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Dudley High School/NC A&T University Disturbances, May 1969
In May 1969, while the Nixon Administration was seeking to diminish United States involvement in the Vietnam War, a separate type of warfare was just heating up in the city of Greensboro, North Carolina. That May, Greensboro witnessed three of the most violent days in its history as city police, the National Guard, and African American student protestors came to the fore—leaving several police officers and at least nine students injured, and one, twenty-year-old NC A&T sophomore Willie Grimes, dead.1 To this day many Greensboro residents remember the related disturbances at Dudley High School and North Carolina A&T University as a phase of unnecessary and unjust brutality that largely stemmed from the city’s lack of concern for the grievances of its African American citizens.
On the morning of May 21, 1969, between sixty and seventy-five students from James B. Dudley High, an all-black school located on Lincoln Street, engaged in a picketing demonstration in the front of their school’s campus. Similar episodes of student protest had been occurring consistently for several weeks following the results of the student government election held on May 2. In fact, by that point, the high school students were receiving protest support from students at NC A&T University. In addition, dozens of students from both Dudley High and NC A&T had been forcefully arrested by police for violating the North Carolina General Statute which outlawed disturbing a public school.2
The source of the protest could be traced to the decision made by the faculty-student election committee to deny the name of African American junior Claude Barnes on the ballot for student body president. Although Barnes, then the junior class president, received six hundred write-in votes from his fellow students, his votes were not considered valid by the election committee and thereby an opponent who received no more than two hundred votes was crowned the victor.3
It was well known within the hallways at Dudley High that Barnes was an advocate of Black Power. He was known to be active in more separatist black organizations including the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP), lead by Nelson Johnson, a black student activist at NC A&T.4 As historian William Chafe explains, “both black and white educators saw Barnes as a Johnson puppet, refusing to acknowledge that he might have a legitimate grievance in his own right. Because of this attitude, they also viewed actions by Johnson as part of a plot to foment rebellion.”5
As Greensboro pastor Cecil Bishop explained, the controversy over Barnes’ election “simply became the spark that set off the big fire.”6 Students were already angered that Dudley was the only school in the city that restricted dress, hairstyles, and off-campus lunch. Barnes and others were also frustrated by the absence of Black culture in the curriculum.7 But more importantly, many of the African American students who joined in the May 1969 protests felt as if there was no true outlet for them to discuss and negotiate these and other grievances with officials at Dudley or in the community as a whole. In fact, the protestors never received an adequate explanation as to why Barnes’ name was denied a spot on the ballot.
Listen to reporter Jo Spivey and Dudley public relations officer Owen Lewis discuss why Barnes was denied the presidency.
On multiple occasions Principal Brown and fellow Dudley administrators either unwillingly or unsuccessfully utilized the avenues of communication and resolution before them. Dudley students and parents, the Community Forum, A&T students, the Chamber of Commerce’s Community Unity Division, and the Greensboro Human Relations Commission each made suggestions and pleas to help solve the crisis at Dudley but were generally ignored.8 The plight of these groups brought to the fore the plight of African Americans in the city at large, as blacks had possessed a minimal voice in the affairs of their city for generations. The somewhat insensitive responses of school administrators and the police to the protests and the fact that Owen Lewis, a white administrator in the school system, was put in control of the Dudley situation beginning on May 9 (over African American Principal Brown) seemed to only compound growing frustration within the black community, especially among a more impatient youth. Thus, the students were “left to create situations that would force the officials to take notice.”9
By the afternoon of May 21, the group of student protestors had grown to over 125 carrying signs that read, “EDUCATE, NOT DICTATE” and “RETURN OUR PRESIDENT FROM EXILE.” Worrying that the protest might spiral out of control, Dudley Principal Franklin Brown called in the assistance of both local police officers and school officials, who proceeded to persuade the student demonstrators to peacefully leave Dudley’s campus. But soon after the police left school grounds, several of the young protestors returned and began throwing stones at the school, smashing windows and destroying school property.10
Greensboro police were immediately called back in and Principal Brown cancelled school for the rest of the day. To evacuate reluctant student demonstrators from the campus, police emitted a heavy fog of tear gas in the direction of close to two hundred students. Residents who witnessed the scene reported that the police actually “pursued the group for at least two block[s], across Lee and up Lincoln streets. Tear gas was being employed the entire distance, they said.”11 Out of frustration and anger, many students fought back by throwing rocks and bricks at the police. The student retaliation continued throughout the afternoon as multiple cars and innocent bystanders were stoned in the Dudley High area. A&T students also joined in by throwing rocks at white motorists near the university. A photographer, a truck driver, and two law enforcement agents were seriously wounded in the process. At least five students were also treated at Moses Cone Hospital for minor injuries ranging from a cut hand to illness from an overexposure to tear gas.12 Members of the African American community, including John Marshal Stevenson, editor of the local Carolina Peacemaker, were particularly upset at the police tactic of liberally spewing tear gas, which had the unintended effect of hitting innocent students who were simply trying to leave the campus peacefully. The cloud of gas also seeped in and around the homes of many African Americans who lived nearby.13
A concerned Mayor Jack Elam called on North Carolina Governor Robert Scott to prevent any further disturbances in Greensboro. Governor Scott proceeded to send in 150 National Guardsmen to patrol the city for the remainder of the day. In a news conference held that night, Mayor Elam informed Greensboro residents that the city government was ‘determined to restore peace. We will use whatever is necessary to accomplish this.”14 By that evening, Greensboro police had barricaded the streets near A&T University. Superior Court Judge Robert M. Gambill issued a temporary restraining order that forbade interference with Greensboro city schools, naming forty persons who contributed to the disturbances at Dudley High. Claude Barnes, Nelson Johnson, and Durham black activist Howard Fuller were three of the names included on the list.
