Newsletter of the Society for the History of Children and Youth
Youngest Combatants of the Second Civil War: Black Children on the Front Lines of Public School Desegregation
Part 3: Josephine Boyd, Greensboro, North Carolina
North Carolina responded to Brown v. Board not by directing the closure of public schools rather than permit any desegregation (as the Virginia legislature, for one, did), but in permitting a local referendum on the matter and, if desegregation were to proceed at all, putting white officials in charge of screening individual black students’ requests for transfer to white schools. In mid-1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education, and after two years of consultation and planning, three municipalities in North Carolina determined to permit token desegregation of their previously nonblack public schools. Charlotte was one, Winston-Salem another, and Greensboro the third. Rather than trying to achieve desegregation, the school boards were trying to contain it, to deflect federal court orders that might result in far more substantial change. In each of the three cities, the handful (more or less) of black students who would be pioneering the desegregation of a white school had each requested the transfer; lived closer to the white school than to the black school they would otherwise be attending; and displayed a strong academic performance.
In Charlotte, four black students enrolled at white schools in September 1957—among the forty who had requested transfers; most such requests had been denied. Fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts had a trying experience at Harding High School. As she made her way to the school grounds, a white woman implored a group of boys, “It’s up to you to keep her out,” and directed a group of girls, “Spit on her, girls, spit on her.” She was not kept out that day, but she was spat on. Her teachers ignored her. When she went to the cafeteria for lunch that first day, boys threw trash on her plate. She went outdoors, where a miracle seemed to happen, as she was befriended by two white girls; but they drew back the next day when they were harassed by their white classmates. Meantime, threatening phone calls reached the family at home. At school she was jostled, things were thrown at her, together with slurs and threats, and her locker was ransacked. After four days of this and other harassment—for example, on the fourth day, when her brother drove to the school to pick her up, the rear windshield in the car was smashed as he waited for her—her father, a professor at nearby Johnson C. Smith University, called a press conference, where he explained:
But “a continuous stream of abuses” had, he observed, left the family no choice. She left Charlotte for Pennsylvania, where she attended an integrated school in Philadelphia. Harding High School reverted to all-white. She had chosen to transfer, but her classmates forced her withdrawal—the boys did, in the end, as the woman had implored them, “keep her out.”
As for the other three, Gus Roberts enrolled at Central High School; his sister, seventh-grader Girvaud Roberts, at Piedmont Junior High School; and Delores Huntley at Alexander Graham Junior High School. In contrast to Dorothy Counts’s experience, actions taken by school officials helped make matters relatively uneventful at those three schools, but danger and tension persisted throughout the year. Central High School principal Ed Sanders choreographed the first day of school, walked Gus Roberts through the geography of his new school, saw to it that distances from one classroom to another would be short, kept an eye out for him, and defused a tense moment on the second day. Gus Roberts had a far easier time than Dorothy Counts did, but it took a lot of luck, a lot of pluck on his part, and careful preparation and constant vigilance by a receptive and assertive school leader.
The number of black students attending white schools in Charlotte did not grow in the next year or two—by 1959–1960, the number had dropped to one—nor did an increase take place in the number of schools that, having been “desegregated,” continued to enroll black students. Charlotte revealed patterns that held across much of the South. Pioneering the desegregation of a school carried no guarantee of either safety or success, and no certainty that a desegregated school would stay desegregated, let along become more so. Battles might be won or lost, either way skirmishes continued, and the campaign’s outcome remained in considerable doubt. Often, children’s requests for transfer were denied; sometimes, those whose requests were accepted were driven out; and their experience deterred others from even requesting to transfer. Pioneering the desegregation of a white school, volunteering for strife, was no child’s game, though some child warriors survived and even prevailed.
In Greensboro in mid-1957, Josephine Ophelia Boyd was a seventeen-year-old rising senior who had expected to finish out her high school education at all-black Dudley High School. Such was not to be. Rather she would run the experiment as a pioneer of high school desegregation in her city.
She brought many considerations to her role. Festering were memories of a white policeman beating her father with impunity, and a white driver hitting her grandfather and leaving him disabled beside the road. Resonating were recollections of the time she tried, and failed, to discern the distinct color of “colored” water in the fountains set aside for people of her racial identity; of how she and her family and neighbors had to go to Winston-Salem to reach a swimming pool that, as black citizens, they could use; and of riding a bus past white schools to reach her assigned, more distant, black school. And of constant use to her in her year of desegregating Greensboro High School were lessons, the survival skills, that she had learned at home, at church, and at her black schools regarding seeking an education, handling conflict, and navigating her way in a segregated world. Church songs calmed her as she made her way from one classroom to another, or when classmates threw catsup at her in the cafeteria or dropped eggs on her from above—“We’ve Come This Far by Faith”; “He Knows Just How Much We Can Bear”: and “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow.”
The decision to attend Greensboro High brought all kinds of ancillary costs. There were the economic reprisals—her father lost his snack bar; her mother her job; her brothers their yard work jobs; she her babysitting job. There were other costs to the family—the malicious killing of favorite pets, the harassing phone calls at home. And always there was the loss of her senior year at Dudley High, complete with supportive teachers, good friends, senior prom, and a rich range of extracurricular roles and activities.
Many years later, she described her first day at her new high school:
Back home, she learned from the newspapers and television news that, in Charlotte, Dorothy Counts had gone to her new school alone, too, and had met with a similar reception.
Unlike Dorothy Counts, Josephine Boyd survived her year in hostile territory. Making a huge difference were four white female classmates—Ginger Parker, Julia Adams, Kitty Groves, and an exchange student from Germany, Monika Engelken, all of whom maintained the friendship despite pressure from white classmates, church members, and school personnel. In November, she and other black students involved in school desegregation that year were invited to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and in April she attended the second Youth March for Integrated Schools, led by A. Philip Randolph in Washington, D.C. At the end of the year, the Greensboro Daily News reported that 482 students had received diplomas, among them Josephine Ophelia Boyd, “the first Negro ever graduated from a previously all-white public school in North Carolina.”