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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Patricia Neal, June 6, 1989. Interview C-0068. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Process of integration and the role of the County Board of Education

Neal describes the impact of <cite>Alexander v. Holmes</cite> (1969) on the integration process in Durham, North Carolina. Following the decision, Neal explains that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overrode the request of the County Board of Education to postpone integration until the following school year. Neal describes the response of the community and the board to this decision and she emphasizes how the interest of the children was at the heart of the process.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Patricia Neal, June 6, 1989. Interview C-0068. 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

But the NAACP had sued the Durham County schools for integration of the schools. The School Board, when I became a member of it, had had an integration plan accepted by the Federal District Court in Greensboro in 1968, which said that the high schools and junior high schools would be integrated in the fall of 1969, and because of space limitations and the need to purchase some mobile units to accomplish integration at the elementary school level, the Federal District Judge in Greensboro had given then a year's delay for the integration of the elementary schools. So the elementary schools were to be fully integrated in the fall of 1970. In October, well, let me go back. So the high schools and junior high schools were integrated in the fall of 1969 as the court order directed. I remember thinking at that time, we had three high schools, Southern High School, and Jordan High School, and Northern High School, and based on the principals that were employed in those high schools at that time, I remember speculating in my own mind as to how successful the integration of these high schools would be. There was a lot of discussion in the community that there would be problems at Southern High School because the Southern High School mascot was the rebel, and they use the rebel flag, and there was a lot of concern that that would be, and it was pretty much that the community thought of it as the red neck part of town. There was less concern about Jordan High School because primarily, Jordan High School, over the years, has been attended by pretty affluent families, both black and white. And there the aspirations of the parents are in concert, their expectations of their children, and something like ninety percent of Jordan's youngsters go on to four-year colleges and that kind of thing. So there was not much concern about how integration was going to work at Jordan High School because of the backgrounds of the children who went there. And Northern High School, nobody really knew how it would go there. You had quite a mix. But I remember thinking that we had a principal, Sidney Ray, at Southern High School who is probably one of the most sensitive and compassionate people that I know. At the opposite end of the spectrum, at Northern High School, we had one of the toughest, old line, hard-nosed, rigid principals in the system, and I remember thinking to myself, "There will never be a problem at Southern High School because Sidney Ray won't let there be a problem. If there's going to be a problem, I'm going to bet it's going to be at Northern High School." We'll come back to that in a minute because I need to go back to the chronology of what happened next. At any rate, the high schools and junior high schools were integrated in the fall. Then we had the Alexander vs. Holmes decision out of a court in, I think it was Alabama, in the Circuit Court in Alabama, which said not only will you integrate, but you'll do it now. The "all deliberate speed" rationale is over, all deliberate speed is not taking place, and the Supreme Court spoke very forthrightly and Alexander-Holmes said you'll do it now. The very next day, the NAACP filed suit in the Court of Appeals in Richmond, and said based on the Alexander-Holmes Decision, we want the elementary schools in Durham integrated now. So the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case in December. I believe it was the eighth, and I went with our Board attorney to Richmond, and our whole approach to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was that it would not help any child, black or white, to integrate the schools in the middle of the school year, that it would cause tremendous disruption, whether they be black or white. [Students] form attachments to their teacher. The teacher spends the first three or four months getting to know the children and evaluates them and figures out how they're going to teach them, and to undo all that would be a terrible disadvantage to all the children, to play "turn over the fruit basket" in the middle of the year. That was the first case that Clement Haynsworth sat on in the Fourth Circuit Court after he was turned down as a member of the Supreme Court. Remember, he was a Nixon appointee. And, at any rate, despite all of our pleadings, and it was a sincere pleading. It had absolutely nothing to do with trying to drag our feet about integration. Our elementary school plan was already drawn up. It was already in the hands of the Federal District Court in Greensboro, and we had simply been granted one year's reprieve for the other half of our school system. At that point, integration in Durham was a fait accompli. There was no resistance to it, but we did argue long and hard. I remember sitting in that Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond on the eighth of December with tears rolling down my face because I knew what we were going to be faced with, and to have them sit there and not listen to what we were saying I found to be very cruel. But at the same time, the judge's point was that you'd had fifteen years to accomplish this and you haven't done it; don't blame us because now kids are going to be made to be uncomfortable. At any rate, before we could get back to Durham the next day, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision was in our attorney's office, so there was no doubt in my mind that that decision was made before we ever made the arguments in court on Tuesday.
I'd like to stop there for just a minute because it seems that, in each community in North Carolina, there are different points at which emotions ran high or just key moments, and this seems to be one for Durham. How would you say, is there a way to describe how different groups in the community felt about this particular decision? The School Board wanted that extra six months to finish out the school year. Were there other groups in the community that were in favor of that decision?
My memory is that, in the first place, I don't recall that there was a great deal of objection by the community to integrating the schools at that point in time. I think everybody, well, obviously not everybody, but Durham, you have to remember, is such a cosmopolitan community, and it had very, very, as it has always had, significant black leadership. It's been noted for that, not only in North Carolina, but really all over the country, with North Carolina Mutual being the largest black-owned insurance company in the world and North Carolina Central and Duke University and the large number of people who had been brought into the Durham community. It's almost hard to find somebody who is a native Durhamite. There have been a lot of people who have come into this community who gave it a flavor different from other North Carolina communities where I think the resistance to integration was a lot stronger, and there was a great deal more resistance and very ugly confrontations than there were in Durham. But when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals came down, and here we are right before Christmas, and that decision is that, the order was that the schools will be integrated after Christmas. Here we are with the kids ready to get out for Christmas. The teachers are all going home out of state, out of the city. It means that all the children, all the teachers' equipment, books, everything has to be shuffled during the Christmas vacation. The Board went into a meeting Tuesday afternoon when we got back from Richmond, and although most of the work on the integration of elementary schools had already been done, we still had to finish it and fine tune it, and it had to be, the court demanded that that plan be in the Federal District Court in Greensboro by the following Monday afternoon. So we met for twelve hours at a time Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, because the secretary to the attorney then had to get the descriptions of the school districts, and we're talking about fourteen elementary schools, and the boundaries had to be drawn around those schools and that meant that you had to have a description like "the boundary for Pearsontown will be from thirty-two degrees north along the railroad tracks to on and on." So it was going to take the secretary the whole weekend to type it, so we met in constant sessions. The community went berserk, I'll tell you that. My phone did not stop ringing. I met with groups. They wanted me to go to jail. They wanted the Board to be in contempt of Court. They did not want this order carried out, and it took every effort by the members of that Board to convince the community and to lower the level of hostility in the community to get them to understand that the Board did not have a choice, that the schools were going to be integrated on the third of January whether the Board did it or not and that, I remember saying that if I could go to jail and take a contempt of Court citation if it would make a difference, I would the willing to do that, but the fact was that either the Board was going to make this decision or the Federal Court was going to make this decision and that, after all, what we're trying to do is protect the children and that it would be best for the children if we made that decision about who was going to draw boundary lines rather than leave it to the Federal District Court.