Old foes square off yet again

Staff WriterJune 13, 2009 

The school board and the county commissioners had a regular set-to the other day. Over money, naturally, and, naturally, the commissioners won.

This week's affray may have been a little harsher than usual (well, a whole lot harsher), but such confrontations are not unusual, in Durham or anywhere else where schools want money and counties hold purse strings. It's passion on one hand, pragmatism on the other, and politics when you get right down to it.

And in Durham, schools, money and politics have been interplaying since the start; and sometimes in harsher form than even what we saw this past week.

Now, lip service aside, public education has not historically enjoyed universal support in our Old North State. Even that "first state university" over on the Hill had been in business more than a generation before it got its first public appropriation. With taxes about as popular as tobacco hornworms, taxpayer-financed book learning was slow to catch on even after the legislature allowed it in 1839.

By the 1880s, though, Durham was on the rise and, already image-conscious, its burghers and boosters reckoned having a public school would look progressive. Right after Durham County was created in 1881, Durham got the state's approval to hold a vote on a local school tax.

Some prominent citizens were agin' it, Washington Duke, for one. Some thought it unfair to tax all for the benefit of some. Owners of private schools claimed unfair competition. And there was the race business.

Durham's enabling law provided that white taxpayers' money would go to a white school, blacks' to a black. Figuring that the take from black taxpayers would total about $9.20, school opponents claimed the law was a racial injustice.

Still, the school tax passed the voters 3 to 1. A public school for white kids opened Sept. 4, 1882. All was OK for three years, until voters approved a $15,000 school bond issue. For the unbowed opposition, that was just too much. Atlas Rigsbee, who owned a "female seminary," went to court and got the Durham school system declared unconstitutional on the grounds of race discrimination.

School supporters went back to the drawing board and the law books to draft a legal law. Meanwhile, tobacco magnate W.T. Blackwell (Wash Duke's biggest competitor) organized donations that kept the school open, albeit on a pay-for-pedagogy basis.

In 1887, a new, non- (well, perhaps less-) discriminatory school ordinance passed the legislators and Durham voters. Rigsbee contested the election, but his investigation not only confirmed the result but revealed that, of 980 voters on the roll, 180 didn't really live in Durham.

That same year, while the legal machinations were going along, the Durham Graded School Committee opened a school for black kids. The first classes were in a church, but soon moved into a new, brick schoolhouse.

C.B. Green, who introduced Durham's first school bill in the legislature, summed up the results. "As long as tobacco grows and smoke curls upward, the graded schools of Durham will go on with increasing usefulness and popularity."


Well, some good did come out of the 1880s' confrontations of schools, money and politics. Let's hope Durham comes out at least as well this time.

jim.wise@nando.com or 641-5895

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