Damaging legacies of desegregation
In this excerpt, Griffin describes a post-desegregation world of patent discrimination against black students. School rules allowed administrators to suspend students without conference, a rule that was exercised disproportionately against black students. Meanwhile, the achievement gap between black and white students was growing, population growth in Charlotte was exacerbating problems, and Griffin was getting frustrated. His frustration motivated increasing involvement in the local schools and he joined the school board in 1985, where he encountered new educational issues, like the debate over magnet schools.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Arthur Griffin, May 7, 1999. Interview K-0168. 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
PG: Well, integration came. What did you think at the time? I guess you weren’t really here.
AG: I wasn’t here. As I said to you, I came back in ‘71 from Vietnam, and started going to school out in UNC-C, when I got back, on the GI bill. And it was here. I mean, it was here. Politically, I didn’t pay any attention, other than the fact that schools were desegregated, black kids were going to formerly all-white schools, and white kids were going to formerly all-black schools. The only thing I noticed was that progress caused all of the black schools to close. I mean, you just–Second Ward was gone, a number of elementary schools were closed, they were black elementary schools. And I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to that. I got out of school, I started working as an intern with, it was called the Legal Aid Society back then, in the mid-‘70s. And, you know, just doing odd jobs at the law firm. And parents started coming in about 1975, ‘76, complaining about their kids getting kicked out of school all the time unfairly. And so I kind of took an interest in talking to folk, because our office–“We don’t do that, we don’t do educational law.” “But we help poor people here!” “We don’t do educational law. We can do evictions, we can do divorces, we do contract breaches, those types of things.” So I got interested in it and said, “Well, let’s try to see what we can do.” And what I got interested in–the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit against the school system in the, when, I can’t remember now, early ‘70s that went to the North Carolina Supreme Court. It was called Gibbons v. Poe. William Poe was the superintendent at the time, and it created what North Carolina now has adopted as due process rights for students. And it basically said that if there was riot or a threat of damage to property or injury, the school principals could put you out on something called ‘absence before conference’, up to three days. But you had to have a conference afterwards. And if you were going to be out of school for ten days or greater, there should be some degree of due process for students. So I said, “Gee, we did this case years ago, why aren’t we helping parents now who’s asking for help?” They just ignored me. I wasn’t a lawyer. I donned this description called paralegal, and I just took it upon myself to go represent some parents and students at disciplinary hearings. [ ] and say, “Wait a minute now, they have a right to put their evidence in. The principal says you can’t do this...” And that’s when I got a first blush of desegregation. Because kids were having some difficulties back then.
I remember at West Charlotte, specifically, a young white male–well, first, it was called a big riot, it was in the newspaper that black and white kids were fighting. And some of the parents contacted me, because some of the kids weren’t going to be able to graduate because of the disciplinary hearings. I went up to the school to represent some of the kids, and during my investigation, I talked with most of the participants, and then at the very hearing, the white male student said, “I started the fight. I didn’t like what he said,” or he thought the kid said, and, “Yeah, I walked across and I hit him and we went through the window and my boys got into it and his boys got into it.” And I said, “Did you admit that? Did you tell the principal that?” He said, “Well, yes.” [ ] getting kicked out. And I said, well, that was just patently unfair.
So I just started going around to the various schools, trying to help kids. And from that experience in the mid-‘70s, I kind of got interested in schools. School life, education, what was going on. And Rolland Jones was fired on public TV in about ‘74, I think it was, or ‘75, about that same time. Lib Randolph, John Phillips, and Chris Folk took over the school district. And I started going to school board meetings, trying to find out what’s happening. Jim Hunt introduced pubic kindergartens in about ‘77 or ‘78. He had the competency test, the California achievement test was introduced. And the first administration of the California achievement test, the gap between blacks and whites was about 60 points. And I said, “This is crazy. What’s going on? We’re being desegregated, but what’s going on?” I was saying, “This is wrong.” I was hot-headed, young, I even used a word that politicians don’t use these days: I was calling people racist, and this is racism, and–I didn’t know back then that you don’t say that publicly in North Carolina, and particularly in Charlotte. We’re sort of peaceful folk. And they just started saying, “Arthur Griffin is just a rabble-rouser. He’s just absolutely crazy.” But I went from disciplinary hearings to trying to get more involved in the schooling process in Mecklenburg County. And since about ‘78, ‘79–Jay Robertson came, I think, in about ‘78, and that was after the television firing of Dr. Rolland Jones. And Jay was here from about ‘78 to probably ‘86, a real long tenure. But I got more and more involved in what was happening with public schools, how public schools worked, trying to understand the curriculum, trying to understand why African-American kids were having such a tough time in this quote-unquote desegregated setting. And it wasn’t until about 1983, when Phil Berry, who was on the board of education, an African-American male, won a seat to the North Carolina House that I got interested in the political side of it. Because I was a tomato-thrower, for the most part, in terms of public education. Talking about, “Why are we busing all these little early pre-school black kids, when the court order said to bus some white kids at some point?” You don’t talk about that; that’s taboo. And I just mentioned to somebody recently, the trial–that’s one of the things that this one plaintiff, Jim Ferguson, is talking about now, which is, why didn’t we do what we were supposed to do back then? And I’m saying, “Had they listened to me, the rabble-rouser, the kid from outside, perhaps we wouldn’t even be in court today.”
