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Desegregation and Integration of Greensboro’s Public Schools, 1954-1974

On May 18, 1954 Greensboro became the first city in the South to publicly announce that it would abide by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling which declared racial segregation in the nation’s public schools unconstitutional.1 ‘It is unthinkable,’ remarked School Board Superintendent Benjamin Smith, ‘that we will try to [override] the laws of the United States.’ In agreement with Smith’s position, the school board voted six to one to support the court’s ruling.2 This positive reception for Brown, together with the appointment of African American Dr. David Jones to the school board in 1953, convinced numerous white and black citizens that Greensboro was heading in a forward direction and would likely emerge as a a leader in school integration.3

Listen to Dudley High School teacher Vance Chavis describe the quality of black teachers in Greensboro.

Although black parents in particular were interested in seeing broad integration take place so that their children could receive both the same quantity and quality of resources as white children, prior to Brown, several of Greensboro’s all-black schools had been considered among the best schools in the state available for non-whites. Of ten accredited elementary schools in the state in 1950, six were in Greensboro. Dudley High School in particular enjoyed a reputation for having excellent teachers who inspired pride, instilled self-respect, and promoted awareness of racial issues.4 However, the segregated school system had led to a separate and unequal education for most African American children, particularly in the quality and quantity of resources. Black students were forced to attend these segregated schools despite the fact that white neighborhood schools were often closer to their homes.

Although the school board voiced strong support for desegregation immediately following the Brown decision in 1954, until the start of the 1957-1958 school year, no desegregation had occurred in Greensboro. The delay was largely a result of North Carolina’s endorsement of the Pearsall Plan. First drafted in 1956 by North Carolina House Speaker Thomas J. Pearsall, the Pearsall Plan shifted responsibility from the state to the local boards of education, allowing communities to avoid immediately acting on the ruling of Brown. For African American parents who wanted to send their children to an integrated school, the plan required them to apply for their child’s admission by approaching their respective school boards, some of which were openly opposed to desegregation. The Pearsal Plan also provided schools an option to close, by majority vote, if integration transpired at an unacceptably high level. Finally, it permitted white parents to receive state tuition aid to attend private schools of their choice if they could not be conveniently assigned to a non-integrated public school. Consequently, between 1956 and 1964, integration in North Carolina would occur gradually and on a volunteer-basis.

Affidavit for reassignment (Item 4.1.975)

Listen to Greensboro police captain William Jackson recall the lack of violence in Greensboro

In 1957, six African American students integrated previously all-white schools in Greensboro. That year Josephine Boyd enrolled in Greensboro Senior High School (which changed its name to Grimsley High in 1962) and five other black children entered Gillespie Elementary. Integration in Greensboro occured rather peacefully compared to that of other Southern states such as Alabama, Arkansas, and Virginia where “massive resistance” took hold. Although Superintendent Ben Smith had a cross burned on his lawn and Josephine Boyd endured considerable ridicule, none of the desegregation resistance reached the scale of Little Rock, where Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to block African American students from entering Little Rock Central High, forcing President Dwight Eisenhower to deploy the 101st Airborne Division to prevent a violent crisis.5  For its moderate stance and its “freedom of choice,” North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford greatly supported the Pearsall Plan. In fact, many key leaders in the state sanctioned the plan out of fear that forcing rapid desegregation would “greatly endanger public support of the schools which may finally result in the abolition of the public schools.”6

Listen to George Evans discuss "freedom of choice"

Of course, many African Americans in Greensboro found the Pearsall Plan less than ideal. As Shiloh Baptist Minister Otis L. Hairston, Sr., argued, “the Pearsall Plan was a plan designed to put the pressure on black parents, so the schools would be open to blacks who applied, if they were approved…Job security, even being some cases really, I think they were threatened in some cases where they had applied for their kids to go to formerly all-white schools.”7  However, during the late 1950s, increasing numbers of African American parents apply to send their children to previously all-white schools, while the Parent and Teacher Associations of all-black Dudley High and Lincoln Junior High began pressing the school board for improvements to the schools. As then-NAACP leader Edward Edmonds explained, ‘school was a very sensitive thing…a pressure point…we we had all kinds of support from people willing to go down and confront the school board.’ 8  Yet despite increased activism and two pending lawsuits against the city board of education, Greensboro had no more than six black children enrolled in mixed classes for the opening day of school in 1959. In general, Greensboro was maintaining a parallel pace with North Carolina as whole whose “program of public school integration continue[d] to proceed at something less than a snail’s pace.”9

The rate of integration within the Greensboro school system increased slightly during the summer of 1963. Perhaps spurred on by the recent protests, over two hundred African Americans enrolled at formerly all-white schools for the start of the 1963-64 school year, compared with only nineteen the previous year. [Learn more about the spring 1963 protests] To facilitate the process, the education subcommittee of the Greensboro’s Human Relations Commission, led by Western Electric executive W.O. Conrad, sponsored “indoctrination sessions” to advise pupils and parents about possible problems they would face.11 Several other groups assisted in similar efforts, including the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Greensboro Jaycees, the Greensboro Ministerial Alliance, and the Greensboro Community Fellowship.12,13

The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2 by President Lyndon Johnson served to enhance local efforts  to integrate the public schools. The bill encouraged full compliance with the Brown decision by disqualifying offending school boards from receiving federal funds. Accordingly, in most places, school desegregation finally began to be accomplished “with all deliberate speed.”14 By August 1968, 22.5 percent of African American students in North Carolina were enrolled in integrated schools.15

