Editor’s note: This story was first printed in the October 2018 Ocracoke Observer.
By Pat Garber
More than Fifty years ago, on the first day of school in September 1968, three African American high school students in Hyde County–Thomas Whitaker, James Shelton and Alice Mackey–refused to attend. Thus began what has been described as “perhaps the most sustained civil rights protest in North Carolina history.”
The protests took place as integration struggles also occurred in other Southern states.
Joined by hundreds of other protesters, the students conducted a school boycott which lasted for a year. It included daily marches and sit-ins in Swan Quarter and two marches to the capitol in Raleigh more than 150 miles away.
Most of the protesters were children, many of whom were arrested and jailed in prisons throughout the area. The protests were peaceful, but the racial tension escalated into a shootout between 125 black citizens and 80 Ku Klux Klan members just south of Engelhard, in which, thankfully, no one was killed.
The main goal of the boycott was to oppose the closing of two black schools, O.A. Peay and Davis, which served as cultural and community centers for black families.
David S. Cecelski, Joint Chair Pofessor in Documentary and American Studies at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill, devoted an entire book to the protests and what led up to them. His book, “Along Freedom Road; Hyde County, North Carolina, and the Fate of Black Schools in the South,” 1994, documents the little-known story. Many Hyde County residents still remember their parents’ and their own roles in the events.
To understand the significance of what happened it is necessary to look back at the history of black schools in Hyde County. After the Civil War the freed slaves began almost immediately to build small schoolhouses to educate their children. The schools, along with their churches, became important cultural centers.
In 1896, the Supreme Court established, in Plessy vs Ferguson, the separate-but-equal policy, and while the black and white schools were not equally funded, the separate clause worked reasonably well.
By 1954, when Brown vs Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional, white students attended two schools while black children went to more than a dozen small two- or three-room elementary schools. A few older youths went to the Hyde County Training Center in Sladesville but most were not able to go to high school.
After the Brown ruling, according to Cecelski, the Hyde County School Board decided to improve the black schools with the hope that they could thus avoid integration. They allotted funds to build two modern schools, one in Engelhard and one near Swan Quarter, with classrooms for all grades.
By 1964 there were gymnasiums, libraries and an agricultural workshop, all of high quality. These schools became sources of great pride to the black communities they served, and the black teachers and administrators role models for the students.
Meanwhile, the school board consolidated the two white schools, East Hyde and West Hyde, into one school, Mattamuskeet. The black and white schools co-existed for several years in an uneasy peace.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed that, requiring strict adherence to desegregation, including busing if necessary. Hyde County’s black citizens concurred at first, sending some students to Mattamuskeet, but it soon became obvious that the “integration” was one-sided and not in the interest of the black children or community. White parents refused to send their children to the black schools and the school board decided to close them and let go their teachers without consulting the black communities.
As a result, the black students, with the support of their parents, began the sit-in. The Zion Temple Baptist Church, Sladesville, was where they met and organized and from which they made the march to the state capitol in Raleigh.
While they refused to attend the county public school, many of the black parents had their children attend what they called “movement schools” in seven local churches.
They persisted in their peaceful resistance for a year. Finally, under pressure from the federal government and courts, the Hyde County Board of Education agreed to keep the black schools open as elementary schools. The older students went to Mattamuskeet School while the younger ones remained at Davis and O.A. Peay. The black teachers kept their jobs, the schools continued as cultural centers, and racial tensions eased.
The student protest had succeeded.
The result was the empowerment of a group of people who had long been repressed or ignored and an integration plan which included their input into their schools.