Charlotte schools leader Bill Self dies at 90

The Charlotte ObserverSeptember 19, 2010 

Bill Self was equal parts educator, motivator and peacemaker.

He needed all of that as superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a desegregation case divided the community as it worked its way through the legal system, eventually reaching the Supreme Court.

"My uncle and JudgeMcMillan worked hard to keep the whole situation from exploding," said Guy Huggins, one of Self's nephews. "They got a lot of credit for what they did."

Dr. William Self, who headed the school district for five exhausting years from 1967 to 1972 and later went on to become dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill, died Thursday in Wilmington at age 90.

"He had gone out to eat, came home, and died suddenly," Huggins said.

Self was born in Newton and earned his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees from UNC-CH, with a World War II stint in the U.S. Navy interrupting his college years. He worked as a school administrator in Winston-Salem before getting the job as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school superintendent.

"He was part of a group of educators who came to Charlotte from Winston-Salem," said Mitzi Folk, whose husband Chris also served as a CMS administrator at the time. "It was a great group of people. They worked together extremely well."

Desegregation order

When Self took over the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the school board had just won a decision against the Swann family, who contended the school system was segregated. But attorney Julius Chambers reopened the Swann case in 1969, and federal Judge James McMillan ruled against the school system. He said "approximately 14,000 of the 24,000 black students still attended schools that were all black or heavily black, and most of the system's 24,000 teachers were white."

At one of the first school board meetings after McMillan's April 1969 order to use busing to desegregate the schools, some school board members and parents said they would not obey.

Though Self respected the board and felt sympathy of sorts for the protesting parents, he spoke his mind, according to former Observer reporter Frye Gaillard's book about those times, "The Dream Long Deferred."

At that meeting, Self "said that he believed the court ruling was a moral, as well as a legal issue; that he had supported desegregation for all of his career and that it was important to obey the law as the courts understood it."

Self was criticized for those statements by board members and others. But in the months and years that followed, he kept the school system running.

In 1970, the buses began rolling for school desegregation in Charlotte. A year later the U.S. Supreme Court backed McMillan's plan, clearing the way for busing nationwide.

Self "was the stabilizing force in the first metropolitan school system in the nation to undergo massive desegregation," Edwin Dunlap, executive director of the N.C. School Boards Association and a one-time student of Self, said in 2002 when UNC-CH established an endowment fund in Self's name.

After leaving the school district in 1972, Self went to teach at UNC-CH and became dean in 1978.

Visitation is from 5 to 7 p.m. tonight at Andrews Mortuary Market Street Chapel in Wilmington. Another visitation is scheduled from 10 to 11 a.m. Thursday in Hickory, at Holy Trinity Church. A funeral service will follow at 11 a.m.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service