms, and that was it. And I went there for two years. My father was rotated back to the states.
And while we were there we had the opportunity to visit Italy and Rome, primarily, and the Vatican and all of the sites. Of course, it was—the rubble was there too, it was during the cleanup, and we saw all the rubble of war.
Would this have been just about the end of the war?
This was, this was the end of the war.
Yeah, yeah, and everything, you know, all the bombed out areas and so forth. They had tours for servicemen at that time, and we went on a couple of tours like that. My father got a thirty-day leave and we'd go fifteen, twenty days to somewhere. We went on a Swiss-Rome tour. We went to Switzerland, all in the Alps and all those kinds of things, went to France. And so we saw a bit of the country while I was—while we were there.
Was the military completely integrated at that point? Or was it, was it in a process of integration?
No, they were not completely integrated. There were primarily black troops on the posts in their area. There were some white troops. My father was the post chaplain, however, for everybody. And the post commander was white, and so there was some, you know, but primarily it was still black. And it was a field artillery group that was the, one of the posts that I think Gering[?], I think, commanded at one time. It was—you could fire those big guns, and they never left the post, you know, and that's a large area. There was a town right off of the post, the town of Grafenwoehr, and we were near another town called Eschenbach, and weren't too far from Regensburg.
And of course we were there during the Nuremberg trials. We were—had an opportunity to go to Nuremberg, of course you couldn't get in the compound or anything like that because of the heavy guard. And at that time, you know, soldiers were still carrying their weapons, with live rounds and all those kinds of things. The post—the personnel—the German personnel that worked on the post were searched when they came on and off the post. And there was still the, the residuals, I guess, of war.
We left there, and as he was rotating back we came back to Fort Meade, Maryland. And, of course, Baltimore was my father's home, and we stayed in Maryland a while. And he decided that he was going to get out of the service and go back to pastoring. And he was given a circuit in Maryland, the Conowingo circuit, up near the Pennsylvania line. He had two churches up there.
Then finally, we lived in Baltimore, and he was given a church in Baltimore. Of course, Baltimore schools at that time were segregated. And he finally built a church through the conference there in Baltimore, in the Cherry Hill [a neighborhood for African American WWII veterans] section. And I had been rotated in and out of schools so much in various cities in elementary school—by that time I was in junior high.
And I went to a family reunion in Raleigh and my cousin was there, and he had on this West Point type uniform and that infatuated me. I found out all about him and he sent me the information and found out it was the only black military academy in the country. It was called St. Emma Military Academy in Rock Castle, Virginia. They had a sister school, St. Francis de Sales High School for girls, a mile apart. And they wore the uniforms, the priests were the teachers, and [there were] some lay teachers. Holy Ghost Fathers, and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were at Saint Francis. And I prevailed upon my father and he told me that he was not going to send me away to high school, he was saving all the money for college.
My grandfather was in Baltimore and he was a pretty successful man, a business man. And I went to him, and he told me that if I wanted to go that he would assist me in going. [He] told me to get all the details and he made me write up everything and what I needed to have and how much money I had. It was sort of a lesson; he always was teaching me lessons. I'd go to the store to get him cigars and he'd make me count the change out to him, and then he may reach in his other pocket and give me five dollars but—and he was that kind of man so—
Was he in Baltimore?
Yeah, he was in Baltimore, right. He was an entrepreneur in those early years; had several businesses going, successful. And he sent me away to school. I think the amount was, you know, some fantastic sum at that time, about six hundred dollars. You had to have a footlocker with certain kinds of clothes. You had to have so many sets of underwear, so many white shirts, so many of this, so many of that, then you got your uniform fitted after you got there. And I went to St. Emma ,and while I was there, my parents moved again. It wasn't until my, end of my junior year, but they did move. I spent four years there, four successful years. I participated in just about everything they had.
What kind of curriculum did they have there?
They had an interesting curriculum. They had a curriculum that when you graduated you got four certificates, or two certificates and your high school diploma. The junior—the freshman and junior classes were brother classes, and that was fortunate for me, because my cousin was a junior back when I was a freshman. And the sophomore and senior classes were brother classes.
And what would happen, if you take a normal day, Monday we'd rise 5:30 in the morning, go to chapel and then fall in to formation, march to breakfast, we'd have breakfast, come out of breakfast, have our morning exercises, go back and change. Those that are going to class with their daily uniform would dress and go to class, and the other group would go to shop.
We had every trade just about that you could have, from auto mechanics to iron works to agriculture to electrical—electricity, carpentry, upholstery, you name it. Shoe repair, tailoring—and these shops did the work. For instance, you were fitted in a tailor shop. And if you had to repair your uniform, you sent it to the tailor shop. Your shoes were repaired in the shoe shop. And students, along with instructors, were the ones that did it.
And so, let's say if I went to class that morning, class was from around eight-thirty to, or eight o'clock, something like that, to noon. And then at noon, we'd break, have a little resting period there, and then go to lunch and then switch. The group that went to class would go to shop and the group that went to shop would go to class. And wherever you went the day before, you went back there the next day. So we went back to shop and then to class and then reverse of that. So you got a good mixture of a half a day of class and a half a day of shop.
And it was a military school, so we had drill everyday. We had Sunday parades, formal parades. It was as close to a junior West Point I guess as you could get. We wore the cadet gray with the capes and all the business. We had rifle drills and all that. But we had all the other things that a high school would have. We had dances with the girls and everything. You had to walk over there, a mile to get there. And we had football, basketball, baseball teams. We had drill teams, and the band, and the choir, and everything a regular high school had. Most of our instructors were priests. And we had some lay instructors. And instruction was basic, very formal. You had to stand in recite, or if you were in your seat you had to sort of brace and recite, and a lot of reciting and memorization. And we had the basic math, English, science, just pretty much the basic courses, and a good, I thought, a good solid education. And I stayed there for four years.
