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

Integration's impact on quality of schools and thoughts on merger and busing

Neal reflects on issues related to school integration following the completion of the process in 1972. According to Neal, the integration process and the ways in which it reverberated through the community had led to a decline in the quality of Durham city schools. Neal explains how Durham city schools had been superior to the county schools during the 1940s and 1950s, but the "flight" of whites and middle-class African Americans to the suburbs following integration had reversed this situation. She relates these conditions to her stance on school merger and issues of busing.

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

But before we do that, do you think there's more of the story post-1972 that's important to record?
I don't think so, except that in 1973, when I was Chairman, Mr. Chewning, who had been the Superintendent for twenty-three years, his health had deteriorated, and he was a Southern gentleman from South Carolina and the whole integration [process] was more then he could deal with. After he retired, we then hired Dr. Frank Yeager, who cam from the Louisville, Kentucky, school system and who was an enormously talented and very, very sensitive administrator. Frank Yeager was here from '73 to '83, and I think much of the progress that we continue to make in race relations and improving the quality of the Durham County schools rests with the decision to hire that man. He was absolutely phenomenal. That's a whole other story, too, because he was, a chapter in his career was as a Secret Service Agent to President Kennedy, so there are lots of interesting stories that we don't have time to go into today because they're not really relevant except that his background was so varied and that he just brought tremendous leadership. Your question goes back to the Durham City and County schools. There was a history, back in the 40's and 50's, if you didn't go to the Durham City system, you just were a nobody. Anybody who was anybody in Durham went to Durham High. That was the school to go to and be a graduate of. The Durham County schools were very poor, very rural, and just didn't begin to have the reputation for academic excellence that the Durham City Schools had. After the integration of the schools, and at the same time that the Durham County schools were under court order, the Durham City schools were also under court order to integrate, and I think the population at that point was probably about, maybe fifty-fifty in the Durham City schools. When integration came, you had tremendous white, not only white flight out of the city schools, but middle and upper income black flight as well. Consequently, the Durham City schools have been left as practically every other city system in the United States has been left, and that is that they're very poor and very black, very economically deprived, and they've gone from being fifty-fifty back in 1970 to now being ninety-ten. We tried very hard in 1972 to, we had a merger vote then, but that was right after the horrendous fight in Charlotte-Mecklenberg and the forced bussing in that community, and when we said "merger" they said "Charlotte-Mecklenberg," and we tried to point out to the community that Durham County was not in any way, shape or form like Charlotte-Mecklenberg, and it was beaten worse in '72 than it's ever been beaten before. Interestingly enough, it was beaten worse in the city precincts than it was in the county precincts, and I think at that time, the black community recognized that they were headed toward controlling their own school system, and they subsequently elected a majority black Board and have had, now, two black Superintendents. In the recent merger task force discussions by the Durham committee, Willie Lovett and some of the other leaders, George Reed, spoke very eloquently of the loss of power and control that the city system would face if they merged because by law, the county system becomes the government system, and they would, in essence, be swallowed up unless some very, very strict guidelines were drawn up about representation on the board and how the people in the city system in administrative positions would be treated in a merged system, what their future would be.
That's interesting. The merger question is in the papers now, and it's interesting to see how far back it goes and how some of the exact same issues were in place seventeen years ago.
In 1972, the last time we had a vote on it, the very same issues that have been raised this year on the Merger Task Force were raised then, and I don't see any differences except that logistically, with the fifty-fifty black population in Durham City, it would have been a whole lot easier to get a reasonable racial balance in the schools in 1972 than it's going to be today.
What's your position on this and has it changed in the seventeen year period? Did you think differently about this issue in '72 than you do now?
I was very much pro-merger in 1972. I worked long and hard to effect a merger then because I think it could have been done successfully then. My position has changed only in that given the racial distribution of students and the fact that you would have to have, and I think the courts would demand that you have, some reasonable kind of racial balance. The disparity in the two systems just about where black and white kids live would mean a horrendous amount of bussing, and the quality of the education in the city system has declined, I think, dramatically while it's gone up dramatically in the county system. The disparity, quite frankly, in the leadership in the Durham city system, the quality of the leadership is poor. They refuse to bite the bullet on personnel. When they've got a principal who can't cut it, they bring him into the central office. Up until last year, they had the highest per capita, highest per student, expenditure in the state of North Carolina, and they've got the highest administrative per pupil ratio in the state. Every time they've had any difficult situation with a black administrator, they pull him out of a principalship and find a place for him in the central office. They just are unwilling to bite the leadership bullet, and a merger now would mean that you're going to sacrifice the county kids for however many years it takes to straighten out the mess. I think, eventually, it's probably going to come, but it's going to be at the sacrifice of the county kids, and that's difficult because it's going to be chaos, just chaos. It's a tough one.