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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Rebecca Clayton, December 8, 1988. Interview K-0132. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Tensions during early days of desegregation and fostering pride among students

Clayton describes her experiences while teaching at the newly integrated North Durham School, beginning in 1970. Initially hired as a substitute teacher, Clayton taught at North Durham until 1975. Clayton explains that despite a prevailing atmosphere of chaos, the school was taking measures to train teachers and counselors how to best deal with tensions that grew out of the desegregation process. According to Clayton, fostering a sense of self-pride in the students was a key aspect of assuaging lingering tensions.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Rebecca Clayton, December 8, 1988. Interview K-0132. 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

ANGELA HORNSBY:
Could you talk just a little bit more about your experience substituting in—I forgot what the name of the school was?
REBECCA CLAYTON:
All right. Well I started—
ANGELA HORNSBY:
[unclear] on the days that that schools were integrated.
REBECCA CLAYTON:
Well I actually got called frequently to sub from September through October and sometimes the conditions were pretty difficult. I had made up my mind I wasn't going to take anymore calls if I felt like it was going to be a difficult class. But it was one Friday afternoon, Mr. McDaniel who was principal of North Durham School called me. And I think, lucky for me, I had taken a course that summer at UNC on how to teach social studies to elementary students. The teacher had talked about the fact that you were not going to be able to use the work ethic for some of these kids even at fifth grade level, fourth or fifth grade level, cause that was not the environment they came from.
ANGELA HORNSBY:
What was the racial make-up of the class?
REBECCA CLAYTON:
It was probably about half-and-half at that point. Because the kids were being drawn from what would now be, used to be Eastend school, Club Boulevard School and North Durham School. So we had a pretty—I don't even remember now what the percentage was but I do know it was probably like half-and-half. But it was really hard for the kids that had formerly been at Eastend, which would be the black students, being there and didn't particularly want to be. The white students who had come from probably come from Club Boulevard and had these other people in there and didn't know, didn't want them there. Or they didn't really—I really don't think they had spent a lot of time with the students in how to get along with each other, or what their differences were going to be, or how much they would be alike. But they did, they had spent a lot of time with the teachers working with them. So when I went in there in November, we even had workshops after that during the year. It was really good. And I think that's something that's missing right now because we could sit and talk with each other. The black teachers could tell the white teachers, "This is why he's acting this way. This is what he means. This is the way you need to respond to that." Whereas the white teachers could do likewise, "It would be better if it would be handled this way." I don't think anyone is communicating with each other anymore. And they're not really being honest with saying with the way things are. Because it was, I guess, at first I think they were real thankful to have a teacher in that classroom. And frankly I knew nothing, I told them even that when I signed the contract, "I'll try to teach reading. I know I can teach math. I know I can teach social studies. I know I can teach health." Frankly, I didn't ever think I would ever get those things covered because the class was so out of control. But they were glad to have somebody there. And as I said, I treated those kids, I looked at those kids like, suppose they were mine. "Suppose my child was in this classroom. How would I want them treated? What would I want them to do?" And "What would I want them to learn?" Also when I went in, because I told the principal I would not come work unless I could have some materials. And so I went over on the Friday afternoon he called me to get the books and get some materials so I would be ready on Monday. And there just seemed to be a lack of hope in that room. That class was really out of control. It really, really was out of control. A lot of them had been suspended for calling the teacher names and for hitting people and hitting the teacher and fighting and all kinds of things. I had made up my mind that one of the things that I was going to do was to do things to get them to build some pride in themselves. And do things where the other people—I don't know how in the world I ever thought of all this because this was not the way I was supposed to be. I was supposed to be a high school teacher where you could go in and do your projects and your lectures and do everything else. But here I was with this, so but I wanted them to do some things so they would get some recognition. The other people in the school realized that this was what was needed too. If we did something good or something special, the other teachers would write us a thank you note so I could read it to the class and post it. Then I decided—Oh Lord, why did I ever decide this—I decided, because I took over like maybe the second week of November, somewhere, I can't even remember the exact date anymore. I decided we would decorate the cafeteria. We would make cornucopias and have, they would bring in real things: leaves, turnips, potatoes, nuts, whatever. That's what we did. I mean, we got the thank you notes. We got all that recognition back from the teachers that were there. But believe you me, it was like took my life away. The kids argued over, "he's got my turnip. He's got my this. He did this. He did that." It was like oh gosh but we got the thing decorated. We got the recognition. And slowly but gradually the class came back under control. They began to fall into line. And probably I've got better memories of that class maybe than I have of some of the others because they came such a long ways.
ANGELA HORNSBY:
What was the—How would you characterize the interactions between black and white students initially and over time?
REBECCA CLAYTON:
I think they all came together eventually. But I think probably, in the beginning, from what I can gather because one of the schools, the nurse or guidance counselor or somebody, was already working with a group of the students when I got there. I think there was probably a lot of distrust. You're invading my school or you're invading my space. But probably just distrust along the line. But they all fell into line. And I do know for a fact out of that class some of them have become very successful because I actually got some of their children later on. At Holloway, I had some of the children from the kids that were in that 1971 class. I also had somebody who was in that class, or the second year class I had, and he came into help me as a volunteer over at Holloway. He was employed, probably still is employed at Duke Power and came over to volunteer at Holloway. You make an impression and you make a difference. You just don't always know it. It all comes back to you in a rather slow way. But it's been good. It's been good. I've enjoyed what I've done.
ANGELA HORNSBY:
So you feel like one of the important elements as far as the students coming in line was trying to foster the sense of self-pride in the kids?
REBECCA CLAYTON:
Definitely, definitely. Because I really felt like, I just had a hopeless feeling when I walked into that room. Just saw that they had practically torn up everything in there. They knew, and they really had total control of the room. Because I don't know, maybe it was the first week I was there, maybe it was after that, I remember one of the students, the teachers came down wanted chalk or staples or something. The students knew exactly where to look for it but I had no idea. They had really taken over in there.