Chapel Hill News

‘Colored schools’ lessons resonate today

By Julia Sendor


Growing up in northern Orange County, Hattie Vanhook remembers walking three miles each way, to and from the two-room, all-black school she attended. She remembers bitter winter walks, her hands freezing on the way to school.

Her teacher kept a pan of water ready to thaw the students’ hands – and Vanhook remembered that thawing feeling in her fingers.

“It just itched and itched and itched,” she said.

At the one-room Sartin school, Melvin Beasley recalled older boys gathering firewood to fuel the school’s only heat source: a pot-bellied stove.

“They were hard days, but they were good days,” Beasley said.

Vanhook and Beasley shared their memories during “Rural Schools for Colored Children – Path to Freedom,” a photography and storytelling event hosted by Free Spirit Freedom at the Central Orange Senior Center, Jan. 31-Feb. 1.

Free Spirit Freedom, a Hillsborough Arts Council initiative, combines history and the arts to celebrate Orange County’s diversity and build understanding. Thomas Watson and Renee Price co-founded Free Spirit Freedom in 2010.

“You have to remember the past to deal with the present and the future,” Watson said. “The goal is that in open-forum conversations, we can make a difference.”

Over the two-day event, 200 people crowded the senior center to view Jacquelin Liggins’s black-and-white photos of Orange County’s “colored” schools: Haith, Morris Grove, Ridge Road, Sartin, and White Oak, which were later consolidated to form Cedar Grove Elementary. The photo exhibit runs through March 20.

The photos show these schools, once hubs of their community, empty and even falling apart, grown over with vines.

County notes from 1936, when these schools bustled with children, reveal the disparity between the black and white schools’ facilities.

In 1936, of the 28 Orange County schools for African-Americans, all but one relied on wood stove heating, natural light and outhouses, said Peter Sandbeck, Orange County’s cultural resources coordinator. Yet all of Orange County’s schools for white students had furnace heat, electric lights and indoor toilets.

‘Quest for an education’

The event’s storytellers emphasized the African-American community’s drive to seek an education, despite the starkly unequal conditions.

“What I want to leave you with is this quest for an education, that was so burning in the hearts and minds of black people. ... That burning desire, that zeal is something we must continue,” said Freddie Parker, Jr., N.C. Central University professor and former student at Central and Orange High Schools.

Parker explained that even the one-room schools represented a long journey from when North Carolina slaves were forbidden to learn to read in 1830. The first punishment was 39 lashes across the back. The second time caught, it was death.

“I tell my students all the time, if they’re going to kill you if you’re caught reading, there must be power in this.”

Beasley described the foundational education he received at Sartin and Ridge Road Schools. He won the third-grade Spelling Bee (beating out four first cousins), and can still recite a slew of poems from memory.

Lucille Leonard, who attended the one-room Morris Grove first through fifth grade, emphasized the school’s close-knit feel.

“It was fun in a way, because everyone was in the same classroom.”

The speakers explained that the schools did prepare them to lead in their communities. Beasley was the first and still only African-American to chair Orange County’s Board of Elections. Hattie Vanhook marched for school integration and led the Orange County 4-H Club for over 40 years.

‘I’m better than this’

Questions from the audience launched the storytelling forward to integration in Orange County. After two years of optional integration, Orange County’s dual school system ended in 1968.

Sheila McDonald, Hattie Vanhook’s daughter, attended the formerly all-white Aycock Elementary School for second and third grade, during the years of optional integration.

“Every time I left the arms of my parents to go to school (on the bus), I was told, ‘back seat,’ with another name with it,” McDonald said.

“(At school,) you walked into an environment that made you feel you were not wanted, and you were actually told you were not able to learn,” McDonald said. “Psychologically that was difficult, for a child of seven years old.”

Yet, McDonald said, the experience helped prepare her for the challenges ahead.

“At age seven, age eight, I realized that I’m better than this. ... It was nothing new for me to be called a name, and know I was not that name.”

Freddie Parker pointed to the new hardships during desegregation at Orange High: plummeting grades for black students, fights, walk-outs.

“When we were first bringing segregation to an end, I don’t think we really stopped to consider the costs,” Parker said. “Now, do I want to go back to segregation? No.”

“But everything I learned, I learned at (the all-black) Central High School. ... Everybody was involved in your life at those all-black institutions, principals, custodians, teachers. ... That support didn’t always follow you after desegregation.”

Coming together

Eighth-grader Aneesha Abdur-Razzaq said she learned from the event the challenges that African-American students had faced – both before and after school desegregation.

“(I learned) how it was so segregated, still after segregation had ended,” Abdur-Razzaq said. “And how fortunate we are, because they had to walk really far to their schools.”

Free Spirit Freedom hopes to encourage exactly those kinds of realizations, Renee Price said. While laws may promote equality, change must continue on a community level, she said.

“You still have to change people’s minds and attitudes and hearts – and you have to do that by coming together,” she said. “You do that by sharing stories, realizing you have the same stories, or were in the same room at the same time (in history).”