But my involvement led to an appointment to the school board in 1985, and in ‘85 it was simply academic disparities that I was concerned most about, and trying to hire African-American teachers, because I could see a dwindling or decline in the number of African-American teachers from what existed in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. Never did we talk a lot about desegregation; only we talked about it during pupil assignment. Charlotte started to grow in the late ‘80s. In ‘85, we built McAlpine; in ‘87, McKee Road. We were going to build Providence–it was underfunded by about ten million dollars, so they got another ten million dollars. Providence opened in ‘89. Then you had, like, University Meadows, Mallard Creek. And because the population was growing such, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, issues of desegregation became more and more prevalent on the front burner. Because we were talking about moving more and more kids. And as you opened up a school, you had to populate that school with so many white kids and so many black kids. And people just started going bonkers. In 1988 we had the first school board member that was elected on a neighborhood schools platform; that was Jan Richardson. So school desegregation became a real big issue when the community started to grow. From ‘78 to ‘85, school desegregation was not a very big issue in Charlotte, North Carolina. Because we weren’t growing that rapidly, we weren’t building and opening up schools, and folk had resigned, “OK, we’re going to go to school in a diverse setting.” And then we started growing, new people started coming into town, and the politics kind of changed. And as I said to you, it was really shocking for Jan Richardson to win in an at-large county race, on a neighborhood schools platform. Peter Relic didn’t do too well here; he stayed about a year. We had an interim team again, and then we hired John Murphy. And John Murphy heard what people were saying from a corporate perspective, about school desegregation and busing, and he implemented a more expansive magnet school program. We had a magnet school program, what we called alternative schools, going as far back as 1972, and that was for more the elite folk, because C.D. Spangler put his kids in the alternative schools back in ‘72; James Ferguson put his kids there. Harvey Gantt put one of his kids there. So. We had five schools that were doing very well, but John Murphy wanted to expand that, and that was a very contentious discussion. The white community really supported magnet schools. The suburban community, they loved it. The business community, loved magnet schools. The black community was so afraid of that. They just packed the school board meetings saying, “Don’t have magnet schools. This is just a way to go back to segregated schools.”
PG: Why did they see that as a way to go back to segregated schools?
AG: Because it created magnet schools in the black community. And it forced black kids out, for the most part. It was a change from mandatory. They felt that if whites were given a chance to voluntarily select schools, that they wouldn’t do it. That was the sense in the black community. And as the program grew, with a lot of restrictions, their realization became true. Because as you built a brand new school in the suburbs--if you had a math-science theme for a magnet school, you have good math-science teachers at a new elementary school in the suburbs, why would you go to a math-science school? The curriculum’s the same, basically. The communications magnet school we have now. If you have good language arts, good English teachers, at your neighborhood school, why would you go to a Communications–? Over time, that’s true. You could see, if you put a quality, brand-new, bells and whistles schools out in the suburbs, those folk will stay. They won’t come in. Where you have people coming in right now are in unique curriculums: your performing arts, where you can dance, where you can do plays of one denomination or another. And that’s unique. The academically gifted magnet school is a unique school. But your other schools are not as unique. And that’s why you have your ratios changing the way they are, over time. I even wrote an article in Community Pride, in late ‘92, saying that this is not the way to go, with magnet schools. Because we opened a magnet school, and I think it was Ashley Park or Oaklawn, where the ratio was like 44 percent African American. And I said, this is Day One. It’s supposed to be 40 percent. This is not a good sign. So. They just didn’t have the restraints and the control necessary to maintain diversity on a long-term basis.