The only time you went home was at Christmas time, because at Easter [and] Thanksgiving you had big Thanksgiving parades, the band had a big concert, the girls came over, you had picnics and you had—Thanksgiving, you had a football game and all those kinds of things. So the only time you went home was two or three weeks at Christmas time, and that was it.
And as I said, my junior year my father was transferred to Greensboro of all places. And I did not want to go to Greensboro. I didn't know anything about Greensboro. I wanted to go back to Baltimore. And I planned to do that, and my grandfather died at the end of that Christmas in my junior year. He had said to me that I needed to go where my parents were and to be with them and so forth when I had finished school.
And so I did, eventually, after I graduated. A friend of mine, he was from Raleigh ironically. And I—we took his parent's car and my parents drove him back to North Carolina, and we took off for Baltimore and Washington area and spent about a month up there just kind of messing around, goofing off. And then I did finally come to Greensboro, but nothing permanent because I was back and forth to college during the year. And in the summers I would work in Philadelphia with my aunt at the hospital. I think I spent in my total four years at college, maybe a whole summer here and part of one summer. So I was not—I knew Greensboro and knew some people and many of them knew—most of them knew my parents, but I was sort of in and out at that particular time.
Didn't consider it home.
Yeah and then I went to college in Virginia. Hampton Institute at that time, it's called Hampton University now.
Did you—when you first came to Greensboro, what—this would have been when?
This was in fifty—around '53, '54.
That's when your father first moved here?
Yeah, yeah. And you know things were pretty much separate. And I got to know through my parents most of the people in the black community, [but I] didn't know many white people. One of the few people, by the way—and you probably will come across his name in some of your materials—that I did know, and because he was very active in the black community. He was a business man and people knew him, and that was Ralph Johns. He had a business down on Market Street. And he had—my father knew him, and he had, you know, made contributions to the church. And most of his business was primarily with the black and from A&T College [now North Carolina A&T State University] at that time. And he remained active quite a bit throughout his time here in the community.
He was located—his business was on Market Street?
It was on Market, right there about where, in fact the building may be standing right where that motel is, across from the Daily News building there. It's—there are a couple of buildings. I think he had one of those buildings in there. He sold, you know, clothing, caps, shirts, you know, kind of a general store so to speak.
And he had had a reputation, I understand, you go in there and see all these pictures of him, huge blow-ups of him with various actors. It seemed like he was a big part actor in Hollywood at one time. And he was kind of a character. But from what I understood at the time and later found out, he was one that was—that appeared to be very adamant about equal rights for all at that particular time which was—which may have, I don't know, it may have ostracized him a bit in the minds of—
It made him very unusual for his day.
Would you—so your early impressions of Greensboro were typically Southern?—
Yeah, it was.
Did it strike you as a place that was any different than any other Southern town, or—
Well, I—I guess I had a negative feeling initially, just coming—although Baltimore is South, or right on the Mason-Dixon line. But I guess I had a, kind of a—I don't know whether it was totally coming south or just, I just didn't want to move again, you know, or it could have been a combination of those things. But no, I didn't have a real positive feeling about coming to Greensboro. And that is what makes it so ironic that I eventually settled here without any, you know, coercion or anything. I went away to college in Hampton for four years, and I went into the service, a second lieutenant.
And when I got out my parents, at that time, had moved to Durham. So I came back to Durham and started substituting in the school system there, because I had a teaching degree, in Durham County, in Durham. And I remember a gentleman over here by the name of Isaac Morehead, and he was head of the YMCA. And I thought I wanted to get into YMCA work. So my plans were to go to Baltimore/Washington area and probably seek some employment in YMCA where as—I had worked for him, one summer. That summer I stayed, and the Y, I directed a daycare, a camp for boys, young boys, and maybe some girls in there too in the summer.
And I thought that's what I wanted to do, so I drove over here. And driving through Greensboro, coming down Benbow Road I saw a gentleman out in front of his home that was—that were friends of my family. His son had come to St. Emma too, and my parents knew him here. He was a high school, I mean a junior high, elementary combination school principal at that time and a very respected man, a Mr. A.[Abraham] H. Peeler. And I stopped and we talked, and he asked me what was I doing, and I told him. And he said, “Do you want to work?”
And I said, “Of course. Yeah, I want to work.”
He said, “Well, I'll tell you what you do, I'll send you an application, and I may have something for you.”
And I said, “Fine.” And I passed it off and took care of the business that I had to take care of, went back to Durham. Didn't have any real timetable for going anywhere. And the next day or two I got an application from him. I filled it out. He had [said] fill it out as soon as possible and send it back. I sent it back. I came—that weekend I came to—came home from my parents' house one Saturday and he was there with his wife, and asked me, "Did I want to go to work?"
And I said, “Yeah, sure.”
He said, “Well can you report Monday.” [laughs]
I said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
So this was in January of '60. So I came to Greensboro with no place to live, you know, a few names in my pocket of people my parents told me to get in touch with. And finally one of the ladies that they told me to get in touch with taught at this school. She arranged for me—I commuted for about a week, and she arranged for me to get a, a place down the street from her with a family, and that I could ride to work with her because I had a—didn't have a great car at that time, and finally I bought one.
And so it worked out real well. And it was a family, the Rogers family. Mr. Rogers had a barber shop that he owned downtown. And it was interesting because it had white clientele, but he was the owner of the barber shop. His father had it before him. But it was in the downtown area of Greensboro on what is now Friendly Avenue, and he cut hair down there. And his wife worked, did some—she didn't work on a regular basis, but she helped out doing some domestic work at, I think for the Cone family when they had—it was a huge house over in the area of Bessemer and Summit [Roads], and that house was back in that area there, that's now businesses and so forth, where Bob Dunn is, back there, and she worked back there for one of the Cones, Moses Cone.
