LOUISBURG — At a time when many U.S. school districts have abandoned efforts to promote racially diverse school enrollments, the Franklin County school system stands out as one of the most integrated in North Carolina.
The diversity stems from 47 years of federal court supervision that still requires Franklin County, a rural county of about 60,000 people located just north of Wake, to maintain racial balance in its schools. Franklin County – which underwent a wrenching, sometimes violent struggle over integration in the 1960s – and Halifax County operate the only two North Carolina school systems that are still under court desegregation orders monitored by the U.S. Justice Department.
With the 60th anniversary earlier this month of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against school segregation, civil rights groups warn that schools across the country are undergoing rapid resegregation. A 2007 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court made it harder for school districts to use race in student assignment, and hundreds of court orders nationally have been lifted.
Supporters of integration cite Franklin County’s 8,600-student system as an example of how communities can still maintain racially balanced enrollment in their schools, if they make the effort.
“We don’t want to risk all the advances that we have made being taken away,” said Sidney Dunston, chairman of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners. “We have to remain vigilant.”
Skeptics of court-ordered busing used for school diversity question whether it’s a practice that has benefit in the 21st century. They note that, after all the passing decades, Franklin County is only performing academically at about the state average.
“I don’t see a lot of evidence that court-ordered desegregation plans mean we live in a more compassionate and accepting society,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh.
For many school systems, racial balance is not a goal. Districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg have given up trying to make schools diverse after being lifted from court-ordered desegregation.
In Wake County, which has long been known for trying to promote balanced school enrollments, school board members are wrestling with how to advise staff on where to rank socioeconomic diversity compared with factors such as proximity in drawing up assignments for the 153,000-student district. Last week, the board passed a resolution commemorating the anniversary of the Brown ruling.
“I found it important and insightful to go and read some of the language from the ruling itself and recognize how contemporary it is,” Wake school board member Jim Martin said at the board meeting. “And that is the context for this resolution with the final resolve clause reaffirming our commitment to ensuring equity across our school system.”
‘Separate but equal’ struck down
Fifty years ago, North Carolina school leaders were still talking about a “go slow” approach to desegregation. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional, a decade later, many Southern school districts still operated racially segregated schools with only token integration.
Like many Southern school systems, Franklin County had moved by the 1960s to a “freedom of choice” model. The district allowed black parents to request seats in white schools.
The names and often addresses of black families who applied for white schools were published in Southern newspapers, including The News & Observer. That also happened in Franklin County, where the names and addresses also were mentioned on a local radio station.
What ensued for the black parents who applied to white Franklin County schools would later be described by federal officials as a “chronology of terror.” These families endured cross burnings, gunshots fired into homes, contamination of wells, water being poured into gas tanks and harassing phone calls.
The Rev. Luther Coppedge wanted his son, Harold, who is now deceased, to go to the white Edward Best High School. The black school he was assigned to was farther away from home and didn’t have the programs the family wanted.
“We wanted the best education for our son,” Coppedge said. “Brother, when we did that, the phone began to ring. You can imagine the things that were said.”
Citing the intimidation, Coppedge was among the parents of 20 black students who filed a federal lawsuit in December 1965 asking the courts to integrate the Franklin County school system. The U.S. Justice Department soon joined the lawsuit.
Frank Schwelb, who was a Justice Department attorney assigned to the case, says the Franklin County case marked an important step in integrating Southern schools.
“It was the first case where a ‘freedom of choice’ plan was challenged on the basis of conduct by people other than the school authorities,” said Schwelb, 81, now a senior judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. “The school board claimed that Franklin County had freedom of choice. But the evidence showed that the choice wasn’t free in the practical context of its exercise because of the pervasive third-party intimidation.”
Crosses burned, nails dumped
Coppedge testified about a cross being burned outside his home, nails being dumped in his driveway and receiving as many as 15 anonymous harassing phone calls a night.
During the lawsuit, Christine Coppedge received a warning that men would be coming to her home while her husband, Luther, was away. Armed with a rifle, she fired several shots that drove off the five cars bearing Confederate battle flags.
In August 1967, U.S. District Judge Algernon Butler issued the first order requiring Franklin County to integrate immediately.
