Barry Saunders

Let’s name schools after Holts, Campbells and other pioneers – Saunders

A group of eighth-grade students at the Exploris School is asking Wake County to name a future school after the Holt family, which includes Joe Holt Jr., center.
A group of eighth-grade students at the Exploris School is asking Wake County to name a future school after the Holt family, which includes Joe Holt Jr., center.

Bruce Lightner has never been one to shy away from a fight. He’s sometimes been the one starting it or at least right in the middle of it if he thinks the cause is right.

I’d only been writing this column for about a week when he ripped into me – respectfully, compared to most – about something I said which he didn’t like.

This time, though, Lightner is trying to play the role of peacemaker in a one-sided war of words involving two of Raleigh’s historical families.

“I know both families very well. I grew up with both families. I hate to see what’s happening,” he told me this week.

The two families to whom he’s referring are the Holts and Campbells, and what’s happening is a battle – can it be a battle when only one side is fighting? – over for whom a new school should be named.

The Holt family, led by patriarch Joseph, unsuccessfully tried to integrate Raleigh’s public schools in 1956. To ensure that others’ children and his had access to the best education their tax dollars could buy, Joseph Holt braved the opprobrium of white residents opposed to integration, as well as a recalcitrant school board.

Despite filing a lawsuit, their fight was a losing one, and Holt was fired from his job.

Four years later, in 1960, Bill Campbell became the first black child admitted into an all-white Raleigh school.

Students at the Exploris School, a charter school in Raleigh, besought the Wake County school system to name a school after the Holt family. The picture in The N&O of the Exploris students surrounding Joseph Holt Jr. could melt the most cynical heart and give us hope.

Who on earth could be opposed to their effort?

Mildred Campbell Christmas, that’s who. Christmas, Bill Campbell’s sister, insisted two weeks ago that if a school is going to be named after any pioneering racial family, it should be hers. Somehow, Christmas interpreted the Exploris students’ request to honor the Holts as being disrespectful toward the Campbell family. Considering what both families endured – death and bomb threats, constant harassment – both are deserving of any honor bestowed upon them.

Christmas, though, does a disservice to her family and unknown, unsung soldiers in the civil rights battle when she says, “The Campbell family did not need anyone to be trailblazers. They blazed the trail themselves.”

She was either being overexuberant or entirely misreading history, because the way was paved for her brother to integrate Murphey School with the sweat, tears and blood of people who couldn’t even conjugate a verb and possibly never even set foot inside a school.

Paying tribute is not, however, a zero-sum game. Just because you honor one family doesn’t mean you dishonor the other. As Lightner said, “Twelve to 15 new schools are going to be built in the next few years.” That means, he said, the board could name a school after both families if it so chooses.

Chances are it won’t so choose, though.

School board member Bill Fletcher, citing a trend in place since the 1970s to not name schools after individuals, said there’s been no board discussion about naming a new school or renaming an existing one after anybody.

“The current policy has avoided a lot of community angst,” he said, as though that’s a good thing.

The board would do well to read what Frederick Douglass wrote: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

The same can be said of those who want progress without angst.

Angst, dear board, can be your friend if it leads to positive change, and those young students’ attempt at civic engagement shouldn’t be dismissed automatically merely because of the way it’s always been done. Without community angst, one might conclude, there’d have never been integration in the first place.

“A foolish consistency,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

If the school board opts to continue exclusively naming schools after roads, bridges or directions just because that’s the way it’s been done in the past, then it is being foolishly consistent.

Or consistently foolish.

Or merely foolish.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9