Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Arthur Griffin, May 7, 1999. Interview K-0168. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Desegregated city values calm over achievement

Griffin remembers his conviction that standardized tests like the California Achievement Test were culturally biased. He eventually became convinced that low expectations were preventing black students from performing better. Charlotte schools valued calm, not achievement, so student performance in tension-free schools was being ignored. Compounding this problem, thinks Griffin, was the fact that talented teachers were teaching where they were least needed—at affluent, high-achieving 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: I wanted to go back–you said, sort of in the late ‘70s, you began to study school curriculums. You were trying to figure out what would– AG: The California Achievement Test, first administration, the black kids’ average score was 19. 19. This was in 1978. This was seven years after 1971, the Swann case was affirmed by the Supreme Court. And I’m saying, Why? Because prior to that, the messages we were getting, generally, by the time I got involved from ‘75 to ‘78, which was a very short period of time, was that we were educating all the kids effectively. And when you get your first test–it’s like, wow! And you’re kicking kids out of school for breathing wrong. And I’m saying, something’s wrong somewhere. And I slowly started asking questions. There were people on our testing commission–because the first thing comes out, “Your standardized tests are culturally biased.” I mean, what’s going on? Is this the wrong test? And I knew absolutely squat about education. And I would just bug the hell out of people, asking them questions. because I didn’t know. But I knew something was just wrong. This picture was wrong. I mean, kids going to school, exposed to, at least in theory, resources. What’s happened? And I met with Lib Randolph, who was over curriculum. When they fired Rolland Jones, they appointed three people to run the district. Lib Randolph was an African-American female, and I’d ask her questions, and she would give me her answers as best she could. And I’d also talk to Dr. John Phillips about the operations of the schools. You know, teachers. And none of them wanted to talk to me. It was like, you’re just an irritant. And I got that from them. But I was persistent, because something was just fundamentally wrong. I was taking these courses out at UNC-Charlotte early on, before leaving and going to do this paralegal piece with Legal Services. I took some courses with Bertha Maxwell. And they had, probably around ‘71 or so, they had finally agreed to have an African-American Studies program out there. It took them a number of years to get it through the UNC system. But in taking some of those courses, you talk about African-American history, the promises of Brown, the promises of the future. And then you look at what was happening to children in your local public school system. You say, “Something’s fundamentally not right here. Don’t know what it is, but something’s not right.” And all I could say is, “You’re wrong, you’re racist, these kids should be excelling,” etc. Because when we were growing up, in Second Ward, I figured if you had the teachers–and we had the teachers then–and you had desegregation and you had the equipment and stuff, that was a formula for success. And I thought, because I didn’t know anything about desegregation or schools, but I knew that they were desegregated. And so that formula should be working to a degree where you’d see more than 19 points for African-American students. And I just said, “This is crazy.” And I’d ask for test scores, I’d say, “Give me test scores by school, break it down by black and white.” [ ] tons of information. And people sort of looked at it. Ms. Randolph said I’m the gadfly. I’d come around just annoying people over the years. But it was just a question of trying to figure out what’s going on. Because I’d go to the microphone, scared to talk, shaking my little piece of paper, and they’d tell me very eloquently, “Arthur, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” It was sort of embarrassing, but a challenge. “Well, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but why don’t you give me the information so I’ll learn what we’re talking about–both in terms of desegregation, as well as the teaching and learning experience for African-American children?” And it just took a hell of a long time. From ‘78–even when Jay Robertson came, I continued to ask questions and go back before the school board, because people–there was always this challenge. And you’d hear white folks say, “Well, if they stayed in their own communities and they had the resources, they’d be all right.” And I’d say, well, look at Hidden Valley. Hidden Valley’s black. It’s a community school. People own their homes around Hidden Valley. Not the way I grew up, in the projects, around Hidden Valley. People own it. And they’re black. And look at their test score. Their test score is just as low as the school where there were black and white. So something ain’t right here. Don’t know what it is, but something’s not right. And we just bugged the hell out of people for a number of years, trying to find out what was happening. And I really didn’t know a thing about education. My schooling was in