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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mack Pearsall, May 25, 1988. Interview C-0057. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Merger of Rocky Mount public schools and its impact on outside business interests

Pearsall discusses the tense and racially charged school merger in Rocky Mount in 1992. He argues that outside industries avoided building in Rocky Mount because of the perception of inadequate schools and the racially tense school merger battle. Pearsall maintains that globalization will yield integration in order to develop a skilled, educated workforce, capable of competing with other regions economically.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mack Pearsall, May 25, 1988. Interview C-0057. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Do you see that happening with the school merger issue at this point? Could you tell us a little bit about the merger issue? Your role in it? Is this kind of an extension of, again, some of the problems your father might have faced with the Pearsall Plan?
Yeah, I wouldn't be so bold to suggest that it's a contemporary equivalent but I would say on a microcosm, on sort of a micro basis, it has a lot of similarities. What we have going on here is a battle that I've been involved in for ten years. The battle basically consists of the fact that Rocky Mount has the uniquely disadvantageous distinction of sitting astride a county line which means that it's politically emasculated in terms of its powers east and west. Because we're not a city of 50,000 people, we're two cities, one of 25, one of 15,000, or 35 and 15,000. Probably about fifteen, maybe ten years ago, up until ten years ago, there'd been a release program between Nash County and Rocky Mount where whenever Rocky Mount expanded its city limits, the county would release the children that lived in that area to go to school in the Rocky Mount school district. At least from my standpoint—and I think there is plenty of evidence that will support it, which we will have to bring out as evidence in court—the termination of the county's land and student release policy was racially motivated. Nash County for racial reasons decided that they were going to stop that release program because they saw that what they were getting into their system at long last were white middle-class affluent parents who had an interest in PTAs and in their children's education. The county decided not to let the Rocky Mount school system grow at all and to take all those people into their system because that would help the transition from being a rural system into a combination with more of an urban favor to it and more political clout because these are the people who've got political clout. Well, the reverse of that is they locked up the Rocky Mount school system, and through white flight, the Rocky Mount school system has gone from a system that would be racially reflective of the Rocky Mount city population to where it's now about 80% black and 20% white. And that is a great disadvantage for this area because of the perception of remediality of any school system that is that racially imbalanced. We feel, that is the business community feels, that that perception has in fact cost us a lot of economic development activity here because we've been red-lined by certain national industry location firms because of the fact that there's a controversy going on. There are racial overtones to this thing, and a national company doesn't want to be a part of a community that has racial overtones to it. My God, we've just gone through integrating one of our two local country clubs. I bet we've got the only fully integrated country club except maybe Chapel Hill, I would say, outside of an area like a Chapel Hill, which is a very enlightened community that's ahead of most areas in the state from the standpoint of race relations. We've just gone through integrating one of the two country clubs here in town on a full membership and utilization basis which is unheard of in eastern North Carolina. The reason we did it is because I was traveling on the road this summer, and Bill Friday called me and said that Irwin Miller, chairman emeritus of Cummings Engine Company that has a $355 million dollar in Nash County, called him up and said that the race relations and morale of their local plant was so bad because the black executives could not join the country club in Rocky Mount, that something had to be done. We happened to catch that country club at a point where it was on the verge of near bankruptcy, and the Rocky Mount business community came to the new buyer and said, "If you will come in with a fully integrated program for membership and utilization, we will support you." And next week we're probably going to give him $400,000 to help him make that "the" club in town. Now, that is an enlightened move on the part of this community to get shed of some antebellum shackles. 'Cause you can't have a community that doesn't accept black executives and expect companies to come here. They can't promote people through here when they've got to say, well, we'll promote but you've got to go to Rocky Mount and you can't do that. You've got Hardees food system with a lot of black executives. You've got a lot of black executives that come into town that are executives for them in other areas of the country. They come in and they can't even play golf. I mean, this is ridiculous in 1988. So we've been able to integrate that. And that's one of the major strides, we think, towards making this community more wide open. I got a letter the other day from the first black to play golf at that country club telling me how much he enjoyed it, and I sent a copy to Mr. Miller, I said, "Mr. Miller," I put my handwritten note on it, I said, "You know, this makes life worth living and right worth fighting for." And he sent me a personal letter back saying how much he appreciated what we'd done in Rocky Mount. But that's another manifestation of the fact that you've got a hold over in this area among some very short sighted people of an anti-black attitude. That they should be separate but equal. And you've got county commissioners in this day and time saying that blacks ought to be in separate schools. The great advantage of the school fracas is that the values of housing on the east side of Rocky Mount is going downhill so blacks can finally afford housing over there. Well, that isn't what we need in this area. What we need is, and is to our strategic advantage, sustainable competitive advantage as we see it long term in this area, is a superior educational system for this two-county area. Because we understand why the northeastern United States beats our brains out. They've spent so much more money, over the years, properly funding the human resource at the primary and secondary levels all the way through school. That they have a very literate and numerate work force, and we do not. And unless we deal with that, we're not going to be competitive in this world economy. Hell, they can move plants offshore and do it a lot cheaper than we can do it here. It used to be that we had cheap labor but now if you've got cheap labor that is less educated than third world labor, they're not coming here because these people are not smart enough to run sophisticated machines. So it all weaves back to this transition of these blacks coming off the farms and being integrated early on into this industry at menial levels, in sewing operations and things that don't require a lot of skills. Now, the maturation of the economy in the world and the fact that it's become a global economy, is forcing eastern North Carolina to face up to the fact that it is going to have to change its ways if its going to be competitive long term from an economic development standpoint. Because we just can't compete with cheap labor. We just cannot do it for what they can do it for in China or do it for in India and other areas of the world. It's really a social-economic sort of reordering of priorities down here when you change a country club. And that doesn't sound like big business to a guy in New Jersey. That's big business down in eastern North Carolina. And the school fight is over giving every child in this two—county area an opportunity for top quality education so we can have a labor pool that is smart enough to allow us to be able to induce industry to come in. And there are still people who are saying, "Well, blacks don't have the inherent capacity to learn and we need to keep them over there in the separate schools." We can't stand that type of mentality.