And I stayed there with them for a number of years, had a room there and I could come and go as I pleased. And they're very nice people, and we enjoyed each other's company. And I started teaching science. Well that—the first year, no, I subbed for a teacher that had gone out on maternity leave. So I taught elementary grades. And then the next year we had a couple of deaths on the faculty, unfortunately, and I was hired as a science teacher the next year, a regular job, and stayed there six years as a teacher.
And, oh, I did teach—come to think of it—right after I got out of college I taught one year in Hertford County, North Carolina, at a high school, C.S. Brown High School. And I had a break between the time I was scheduled to go into the service. I got a year's time, because they had the quota. And so I taught for one year at a high school and then I went in the service, and then came back.
Which schools did you teach in, the first schools in Greensboro, which were these?
I only taught in one school in Greensboro. I was only the assistant principal in one school in Greensboro and I was only principal in one school in Greensboro. I came to that school, J.C. Price School, as an elementary teacher. The next year I taught the eighth grade science, and later on I became faculty chairman and director of intramurals. And then I coached basketball, football, and all the usual things.
And the school did not have an assistant principal. And when the allocation came—I remember one Saturday I was at reserve, I was in the army reserves, and I was at the headquarters and got a call that—I was on duty, and they said a Mr. Peeler called and he asked me could I come see him. So I asked the commander could I take a break. He said yeah, so I went over to talk with him. And he was in his backyard doing some work, and that's when he asked me. He said he had to let the superintendent know as soon as possible what they were going to get an assistant principal, and would I like to be assistant principal? He thought I had, he saw something in me I guess at the time that I didn't see in myself. He was the one that was my mentor and got me involved in administration.
And then, fortunately, I was appointed. And during that year I was asked to attend, or was invited to attend an administrative workshop that Greensboro Public Schools were doing jointly with the county schools. There were fifteen people selected from the county and fifteen from the city. And we went through a leadership program. And at that time I met a gentleman, a college professor from Carolina [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] by the name of Lester Ball. He'd been a superintendent throughout the Chicago and New Jersey area, northwestern Maine, and came here to teach in the school of education.
And we became friends and he let me know about a new program that was coming up called the LINC program the—oh, the CELP [Cooperative Educational Leadership Program] program. It was sponsored by LINC, Learning Institute of North Carolina was the sponsor. Carolina and Duke [universities] were the educational agencies. And the Richardson Foundation funded it, and it was the CELP Program. I forgot what those letters stood—Educational Leadership or something. Cooperative Educational Leadership Program, that's what it was.
What happened was, that was my break in a sense, because that program allowed me to go to graduate school free, and the program took care of it. And the program's highlights were centered on the fact that you not only learned through classroom work, but by doing on the job training. You had programs, you had contracts, and things you had to do. And I got my graduate degree within a year's time.
I started one summer, went to the school during the summer, came back here, did an internship here around—an internship here in the administration building in the Greensboro schools, and the state department. At that time I was interested in modular scheduling, and I went around the state to various high schools studying that. And then took some courses at UNCG [University of North Carolina at Greensboro] and went back to Carolina that summer and finished up my course work, get my comps [comprehensive exams], and had my degree. And [I] was offered a principalship that April, pending my completion of my work, and that was succeeding Mr. Peeler at Price School. And I was able to move into that job after he retired and remained principal at Price for two years until I was appointed Director of Student Affairs. That was the advent of desegregation of schools at that time.
When you first came to Price in 1960, what was your impression of the way the segregated system worked, or the partially desegregated—however you want to define it. I guess in 1960 they were moving somewhere towards desegregation.
Yeah, but the schools were still very much segregated in terms of staff. We had super teachers, all black teachers, all black student body, and never the twain shall meet. In fact, we started, we had a basketball team in junior high school. Incidentally, that school was grades four through nine when I came. At one time, I understand, it housed grades one through nine, but when David Jones school on South Street was built they moved the primary grades over there. And then they started moving grade by grade until finally, I think, the school had grades five, six, seven, eight, and nine when I served as principal.
And it was a very good school, we had some very competent people, and I learned a lot as a new teacher there. I got a good solid base I feel. We had a basketball team, as I was saying, and they could not play any of the basketball teams in the white junior high schools. They played Lincoln and I think—twice—and may have played some community teams or something but that was it.
There wasn't integration in schools?
No, no there was only two black junior high schools, Lincoln and Price, so that was about it, as far as the playing. Of course, Mr. Peeler was a very shrewd gentleman and he—we wanted to have our youngsters experience football, because we didn't have it and all the other schools had it. So he asked the superintendent to let him start a developmental football [team]. And what he outlined was that we would teach the kids the fundamentals—they'd never had football before—there weren't—none of the midget teams and so forth existed at that time—and that we wouldn't play anybody, we'd just scrimmage among ourselves, but they'd buy all the equipment and everything.
And so we did that for a year and finally I think we did have a scrimmage game with Lincoln, they had one too. And then after a year of that, they—something happened. I don't know, at that time I wasn't knowledgeable or privy to whatever the discussion occurred, but they allowed us to enter into the school, junior high school league. And we started playing the, the Kisers and the Mendenhalls [junior high schools] and so forth. And that was the beginning of playing among black teams. Of course, we're still all black, playing all white teams. We played our games at the, at Memorial Stadium. And that's, that's how things were at that time.
How did those first games go? Was it—
It went—they went—well, our kids didn't have a chance initially, because they'd never had experience or background in football. They were all—I can recall we went to play, I think our first game was playing, it seems like it was Mendenhall or Kiser, one of those schools. And they came on, when they came on the field—I think at that time they had colors similar to Carolina—it looked like a miniature Carolina. They had cheerleaders. You know, we didn't have any cheerleaders. They had cheerleaders, and they had a bell, you know they—and our kids just stood there in awe of all of this, because this was something relatively new to them to see all that—see, we'd been scrimmaging. We hadn't been to a game with crowds and officials and all those kinds of things.
