‘An active creation’: Oral history and race and equality in Chapel Hill’s public schools

-Written by Grace Tatter

[Brown vs. Board of Education] was the single most important moment in the civil rights movement, its most enforceable intervention, and its most powerful statement. But Brown was not all that we could have had or all that was due the South. (Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie)]

UNC alumna and award-winning historian Glenda Gilmore implies in Defying Dixie, that the success of Brown and the subsequent school desegregation in the ‘50s and ‘60s is often overstated

Howard Lee campaign brochure, 1969. North Carolina Collection Biographical Clippings. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Howard Lee campaign brochure, 1969. North Carolina Collection Biographical Clippings. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The dominant narrative suggests that equality was achieved when black and white students began to attend the same schools. In fact, there is a litany of other factors required to ensure equality, not least of which is communication between communities that, even today, are separated by the legacy of Jim Crow.

The opening of the Howard and Lillian Lee Charter School offers an interesting jumping off point into the discussion of racial equality, and the history of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS). The new school, founded by the daughter of Chapel Hill’s first black mayor, is marketing itself toward the African-American community, with the stated intent of reducing the racial achievement gap.[1] Some fear it sends the message that desegregation did not work, and that Chapel Hill should give “separate but equal” another shot.

In an oral history conducted in 2001 by the Southern Oral History Project, Fran Jackson, who helped desegregated Chapel Hill’s schools as a middle school student, described how miserable her experience as a black student at Chapel Hill High School was, and how little she saw change for her daughters, who attended school in Chapel Hill.[2] “I don’t think anybody was courageous enough to step out and say that we need to do something to assure that these students feel more accepted and more comfortable in class,” Jackson said of her experience in the 1960s.  “They just said, ‘Wow… maybe it’ll get better with time.’ And to be honest with you I don’t think that it has gotten better with time, because if it had then we would not see this wide gap in terms of academic performance,” Jackson said. Jackson’s experience demonstrates the importance of examining the tensions in CHCCS.

I decided to tackle this subject by conducting my own oral histories. As an academic discipline, oral history is often less about cold, hard facts, and more about the sense and perception of a period. Oral history is particularly valuable for expanding historical research to include “ordinary voices” or the “inarticulate;” it allows historians to draw on the experiences of people who will not necessarily be considered “important” enough to have their papers archived in Wilson Library or be written about in newspapers, but still have valuable insights on what it felt like to live in a certain time period.

Recently I interviewed David Kiel, now leadership coordinator at the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence, who worked with Upward Bound, a federally-funded summer enrichment program on UNC’s campus that aimed to create the equal educational opportunities promised by Brown v. Board of Education. Kiel described how the black students he worked with needed that space to talk about desegregation, which for some was a discouraging experience. Of desegregation, Kiel said, “…it did represent a victory against the Jim Crow regime, yet it certainly did not fulfill the best hopes and wishes of their parents and civil rights activists.”  My interview with Kiel illustrates the complexity of the community and the issues being studied.

Oral histories add nuance and understanding to research on issues that are missing from official documents. I have spent many hours in Wilson Library looking at microfilms and sorting through stacks of school board minutes. However, the face-to-face interactions I’ve participated in through oral history have added a new dimension to my research.


[1] Ferral, Katelyn. “Lee Charter School hits delay.” Chapel Hill News, June 12, 2012. http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2012/06/12/71726/lee-charter-school-hits-delay.html (accessed February 21, 2013).

[2] Interview with Fran Jackson by Christa Broadnax, 23 March 2001, K-0208, in the Southern OralHistory Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 

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