Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Josephine Clement, July 13 and August 3, 1989. Interview C-0074. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Desegregating Durham City Schools and the resulting white flight

During her time on the Board of Education, the courts ordered the Durham city system to integrate. Clement reflects on the changes that order wrought, especially marveling at how the racial composition of the city was affected.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Josephine Clement, July 13 and August 3, 1989. Interview C-0074. 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

I just went right in and when I was elected chairman I took up the challenge there. We had a long-time superintendent by the name of Lew Hannon who retired in 1975. We had spent the year before his retirement searching for a replacement. I can remember with some temerity--there was another black member, a black man, Dr. Theodore Speigner--that he and I actively searched for some black candidates. I didn't even know black superintendents existed at that time. There were not many. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
When we began to search for a replacement to Mr. Hannon who had been a superintendent for something like 27 years, Dr. Speigner and I, who was the other black member on the board--they had a black man on the board for several years--we decided to search for some black applicants. I didn't even know they had black superintendents but we were able to find two or three and had them apply. As I look back on it now, [laughter] they weren't really seriously considered. They let us have our little turn to promote these black superintendents. There were six members on the board then, so we hardly constituted the majority. They did select a young white man to come in who proved to be a disaster. We found out later that he had been let out from another county--although we didn't know this, I didn't know it at the time--and they sort of took him in. He really was not a good superintendent. Plus the fact that he did not seem to want to identify himself with the black movement at all. He was hired in April, three months before, to overlap with the superintendent who was going out July 1. In July we received an order from the district court to integrate. Now we had been working on this, well, certainly for the two years I had been on the Board and there had been some work done before that. But for the whole two years that I had been on the Board this was a very important part of the work. Too much time really was spent trying to get this part going. Since 1954 there had been many stop-gap measures that had been introduced. You mentioned the Pearsall Plan and that was one. There were more than we had before but it was it was a band aid solution to things. We were constantly working on it. A suit had been filed here and the judge had ordered us to come up with a plan. We were never able to formulate a plan, the reason being we could never get a majority vote. We had several good plans, we thought. We got the white woman on the Board who often voted with us. She was Mildred Teer who was the wife of Dillard Teer, of the Nello Teer family, who were very wealthy people. It's often been true that white women who were independent and often very thoughtful could lead the way in things like this. And she often voted with us, but that was still a tie vote--three-three. Of course after the election they out the Board to five so that you would not have that problem of a tie vote. It isn't a good way anyhow. So we never got a plan going. I remember Mildred made the motion to ask for an eight months delay, which I supported because I thought if we could come up with a plan it would be better than having one imposed on us. Unfortunately we still did not resolve that in the eight months. That was about February or March when the eight months was up and we still had no plan. By July an order had come down to integrate immediately, which is of course what happens when you don't do it yourself. If a community can't come up with a plan then the judge superimposes one on you. Well, here we had this new superintendent who had just come on board in April. The old superintendent had gone out in July and I guess about two or three weeks after that he got the order to integrate. Integrating in ten days is [laughter] , is not the way to do it. But anyhow, we did it. We had to set up strict quarters, we had very narrow parameters in each school. In each neighborhood we found--and we had the real neighborhood concept then because people lived in clusters--we had a white and a black school very close together. The solution that we finally arrived at was to pair these two schools, you see, and have one do the lower grades and the other do the upper grades. Otherwise you would have had even more cross-city, crossingthan you had. We also should mention at that time that the city system was the prestige system, twenty-five to thirty years ago, and this is true across the nation, not just in Durham. Your affluent, influential people, black and white, lived in the city. I remember when we came here the beautiful old Victorian mansions, people like the Hills and the Carrs and the Watts and 's house is still left there. There was a whole street of those and they were all around. Now it's different. The demography has changed and the middle-class people live out, so the inner city is a euphemism for poor and black. So we've had a complete change in that period of time. My husband found the paper in his files the other day from 1957 during the time he was chairman of the education committee, in which they were attempting to integrate, but the city didn't want it. They didn't want the county to come in. Now that has come reversed, the county doesn't want it. Well, we got it done and we paired these schools in all of the sections, which was an artificial stilted sort of thing to do. We had to get a computer programmer to do these runs for us, to fit into the parameters, to get so many white children into each school. Was not the best way to do it, but we had to do it under court order. The result was that the white people just simply faded away, gradually, without any noise. They just disappeared, until the white enrollment went down, down, down. After a certain point it begins to tip and then it goes over faster because when white people find themselves in a minority they don't seem to be able to deal with it, because they are a majority in the United States. And of course even that is changing now. This meeting I went to on Tuesday was talking about minorities together will be the majority in the United States. But this follows the make-up of the world. White people who are northern Europeans, white people as we call them in this country, are really come from this little strip of northern Europe, say from England up through Scandinavia, and are a small minority in the world. But they don't perceive themselves this way in America. So after it began to tip the families just almost disappeared. We now have a census of about ninety percent black in the city.