Soon after the ruling, shots were fired into Coppedge’s home on two occasions, with the gunfire barely missing members of the family. A dynamite bomb also was found near Coppedge’s home.
“It was just an awful experience,” said Luther Coppedge, 86, who now lives in Raleigh. “But I still think it was a worthwhile experience. There’s nothing worse than being discriminated against.”
After Butler issued a more expansive integration order in 1968, 2,000 Franklin County residents held a mass meeting where they voted to boycott sending their children to school. The boycott would largely not materialize.
Over the years, the court order has been modified, such as when the district merged with Franklinton City Schools in 1994.
Franklin County is required to keep racial enrollment numbers at each school within 15 percentage points of the district’s average for black students. The average is 31 percent in elementary and middle schools and 33 percent in high schools. All 15 district schools are within guidelines.
Those guidelines were followed this school year, when the school board reassigned 354 students, mostly to fill a new middle school.
Franklin County also tries to balance percentages for other groups through a process called “majority to minority” transfers. Students attending a school where their racial group is above the district average can transfer to schools where their racial group is below the average. For example, a black student at an elementary school where the enrollment is more than 31 percent African-American can transfer to any school that’s below 31 percent.
Last school year, 210 race-based transfers were approved, with 156 of them involving black students.
Franklin County also reports racial statistics annually on measures such as the makeup of the school district staff, student suspension numbers and enrollment in advanced courses and the academically and intellectually gifted program.
The last time the school board tried to get the school desegregation order lifted was in 2002. School board Chairman Gilbert Johnson said the system is not planning to mount another legal challenge to the court order.
“We’d rather put our money into the classroom than in legal fees,” Johnson said.
Edward Best Elementary School, which is on the site of the old high school, has gone from an all-white enrollment in the 1960s to now being 28 percent black and 18 percent Hispanic.
“Most of the parents don’t know about the court order unless you tell them,” said Geoffrey Hawthorne, the school’s principal.
Cathy Mercer, a parent at Edward Best, said she knew about the 1967 court order mandating integration but thought it had been lifted years ago.
“I never hear anybody talking about it in the county, period,” Mercer said.
Think tank: Segregation continues
The Civil Rights Project, a think tank at the University of California at Los Angeles that researches school demographic patterns, released reports this month on the status of school integration nationally and in North Carolina. The Civil Rights Project found that U.S. and North Carolina schools were less integrated than they were 20 years ago.
But Jenn Ayscue, a research associate at the Civil Rights Project, said that schools in the Raleigh metropolitan area, which includes Wake, Franklin and Johnston counties, stand out for being less segregated than schools in the Charlotte metro area.
“The different levels of segregation in the state show the importance of student assignment policies and their impact on diversity in schools,” Ayscue said.
Stoops of the Locke Foundation said he doesn’t dispute the need for the Brown ruling. But he said what’s important is to look at the academic performance of Franklin County schools.
Test scores dropped statewide last year under new exams based on the Common Core state standards. But the drop was particularly acute for high-poverty districts like Franklin County, where 62 percent of students are eligible for federally subsidized lunches.
Last school year, the passing rate on state exams for black students in Franklin County was 22.9 percent compared with 25.2 percent statewide. It was 29.5 percent in Wake County and 30.1 percent in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. In Granville County, a neighbor to Franklin County with similiar racial and socioeconomic demographics, the passing rate for black students was 20.5 percent.
“They had the best of intentions when they placed the order in 1967,” Stoops said. “It’s impossible to say that it has helped education for children in Franklin County, just like it’s impossible to say that it has harmed the education of children in Franklin County.”
Ayscue says there are academic as well as social benefits from having integrated schools. She said research shows students who attend diverse schools are better able to work with other groups and are more likely to live and work in diverse areas.
Both Johnson, the school board chairman, and Dunston, the commissioners’ chairman, say they recognize the need to raise student performance and will work to do so while complying with the court order.
Dunston said the experiences of men like Coppedge who helped integrate the district are the reasons he’s fighting to preserve the court order.
“He’s my hero,” Dunston said. “He’s the reason I’m so vigilant on the court order. If he could do what he did in 1963, I can do no less in 2014, so the court order is kept.”
News researchers Teresa Leonard and David Raynor contributed to this report.