The two heroes of NC school integration

Dudley Flood and Gene Causby at an event in June
Dudley Flood and Gene Causby at an event in June Courtesy of the Public School Forum of North Carolina

Earlier this month, Gene Causby passed away. Those who read his obituary know that he was a longtime educator in the public schools of North Carolina who served as a teacher, coach and junior high school principal, and later as an administrator in the state department and with the school boards association.

But what readers may not know is that Gene was instrumental in changing the character of North Carolina history.

In 1969, a court ruling shifted the responsibility for desegregating the public schools from local school districts to the state. With the tumult of integration swirling, State Superintendent Craig Phillips brought Gene to the Department of Public Instruction’s Division of Human Relations to work alongside current Raleigh resident, Dr. Dudley Flood. Their mission was as simple as the task was difficult: Assist communities and elected officials in desegregating their schools.

Causby, who was white, and Flood, who is black, traveled together to every corner of the state. Seven days a week, from 1969 to 1973, they met with all stakeholders to work through local issues and racial tensions that were threatening to tear communities apart.

They worked in places like Robeson County, where community members had surrounded the school administration building and held the superintendent hostage; Warren County, where a boycott of the schools had resulted in the arrests of over 100 students; and counties like Rutherford and Craven that were plagued by threats of walkouts.

A typical example of what they faced was in Hyde County. Large numbers of white and black parents had boycotted the schools for nearly a year. Causby and Flood were sent in to get children back to school.

They arrived in Hyde to facilitate a meeting that included representatives from the local school board and county commissioners, the Black Panthers, Ku Klux Klan and local teachers and parents. The result: a joint resolution to reopen the schools – as integrated schools.

Some of their toughest work took place far from the public eye. They were tasked with moving local officials – many of whom had written local laws prohibiting the intermingling of the races – to develop plans for integration. They served as liaisons in the negotiations between a federal government pushing for compliance and local school board officials resisting it. Efforts that often made them unpopular figures locally helped to provide elected officials the political cover they felt they needed to act.

North Carolina has long been hailed as a state that avoided the worst of what the country saw during the years of school desegregation. We did not witness the same levels of violence and egregious resistance that plagued other states and communities. While others certainly played a role, perhaps none were more important than Gene Causby and Dudley Flood. With music, legendary humor, a clear personal friendship and an unmatched ability to connect with people, these two individuals not only successfully brought communities together then, but their efforts also laid the groundwork for some of the major gains that the state would make over the next 30 years in public school achievement.

This is a history of which North Carolinians can and should be proud. But in a state that is increasingly filled with folks from somewhere else and where many were not yet born when Causby and Flood were traveling the state, it is not a history that is well understood. But it should be. Because it represents the best of our history, a belief in what we can accomplish when we bind together and the values that undergird our state.

As Dudley Flood stood and eulogized his best friend in early November in a small Baptist church in Johnston County, one thing was clear: These two believed in people and what we can do when we are committed to each other’s successes. That’s not just a history to know. It’s a legacy for us to live out.

JB Buxton of Raleigh is a member of the Raleigh Planning Commission and works with states, organizations and foundations on state public education policy and strategy.