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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Charlene Regester, February 23, 2001. Interview K-0216. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Developing a strong work ethic to offset the racial and class disparities in Chapel Hill public schools

Racial and class politics created a rift among high school students. The disparities between poor whites and blacks and the children of UNC professors cultivated a sense of inferiority and exclusion in desegregated Chapel Hill public schools. Regester argues that working hard and taking advantage of educational opportunities allowed her to compensate for unequal resources.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Charlene Regester, February 23, 2001. Interview K-0216. 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

CHARLENE REGESTER:
...but I will tell you this: growing up in Chapel Hill, being an African-American, is unique in enough of itself, particularly the time period I grew up in. In part not only because you're dealing with racial politics, you're dealing with class politics. So many of the white students I attended school with, their parents were professors of the university. So my parents were not professors so I always felt, well I couldn't go to Europe in the summer to study, so I always felt I was behind, and as I told many people, playing catch up and trying to keep up. I felt constantly bombarded with that and preoccupied with that. [pause] Does that make sense?
SUSAN UPTON:
Yeah, it makes sense to me.
CHARLENE REGESTER:
And again that could be a figment of my imagination. That I assumed because their parents were professors, they were somehow more able to learn or had more access or something like that. But that's not always necessarily true. Because I found out years later some of their kids were not performing well at all, but you just assume they at least had the access or being in the environment where they could perform or achieve or excel. And so you know, you're always constantly preoccupied with that. I got to catch up and I've got to keep up.
SUSAN UPTON:
So you feel you worked harder when you were in school, just to...
CHARLENE REGESTER:
No doubt about it. Because we knew in view of the class as well as racial politics that it is not going to be easy, it has never been easy. We didn't always have money, but our parents really pushed for us in view of what they had to offer. And I do remember, in junior high and probably high school, the public library at that time was located on Franklin St. and almost everyday we would ride the school bus from school to the public library and study there and then walk home. So we always, you know, took advantage of out resources and compensate for what we felt we were lacking behind in or did not have. That was, I suppose, one of the ways many of us survived. And also at that there were a lot of UNC students who always offered tutorial programs to black students and we always took advantage of that. In fact there was a white church here in Chapel Hill that offered a tutorial program. And again we would catch the bus, go down there and capitalize on those tutorial opportunities provided by UNC students and that was another way we tried to compensate for whatever we may not have had.
SUSAN UPTON:
The what you may not have had, do you think they helped you, the tutorial and stuff...do you think maybe a lot of it...I'm trying not to lead the question, but do you think some of it might have been just needing more attention and things or what do you think it was?
CHARLENE REGESTER:
As to why we were able to benefit from the tutorial program?
SUSAN UPTON:
Well, what you were missing more than the white students I guess.
CHARLENE REGESTER:
And again, it could be our perception. It's possible the white students probably needed to go and capitalize on those tutorial services as well. But we just assumed because their parents might have been more educated that if they had questions about their homework or how to do complete as assignment they could go to their parents. Unlike us whose parents were not as well educated, we would not be able to go home and ask our parents to help us complete a particular assignment, so we often took advantage of those types of tutorial services. So, yes they were very beneficial and the students at that time were very eager to help us. The...students always have energy, enthusiasm, they can change the world, they can bring about change, they can have an impact. So when we went to these tutorial programs with students, we were very comfortable and they were very receptive and we were very appreciative and very eager to have access.
SUSAN UPTON:
What, it's kinda going back to the level...I've heard about the Blue Ribbon Task Force and all that stuff...
CHARLENE REGESTER:
Yes.
SUSAN UPTON:
Why do you think that's happened?
CHARLENE REGESTER:
The only explanation I can attribute to that is that maybe in America today, and this could be a nation wide dilemma, class is almost beginning to surplace, on some level, not exclusively, but on some level, race. And because it seems that we are becoming more class oriented, then maybe this is what has happened in the school system where you have basically an environment of upper middle class white students going to school with lower income black students. And certainly over the years, the black middle class in Chapel Hill has not grown at an alarming rate, so because the black middle class has not increased it's presence. And you have this growing underclass, a lower class, then maybe that in part could explain the clear divisions that exists here and that are exacerbated by the fact that society at large is becoming more class oriented. So the people who were already behind are getting pushed back even further. But I don't know if that's the explanation, but that's what I'm thinking about the dynamics in Chapel Hill. I have no clue because when I came along I had the attitude I can't let class or any other variable become an impediment to my ability to learn because learning is free. To some extent. Now, I might not be able to go to a private school, but I can take advantage of the resources that a public school may offer and I can take advantage of a public library because that is free, and I can take advantage of public resources right here on this campus. So that was the attitude I had and I didn't let the class dynamics make me feel insecure or lower my self esteem and maybe I have compensated for that in some way, or maybe because I was always a fighter you know I responded to it in that way and I'm not sure about that. But even in the African-American community you have these class issues that pit one group against another and create tensions or divisions. Can probably make people who are the under class, lower class more alienated more isolated make them question themselves, their ability to perform, to do well, etc. etc. But I never internalized a lot of that. I was just trying to compensate, overcome, you know do the best with what I had.