[End Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]
—integration, or efforts to integrate before 1971, and you were talking about Mr. Ryan, Dick Ryan.
Yeah, Dick Ryan, he was a, as I said, a Lutheran minister in the community. And the Lutheran church built the mission—Prince of Peace, which was a mission church. And he and his wife at that time, Mary, and their two children lived in the community and we effected a cooperative relationship. And the young man that he adopted, a white youngster that was there of junior high school age, he went to Price school for—I don't know whether it was a semester or a year—but it was a good while, without any incident, any problems. And then we had about five or six maybe white teachers that worked in our school system or school, at Price school at that time. And that was the beginning of the desegregation; it was prior to desegregation of schools.
How well did that—how did that process take place?
Went well. We didn't have any problems at all. We had a good staff, an enlightened staff, a staff that was always willing to help new people. And there was no problem, no problem whatsoever, we had a good time.
Did the, the move into desegregation in 1971 was I guess very rapid, occurred very rapidly—
Yeah, it occurred—I was sitting at home one afternoon, one Saturday, and I knew all these negotiations were going. And that's how I found, out on the news, that the school that I was principal of would no longer be a junior high school. It would be an elementary school. And they had all of the pairs and everything, and it was a bit much to comprehend in all that time, at that time. But—on the newscast—but we knew there was going to be significant change.
The ironic part, school had just closed for the kids, and we were in teacher work days. So this was on a Saturday and we had another workday that Monday. When I went back to school my staff thought, you know, I knew all this was going to happen and had all the answers. I told them that no, I didn't know anything. And they were upset because they didn't know where—especially the junior high school people—where they were going to go and all those kinds of things. So I said, “Folks, I don't know a thing,” I said, “but I'm going to the superintendent's office and when I come back, I'm going to have some answers.”
So I left that morning and went down to the superintendent's office and saw Fred Cundith[?] down there, he was the administrative assistant. I said, “Get me in there to see the superintendent.” And we went in and talked, and he was—seemed to me, I was concerned about my staff—and of course about me too—but he was more concerned about me seemingly than he was about the other. And he was telling me, “Don't worry,” you know, “I know you're a junior high school man, and you know as a junior high school becomes available, you'll get the first one. If you are, if one comes available this summer or next year, what have you.” So I went back and told them all that I could find out. And so we went through the mourning period, and that last faculty meeting was a sad occasion for all of us, black and white.
But—and then later that summer I found out that through the ESEP [Elementary Science Education Partners?], at that time, funds—federal funds. That's the forerunner of ESA [Educational Services of America?] and the forerunner of Chapter I and Chapter II compensatory education and so forth. And I got a call from Fred Cundith and said the superintendent wanted to talk with me, and they offered me the job of—in fact, we didn't even know at the time what we were going to call it. It was an ombudsman role in student development, and it ended up being Director of Student Affairs. And my job was to make the transition, as far as student life was concerned in the district, successful. And whatever it took or whatever it, you know, may be, I was given sort of carte blanche and worked directly out of the superintendent's office for a couple of years to do this.
Of course, parents and students were upset, because here they didn't know where they were going to go. And when they did find out, a lot of them had to change schools. And cheerleaders had been selected at one school, and here they were going to another school, and football players and club—various club members. It was a trying time for a lot of people.
But a lay professional—what was that called—a lay professional advisory committee, I think it was, was formed of black and white citizens throughout the city, and I was named as the faculty—or the staff advisor to that group working with the chairperson, which was Joan Bluethenthal at that time. And later I think Shirley Frye became chairperson. And that group affected a plan to, to—they worked—they didn't have much time. This was in the summer, and they did most of their things in the summer, that summer before, to get things ready for the opening of school.
And I worked with that group and additionally working with groups in the community. I met with every, every principal in—see, I worked primarily in junior high and high schools. I worked with every—I visited every junior high and high school principal, and I got the state human relations team, under Dudley Flood's leadership—Dudley is a, is a deputy state superintendent now, but he was heading up the—in fact, I'm not sure whether he was heading it at that time. I think he was [heading] the human relations team for the state. I got his team to come in, and we sat down and talked and planned a strategy. And we went around to every school and talked with the principal and all the leadership teams that he could find in that summer. That was to give me an idea of that principal's and that school's readiness for what was about to happen. And then I came back and wrote up a report for the superintendent and a plan as to what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. And he approved it. And, you know, we were off and running. And I knew where my tough spots were. I knew where my support was.
And so we started planning a strategy of reinvolving students at their new locations. And we had to develop a plan for clubs. We had to develop a plan for, for various organizations, for teams, and all those kinds of things. And one of the primary concerns was making sure that there was full desegregation. So we had to come up with some unusual structures and plans in order to make it work. And I met with all kinds of groups in the committee—I mean in the community.
I guess my most harrowing experience—and it's amusing now—is I met with a group at the Benjamin Library with a group of citywide cheerleaders and their parents. At that time girls would not—you know, early on girls were involved in athletics, and then after a while it wasn't ladylike to be involved too much in athletics. So the only prestigious thing that girls had at the high school and junior high school level was either cheerleading or being a majorette or something like that. And that was a precious thing. And at most of the high schools and junior high schools, nepotism was involved. You know, if you were—your sister was [a cheerleader] then you became [one as well]. So you had not only that to combat, but you also had the integration of the groups. So, you know, I just laid it on the line with the parents, told them what I was going to do, and, you know, I got some criticism, but I got some support. The plan worked. It worked.
How—take the case of cheerleaders, how did you—what would you—what was your plan?
