In September 1959, seven courageous black students – Henry A. Vickers, Andree McKissick, Lucy Mae Jones, Anita Brame, Claudette Brame, Larry Scurlock and Joycelyn McKissick – broke the color line in Durham’s public schools.
They boldly braved violence and intimidation at the hands of white segregationists. Joycelyn McKissick, who helped desegregate Durham High School, later recalled that the “(black) youth in Durham were highly motivated” to fight for their rights. At least one of the students, strong-minded Lucy Mae Jones, volunteered to desegregate Brogden Junior High School despite her mother’s opposition. It is important to praise the students, parents, attorneys, and the larger black community for the critical roles they played in the protracted struggle for the racial integration of public schools.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional, North Carolina’s government, led by governors William Umstead (1953-54) and Luther Hodges (1954-1961), and by the all-white General Assembly, blocked implementation of the court’s decision. The General Assembly enacted the pupil assignment law (1955) and the Pearsall Plan (1956), which placed legal and logistical barriers to racial integration. In August 1956, (Durham) Carolina Times editor Louis Austin denounced the vicious anti-black rhetoric from state legislators, who backed the Pearsall Plan. He declared that “this state is ... being run by the most ignorant and vicious element of its citizens.”
With Durham’s school board blocking integration, the black community worked tirelessly to make sure the Supreme Court’s decision would not remain merely words on paper. The Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, black churches, and the city’s NAACP youth council recruited black parents to apply to transfer their children to white schools and to sue the local school board, soliciting plaintiffs door-to-door.
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Despite threats of violence and loss of jobs, African-Americans in Durham refused to be intimidated. Evelyn McKissick and Rachel Richardson sued on behalf of their children to desegregate Durham’s city schools. Forty black students from Durham joined over 25,000 students from around the country in the April 1959 Youth March on Washington for Integrated Schools. Later that year, 225 transfer requests by black students and their parents and lawsuits filed by local black attorneys, including Conrad Pearson and Floyd McKissick, compelled the Durham City Board of Education to admit seven black students to white schools.
Wary of the widespread, sometimes-violent white opposition to integration, the black community mobilized to protect the young, trailblazing students, who put themselves on the front lines of the black freedom struggle. Black parents, neighbors, and activists accompanied the students to school every day for the entire year.
Once inside the previously all-white schools, black students confronted harassment and violence by white students. When 11-year-old Andree McKissick entered Carr Junior High School, white students jeered, insulted, pushed, and shoved her. She later recalled, “It was a continual assault . . . the entire time I was there.” She remembered the “humiliating experience of having her head dunked in a used toilet by those who did not want her at the school.” Andree’s older sister Joycelyn McKissick recalled that the white “students were overtly negative toward” her. She was locked in her locker and dunked in a toilet bowl, incidents that were ignored by the school’s all-white faculty and administration. The black students were sometimes denied use of the bathrooms. White students threw ink, glue, and molasses at them. Floyd McKissick, father of Joycelyn and Andree, recalled that the students who desegregated the schools in 1959 “came home from school every day crying ... To clean those kids up every day and pray with them at night and send them back to school every day was one hell of a fight.”
We now know that the Brown decision was merely a start, not the end of the movement for integration. Not until the late 1960s and early 1970s would Durham’s schools be substantially integrated. Ultimately, decades of struggle by black students, parents, lawyers, and activists, backed by federal law and federal government action, were necessary to integrate public schools in Durham and throughout the nation. All freedom-loving people owe a large debt to the young black students who placed their bodies on the line for freedom.
Jerry Gershenhorn is a professor of History at N.C. Central University.