Brown vs. BOE: 60 years later
The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and effectively ended segregation in the United States, turned 60 last week.
The Court later ordered that integration be carried out “with all deliberate speed” and in Union County, it began during the 1960s.
According to its website, Monroe High School was the first high school in the state to fully integrate, due to a fire at the Winchester School. It was fully integrated in 1967 and 1968.
Bea Colson, a former teacher and principal, remembers attending segregated schools and then teaching during desegregation.
Colson started teaching in 1964 in an all-black school in High Point and moved to Union County later.
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Her siblings were among the first students to leave East Union School and attend Forest Hills High School when they were able.
“It was terrifying for them,” she said. She said they were “blessed” because they went as a group and bonded.
She remembered her brother telling her he took a science test and received the highest grade. The teacher then scolded the class for being lazy and not getting the highest grade.
However, she said, there were teachers who embraced the new students and her brothers found acceptance in sports.
“Sports was an open door because the coaches embraced those kids who were interested in playing and had strength in playing,” Colson said. “They had a good time...I salute people like Coach Carter and Coach Hargett who helped the kids.”
Colson left Winchester and went to Benton Heights School as an elementary school teacher. Around that time she also received he master’s of education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She recalled being asked by principals whether or not she had any experience teaching white children or working with white children.
She said she did not remember any of the children, black or white, having trouble getting along.
“They were just kids,” she said. She said some of the parents were waiting to see, “bu I don’t remember any of the parents being mean or ill.”
“I love teaching and I felt very, very prepared,” she said. “I had a good time teaching at Benton Heights School.”
She said she thought to herself that her responsibility is to help the children, regardless of color, and when they really want to learn, it does not matter who the teacher is, they just need to come in prepared to learn.
The biggest thing about the transition was that the schools were separate and “truly unequal” an.
“We didn’t have the wide range of college prep classes in the black schools that they had at the white schools,” she said. She said one of the biggest opportunities for students was being prepared for college.
She said residents in Union County decided to obey the law and move forward with education.
“I thank God, I really do, I thank God for allowing the parents and the children to have made the transition in Union County...probably as uninterrupted as far as the transition was made as it was,” she said. “I am just grateful to all of those people both living and dead who were able to decide to move ahead.”
“Union County, I would say, was a step ahead of the other areas,” she said. She said they did not make it impossible for kids to go to new schools. She remembered that neighboring Anson County closed its high school and parents in other counties raised money to build private schools.
Minnie Crowder also remembers a fairly smooth transition. She taught at the Winchester School and received a call “out of the blue” to teach at Walter Bickett Elementary because there were not enough first-grade students and Winchester.
“I knew from the beginning that they didn’t want it and it was pretty hard,” she said.
She said that summer she had to observe classes being taught at Benton Heights and observe the teachers.
“I didn’t expect them to accept me, but I got right along,” she said. She said sometimes she had to speak up,but she was not mistreated and the principal was very supportive.
“I didn’t suffer from going there,” she said.
She said she did not have any trouble with students and is still friends and close with some of the students she taught in elementary school.
She remembered one little boy whose mother told him that he was going to have a black teacher. He came into class that day and after school his mother asked him if Crowder was his teacher. He told her that he did not have the black teacher, but his teacher had a “bad sunburn.”
“I really didn’t have any trouble there, I enjoyed teaching them,” she said.
Colson said community leaders and respect for the law made the transition as smooth as possible.
“I think respect for the law, respect for one’s self and the mission of educating the children, as far as I’m concerned,...they seep through and they became the focal point,” Colson said.
She noted that the school did not truly “integrate” for another eight to 10 years when the children were comfortable and did went to school without thinking about the race of the child sitting next to them.
Sixty years later, educators today reflected on the current state of education and found that education is still not equitable for the most part.
The National Schools Boards Association found in a special report that the number of schools with a minority enrollment about 90 percent has “climbed precipitously.”
“The mission of the National School Boards Association to advocate for equity and excellence remains ever-vigilant as we mark the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision,” NSBA President Anne M. Byrne, a school board member from New York’s Nanuet Union Free School District, said in a statement. “School board leadership is essential to protect our public schools and demand that equitable funding and equitable resources be made available so that each child has the opportunity to achieve, no matter where they live.”
A study by the Civil Rights Project, based in the University of California in Los Angeles, also found that racial and economic isolation is increasing in the state.
The study found that the number of intensely segregated, schools that enroll fewer than 10 percent white students, , schools rose from less than 1 percent in 1989 to 20.2 percent in 2010.
“North Carolina is losing some hard-won gains just when its changing population and the demands of its economy make them more important than ever,” Professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, said in a statement. “There are better policies that would be a big win for the state’s future.”
Union County Public Schools has been working for several years to close the “achievement gap” between students of different ethnicities and genders. A representative from the school system could not be reached before press time.