Black students riot at CHHS
In this excerpt, Norwood remembers that he and his fellow African American high school students were reluctant to leave Lincoln High School, despite the resource inequality between it and the all-white Chapel Hill High School. Some of the difficulties they anticipated materialized: prejudiced teachers, harassment by white students. Frustrated, Norwood and some other black students locked the doors and started damaging the school.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Raney Norwood, January 9, 2001. Interview K-0556. 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
BG: I appreciate your letting me talk with you. The first question is, would you tell me what it was like when you were growing up—it was Carrboro, is that right?
RN: That’s right.
BG: --what life was like for you, what your parents were like, what your house was like. Just take it and run with it.
RN: OK. I was raised in Carrboro. My father, he worked at the university as a janitor. My momma was a housemaid for a while for Coach Jim Taylor, the coach of the Carolina football team
We grew up in a big two-story kind of raggedy house on Main Street in Carrboro. I attended a black elementary school. Then I went on to a black high school, which was Lincoln High School. At Lincoln High School, you know, all the teachers and the principal treated the students like we were family members. ( ) but you know they went to church, they attended games with us, they took us on as their kids when our parents weren’t there so we had great contact with the teachers, the principal.
In 1966, we were told that we were going into an integrated school. This really tee’d a lot of my classmates and myself off because we were really loving it at Lincoln High School even though we were getting hand-me-downs from Chapel Hill High School, which was a high school. When I mean hand-me-downs, like the band uniforms, some of the football equipment. Used stuff. But we made the best of it. I remember when I was in the marching band. They gave me a band suit that was way too big. The pants were raggedy. I took it to my mother and she did a lot of work on it. Made it fit, look good. The rest of the band members, their parents did it in time to perform so we could show off.
But getting back to Chapel Hill High School, when we got out of there, it seemed like we lost it all. Because they put us in an environment that we were not used to. And that environment was being around a lot of white people. This is going to sound strange, but speaking for myself, it seemed like we couldn’t speak their language. We couldn’t live up to the expectations of the teachers there. They were piling up a lot of homework on us that we didn’t have the resources and the time to do. A lot of the white kids, they had encyclopedias and dictionaries and stuff in the home. When we got there to do a book report, we had to go to the public library, which is quite a distance from the house. We had very limited time to do that. We got out of the school at three-thirty. Our parents would give us until six or six-thirty just before it gets dark to get back home. So we had to cram just to do a book report.
We had a lot of teachers—let me rephrase that—we had some teachers at the high school that were real prejudiced. I’m not going to call a name, but there was an English teacher, in the class we talked about it a lot because she didn’t hide her prejudice, she came out with it.
BG: How did she do that?
RN: Well, for one thing, when we came to class, she would make comments. They weren’t hardcore racial comments, but you know. A couple of times she’d call us Teddy Bears, stupid, dumb. She would give assignments—and we know, different assignments from white students. She’d flunk three-quarters of the class at the end of the year—which made the blacks who had to graduate on time to attend summer school. At the time, summer school would cost fifty dollars to get that unit that we needed to graduate. My father was a janitor. That kind of money was like paying out, now, five or six thousand dollars. But he came up with it, because parents back then wanted to see their children graduate.
So we attended summer school. All of us came out with high grades. We had a great teacher. She was white. She had about twenty students. And she took hand-on-hand with each student, teaching us. This was in our junior year. So in our senior year we were pretty prepared when we got back in to school [tape stops].
I guess I stopped where I’d been in summer school. Oh yes, my senior class. The blacks were getting kind of fed up with what was going on in the school. Sometimes we were walking down the hallway and white students would spit on us. They attacked the black female.
A friend of mine, Walter Durham—we called him ( )—and myself, we decided, “Hey, it’s time to do something.” Nobody listening to us from the office. We came up with the idea that we wanted to start a riot. A lot of riots were going on in the sixties. We were looking at the TV and stuff. This was about the time that Martin Luther King got shot. ( ) and I, I guess we were the main leaders that started this riots. So what we did, we started doing damage to the school. We changed the door’s lock. We didn’t do no physical harm to the students themselves, but a couple of friends of mine ( ) on the school bus times. But we got the teachers, people in the community, we got their attention.
But a lot of the students, they was in class, didn’t realize what was going on. When they did, they fled to the bathroom, they locked themselves in the bathroom. A lot of the white students thought that we was out to get them and try to hurt them. And like I said, we weren’t really mad with the students. We were mad with the system. We wanted to the people to listen, to find out what was going on with us.
BG: How long had you planned doing this?
RN: It wasn’t no plan. It was just then, coming in to school that morning, sitting there on the radiators, talking amongst ourselves.
BG: Is there something that sparked it?
RN: It was around time—it was a day or two after Martin Luther King got shot. That sort of set it off. I can’t sit here thirty-some years later and remember, you know--. We would sit among ourselves and what set it off--. But I guess we were just being fed up by a lot of stuff that was going on.
BG: And when you say you chained the door shut—to the whole building?
RN: All the doors.
BG: All the doors?
RN: All the doors. We’re trying to remember where we got the chains and locks from. ( ). I think we went to the shop or somewhere in the area. Some of the doors didn’t have locks. We tied the chain and put sticks in the doors.
BG: But there was no physical violence that was part of that—other students?
RN: A couple students got hit. I will not sit here and lie to you. We attacked two or three of the students. One was calling us niggers. One that was spitting, you know. Those that broke lines, you know, like the lunch line. A few of them was attacked, but like I said they was target people.
I had a lot of white friends that I made in those two years. A lot of them were really close friends. One white classmate of mine, as a matter of fact, he wanted to join us and run. But I could not let him do that because we didn’t want him to get hurt. A super-nice guy. Nice parents. His brother, all them were nice. But he wanted to run with us. You know, we were like a little gang. ( ) The day after we decided to leave school, eight or nine of went and got three quarts of beer. Got drunk off three quarts of beer. You know, we couldn’t drink that stuff back them. But some of the students that saw that made it a big to-do. I guess it was a big thing because it was something that never was done. It was just a handful. I guess about five of us really were acting involved.
BG: How long did you keep the door locked?
RN: Until Mr. McDougle and Mr. R.D. Smith came. And Miss Clemens, which was a black teacher. They came and took control of the building.
BG: What did they say to you?
RN: Oh, Mr. Smith, he came in, he sit with us and told us what we were doing is wrong. We taking something that really didn’t belong to us, that there were better ways to go about it. Miss Clemens she came out like a drill sergeant. And she commanded and demanded that it’s time to come back to the classroom and I don’t put up with this bit. And we loved her because she was a firm, strong teacher and she was the type of teacher she did not look through the glass in black and white. She looked at it, my students, you all are my kids. We had a lot of respect for her. She introduced a lot of fear in us, the way she would speak. Also there was a lot of love.
BG: What did she teach?