Fact Friday 61 - The First Four
Happy Friday everyone!
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which allowed state-sponsored segregation, insofar as it applied to public education. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Warren Court's unanimous (9–0) decision stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This ruling paved the way for integration and was a major victory of the Civil Rights Movement. However, the decision's fourteen pages did not spell out any sort of method for ending racial segregation in schools, and the Court's second decision in Brown II only ordered states to desegregate "with all deliberate speed".
1. Delois Huntley
Just over 3 years later, on September 4, 1957, the same morning that three other African-American students set out to become the first blacks to attend all-white Charlotte public schools, Delois Huntley smiled bravely from the porch of her home in this photo attributed to noted African-American photographer James Peeler. At Alexander Graham Junior High School, she was spared the taunts and attacks that befell others, but her experience was difficult nonetheless.
The strain of her ordeal is evident in this photo. Although photos taken earlier in the day show a hopeful young woman setting out for school, this photo captured Delois sitting alone at a corner desk, very much aware that she is being ignored by her classmates.
After the original Alexander Graham Junior High School campus was torn down in 1958 to make way for what was then known as the Independence expressway (now Independence Blvd/Brookshire Freeway), Huntley attended all-black Second Ward High School, where she graduated in 1963 and would go on to study at both North Carolina Central University and local Johnson C. Smith University. She became a business analyst for Dun and Bradstreet here in Charlotte and in 2008, she received the Old North State award from Governor Mike Easley and was an ardent supporter of school integration. Sadly, Delois passed away in 2015. Condolences to her family.
2 & 3. Gus & Girvaud Roberts
Of the four desegregation pioneers who first integrated Charlotte’s previously all-white schools, two were from the same family. This photo of Gus (right) and Girvaud (left) Roberts leaving for school early the morning of September 4, 1957 is thought to have been taken by James Peeler.
Girvaud was the first to integrate Piedmont Junior High School as a seventh grader. Gus, Girvaud’s older brother, encountered resistance when he entered Central High School but the calm leadership of school administrators prevented trouble. Of the “first four,” only Gus remained to graduate from his school. He went on to work in public education, became superintendent of schools in Darlington, South Carolina, but passed away in September 1992. Condolences to his family. Girvaud became a manager for the Postal Service here in Charlotte.
4. Dorothy Counts
Fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts walked through an angry crowd of white students to become the first African-American to attend Harding High School, my alma mater, at its original campus, now the location of Irwin Avenue Elementary. As she entered school that first day in 1957, she endured taunting, racial epithets, and being spat on. In this photo, Dr. Reginald Hawkins escorts her as she leaves school. As the week wore on, the pressure grew. Dorothy’s locker was ransacked, students threw trash at her, and teachers ignored her. Despite the efforts of some sympathetic classmates, after four days of increasing hostility, Dorothy’s parents withdrew her from Harding and sent her to live with relatives and attend an integrated school in Philadelphia. She would later return to Charlotte to live and became a counselor at Child Care Resources.
Dan L. Morrill would later write: The culmination of the crisis occurred shortly after 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday September 4th at Harding High School. 15-year-old Dorothy Counts left her parents' home on Beatties Ford Road just across from Johnson C. Smith University, where her father taught theology. She was driven to Harding that late summer morning by Dr. Edwin Thompkins, also a member of the Johnson C. Smith faculty. Not since D. H. Hill and his colleagues had charged the dormitories at Davidson College in 1854 had there been such explosive passion on the campus of a local school. A crowd of upperclassmen who had registered earlier that morning congregated in front of the school to listen to John Z. Warlick and his wife, leaders of the White Citizens Council (a white supremacist organization). "It's up to you to keep her out," shouted Mrs. Warlick. Attired in a simple print dress with a broad bow and ribbon dangling from her collar, Dorothy Counts walked up the sidewalk that led to the front door. Hoots and catcalls filled the air. Dorothy Counts remained stoical throughout this electrifying encounter. She said nothing, even though some young whites threw trash and rocks toward her, most landing at her feet. "I do remember something hitting me in the back," she told a newspaper reporter, "but I don't think they were throwing at me, just in front and at my feet." Dorothy Counts xhibited remarkable poise that day. When asked if any whites spat upon her, Counts answered: "Yes. Many. A good many times, mostly on the back."
School will be starting back soon. If you would, parents and teachers please talk to your children about these Charlotteans and their contributions. It would be a huge step towards recognizing the tremendous sacrifices they collectively made on the journey towards the right and access to equal education that we all benefit from today.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
Black America Series: Charlotte North Carolina; 2001, Vermelle Diamond Ely, Grace Hoey Drain, and Amy Rogers
Additional commentary added.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass