Race and Desegregation: West Charlotte High School

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Listen to the Voices of West Charlotte High (by Pamela Grundy, Special to the Charlotte Observer, Oct. 9, 1999)

Pamela Grundy
Last March, as both sides in the reopened Swann case were still preparing their positions, West Charlotte High School basketball coach Gosnell White sat in a crowded office at the school, a tape recorder turning as he mused about West Charlotte's role in Charlotte desegregation history. Just as the tape wound to the end, he summed up his many memories of the city's busing era.

"To me the most significant factor was the fact that they didn't think it could be done over here," he said. "And here we became the model school. I remember a group from Boston coming here to see how we had done it. How we integrated our school in a black community, and people got along so well. I always remember that."

In Gosnell White's words lie an important reminder, both of the achievements of 30 years of school busing, and of the significance of remembering.

Charlotte has changed in many ways since 1969, when Judge James McMillan first ruled in Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the landmark school desegregation case. The fundamental questions about public schooling have not. What is a good education? Who are our neighbors? What do people learn when they reach out to one another and work together? What are the potential pitfalls in such efforts? How, in a society with marked imbalances in wealth and power, does a public institution provide equally for all?

McMillan's ruling was animated by a powerful ideal, the resolve to give an equal education to all children regardless of their background, and by the concurrent desire to break down some of the barriers erected by centuries of racial injustice.

As the city embarks on a post-Swann era, we should start by looking back at the efforts to make such lofty ideals into reality, not simply dismissing them as "failures," or briefly lauding them as "the right thing for the time," but, like those visiting students from strife-torn Boston, learning from the changes that they wrought.

It is a challenging task. The most meaningful lessons of desegregation history lie not in dates or ratios, not in the length of bus rides or the details of official policy. Rather, they can be found in the myriad experiences of parents, teachers and students, in all the classroom encounters, after-school activities, and individual relationships that make up the day-to-day life of a school and a community.

The power of such stories has been brought home to me over and over during the past year, during a series of oral history interviews about the history of West Charlotte High School - part of a statewide effort to use oral history to examine North Carolina's recent past.

West Charlotte's parents, teachers and graduates tell multifaceted stories of struggle, triumph and at times disappointment. In moving and frequently inspiring words, they offer concrete examples of the dilemmas Charlotteans faced during the busing era, the ways that people worked to put ideal into practice, and the long-term effects of such experiences, not simply on their school but on themselves.

A passion for education sounds in 1958 graduate Saundra Jones' voice as she describes the dilemma she faced when busing first began. "I didn't want my children to have to be bused out of the neighborhood," she said. "I really didn't. But if that meant my children getting a better education, yes. Let them be bused. Somebody had to do it. The ice had to be broken somewhere."

Quiet dedication marks the recollections of Mary Lou Babb, as she explains that she and her Myers Park neighbors were initially unhappy about their children's assignment to West Charlotte, but they resolved to push ahead, in large part because "Practically everybody had grown up in the public school system and they didn't want to abandon it."

The lasting power of an integrated education rings in the testimony of 1987 graduate Carrie Abramson, emphasizing that a school experience encompasses far more than academic lessons. "When I got to college I was proud of the fact that I had been to a high school where there were a lot of African Americans," she recalls. "I was proud of the fact that I had been in that environment. Because I met so many people who'd not been. And there was a lot of racism…. And so having come from that environment that was integrated really helped me. It didn't necessarily help me deal with it that well, when somebody else would say something, a racial slur. But it made me feel confident in that I disagreed with them and I knew why. And I had support for that. That no, I didn't believe all people of a different color were dumb. Because I knew people of a different color who were really smart, probably smarter than I was, and had accomplished things I wasn't able to accomplish. And that was important."

For the next several months, these and other stories can be heard at the Museum of the New South's oral history-based exhibit, entitled "Carrying the Spirit: Voices of Desegregation at West Charlotte High School." I urge anyone who cares about Charlotte education to come spend some time amid these voices, listening to what they have to say, and thinking both about the city's past and of its future.

More important, though, I hope these stories will become part of a broader dialogue, in which other Charlotteans continue to share their own experiences, helping newcomers to grasp the meanings of the city's past, and sorting through this historic era for the lessons - about relationships and resources, hard work and determination, conflict and power - that should be carried forward.

Through such ongoing conversations, we as a community can truly tap the power of history, drawing strength from an understanding of our accomplishments, along with wisdom from the places we have fallen short.

In the words of 1978 West Charlotte graduate Timothy Gibbs: "There were a lot of things that were done right, and for folk to be able to focus on that and study on that, I think is a real good thing."

Pamela Grundy is curator of "Carrying the Spirit: Voices of Desegregation at West Charlotte High School," which will be at the Museum of the New South through April 2000. Her work on West Charlotte High School is part of a statewide oral history initiative, "Listening for a Change: North Carolina Communities in Transition," which is run by the Southern Oral History Program at UNC-Chapel Hill and funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Write her c/o Museum of the New South, 324 N. College St., Charlotte, NC 28202.

The Southern Oral History Program
(a component of the UNC Center for the Study of the American South)
CB#9127, 406 Hamilton Hall
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-9127
(919) 962-0455