Wake Ed

Civil rights pioneers disagree over how to name a Wake County school

June Campbell walks with her 7-year-old son, William Campbell to Murphey School in Raleigh in September 1960. Bill Campbell was the first black student to integrate an all-white Raleigh school.
June Campbell walks with her 7-year-old son, William Campbell to Murphey School in Raleigh in September 1960. Bill Campbell was the first black student to integrate an all-white Raleigh school. News & Observer file photo

Two African-American families who fought to integrate Raleigh City schools are on opposite sides of whether the Wake County school system should name a school after one of them.

Students at the Exploris School, a charter school in Raleigh, want the Wake County school system to name a school after the Holt family, who unsuccessfully tried to integrate Raleigh schools in the 1950s. Students cited the issues that Joe Holt Sr. and Elwyna Holt faced becoming the first black parents to apply to an all-white Raleigh school.

Their son, Joe Holt Jr., has embraced the student effort.

But on Tuesday, Mildred Christmas told the school board that it shouldn’t name a school after the Holt family or any person. Christmas is the sister of Bill Campbell, who became the first black child to integrate a Raleigh school in 1960.

Christmas said the Exploris students “have not, or did not receive the full story of the successful efforts of my parents – Ralph and June K. Campbell.”

Christmas cited how in addition to successfully applying for Bill, her parents were unsuccessful in applying for seats for her and her oldest brother, Ralph Jr.

Christmas said the family endured death threats, bomb threats and were constantly threatened and harassed. She said these threats often caused them to flee from their Raleigh home in the middle of the night.

Christmas described how her mother walked Bill to school every day by herself as heckling crowds on both sides of the street shouted obscenities. She said her father couldn’t come because his employer, the U.S. Postal Service, told him he’d be fired if he missed a single day of work. He was later transferred to Washington D.C.

Her parents were civil rights pioneers, Christmas said, as she noted how her father was president of the Raleigh chapter of the NAACP from the late 1950s to 1968. She said her father daily led marches calling for integration, equal rights and employment opportunities.

“The Campbell family did not need anyone to be trailblazers,” Christmas said. “They blazed the trail themselves. As such, if any school is to be named for the civil rights effort, my parents deserve to be the first in that honor.

“However with that being said, and I’ll cut it short, I believe the current policy of the school board to not name any school or public school or charter after an individual has been successful and should be continued because there are many individuals who have made significant contributions and should be considered.”

Under school board policy, Wake can name schools after individuals but since the 1970s has tended to name schools based on roads, geographic features and historic communities.

The last time a Wake County school was named after a person was in 2014 when the Vernon Malone College and Career Academy opened in Raleigh. But the school was named for Malone, a former state senator, Wake County commissioner and Wake school board member, by the Wake County Board of Commissioners because it owned the site and not the school system.

School board member Bill Fletcher said there’s been no board discussion about naming a new school or renaming an existing one after the Holt family. He said there’s been value to avoiding naming schools after individuals.

“The current policy has avoided a lot of community angst over what we call a school,” said Fletcher, who chairs the board committee that reviews names of new schools. “We have enough issues that cause angst without it being over a school name.”