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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Sam Holton, March 28, 2001. Interview K-0206. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Racial tensions in Chapel Hill in the late 1960s

Holton describes the tensions between black and white Chapel Hill students during the early years of desegregation. When the local black high school closed, few of its traditions and trophies transferred to the newly built integrated high school. Black students faced harsher discipline than their white peers. Additionally, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. heightened the pre-existing tensions. Consequently, mounting racial tensions erupted in a racialized disturbance at the integrated high school.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Sam Holton, March 28, 2001. Interview K-0206. 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

SAM HOUSTON:
They decided that they would offer the opportunity there for the black students that wished to attend to attend. And so many of them decided to attend that they decided to close the Lincoln High School. The Lincoln High School-. There is some misunderstanding apparently in more recent times as to how that happened. Some people coming in were under the impression that there had been a unilateral move on the part of the school board, and it had not. I was not on the school board at the time, but the school board had raised the issue with the black community as to what they wanted, and the individual parents indicated what their, what they wanted their students to do. So, that aspect of it probably was handled correctly. Now, the black high school was much smaller than Chapel Hill High School. The black population in Chapel Hill, not perhaps like Northampton County, but the black population in Chapel Hill was, I reckon about twenty-five percent as large as the white. Maybe less than that. Over time, there was some tension among the high school students as the whether the traditions of the Lincoln High School were being lost in the process of combining the school. The school newspaper kept the same name, the mascot kept the same name, and that sort of thing. One of the early issues was how they were going to select marshals for graduation. And the final solution there was to have a black marshal and a white marshal. So, they had co-marshals. Later, or perhaps along about the same time, the other questions with regard to their trophy case, with regard to the name of the mascots, and that sort of thing. So, they did change the name of the mascot to something that was not identical with what they had earlier. I think they kept the same school newspaper and yearbook titles. So those things which the adults probably hadn't thought much about, became big issues with the students. Now, shortly after I came on to the school board, there was a-well, I wouldn't call it a riot-a disturbance in the hallways in which the black students were demanding more attention. It occurred on the day that the school was undergoing its visitation for accreditation. So, we had a lot of visitors, both black and white-members of the accreditation committee. I was amused later. There had been-. I had overheard a comment on the part of one of the junior high school principals, a black principal from Charlotte and one of the associate superintendents-I think he was an associate superintendent at the time-from Wilmington, said that kind of thing would never happen in either of those places. Well, both of them had more, , serious disturbances over some of the issues. So, our situation, it was a tense situation. It was not too long before the assassination, and I'm-I don't know whether it was a year, or a part of a year, or maybe two years-assassination of Martin Luther King. And the black communities, I don't know whether you had-well you weren't old enough to have been around for that occasion-but you probably had a different kind of situation in Northampton County than you, than we have had, we had in the Piedmont area. The community-. Well, they had curfews in Durham, and Charlotte, in Greensboro. And they had some actual vandalism arising out of some of that tension. Actually, we had school board meetings in the elementary school over at Northside. And we had instructions from the chief of police, I reckon. I know it was the chief of police or the sheriff. We had instructions to lock ourselves in the building and then to notify him when the school board meeting was over to provide an escort out of the Northside community. Things were that tense. Now, I don't know that any of us were really as frightened of it as the perhaps the authorities were. To be sure, there was no real problem. In connection with the so called-. Well, in connection with the disturbance there were a half a dozen or so black students who had been violent enough to require some discipline, and I don't remember what it was, but in the process the-. I was elected school board the same time Howard Lee was elected mayor- so you get a little better sense of the racial situation in Chapel Hill when you remember this was happening at the same time. It wasn't white against black, [there were] I suppose some traditionalist perhaps, on both sides. We were invited to come to a meeting in the First Baptist Church, which you may be aware is the black Baptist church on Rosemary Street. And we, the school board, sat in front of the audience and listened to the concerns of the black parents and other members of the black community. It was, it was a little intimidating in that here we were-five blacks, five whites, and one black school board member looking across an audience that was completely black with no way out of the room except to go back through the crowd. So, that's a memory we have of that