What we did, what we did—we said that we—first of all, we said that if you cheered at your previous school, you were automatically a cheerleader at the next school. It didn't make a difference if you had twenty-five cheerleaders out there, everybody got to cheer.
All right, then we came up with a plan, and the plan went like this: we had—we said that, after that year, we said that the squads would have twelve people and a mascot. You would have one-third by merit, you'd have another third by merit by race, and another third by merit by race. So you'd have four, four, and four. All right? Then we said that every cheerleader had to go to a training camp. And we set up the training camp. We got with some people, and the Guilford College people, and they had a camp. And all—everybody that wanted to be a cheerleader had to go to camp.
Now the reason for the camp was we found out that there was a marked difference in cheering. There were black cheers and white cheers. White cheers, as the kids called them, were stick cheers, more militaristic movements, you know, more precise. Whereas black cheers were more rhythmic and flowing. So we came up with a format whereby all these young ladies—and there was young ladies at the time, now you, you know, you couldn't get a boy to cheer, but now they are cheering—but all these young ladies, girls, would learn the basic cheers, and there was an integration of black and white cheers, and everybody would learn that. That was the format.
The next thing is the selection—the cheerleading selectors could not be from your school, they had to be either from another school or the colleges and universities around. And we preferred the colleges and universities. No names. You used numbers to designate the people. And they all had the same routine that they had to do. So you were using the same routine, which was a combination of both so-called black and white cheers.
All right. The, the person selecting was asked to choose the best five cheerleaders. And the best five cheerleaders—you know, it could be a combination of three blacks and two whites or any combination, however it turned out. All right, you had the best five. Then they were asked to pick the next best five white and the next best five black. So if you had had a predominately black school, say Dudley, you would be assured of having at least, at the minimum, four white cheerleaders. Or if you were a predominately white school previously, like Page or Grimsley, you would be assured of having at least the minimum of four black cheerleaders. And I was pleased that as time went on, it worked out. We even had cheering squads that were equal, 50/50, because of the way the selection process went. And they bought into that.
And they all—the cheerleaders were all selected at this one location? At the—
No, they were selected at their school, but they all went to a central camp at one time. But they were selected back at their schools.
Chosen by an outside panel—
Yeah, yeah. Their cheerleading advisor had to submit who was going to be their panel to choose, and they would have their own. But all of the cheerleaders were using very much a very similar type cheers that they had to review and to practice. [We] gave them a time to practice prior to the cheerleader [camp] so that everybody would have an equitable—not equal, because, you know, there's some ability involved—but at least an equitable chance.
Did you have a similar sort of—you must have had an even bigger problem with the sports teams.
Sports teams was not much of a problem. Yeah, you had your try-outs, and—
—and that was it.
—and it's interesting. Coaches want to win. And they didn't care who they won with, you know. So it didn't have much of a problem. You did have a problem in schools that were formerly predominately black. You didn't get a lot of white students going out for activities—not an awful lot, but some. But no, you didn't have too much of a problem in athletics. And then, see, in the high schools prior to that time there were some black youngsters going to predominately white schools because of freedom of choice and playing on some athletic teams. So you did have some of that.
At the high school level.
Clubs, you had to work through clubs. Of course, you made sure that clubs were receptive to all races and to male/female, but then, too, clubs were based on primarily interest groups.
We did develop what we called a student affairs committee, and a student affairs committee was kind of a catalyst. It was an unusual structure because we had representation from school student councils. We had two committees, we had an elementary and a junior high school student affairs committee. And some of them I think are still in existence. But you had representatives from student councils, you had representatives from clubs, you had representatives from athletic teams, you had representatives from bus drivers, every aspect of student life, you had representatives. We had workshops, we had all kinds of training for them. And that became, I think, the strongest ally we had in schools—the student affairs committee. And they were concerned primarily with anything involving student life. We had representatives from every aspect of student life. And principals used that group as a sounding board for many of the things that went on in their schools at that time.
One of the, I guess, most interesting experiences that I had was [that] we got a call here one day that there
was—and incidentally, before I say this, I don't recall us ever losing a day in school or closing school because of disruption. Now, I'm not saying there were not some disruptions and things that occurred, but we were able to work with them and quell them. We had a call one day that there was a riot out at Smith High School. I went. It was during the time there was a national meeting, so the superintendent, most of the assistant superintendents were gone except Thorpe Jones. As a matter of fact, Thorpe was in this office at that time. And the principal of that school was not there, the two assistants were there. So we went out. Thorpe and I got in the car and went out.
It was—they were in the parking lot and so forth. And two youngsters, boys, went at each other, and Thorpe and I just jumped right in, you know, without thinking or anything. We jumped in and just pulled the guy back, the interesting part of it is I pulled the white youngster, and he pulled the black youngster. And without Thorpe or I saying anything to each other or any preconceived notion, it was just remarkable. He threw the black youngster to me and I threw the white youngster to him. And we pulled them aside, and that kind of separated the groups.
There was one young man, Mike Enslow[?]. Mike I think was president of the student body, a football player, and all those kind of things. And Mike's a minister now, by the way. And I recognized that he was, among the black, was kind of the leader. And I told Mike and some of the other guys, and Thorpe, I told—asked Thorpe to get some of the leaders together. And we pulled them all together and I asked them to—if the principals—assistant principals could give us a place, and they said the media center, there was a little room in there.
So we went in this room, we had about fifteen kids in there. And I asked them, I said, “Now, we're going through a process here, and this is going to be a tough time.” I said, “Look around you and see who is not here.” In other words, you know the leaders in this school. Who don't we have in here, who do we need in here? We don't want anybody looking in and wondering what we're talking about and conjecturing about it, we want them in here.
So I said, “Go get them.” So they sent a few out.
