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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William Dallas Herring, February 14, 1987. Interview C-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Joining the Duplin County Board of Education

Herring describes his 1951 foray into the politics of education as a member of the Duplin County School Board. He immediately set out to eliminate waste and improve Duplin schools by starting a countywide conversation. Herring's public pursuit of reform introduced the idea to Duplin residents that not all their schools were equally good.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William Dallas Herring, February 14, 1987. Interview C-0034. 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

I graduated at Davidson in 1938, and in 1939 I was elected mayor of this village and spent twelve years in that role. We got the streets paved, the water and sewer system installed, and a new town hall, and fire department building. I thought my public career was over. I had the personal disappointment of being rejected a number of times by the young lady on whom I had fixed my affections [laughter]. I sort of had the idea that I would withdraw into my Trappist monastery and have very little to do with the world, but the good Lord or somebody had a different view of it. In 1951 Robert Carr was elected to the legislature which created a vacancy on the Duplin County Board of Education. January 1st, I reluctantly agreed to serve out the rest of his term. I was approached three times. The first two times I gave them a negative answer. I didn't have any children, and I thought it was a job that parents should do. But on the third occasion I remembered the good Lord called Samuel, and he finally listened. Maybe he was trying to tell me something. I went over there [to Kenansville] to the meeting. The superintendent had everything lined up. All we had to do was open the meeting. As Hiden Ramsey 3 said many times about the trustees of the Negro colleges, they didn't have any authority. 3 Hiden Ramsey, retired editor of the Asheville Citizen Times, former member of the State Board of Education and first chairman of the Board of Higher Education. This was before '54. They opened the meeting with prayer and closed it with profanity and went home [laughter] after their annual meeting. They couldn't hire the teachers. They couldn't hire the president. All they did was take responsibility for whatever went wrong. With all due respect to my colleagues and the superintendent, that's the way the Duplin Board of Education was going about its business. And I remember having a discussion with O. P. Johnson, the superintentent. I said, "If I'm going to spend my time at this job as your draftee, you're going to hear from me. I want to see some results." I'm a graduate of Rose Hill High School, and I went to Davidson College to compete with boys from Woodberry Forest, McCalleys, and Darlington, and Central High School in Charlotte, I might add. They had already gone through most of the first year curriculum, and it was foreign to me. I felt at a great disadvantage. I resolved sometime to do something about it. And here I am in the place of responsibility, and we're going to do something about the quality of education. The superintendent welcomed that. Coincidentally, he told us that Guy Phillips had a grant from the Kellogg Foundation. He was dean of the University School of Education, Chapel Hill. I said, "Well, this is great. The experts will come down and tell us what's wrong and that will straighten it out, and I can go on back to my monastery." Well, Allan Hurlburt was new to the faculty there, and Guy put him in charge of it. He had been at East Carolina and later went to Duke after a brief stay in the State Department of Public Instruction. Summarizing very quickly what happened there: they didn't give us any expert advice. I thought we threw our twelve hundred dollars away. I think that's what we contributed. There were seven counties, Harnett—I forget now, Concord, Cabbarus, Stanley, I believe. The process that they used was rather socratic. It tried to elicit from us an understanding of what constituted a good public school education, and, second, how you're going to get such a program. We decided—we only had fifteen high schools. We visited all fifteen of them. Had a committee of citizens from each of the districts, black and white. This was in 1951 before the court decreed that we should integrate. Blacks and whites in Duplin County were sitting down eating together and talking about mutual problems. I could see a rather quick transition in the thinking of the citizens, sixty odd people, from intensive interest in their own district school to an interest in the whole county. We were all surprised to see that others had better or worse schools than we had—no real equality. The more we met the more citizens wanted to meet with us. I recall the county commissioners were concerned about citizens meeting in different places, all about the county. They were not involved and asked to be permitted to attend the meetings, and the legislator also. Pretty soon we had a countywide citizens movement going without realizing what we were doing.
Well, I'll declare.
We began seriously to debate the issue: What kind of schools do we have actually? Are they big enough? Are they too big? Are they too little? What constitutes a good size?