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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 >>

Business growth will lead to racial integration; rescuing his father's image from that of a segregationist

Pearsall explains the peril private education posed for an economically thriving Rocky Mount. Again, he argues that business interests provide the best stimulus for racial integration. Pearsall also redeems his father's image as a segregationist. He argues that the Pearsall school desegregation plan prevented school closings. Pearsall's father worried about how he was perceived by blacks, although he sought to keep public schools open for all North Carolina students.

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

MACK PEARSALL:
...My wife and I, first wife that was, and I had a major decision to make in 1960, well, it was in 1970, my son was born in 1965, and in 1971 he was going into the first grade. That was the first year of the pairing schools in the city of Rocky Mount. And a number of my friends, affluent, wealthy friends, came to me and sat in this room right here and asked me to join in the creation of a private school here, the Rocky Mount Academy. And they asked me a give $50,000. And I told them after I talked to my wife, without batting an eye, we told them that they were wrong on two counts. Number one that we didn't have $50,000 to give them, and number two that we didn't believe in what they were doing. And that what they were doing by withdrawing their children, would be withdrawing their interest in the public school system, and they would solve their problem with a checkbook and it would ultimately come back around to haunt them. And I'm here to tell you today and I don't like to violate the eleventh commandment which is, I believe, you should never say, "I told you so," but I have told them in this room, repeatedly, that the reason Rocky Mount has the very difficult educational problem we've got right now is because they weren't available to be instrumental in trying to solve this problem years ago. They withdrew. Now what's happened is, this whole process of solving the problem, the whole basis for it, is economically driven. They now feel threatened economically because the area is not growing the way it should grow. So now their pocketbook is pinching. So they're coming out of the woodwork now. And one of the things about them is they're being discredited by the opposition who says, "Well, now you're a johnny-come-lately here. Your children didn't even go to public school, and you've been supporting this private academy out here all these years. You have no standing to come in now and say how we ought to be solving this public school problem." Well, I'm not subject to that type of discrediting so I can stand up and look them right in the face. My father imbued me with that. He didn't suggest that I do that but he imbued me with that understanding that he had. That a good solid public education system was a part of the democratic fabric, and if you didn't have it, you would have anarchy, and if you didn't have it, you sure as hell wouldn't have any economic development if you had a bunch of illiterates running around here. The difference between where he was in the Pearsall Plan and where we are is that, it was being, North Carolina was being forced to integrate its schools as a result of the Supreme Court dictates. In this instance right here, it is a move based upon enlightened self-interest on the part of the business community that it is not good business to be segregated any more. It is not good business to have separate but equal. It's not good business to have segregated country clubs because it doesn't help develop economically. So one was pushed, the other's being pulled. I think what you're seeing is the second phase of, I mean, we saw an integration of the schools back in the 1950s as a result of the Pearsall Plan and all that. And I'll tell you about, you know, what his philosophies were in a minutes. But I think it is an interesting, this is another stage of it. This is a stage where people are saying, the government isn't telling us we've got to be integrated, we've got to have unitary schools, we're telling ourselves that it's not good business down here not to have an educated public and not to have community unity and a solid unitary integrated school system. So the driving forces behind the two are quite different, and this is one where people are voluntarily coming forward and saying, "Guys, you've got to change it." His was different. Now, I can remember this. One of the proudest things, or one of the things of which he was proudest, was that North Carolina did not have a school closed for a day to a student due to integration efforts such as they had in Virginia. I can remember him commenting on how much that was in and of itself a vindication of the validity of the Pearsall Plan as a pop-off valve. It was misunderstood by many blacks as having been an anti-integration move. I have been accused myself of being a carry-over from that thing. And my father as he lay on his death bed dying of cancer at Duke University, his one desire, the one burden that he wanted to be relied of, was the thought that the black citizens of North Carolina thought that he was a segregationist, that he was anti-black. And if you will go back and check his track record, all these humanitarian things that he did over the years, all the pleasure that he got out of seeing black people become integrated into the economic system, all that was totally inconsistent with it—the absolute polar differences between himself and I. Beverly Lake. Those things are not consistent with Tom Pearsall being a segregationist. Now, what my mother did, unbeknown to my father as he lay on his death bed at Duke Hospital, was to call Governor Jim Hunt and she said, "Governor Hunt, can you get some responsible member of the black community to go and discuss this with my husband and see if you can relieve his one burden, the one reproach that he did not want to go to the grave with." And the governor sent a guy named Ben somebody from Durham, one of his leading operatives. He went to my father's room at Duke Hospital and they talked that thing out and it was as if my father had had the last burden lifted from his shoulders and could at that point in time, you know, go on to whatever was to be without that burden on his back. He worried about that. Oh, I can remember tears coming into his eyes. I can see him in his office right now, worried that that was going to be the image that he had in the black community. And I hope that history, and I think history has treated the plan more fairly and more objectively than to treat it as a George Wallace type of standing in the doorway type of resistance. It was not designed for that at all. It was designed to provide the people of North Carolina with a rational alternative that they could see as a pop-off valve in the event that they needed it. And they never saw fit to use it. Even though it was ruled unconstitutional, it was a tactic that was designed to get North Carolina through a very critical phase, and I think it achieved its objective. And he saw that it achieved his objective and he just wanted to make sure that he didn't die being misconstrued.