In response to the Brown v. Board of Education decisions mandating school desegregation, North Carolina governor Luther Hodges passed the Pupil Assignment Act of 1955. The act made it difficult for black students to transfer schools and gave individual districts the power to deny any student without citing race as the reason. The next year, the state legislature passed the Pearsall Plan, which gave local citizens the power to close schools by popular referendum if desegregation occurred, and granted state tuition aid for white students to attend private schools. In rural Hyde County, on the shores of Pamlico Sound, the local school board carried out the largest construction project in its history to improve its two black schools, Peay and Davis, to appease the black community and discourage integration.
Things changed when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI of the act banned racial discrimination in federally funded programs, including public schools. When the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) challenged Hyde County's segregated schools, the school board responded with a voluntary desegregation plan. However, the plan failed because no white students enrolled in the historically black schools, and the few black students who enrolled in the historically white schools were intimidated and threatened. White students who reached out to the new black students were also targeted for harassment.
An investigator for HEW found "an active effort to discourage Negro families from sending their children to the formerly white school." The Ku Klux Klan held public rallies, conducted night raids, issued death threats to black parents, and intimidated whites who supported integration. This combination of racial tensions and cultural chasms led inevitably to educational problems. Some black students performed far below their abilities; others had uncharacteristic disciplinary problems. For example, one black student skipped classes to avoid harassment by his white peers, and was promptly expelled for truancy.
HEW officials met with the Hyde County school board in the summer of 1966 and asserted that Hyde County had yet to desegregate its schools. When the school board argued that there was no room for additional students at Mattamuskeet, the local white school, HEW officials suggested that white students transfer to the black schools to make room for black students at the white school. But instead of solving the problem of segregated schools, the HEW's proposal further galvanized racial tensions.
It wasn't until HEW began proceedings to withdraw federal funding from Mattamuskeet that school officials developed a plan to fully integrate the white school within three years. Rather than utilize all three schools, the school board proposed an expansion of the white school to make room for the black students, and the closing of both black schools by 1970. With signoff from HEW, the school desegregation plan was approved on July 3, 1968.
Across the South, school districts were responding to desegregation mandates by closing black schools and firing black educators. A five-state survey conducted by HEW found that between 1968 and 1971, at least 1,000 black educators lost their jobs, while 5,000 white educators were hired. When black schools closed, their names, mascots, mottos, and traditions were lost. And when black schools were converted into integrated schools, white officials frequently stripped the schools of their black heritage by changing the names of the schools and removing plaques or monuments that honored black cultural, political, or educational leaders, as well as academic and athletic trophies. White resistance to sending children to black schools was also reflected in the dozens of schools that were burned as desegregation approached.
When African Americans in Hyde County learned about the desegregation plan and the impending closure of Paey and Davis schools, they brought their concerns to the school board, but the decision had been made and the plan approved. A petition to HEW followed, but the law didn't require that black schools stay open, just that integration happen. Although African Americans supported integration, they opposed the one-way transfer of students, what they considered to be racist terms of the desegregation plan, and the fact that they had no representation on the school board.
Knowing that the plan could not be implemented without students, black parents and their children decided to protest by boycotting the schools, beginning on the first day of classes in 1968, and formed the Committee of 14 to lead negotiations. The school board refused to negotiate. The boycott lasted for the entire 1968-69 school year, and was defined by sit-ins at the superintendent's office and local courthouse, organized marches, the arrest of numerous protesters, and massive white resistance.
The turning point in the boycott occurred late in the year when a new North Carolina governor, Robert Scott, was elected. Scott formed a Division of Desegregation Assistance, and appointed sympathetic whites to mediate between the school board and the Committee of 14. In addition, a new superintendent of schools in Hyde County was hired.
During the summer of 1969, two desegregation plans were developed. The first plan would put every student at Mattamuskeet, requiring a vote on an expensive bond for the necessary construction and additional buses. The second plan assumed the bond would be defeated, and instead utilized all three schools and their educators, with a commitment to hire a black principal at Mattamuskeet. On November 5, the bond issue was defeated and the decision was made to keep the Paey and Davis schools open.
Biracial student and faculty committees helped shape desegregation policies at all three schools, ensuring integration in everything from the faculty to student government. For example, if a white student ran for student government president, he or she had to have a black vice-presidential candidate, and vice-versa.
While it did not eliminate all racial discrimination in Hyde County, the boycott and the ensuing negotiations succeeded in desegregating schools on an equal basis and laid the foundation for unprecedented race relations. Black students and white students attended school together, black teachers and white teachers taught together, and the black community had a voice on the previously all-white school board. Years later, black alumni and white alumni reported that going to school together gave them valuable exposure to and an understanding of other races that they wouldn't have had otherwise.
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