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 >>

Integration of the schools and the failings of the new superintendent of education

From 1957-1975, Lewis Hannen had been superintendent of schools for the Durham city system. When he retired, Benjamin T. Brooks took his place, a man Clement remembers as being unable to guide the schools through the integration process. Because of this, the Board of Education decided not to renew his contract.

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

Dr. Brooks came in in '75 and was a new superintendent, was hit with this court order and there was a lot of upheaval and a lot of things. Oh, and you had the first election, had a new Board and so forth. It became very evident from the start that he was not a competent superintendent, number one, and that he did not believe in--when I say believe in, I mean as black people do--in the ability of black children to achieve. He wasn't dedicated to that. He himself lived in the county and sent his children to county schools. I think that says a lot. I was not ready, at the end of two years, to cancel his contract, because there had been so many things going on. And then I think a person deserves a chance. He needed to get to know us and to understand us. Oh, I left out a very important point. During this election that took place--had taken place in October--he came in in April, the court order was in July, and he had a board election in October. All of this within the same year.
And, just to clarify, this was 1975?
1975, exactly. We went from a board of six, four of whom were white and two were black--that's how he came in--and a white superintendent that he was working under to succeed. We went to a board of five, four of whom were black. See, the blacks took over in the election. I don't know whether it was because white people had not caught up with the fact that the city board was going to be elected, just not give themselves up to it, or black people were so anxious to get in that we moved ahead. But we did sweep the elections and got four blacks in and one white. So that was a lot to come into a new situation and have your whole school structure changed and a whole school board changed.
All in one election, too.
That's right, absolutely. So I thought we could work together. But, anyhow, we soon found out that it got worse instead of better and there was no alternative but to let him go. We were giving our time, we didn't earn any money. We got the princely sum of 25 dollars per meeting, not to exceed three meetings per month, usually we had two, but we could have a third one and get paid for it. I was giving my time and my energy to make things better for the children of Durham city. And if you can't have a superintendent who's willing to do the same thing you just can't stick with him. I was the swing vote on that. There were two for him and two against and a lot rested on the way I went. I finally made up my mind that--well, there were a number of things that I just won't go into that helped decide it. In 1978 I became chairman of the Board. This is an aside. You're talking about school, but you're also interested in the women's movement. Usually, the new chairman is almost a perfunctory item you mention they had the elections, because you organize the Board every year in December, although you don't have elections every year. So when this happened and I was elected chairman there was a big blow-up in the paper the next morning. They actually called eight or ten prominent black citizens to ask them what they thought about it. It looked like they couldn't believe it and couldn't understand it. This was the first woman and then to have a black woman coming in as chairman. I mean, it was just such a totally different reaction. Fortunately everybody was very kind in their comments and so it sort of died down. That I thought was definitely asked for. Anyhow, the next year his [the superintendent] contract expired and we chose not to renew his contract. We told him in April, because you're supposed to make your reappointments by April for July 1. The fiscal year ends June 30. That was really the most unreal situation I have ever been caught up in. The papers really crucified us at that time. I had been going from a very sheltered, protected [laughter] position, situation, into something like this, where when you answered your doorbell somebody thrust a microphone in your face and said, "Why did you fire Dr. Brooks?" Well, we didn't fire him. We chose not to renew his contract, which is a difference. And that's why some of them said to let him go and pay him off. I said, no, I wasn't going for that. I was going to wait and let it go. I said, no, he's a person, he's a husband, he's a father, he has a family. We're going to do it in the best possible way for him. That went on a long time.