“When black schools closed, their names, mascots, mottos, holidays, and traditions were sacrificed with them, while the students were transferred to historically white schools that retained those markers of cultural and racial identity.” – David S. Cecelski
Until the 1950s, few black children in Hyde County had the opportunity to receive a high school-level education. In 1953, the O. A. Peay School opened near Swan Quarter, and the Davis School of Engelhard was enlarged to accommodate high school students in 1954 greatly increasing educational options for students in the black community. The schools established a pattern of “high expectations, strong role models, and constant reinforcement of . . . dignity and self-respect.”
Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) urged Hyde County black parents to apply for the admission of their children into the all-white Mattamuskeet School. Most parents, however, were hesitant to do so given the volitile nature of race relations and the regular activity of the KKK in the region. For two years, from 1966-1968, the Hyde County School Board dragged their feet on a solution to desegregating their schools. The board outright refused to force white children to attend former all-black schools and consistent stalemates ensued, but, on May 31, 1968, the board submitted their plan to HEW (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare). On July 3, the Office of Civil Rights approved the plan. Under the proposed solution, Hyde County would close all black schools by 1971.
The looming closures of the black community’s beloved Peay and Davis schools set the people on edge. HEW’s A. J. Howell sensed the rising discomfort: “Negroes are tired of having to bear the burdens of integration.” Though most black families in Hyde County had supported desegregation, they now worried that white dominance would destroy the educational heritage which they had painstakingly built since Reconstruction. When black community leaders approached officials with their concerns, they were ultimately ignored.
On Sunday, September 2, 1968, 1,500 members of Hyde County’s black community marched into Swan Quarter to protest the closings. On Tuesday, the first day of school, only a few black students showed up at Mattamuskeet, Davis, and Peay. Day after day, activists demanded to be heard, students boycotted the schools, and parents grew concerned over the lack of progress in negotiations with the school board. On September 17, as students gathered outside the Hyde County Courthouse, a state trooper fired Mace over their heads. On September 25, the sheriff turned to tear gas.
On Monday, November 11, the protest gained national attention but not for its success. According to Jack Loftus of the United Press International, 24 students entered a second-floor room of the Hyde County Courthouse under peaceful circumstances. They were subsequently penned in by state troopers who held the door shut after throwing smoke and tear gas into the room. Some students were able to break out, but in the melee, 17-year-old Mamie Harris fell or jumped out the window breaking her pelvis. The incident nearly set off a riot. In the following days, national newspapers and television networks flooded Swan Quarter to cover the story.
When months of protests and boycotts failed to budge the Hyde County school board, the demonstrators decided to act on a larger scale. On February 9, 1969, more than 125 protesters marched away from Swan Quarter and headed toward the capital city. By the time it reached the city on February 14, the March on Raleigh was 600 strong. The action, however, failed to produce desired change. A second similar demonstration, the Mountain Top to Valley March, soon followed. On April 18, the protesters again descended on Raleigh and again fell short of gaining executive support.
By the summer of 1969, no one in Hyde County knew what would transpire in the forthcoming school year. What black citizens did know was that a November 5 special election proposing a tax increase of nearly 25% would likely decide the fate of their beloved schools. If the referendum passed, the county would have all the funds it needed to expand the Mattamuskeet School to include both white and black students with no use for the former black schools. If it failed, Hyde County would be forced to keep Peay and Davis open. On the day of the election, citizens substantially defeated the bond referendum. The school boycott had finally succeeded, and desegregation was underway in Hyde County.
[From the exhibit “This Period of Grave Crisis”: North Carolinians Respond to Brown, 1954-1974]
* Image courtesy of the News and Observer via the States Archives of North Carolina