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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 >>

Incident of racial tension following school integration

Neal describes what she remembers as an isolated incident of racial tension following integration of Durham, North Carolina, schools in 1970. The incident in question involved students at Northern High School and tensions permeated the community. Neal explains how the County Board of Education mediated discussions between students, school officials, and community members in order to diffuse the situation. In particular, Neal stresses her role in staving off Klan violence and the role of Phil Cousins, an African American on the board, in dealing with the black community.

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

So at any rate, the schools opened successfully on January 3, and that meant that the integration was complete, and it went extremely well until the spring of that year when the racial tensions began to run high at Northern High School. At that point in time, there was a black member of the School Board, who was Dr. Phil Cousins, and he was the last, well, I say the last black member. There has been one since, Dr. Richard Hunter, who has gone to Baltimore, I think, but at that point, Dr. Phil Cousins, who was the Pastor of St. Joseph's AME Zion Church. He was a very, very competent, very able black man who was extremely important that spring in keeping a potentially disastrous situation from getting out of hand. But, as I had indicated earlier, the principal at Northern High School was simply unable to deal with the realities of integration, and the black students . . . less had been done at Northern High School in preparation for integration than at the other two high schools. At the other two high schools, there had been open houses, trying to bring the black students into the high school prior to the opening of school, decisions being made about cheerleaders and Student Council representation. The guidance counselors had been involved at the other two high schools. In other words, there had been a fair amount of ground work done by the administration in the Guidance Departments at Southern and at Jordan. Very little had been done at Northern High School, so I was not surprised when trouble erupted there.
What, in particular, happened? Just a brief description.
It's a little bit hazy in my mind except that the black community was complaining that the black students at Northern High School were not being treated fairly. Discipline was not being administered even-handedly. There may have been some questions about cheer leaders. At any rate, the perception in the black community was that the black students were not being treated fairly. I remember that the Board decided to meet at Northern High School with the black students and listen to their concerns, over the objections of the Superintendent of Schools, who felt that the Board was getting into administration. But I remember feeling very strongly at the time that if the Board did not do something to defuse that situation that it was going to get out of hand and that we were going to wind up with some very serious problems on our hands. By that time, I had been elected Chairman, and I remember that there was a rumor that they were going, the blacks were going to show up at Carrington the next day and cut the white girls' hair. And rumors were running rampant that the whites were going to retaliate. The head of the Klan in northern Durham County called me and said, "We're going with guns to Carrington tomorrow," and I really think that that's the one time that I can remember that being a woman probably helped the situation, because I remember begging him to give me three days to get the situation under control, and I assured him that it would be under control. At that same time, I was talking with Phil Cousins, and he had the black community in hand, and he was counseling with them and saying, "Give us three days. We will have the situation in hand. The concerns of the black students at Northern High School will be addressed. We are working on them, but for God's sake, let's not have violence. We will get these concerns taken care of." And we did, but I've often thought, when I was talking to that Klan member, that if I had been another man, he'd have probably told me to go to hell, and they'd have arrived the next day with guns, and we'd have had a loss of life. But I think that he just maybe felt sorry for me or was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt or something, but everybody sort of kept their cool and allowed the Board to go in and meet with the students and meet with the faculty and get the concerns addressed. That was the only hint of trouble that we ever had in the whole integration process. That was over in about a week.