economics and business. And it just took a long time. PG: What was wrong? AG: What was wrong? Expectations. Accountability, in terms of–we didn’t expect kids to succeed. We were basically focused on harmony and peace. If your school was quiet, you’re a good school. As opposed to, your school demonstrating academic excellence. And that was the key for me, in terms of kids being successful and being able to go to colleges and universities, was academic excellence. The expectation was just low. Folk had low expectations of African-American kids and poor kids, for the most part. And I even wrote–it was in the newspaper in1980, the lawyers have that, it was a part of this lawsuit–where I had this big Afro, to say to the school board, you have low expectations. If you had high expectations, these kids would be able to succeed, and you’d make sure you put teachers around these kids and expect those teachers to effectively educate them. Because folk were saying, If you’re poor, if you’re black, if you’re bussed away from home, they gave every excuse why kids couldn’t succeed. And I’d give them Hidden Valley. I’d say, “These kids aren’t poor, their mommas and daddies own homes around the school, they can ride their bicycle to the school, tell me why.” And I’d always come back to Hidden Valley. “Hey, here’s a neighborhood school in a community, why aren’t these kids excelling?” And when you start dissecting it years later, Pam, what you’d find is, you have a high turnover in schools where there were African-American kids or poor kids. I mean, I didn’t know that in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. I wasn’t that sophisticated. I was just simply throwing rocks, saying the test scores were awful. But when you combine low expectations, a lack of focused accountability, and your turnover. I mean, just constant turnover. And even today, that same pattern exists. That’s what we’re talking about in federal district court now. And I just found out, just yesterday, looking at schools that had a lot of diversity or where the population is primarily black, constant turnover. And we put a rule in saying you have to stay there for two years. We tried to say three years, but the teacher organization said, “Oh, no, you can’t just hold somebody. Give them opportunities.” So we said rather than three, go two years. As soon as people get to two years, they’re transferring out. Nobody is transferring in, OK? And when you start looking at your experienced teachers right now, they’re not in those schools where kids have the greatest needs. And that’s why in our budget we’re asking for some additional stipends, to compensate teachers who are working in those areas. But guess what? There are people on the other side who are saying, “Well, I work very hard–“ END of Side A. BEGIN Side B. AG: ...location of resources. We still have a difficult time allocating resources appropriately. A lot of people call it equity. We just continue to have a difficult time doing it. And the problems are compounded now. African Americans are not in education. We said fifteen years ago that this horde of black females that couldn’t get into IBM in 1960, that were extremely intelligent black females that couldn’t get into Fortune 500 corporations, went into education. Guess what? Thirty years later, they’re retiring. So in 1990, you just see a hemorrhaging of African-American women getting out of Education. Here in North Carolina, well, particularly here in Charlotte, all my classroom teachers that I had when I was in high school all have retired. They retired, I think the last one in about 1990, ‘91, ‘92. But none of them are around. And those were the teachers who had the skill set, the motivation and heart to make it happen, even without the resources. The teachers are getting in today, for the most part, are the ones who go into general education. I mean, you’re a professor. When you look on your campuses, you’ll find a core group of kids who are really gung ho and want to be teachers and want to change the world. You have another cohort that are folk who are in general education. And they’re going to come out and teach, and they’re not evil or mean people, and they want to do a good job for kids, but when they come into the public school arena and see these different people and different needs, it’s like, “Let me transfer to McKee,” or “Let me transfer to McAlpine. At least if I’m going to be marginal, let me be marginal in an environment I’m going to be comfortable with.” So we have to change that, through [ ] and teacher training, to help young teachers become comfortable in a different environment. Because that’s all we have. We can’t go out there and just grab these wonderful, [ ] pick these great folk to put in our classrooms. We have to deal with the people who are coming to us each and every day, and try to surround them and support them with the resources to help them be successful. Because they, too, don’t get up and say, “I want to hurt a child.” They get up every morning saying, “I want to help.” And we just have to provide a support system to help them help kids. Right now we don’t do that very well. And we just have to provide a support system to help them help kids right now. We don’t do that very well. We don’t do it very well in America, but right here in Charlotte we don’t do it very well. And we gotta change that if we’re going to change public education in America.