Nonetheless, “freedom of choice” would prevail in Greensboro into the late 1960s, and thus schools were far from reflecting racial equilibrium. In 1968, in schools where desegregation had transpired, blacks typically made up no more than 10 percent of the student body. That year officials from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) visited Greensboro, noting that 24 out of 45 Greensboro failed to meet a statute requiring at least two full-time teachers be assigned across racial boundaries to every school. HEW also cited “Greensboro’s transportation policies, insufficient staff desegregation, unequal course offerings, and the perpetuation of racially identifiable schools,” and asked the Greensboro public school system to submit broader plans for integration. 16 In 1969, HEW ruled that Greensboro was not in compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, jeopardizing more than a million dollars in federal funds pledged to the school system.17  

Greensboro school Superintendent Philip J. Weaver Greensboro argued that the Greensboro school system was in compliance with the civil rights act because it had not denied desegregated education since 1957, and he refused to rewrite an integration plan. The school system appealed the HEW ruling, despite a growing public opinion that continuing the legal fight was an unjustifiable expense and loosing battle. Later in the year local NAACP leaders demanded that Superintendent Weaver resign. [Listen to Al Lineberry, Kay Troxler, and Joan Bluethenthal discuss the legal battle]

With that understanding in mind, on February 24, 1970, Dr. George Simkins and close to a dozen black parents filed a legal suit demanding immediate desegregation of Greensboro’s schools. The next April Judge Edward Stanley ruled in favor of Simkins and the black parents, and ordered the Greensboro school board to offer a plan for complete desegregation by June 18, 1971, to be implemented in the subsequent school year.18 The school board, under the leadership of new chairman Al Lineberry, submitted a plan which left five schools all white and three mostly black. The NAACP offered its own proposal to Judge Stanley in which all schools would have the same racial proportions. After gaining the school board’s consent, Stanley chose the NAACP’s plan as the preferred model to carry out the mandated integration of Greensboro schools.19

In 1971, Greensboro was one of the last five cities in the state to fully integrate its public schools. Several organizations were established in Greensboro to ease the transition to a fully integrated school system, including the Chamber of Commerce’s Concerned Citizens for Schools (CSS), a study group lead by Joan Bluethenthal, and the Lay-Professional Advisory Committee (LPAC).20 The efforts of these organizations were important in forging a peaceful coalition of blacks and whites during a period of heightened racial tension and change.

Many Blacks are Bitter About Busing (Item 1.4.1063)

Greensboro joined Raleigh, Rocky Mount, and a few other North Carolina cities that in 1971 were placed under “new attendance plans…which call[ed] for busing to eliminate the last of their segregated schools.”21 Busing as a method of achieving integration was ruled legal in the Swann v. Mecklenberg Supreme Court decision of 1971, but it was not without controversy. Even as proponents of integration witnessed swift changes in Greensboro schools’ racial proportions, many were unhappy with the busing system which transported some students long distances in order to achieve satisfactory integration ratios. In addition, Black Power advocates such as Nelson Johnson strongly believed that the forced integration marginalized African Americans and was a way for whites to ‘break [black pride] down and control our schools.’22

Strife at School Leaves Scars (Item 1.4.1068)

In March 1974, frustration with busing and racial tension contributed to disruptions at historically white Grimsley High School. Other policies meant to aid integration efforts, such as racial quotas for sports teams and homecoming courts, also sometimes had the reverse intension of limiting participation of minority students. 23 Throughout the 1970s, Greensboro citizens continued to witness the effects of forced integration, with some wondering if awkwardly integrated schools actually represented a significant improvement for black students. Like the process that led to full school integration in Greensboro, its legacy was one of both struggle and collaboration.

-Karen Hawkins
PhD candidate, UNCG

-Cat McDowell
UNCG Digital Projects Coordinator and CRG PI

References

1. William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 6.

2. Ibid., 13.

3. Ibid., 43.

4. Ibid., 18.

5. Owen D. Lewis, interview by William Link (Part I), November 21, 1988, Greensboro VOICES Collection, http://library.uncg.edu/dp/crg/oralHistItem.aspx?i=545

6. Nelson H. Harris, “Desegregation in North Carolina,” Journal of Negro Education 25 (Summer 1956), 301.

7. Otis L. Hairston, Sr., interview by Eugene Pfaff, Greensboro, NC, June 1, 1979, Greensboro VOICES Collection, http://library.uncg.edu/dp/crg/oralHistItem.aspx?i=518

8. Chafe, 62.

9. “Integration May Spread in State’s Schools Soon, News and Observer, August 16, 1959.

10. Chafe, 148.

11. “Greensboro Racial Group Dedicated,” The Raleigh Times, August 26, 1963.

12. Chafe 157 (GCF only)

14. In 1955, a supplemental desegregation case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, known as Brown II, required that school desegregation occur in Southern communities “with all deliberate speed.”

15. “School Mixing Total in 43 NC Counties, News and Observer, August 8, 1968.

16. Chafe, 169; Chafe, 166, 236.

17. Ibid., 238.

18. Chafe, 221-222.

19. Chafe, 223.

20. Ibid., 317-322.

21. “N.C. May Lead South in Integration, News and Observer, August 19, 1971.

23 Oral history interview with Linda McDougle by William Link, October 5, 1988, Greensboro VOICES Collection, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, http://library.uncg.edu/dp/crg/oralHistItem.aspx?i=551; Ibid.,  Oral History Interview with Owen Lewis by William Link, http://library.uncg.edu/dp/crg/personBio.aspx?c=73