A guy said, “Well, Bill ought to be in here, and, well, Sally ought to be in here.”
[And I said,] “Go get them.”
So they went and got these people, brought them in. So we ended up with about twenty kids in there. Several board members by that time had gotten wind of it. Al Lineberry was chairman of the board, Walter Johnson, a few others. They came out, and when they came in the room, you know, it was bedlam in there. And I asked them, I said, “Just sit back, you know, be an observer.” And they agreed. And for the first, it seemed like an hour but I know it was only fifteen minutes maybe, you couldn't hear yourself talk, they were arguing back and forth. Table—I was sitting in the middle of the table, and they were separated, black on this side, white on this, and they were going at each other.
After that period of time, dead silence came. Just all of a sudden, a silence. And I said, “Okay.”
I said, “Apparently, you've run out of things to say to each other or at each other.”
I said, “Now, we're going to do something here, a process, and I want your cooperation in this,” I said, “and I want you to agree to it.”
I said, “I think you've seen that you cannot talk and listen. All of you can't talk and listen at the same time. So only one person is going to talk at a time and that's going to be that person's responsibility to talk. And the rest of you, it will be your responsibility to listen.”
And I said, “Can I get an agreement to that?”
They said, “Yeah.”
I said, “The next thing, whatever we do here is not going to be illegal. You know, we're not going to break any school rules or state rules or anybody's rules, school system rules. We're going to follow the rules.”
And I said, “The next thing we're going to do is, is whatever we come up with is going to be by consensus.” And I explained to them what consensus was. I said, “In a consensus you don't get everything you want, you negotiate. We don't vote, we come to an agreement. You're going to win some things, you're going to lose some things.” And so they agreed to that.
Then I said, “The first thing we're going to—we have to do is to find out what caused all of this. Let's go back, we know all the symptoms, now where'd it come from?”
Well the whole thing came from superlatives. That some reporter in the school newspaper got a scoop on superlatives and stuff and printed it. And when all the superlatives came out they were all white.
Meaning who is the best looking, who is the most studious, who's the best athlete, who's the best this and the best that. Who's the best girl athlete, the best boy athlete, those kinds of things. There are about maybe ten, fifteen categories that schools do on superlatives.
So we had to find out how it came about. Then we worked our way back from what happened to where we were. And then we decided how we were going to correct it. And they decided to have class—school class meetings, divide up into black and white teams, and to go to each class and explain what happened and what they were we going to do about it.
We had this white youngster, tough guy. He came in there, you know, and he was swaggering, initially, but then he got into the group. And he really, by his question, really brought us even closer together. He said, “You know, I know what we did here, and I understand it and I'm willing to do it,” he said, “but I've got my guys out there waiting in the park for me. How am I going to tell them this?” Immediately they focused on him and helped him to explain to his—he had guys out there with bats and stuff, you know, they were ready to go to war. So they helped him and he went out, told his guys, came back, reported and everything. And we had reports back and forth. The assistant principals came in. Mrs. Hunsucker at the time and Bob [Robert] Hayes, the assistant principal over at Page now, they came in and helped us—the kids to write up things.
And then we decided to, to have a parent's meeting. And we did that, we had a parent's meeting, where we invited the parents one night to report to them, tell them what happened. And these student leaders did this. And we worked our way back through that thing, and the kids were just beautiful in this whole process. Many of these kids I see now, they're adults around the city, and, you know, we're very close because of this. And that year I was kind of humbled, because that year they dedicated the yearbook to me at Smith High School, which kind of got to me a bit, it was a surprise.
But that thing, it helped me too because I didn't know what the hell I was going to do. You know, it just evolved. I'd been working with Dudley and his staff and listening to things that they had said, and listening and talking to people, and going around the city and talking to people. And this process just kind of evolved from all of that. And, you know, I kind of backed into it, but the main thing [is] it worked.
Was Smith, were the problems and resolution at Smith, was that unusual? Were the other high schools experiencing—
Other high schools were having little problems and things and I was putting out fires here and there. Smith, you've got to understand, is probably the most diverse, even today, the most diverse high school of all of the high schools. You've got—even with black and white, you've got a lot of likeness. And then on the other hand, it's a dichotomy, a lot of difference and diversity. And you've probably got more of a cross-section of Greensboro at Smith I would say than you've got at any of the other schools. And it was that way then, too.
Yeah, the mixture was volatile, you know, or potentially volatile. But that was the only, to my knowledge, the only near-riot, I guess you could call it, that we, we had. You know, there were things—pushing and, you know, fights, and all that. And even at Smith, through all of that, Thorpe Jones and I walked that campus and no kid was disrespectful. They said sir and ma'am. And, you know, that was ironic, you know, that—and they respected us. And so it was a difficult time.
What about, what about busing? How did—what were the—some of the challenges you faced, problems?
Well busing was a codeword that many people used to oppose the desegregation of schools. And we tried to focus on not the—we tried to focus on the bus as transportation and tried to get parents to understand. See, it wasn't the kids; the kids didn't mind riding the bus, they liked riding the bus. It was the parents. And we tried to focus on—in riding the bus, that you shouldn't be concerned about the bus ride, your concern ought to be what happens at the end of that bus ride. What kind of education are your youngsters getting?
I went to a group of parents and talked with them. And one of the things that they never realized when they were talking about busing—I said—they were talking about, “Oh we're going to have problems on the bus.” I said, “Where does that bus come from? Where's it emanate? It picks up the kids in your community, right? And it takes your kids across town to another school, right? Then what are you afraid of? Are you afraid of the kids in your community, because they're the only ones primarily that are going to be on that bus.” And I said, “It's just a vehicle to get your youngsters, hopefully, to a better education.” And that's what we tried to, to focus on.
