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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Sheila Florence, January 20, 2001. Interview K-0544. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Harassment of black student desegregating white school

Florence remembers her experiences as a black student in an all-white school: white students stared at her and taunted her, refused to choose her for games in the playground or partner with her in the classroom, and threw spitballs. Eventually, as more black students enrolled, the harassment lessened.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Sheila Florence, January 20, 2001. Interview K-0544. 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

BOB GILGOR:
Did your minister get involved with your decision to go to the white school?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Yes he did. My minister, Dr. J.R. Manley, everyone knew Reverend Manley at the time, he's like one of the outstanding people in the community and plus he was on the school board at the time, he was the only black person on the school board, and he was for blacks going to Chapel Hill High, to integrate the schools, so he was for it.
BOB GILGOR:
So you were one of the first four students to go to Chapel Hill Junior High School?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Yes, one of the first four.
BOB GILGOR:
Do you remember your first day?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Oh yes, that's something you never forget.
BOB GILGOR:
Can you share it with me?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Well, I got all dressed up so I would look nice, I was thinking I was going to fit in, so I looked nice, because it was like 2 or 3 blocks from where I lived, I walked to school so therefore I missed riding on the school bus so, uh, I walked, I think I went alone, no I think one, might have been my next door neighbor, no I think was alone, I remember I was scared to death though. So I went and found my homeroom class and everybody was looking at me cause I guess I was different. Let's see, what else was there, I was called names and people would shun me, first day, and what else, I felt out of place. But, I just told myself it was gonna get better, and what else was it, that was about it the first day.
BOB GILGOR:
Did it get better?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Not much better, cause I was called names, people would see me coming and they would say to their friends "move out the way, move out the way, there come a nigger, nigger's coming." So, could we stop a minute? Well, didn't have any friends, and I was sort of alone, everybody shunned me and I felt lost, didn't know where I was going. And by being in a new school, I didn't have somebody to take me under their wing and say "we supposed to go to this place," or "I help you find where we need to go."
BOB GILGOR:
Nobody was helping you?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
No.
BOB GILGOR:
So there were no role models, like at Lincoln High school, did you have anybody to look up to like that?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
No, didn't have any of those and then at lunchtime I sit at the table, nobody wanted to sit over there with me. I had to eat alone, whereas Lincoln you had your little buddies whereas up there I didn't know anybody, I eat by myself. I'd just feel alone, people be looking, whispering, talking, calling me names, and throwing things. It was just a bad experience.
BOB GILGOR:
How long did it stay bad like that?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
For a while. Until my Mom called some of the white people she knew that was worked with integrating the schools. She called one or two of them and told them how it was and she said, "well, they told me 'I told my daughter . . '" to eat lunch with me or to take up time with me. And after a few days that's what they had started to do. I had one girl, she'd come and eat with me, or sorta spend a little time with me, talk to me.
BOB GILGOR:
A white girl?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
White girl.
BOB GILGOR:
Just one?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Just one. And then maybe later, I don't think the first year wasn't too good
BOB GILGOR:
The whole year?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
The whole year. They called me names and then shun me in the hallway and then in my classroom I'd be sitting there, we had tables where we had to sit where we had our seats that we would sit in and some of the older ones, maybe some of the boys, I remember the girls didn't do it, they would have spit balls. They would get some paper and roll up, you know how to do spit balls, they'd put it in a rubber band and they'd shoot and they'd hit me with it. Didn't nobody, I'd try to ignore it, then you could see them coming on the floor, or I'd be hit and tell the teacher and lot of times teacher be at the board writing with the back turned and they didn't see. Then after it happened several times I'd go up and tell the teacher and then nobody knew anything about it. So they didn't tell. They didn't tell on each other.
BOB GILGOR:
Would you sit by yourself or would you sit with the white students?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
No, we had seats, they were lined up, rows, so I didn't sit by myself. AS I got up in higher grades we had biology class, I think back on biology class where, like ninth grade you had PE and you choose partners, play ball with and you be on they team, nobody wanted to be on my, they didn't want me on they team, so I felt left out and alone. And, then the teacher would just put me on somebody's team, and then as time went by and I'd be in biology class, you know you'd get partners to dissect animals and then nobody wanted to be my partner and then finally one girl, Mary Huff, that was her name, she came and said she'd be my partner.
BOB GILGOR:
how did you get the strength to handle it, all these things? It sounds like you're pretty much alone, you're hearing all these bad things, nobody wants to be with you except this one girl?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Well, that's just something I had to do, just had to go through it. I don't know, just the help of the Lord, help me get through.
BOB GILGOR:
Were you able to talk to your mother or father?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Oh yeah, my mother, my mother was there with me, she helped me through a lot and -
BOB GILGOR:
You must have been angry inside
SHEILA FLORENCE:
I was
BOB GILGOR:
How did you handle that anger?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
I'm a person that just keeps things held in, just kept it to myself.
BOB GILGOR:
Did you ever feel like taking a swing at someone or calling names back?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Yeah, I was gonna say I did, I tried to defend myself.
BOB GILGOR:
How did that work out?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Well, there's only one of me and a whole lot of them [unclear] , so you can figure I couldn't get very far, I just ignored them unless it got so bad that I'd go to the principal, miss Marshbanks, that was her name, and she helped. She kept me encouraged and told me, try not to let it bother me and just if I had any problems to come back, to bring names to her, that she'd try to talk to them, and she would be there for me if I needed somebody to talk to.
BOB GILGOR:
So she was a friend to you?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Yeah, that's what you call it.
BOB GILGOR:
Were there particular classes of students who bothered you and others who left you alone
SHEILA FLORENCE:
I think so, some of the white lower class was brought up to not like black people, or Negroes back then they called them, but the ones like upper class, they might laugh or not say anything, not let it bother them, they wouldn't participate.
BOB GILGOR:
But none of them stood up for you?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
Not at first, but maybe as time went by, they got used to me being there and seeing me and some of the other girls had started taking up time with me, then they changed. It took a while. But it was a long time before things got good.
BOB GILGOR:
When did it get good?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
The next year.
BOB GILGOR:
When more blacks went to the school?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
More blacks.
BOB GILGOR:
And you were in 10th grade, at the high school?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
At the high school. So by being more blacks I think it got better but we were still called names.
BOB GILGOR:
Were there any teachers who went out of their way to help you, or who encouraged you, or saw some of the abuse that you were taking and tried to help you with it?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
One man stands out, I was in 11th grade, he encouraged me, helped me along, I guess all the teachers would good, they treated me fairly.
BOB GILGOR:
You felt as though they treated you fairly, they would look at you, or call on you if you raised your hand?
SHEILA FLORENCE:
No, I was treated fair, but I always felt a little inferior because their teaching, I didn't feel as much as they did, as the white students. So that made me feel bad, and a little inferior to them.