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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Patricia Neal, June 6, 1989. Interview C-0068. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Path to service on the Durham County Board of Education

Neal describes how she came to be involved on the County Board of Education in Durham during the late 1960s. Neal links her community involvement to her involvement with the PTA, her loyalty to the Republican Party tied to her hope of reviving the two-party system in North Carolina, and her work with the League of Women Voters. Neal first ran for the board in 1968 and was narrowly defeated. Several months later she was appointed to the board when one of the five seats was vacated, and she went on to serve eighteen years there.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Patricia Neal, June 6, 1989. Interview C-0068. 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

KATHRYN NASSTROM:
OKAY. What I think it might be good to establish at this point, because we're moving into the topic I very much want to cover, is the chronology of your time on the School Board because it was eighteen years, I believe you mentioned earlier. So I'd like to know if you could map out the years that you served, the different positions that you held along the way.
PATRICIA NEAL:
The School Board grew out of an involvement in two areas. One was the PTA and school, well, actually three areas. One was the PTA and substitute teaching and volunteer teaching. Secondly, I had, when I first registered to vote in Durham, having been brought up in a conservative, Republican family in New England, I really felt . . . it became obvious to me very early on that there was not a viable two-party system in North Carolina, and I felt very strongly that until there was a viable two party system that government in North Carolina at all levels, local, state, and federal, would suffer because of the lack of competition and that kind of thing, and the calibre of candidates. So when I was able to register in 1956 for the first time, I registered as a Republican, and an aside to that is that the Registrar said, and here I was, twenty-one, which is the age you had to be to register at that point. The Registrar was a little old lady at West Durham Community Center. She said, "Young lady, I don't think you want to do that because you can't vote in the primaries if you register as a Republican." And I said, "Well, thank you very much for your advice, but I do want to do this." But that was the sort of thing that you faced, so I had a commitment to Republican politics. Third, the League of Women Voters in Durham, at that time, was dominated by pretty much liberal women Democrats and primarily from the Duke community. And yet, I felt that they were doing some extremely worthwhile things, and I thought it was important #1) because they did have a commitment to a better political process. They were, at that time, monitoring all the Boards and Commissions as they still do very effectively, and so I wanted to become involved with the League of Women Voters for two reasons. One was perhaps to represent a different perspective than some of the other members, and two because I did want to become involved with the school and educational process and saw this as an organization that could accomplish both purposes. When I joined the League of Women Voters, they were looking for somebody, at the first meeting in September, they needed people to monitor the City Council, County Commissioners, etc., so I volunteered to monitor the Durham County Board of Education. This would have been in the fall of '68, I think. So I spent an entire year going to the Durham County School Board meetings. No, I take it back. It would have been the fall of '67. So I spent a whole year monitoring the Board, and I saw some things going on, some decisions being made by that Board . . . At that point, it was a partisan Board. There were five Democrats - four men and one woman, and I saw some decisions being made that I literally, as a League observer, we were absolutely forbidden to say anything in those meetings. We just had to sit there and listen and observe and report our observations back to the League, but I remember literally holding onto the chair with the knuckles of my hands just white at some of the decisions that were being made.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Would you give an example of such a decision?
PATRICIA NEAL:
One that I remember in particular was the Board voted to spend, and I've forgotten what the sum was, but a considerable amount of money, to buy a trophy case for Jordan High School. Never mind that Merrick-Moore, which was a high school, a K-12 union school at that point, had won numerous state championships in the years before, and Merrick-Moore was an all-black high school at that point in time. They had won many championships, and the Board had never bought them a trophy case, but the very first time that Jordan High School won a state championship, the Board is spending money. Of course, the other thing you need to understand, which I'm sure you do, is that I grew up in the North and grew up in a family in which I was taught and raised that all people are equal, and I had been to school with black children although there weren't a large number of them at that point. I had worked with black people at the hospital where I worked, so I came to the South with no knowledge really, very naive about what prejudice was, and it was a tremendous shock when I walked onto the Duke University campus and blacks were still sitting in the back of the bus and all of that was going on. It was a rude awakening to me. I saw decisions being made that were discriminatory. At any rate, I felt that I sat there for a year and watched this going on, and I said, "If you're going to make a difference, you're going to have to run as a candidate." And I got very excited about that, so in 1968, I ran as a Republican, the first political race of my life, and I think lost by 900 votes.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
What was the count of the total? Do you have a round figure?
PATRICIA NEAL:
I'm guessing maybe there were, at that point in time, Kathy, I don't know.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
What you're saying, am I right, is that must have been a fairly small number of votes? Is that what you're implying?
PATRICIA NEAL:
Yes. In other words, I came very close to winning. I was sixth out of, they were electing five Board members, so I would have come in, I came in sixth in the balloting and given the number of registered Republicans at that time and given the fact that I was not known in the community at that time, it was a very close race. That was in November of '68. In June of 1969, the one woman on the Board of Education had a serious disagreement with her fellow Board members over some contracts to buy mobile units, and she felt like there was some hanky panky going on and got very upset, and in sort of a spontaneous moment said, "I resign," and before she could even realize what she had done, her four colleagues accepted her resignation and off she went. The process for filling that spot on the Board, bear in mind, she had just been elected in November, so this is six months later, and so she has three and a half years left on her term. The Board is charged with the responsibility of selecting a replacement, and this is going to be, now, a replacement for three and a half years. It so happens that in 1968, the Democratic Party, the precincts had been taken over by, I think that was the Eugene McCarthy era. The precincts, the Durham Democratic precincts, had been taken over by the McCarthy people, and they had wrested the power away from the old line Democrats in Durham. The Board did not want to give the Democratic Executive Committee the power to appoint a replacement, so they decided that they would do it themselves. I had been sitting with that Board for a year. I had run and come in number six on the ballot, so they decided that the fairest thing to do was to appoint me to the unexpired term of Mrs. Marley. So here again was being at the right place at the right time, and then subsequently in 1972, I ran and that was the Nixon election in which the Republicans made momentous gains. In fact, Jim Holshouser was elected Governor, who was the first Republican Governor in this century, and I led the ticket of School Board members and was appointed Chairman and was subsequently appointed to the North Carolina Board of Directors of the North Carolina School Board Association. I served as Chairman on the local Board until '77 and then stayed on the Board the next ten years and served as Vice-Chairman.