Charlotte, NC: Birthplace (and Place of Death) of Integration in Public Schools
Charlotte, North Carolina is Queen City of the Southeast (Tierney), the second largest financial hub in the United States (McMillan) and the home of the 2012 Democratic National Convention (Morrill). However, Charlotte has more to offer than a crown, Bank of America and future Obama speeches. Charlotte’s other title is the modern birthplace of the public school integration movement (Davis). The inequalities in Charlotte’s school district led to the forced integration of schools in the 1970s which influenced educational integration across the country (Unks). However, Charlotte is now seeing a reversal in the enormous progress made towards equal education for all students (Davis).
In 1865 and 1868 the 13th Amendment and 14th Amendments were respectively added to the Constitution of the United States freeing slaves across the country and allowing Blacks the right to citizenship (U.S Constitution). Even with these pivotal advancements in United States History, “separate but equal” remained the standard (Separate). Blacks lived, socialized, learned and worked in their own establishments while Whites lived, socialized, learned and worked separately (Separate). The existence of these separate Americas was solidified by the 1895 Supreme Court Case Plessy vs. Ferguson which ruled in favor of the legality of separate but equal in the United States (Separate). The plaintiff of this case, Homer A Plessy, sued a railway company for denying him entrance into a car based on his race. The court ruled that as long as two different cars were the same the two could remain separated by race (Separate). With separate but equal remaining the rule of the land for nearly a century, segregation became a part of the American way of life. Blacks and Whites lived in completely different spheres of life, typically interacting rarely and briefly. With the separation of the two races there was bound to be some abuse with the equality system (Separate). For example, there are classic cases in restaurants where the White section was spacious, clean and received excellent service, while restaurants who served African Americans reserved the cramped, messy, poorly serviced section for Blacks (Trueman). The same system of quality was translated into schools. One example of a pre-integration school is West Charlotte High School, which is still in existence today (Culp).
West Charlotte, an all-Black High school until 1969, was one of the least endowed schools in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School district. Students received second hand and battered supplies from the district while other “White” schools received new, well-functioning supplies for every classroom (Culp). William Culp a white social studies teacher at West Charlotte the year before integration 1968 was very aware of the gross discrepancies between West Charlotte, an all-black school, and Independence High School, situated in a predominately white neighborhood. At this time, overhead projectors were state-of-the-art classroom technology and Independence had plenty of projectors. In fact, Independence had so many projectors each classroom received a projector and extras were placed in storage. On the other hand, West Charlotte needed overhead projectors. Culp shared in his interview that the five teachers of the social studies department were required to share the same broken projector. William Culp and the four other teachers in his department met with Independence teachers and in a “covert operation” stole a few of the unused overhead projectors in storage for West Charlotte classrooms. After several months, the principal at Independence was tipped off that West Charlotte teachers had “indefinitely borrowed” his extra projectors and contacted the principal at West Charlotte High (Culp). William Culp noted that the principal at West Charlotte faced a bit of a dilemma. He wanted to help the students but had no idea how to equalize the playing field for his students without breaking the laws against stealing that were established within the school district. Many administrators in segregated high schools faced the similar dilemmas of navigating the racial road blocks which presented great challenges to the overall learning environment (Culp). Although, West Mecklenburg’s story of inequality occurred the year before schools were officially integrated in Charlotte (Gaillard), separate but equal had been ruled unconstitutional in 1954 by the landmark case Brown vs. Kansas City Board of Education (Separate). In this case, the plaintiff wanted his daughter to have the best education and to send her to the better equipped “White Schools” on the other side of the district. With the decision reached by Plessy v. Ferguson less than 100 years earlier, the district argued that separate but equal schools were constitutional. However, the Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the plaintiff noting that separate schools, especially the gross discrepancies within the Kansas City District, did not equate to proportionate learning environments and overruled the practice of segregation across the country (Separate).