And we developed all kinds of things. We—I've got some boxes and stuff, maybe at some point you may want to look at, of things that we did, promotional kinds of things. We had bumper stickers. It said—I had them printed up—it said—it had on one end the school mascot, and they were in the school colors, and it said, “Let's face it. We're all pirates.” And it had a black and white hand shaking. And we had buttons. And we said, “Kids, you can't wear these buttons unless you're committed.” And they wore these buttons. And we had all kinds of things printed up. We had a multimedia package done. Burlington Industries helped us do it. A guy named Eddie Booker out there helped us put this together. We had rear screen projection and all kinds of things about the school system and about transportation, and the bus ride.
We did not back off from the bus—in other words play down from the bus. We played it up as a positive—something positive. We even had materials that had the bus on it, you know, with kids, black and white kids waving out the back of the bus, you know. And so we tried to take the focal point, which was negative in the minds of some people, and make it positive. And so it wasn't so much the bus, as I said, it was us.
Did—what kind of reaction was there in the, generally, or specifically, in the black community to the changes in 1971? Was there opposition? Or general support?
Well, you must remember, the NAACP took the leadership in the suit, so there was a major portion of support. But I can say that every black person did not necessarily want integration of schools. You know, some took the attitude that “What do we need them for? We've had good schools all along, good teachers and so forth. So if they don't want to be with us, what the heck.” The other side of the coin, you know, whites said, “I don't want to go over there, I don't want to go to school over there. My father went to Grimsley, my grandfather went to Grimsley.”
And, of course, incidentally that's one of the reasons Grimsley's name was changed [from Greensboro High School], too, during that period of time. Because there should be no school designated as The Greensboro High School. And I imagine there are some people that still resent that. But it was changed because they felt that all high schools should have a name, and no one should be singled out as the Greensboro High School. And so they found, kept the same, the G, and found a former superintendent that was named Grimsley and consequently the name.
That's interesting. So this was as a product of desegregation.
That is correct.
But there was an organized opposition?
Oh yeah, there was some organized groups. Yeah, oh yeah.
In the black community, as well as—?
Oh no, not to my knowledge. I didn't know of any. I would say, you know, different individuals probably had some feelings one way or the other. But the prevailing feeling, and the feeling of the NAACP and those groups, were that or was that we are going to have to work and live in an integrated society, an integrated community. And if we work together and for the whole, then it's going to be much better for all of us and for our youngsters. And we also feel that having an integrated education, that we'll all—
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—kids, if you leave them alone and allow them to grow up. Prejudice has to be taught, either overtly or subtly. A lot of it was done and is done even today subtly. Kids around their parents overhear their parents making certain comments, remarks, either overtly or sometimes parents think the kids aren't listening and [the kids] hear their prejudices. And then sometimes just driving along, you've got a youngster there and you'll say something, or the way you say it, or what have you, and the youngster is—youngsters are very perceptive and they pick these things up and that becomes a part of them.
Now, conversely there are some that come out all right in spite of their parent being prejudice. And see, prejudice to me is developing an attitude or opinion about something or somebody in which you've had no real meaningful experience, see. And so if you get that meaningful experience, much of the time that prejudice is evaporated. But most of the prejudices comes from something that somebody told you about something or somebody else. As a kid you talk with your friend and they tell you, “I don't like peas, man, they taste bad.”
And so the other kid says—he hadn't even had any pea—mother puts peas on his plate and, “Oh, I don't like those!” You know, he's never even had peas. I was prejudiced about certain vegetables and never had eaten them. I didn't eat squash until I was an adult, because I didn't like squash. And I didn't know that I liked squash until I tasted it. And that's the way prejudice is, you know, you grow up with that feeling.
Do you think that's the case—that that's born out of the case in Greensboro? The—that is, as desegregation took hold, that it worked or worked increasingly?
Oh yeah, the kids—and I have to say this too, I'm not talking about their motivation, what caused this to happen—but at the time the school board, at the time we formed a lay professional advisory committee, the school board—with the leadership of some very persistent black members and the leadership of Al Lineberry at that time I remember—you know, said "This is the court order, and we're going to follow it."
So they didn't back down. That set the tone, you know. I don't know what was in their heart or their motivation or whatever, but they made that statement, and they made it clear to everybody that they were going to follow the law, and the law says this. Now you get mad at me if you want to—and I'm sure some people got mad at them and they probably got some calls and it wasn't an easy time for them. But at that point in time, no matter what previous school boards had done, it was decided that this was what was going to happen. And no matter whether their arms were twisted to do it, they said “We're going to do it.”
And once you got that support—and I got my authority, so to speak, in quotation marks, from the school board and superintendent. And so I was able to do some things and influence some things because of that support.
Was the leadership of Greensboro pretty much behind desegregation once the court case had been resolved?
I think. There were, there were some—I guess there were three, in my estimation, my humble estimation at that time—I could divide them into kind of three categories. There were some people—and I'm speaking across racial lines—there were some people that were for it, and there were some lukewarm people. And then there were some that— maybe even four categories—there were some that were against it. And there were some that probably were for it but were afraid to come out and say they were for it.
So you had various kinds of categories, but once the stand was taken, once the die was cast, even though there were some opposition groups and opposition individuals, we moved on to this steady course to move in that direction. And if we're not taking a stand, then I wouldn't have had the job that I had at that time. And as I said before, I was given a great deal of latitude to do things, and there were very few times when I had a suggestion of some things we needed to do that I was turned down. We had to do some security things and some, you know, to keep track of people. I developed a license tag system for cars and developed ID cards for kids. Kids like that though.
That was in response—security for what?