Despite the efforts of Mayor Elam and Judge Gambill to solicit peace in Greensboro, reports continued to come in the night of May 21 citing black youths near A&T stoning cars that carried white passengers. In two instances, African American protestors drug white motorists from their trucks, beat them, and lit their trucks on fire.15 Reports also cited sporadic fires and property damage near the campus. At approximately 10:45pm, soon after the National Guard was alerted, shots of gunfire rang from A&T University. By 12:30am on Thursday, as advised by the mayor, law enforcement began returning gunfire directed at them; accordingly, police fired back against snipers in Scott Hall, an A&T men’s dormitory, and surrounding streets. Amid the exchange of gunfire between police and A&T students, A&T sophomore Willie Grimes was shot in the back of the head and pronounced dead when he arrived to Moses Cone hospital. Whether he was shot by law enforcement or a sniper on campus still remains unknown. Sadly, Grimes appeared to be mistakenly hit, as he was not considered to be a militant or an activist. As one of his instructors stated, “he was here for education. I think he was trying to get home when he was shot.”16 Sniper fire and vandalism in downtown persisted until dawn.17 At the break of daylight, 3 police officers and one student had been shot.
During the latter morning hours of May 22, Mayor Elam declared a state of emergency in Greensboro. He called in an additional five hundred National Guardsmen and issued a curfew that night from 8pm to 5am. A&T President Dr. Lewis Dowdy closed the university that same afternoon “in the interest of the safety of our students and members of the university community.”18 Both the Greensboro Human Relations Committee and the Greensboro Youth Council called on residents and students to help to “return calm in the city.”19
Yet violence crept unremittingly into Thursday evening and early Friday morning as firing between police and snipers resurfaced on A&T’s campus. Without consulting A&T officials, the National Guard assembled and prepared to forcefully enter Scott Hall. At 7am they arrived in Armored Personal Carriers and began a sweep of Scott Hall, where many innocent students were sleeping.20 Before they rushed into each of the rooms, many of the Guardsmen shot off the door knobs, and almost $57,000 in damages to the dorm from the sweep was reported. Students were placed in “protective custody” and were released to university officials later that afternoon once the campus was deemed safe.21
Mayor Elam lifted Greensboro’s curfew the next day, May 24. Correspondingly, most of the National Guard departed from the city. On Sunday, May 25, Greensboro officials proudly proclaimed that the 3-day uprising was over and Police Colonel A.J. Burch asserted that “everything is back to normal.”22 However, it could be argued that while the violence had dissipated, the source of the disturbances at Dudley High and A&T University was not fully addressed and, therefore, still lingered.
On October 3 and 4, 1969 the North Carolina State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights held an open meeting in Greensboro to evaluate the incident and to offer recommendations to “deal with the immediate problems in education, law enforcement, and community action” in the city.23 “It is a sad commentary,” the committee concluded, “that the only group in the community who would take the Dudley students seriously were the students at A&T State University.”24
Listen to white police officer Furman Melton describe how “undesirables” stirred up Greensboro’s black community
Many whites, on the other hand, tended to blame the influence of “outsiders” for the demonstrations and violent uprisings rather than to recognize that there were legitimate concerns among the Dudley High protestors. Governor Scott, who supplied some six hundred National Guardsmen to Greensboro between May 21 and May 23, similarly maintained that the initial violence had been created by ‘hard core militants’ who ‘used a frivolous issue–that of a school election—to seek out and find confrontation.’25
Undoubtedly, the events at Dudley High and A&T University in May 1969 cannot be accurately explained or understood outside the context of Black Power, which was a growing force among African American youth in communities across the nation, including Greensboro. Arguably, like never before, Black Power emboldened African American students to initiate protest, both violent and nonviolent, on their own account. The rise of the Black Power movement also helps to explain the reactions of many whites who, equally surprised and fearful of this type of boldness, were less willing to negotiate with those they considered irrational and overly rebellious.
But not all who protested at Dudley and A&T or supported their cause were advocates of Black Power. It could be said that a good proportion of African Americans in Greensboro, both young and old, simply felt helpless and marginalized in the face of white authority. Blacks from various age groups, classes, and beliefs came to view the counter-insurgence led by the police and National Guard to halt the school disturbances as a continuing form of white repression rather than an attempt to address the source of the problems or bring about racial justice to Greensboro. Although the African American protestors were not immediately successful in gaining a greater say in local affairs, their subversive actions did at least highlight underlying issues in the black community and in the city as a whole that were worthy of being addressed— not only for the well-being of black citizens but for the well-being of Greensboro.
PhD candidate, UNCG
1. Carolina Times, May 31, 1969.
2. North Carolina State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Trouble in Greensboro: A Report of an Open Meeting Concerning the Disturbances at Dudley High School and North Carolina A&T State University (Washington, DC: North Carolina Advisory Committee, 1970), 2.
4. William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 185.
11. “Police Quell Disorder After Dudley Protest,” Greensboro Daily News, May 22, 1969.
13. “Residents Describe Scene of Trouble,” Greensboro Daily News, May 22, 1969.
14. “Police Quell Disorder After Dudley Protest,” May 22, 1969.
15. “Youth Dead, City Under Curfew—Four Shot in New Violence,” Greensboro Daily News, May 23, 1969.
16. “Police Stay Silent on Student’s Death, Greensboro Daily News, May 23, 1969.
18. “A&T President Closes University After Strife, Greensboro Daily News, May 23, 1969.
19. The Greensboro Youth Council represented the four high schools in the area. Ibid.
22. “Greensboro Returns to Normal,” Carolina Times, May 31, 1969.