Brown vs. Board of Education was passed by the Supreme Court in 1954, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg area schools remained segregated. Granted, a handful of African American students ventured into predominately white schools but their educational careers ranged from extraordinarily contentious to short lived. In 1959, the predominately black Charlotte City Schools and the majority white Mecklenburg County Schools were combined to form Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Even with the merging of the two districts, the black schools and the white schools functioned as “dual attendance areas (Gaillard).” But in 1965 Darius and Vera Swann, an African-American couple, brought suit against Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for not allowing their son to attend a closer, “whiter” school (CMS). The case was brought before US District Judge James McMillan who ruled Charlotte- Mecklenburg Schools needed to incorporate “all known ways of desegregating, including busing” into their plan of enforcing integration. Members of the school board and white parents in Charlotte- Mecklenburg were not pleased with the court’s decision and the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in agreement with Judge McMillan and ordered Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to begin desegregating and submit a plan of integration to the district court for the school year 1969-1970 (Gaillard). The school district submitted a plan that included shutting down all predominately black schools and busing black students to the white areas of town. However, this plan was turned down by the courts and the court hired an outside consultant, Dr. John Finger, to create a report. In Dr. Finger’s report, fewer black schools were shut down and bussing students was better distributed. In the summer of 1969, the courts accepted Dr. Finger’s busing plan and implemented it into schools for the 1969-1970 school year (Gaillard). The implementation of busing in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools was taxing on the society. For starters, the overall cost of transportation rose from $542,000 annually to $2 million per year (Poe) with an additional startup cost of $3.5 million (Gaillard). Additionally, the number of students bused to and from school rose from 23,000 to 47,000 students (Poe). Class start times were adjusted in order to accommodate the new busing schedules. In the former system, classes started around 9 AM, but to accommodate the new busing system, some high schools began at 7AM. Students also caught the bus even earlier (Gaillard). The average bus ride was 35 minutes one-way to school, but some students could be on the bus for up to 75 minutes (Gaillard).
Another major issue surrounding the new integration of black and white students was the relationship between students who did not normally socialize. For example, in the first school year of integration junior and senior high schools saw a sharp rise in the number of disciplinary problems especially those between white students and black students (Gaillard). However, no additional disciplinary problems were reported in elementary schools (Gaillard). Furthermore, Charlotte Mecklenburg schools lost students due to a phenomenon known as “polite white flight.” In the “polite white flight” associated with the integration of Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools, parents with children in white public schools removed their children from Charlotte Mecklenburg public schools and placed them in either newly created private schools tailored to upper middle class white families or moved out of the district completely (Unks). Although parents pulled their children from the district, the distribution of students in Charlotte Mecklenburg did not drastically change (Poertner). A high school that showcased the beauty of the integration system was West Charlotte High School, previously mentioned as the disenfranchised black high school. West Charlotte was the only originally black high school that bused in a large percentage of white students. However, the drastic change did not increase violence or hatred amongst the students, it created a dynamic culture surrounding West Charlotte (The Mighty Lions).
In 1986 a Florida newspaper singled out the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district as a model district regarding its policies on integration. The newspaper article discussed students’ feelings on integration and discussed how happy students were with their schools and their diverse environments (Poertner). However, not everyone was happy with the integration policies offered by the district (Unks). In 1997, William Cappacionne, a parent of a white student, filed suit against the school district for denying his daughter entry into a school based on requirements to fulfill race requirements. The case was argued in court for several years until in 2000, the U.S Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Cappacionne and ruled that busing students around to fulfill quotas was not constitutional. However, this decision has not been appealed to the Supreme Court for fears the Supreme Court may over-rule the Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg-Board of Education decision made in 1970 when it upheld that a school district must, “through any means necessary,” influence the spread of integration within its schools (Unks). In the US fourth circuit District, which includes NC, VA, SC and GA, integration is no longer a necessary part of the school routine. Issues in the south have risen as a result of the overturning of Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education (Unks). For example, in Wake County, there is debate surrounding the current state of area public schools. The system in place allows for one of the most balanced proportions of race and socio-economic status in the state of North Carolina. However, some upper middle class parents are not interested in having their children learn with poorer students because of fears of reduction in class time and resources to their children (LeClaire). Looking back at the history of schools in North Carolina, Charlotte’s education system has been a major contributor to the resolution for segregation in the south but ultimately became the problem to progress in integration. Growing as a city without educational integration, to a city where integration became an accepted and lauded part of the daily routine made Charlotte famous in the education world. But when the city regressed by making segregation desirable, her name became black listed. The spiraling back and forth of Charlotte’s education history has given her a simultaneously rich and infamous name in the history of modern southern education.
About the Author
Kourtney A Bradshaw is a first year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill majoring in Anthropology and History. She is from Charlotte, North Carolina and grew up in the in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system.
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