For school—like, see sometimes you had people coming on campus that weren't even school youngsters, you know, and drop-outs and so forth. And you could identify your cars, your campus cars, you could identify your campus people. And you know, people walking—see schools are open, you know, we didn't have any armed guards or anything. So anybody could walk on campus and walk down the hall. But if you saw somebody that didn't look like they belonged, you'd ask them, “Where's your ID?” And then IDs were used for other things, too. They could get into games and identified students and get into activities and things like that. So, and they had pictures on them. And we developed—we even bought cameras here where we did the pictures, trained students to take the pictures and make the ID cards. See, we tried to involve it all in a lesson, you know, tried not to do anything in isolation.
And we even—the student—we even developed a student school board action group. The board said they wanted to have more dialogue with students. This was a little later on, but—and I was assigned to work with the board member, Lacey Baines, to develop a format for a student school board. The question was whether to try to get a student on the school board or get—effect a relationship. So we started what was called the Student School Board Action Group and that's still in existence now. Where school board members and students would come together on a regular basis for dialogue, activity, responsiveness. And it's—and it worked, it worked.
How long did it take before it was clear to you that desegregation was going to work? Or how—at what point do you say it was successful.
I had no idea—I mean I had no thoughts that it wasn't going to work. If I had thought that for a moment then I wouldn't have been able to do my job and the work that I was set out to do. I thought it was going to work, and my commitment was to be a part of it to make it work. And I expected everybody else to do their part to make it work, whether you were a youngster or a parent or what have you. So I never thought for a moment—I didn't think it was going to work overnight. I knew it was going to be a long struggle, and I knew we had to continue to evaluate things and reevaluate, make changes and renegotiate things, but that was a part of the growth of it and making it work. So I never thought for a moment that it wouldn't work and that's how I set my sights out. And I think the people that worked with me had that feeling too.
And there was a kind of a—a kind of camaraderie between the people that were involved. This lay-professional group had a workshop out of Chinqua-Penn [Plantation] and stayed out there for three days. Each school had to bring an integrated team out there. And it was this—my team—I was principal of a school then, and my team was—I had Dick Ryhne as a white parent, and I had black and white teachers. And we went through at that time, it's a naughty word now, but sensitivity training and all kinds of things.
And all of that went in the making, no one single thing clenched it or did it all. And there was a sense that you're never going to have it made, you've got to keep working at it, keep shaping it, keep modeling it, you know. You're never going to have a complete statue or model that you can put out and say, “Oh, it's done now. We can sit there and look at it and it's going to last forever.” It was the kind of thing where you had to keep working at it. It was subject to change, and you knew it would change, and you had to be proactive in dealing with that change.
One final question I have I guess would be looking back over the past years, say from '71 to 1988, how would you evaluate—since you stayed with the city school system and have been in different positions in [unclear]—how would you evaluate desegregation, in whatever sense you want to consider evaluating it. What's been the impact of it?
Well, I think for the most part, and there will be I'm sure some detractors, but kids have had I think better opportunities than they possibly would have had if we'd gone on separate courses. I think our resources are better. I think—[pause] I don't know, I just think that we've come such a long way in a short time, but we still haven't reached that zenith and we've got to keep continuing to, to work at it. Things are not going to be what they once were. And in order for them to be what we as educators and parents in the community think they should be, then we all are going to have to kind of continue to do our part.
I was told at one time that in a structure, in building construction, that a triangle was one of the strongest construction elements or devices, or what have you. For instance, the roof truss or your house is a triangle. And that strength in that triangle with those three equal parts coming together. And I think if we have that triangular approach, you know, where the school and the system and the community and various support groups in the community, agencies and so forth, if they come together and focus on what we're all about as a community, then we can't help from have the kind of strength that is exemplified in that construction. But everybody's got to do it, and everybody's got to focus. Now that's idealistic, I know. But you've got to think that way in order to make it happen, because if you think anything less than that then you're not even going to get it halfway done.
So I guess in summary I can say that we've come a heck of a long way, and I don't know how far we have to go. But wherever and however we go, we've got to keep on improving and doing the things that we need to do.
Back to Mr. Peeler, he did a jingle, a poem, or whatever it was, many years ago. And what he did, he took categories of things that we had to do in education. For instance, he grouped all the kinds of programs that we had, like IGE [Individually Guided Education] and open education, closed education. He put all this together, and it ran like a series of things, he just mentioned them, list them. But after each category of things, his words were, “Don't forget the child.” And what I've gleaned from that is whatever we are involved in, in this educational process—whatever programs, whatever innovative programs, whatever basic programs, whatever our job is, whether it's maintenance or cafeteria or teaching or driving a truck—you've got to focus in on what your primary objective is, no matter how remote that may be from the objective, it's to educate a child.
And if we can get everybody to keep that in mind and in focus that you may be the driver of a delivery truck taking commodities around and supplies, but your part in that whole triangle is important, and don't forget why you're doing it, you know. That you may be teaching, if you're teaching you're closer to it maybe than others are, and you can focus a little bit better. But everybody—I could sit up here in my office and do work, but I—what would happen if I forgot about what my work is really focused on, would I really be doing the things I need to do? My secretary, she can't forget the job, none of us can do that. And I think that's where our focus has got to remain. And if we do that then we will continue to grow in our system, in our city.
You can't separate the Greensboro public schools, or any school, from the community. What you have in the school system, you've got in the community. What you've got in the community, you've got in the school system. You can't have bad schools in a good community. And you can't have the converse of that. They go hand in hand. And that's why I—one of the reasons I've learned to check with the Chamber of Commerce. You'll find that industries—there are about ten top questions that industries have when they're thinking of moving into your community. Number one is what kind of schools you have. Because they know that the people that they're going to move in want their families, want the children in families to have good schools. And if that is not meet—if that doesn't meet the criteria, then the likelihood of that company or that corporation—especially if it's a headquarters—coming into your community is going to be very, very low. And then after that, there are other things. But schools are either the top one or two things that these companies ask about your community. And so it's important.
[End of Interview]