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The memory of burning crosses is clearly stamped in Norwood Whitley’s psyche.
Whitley’s grandfather, J. Norwood Whitley Sr., who died in 1975, was chairman of the Wilson County Board of Education for eight years when the county was struggling with the school integration process.
“Because we were in favor of integration, some people actually put a burning cross at my grandfather’s house, and they actually put another one on the farm where my dad lived,” Whitley said Thursday. “That was kind of scary. We were kids, and we were out in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t expect any hate crime like that against us just because we were in favor of integration.”
Whitley was about 6 years old when the segregationists made their cross-burning demonstration in the 1960s.
“It was scary enough that it still sticks in my mind,” Whitley said. “It still is in my mind, seeing my dad really scared, because they were doing things to discourage us, and he started to buy up lots of ammo because we were on a farm in the middle of nowhere.”
Whitley said it was a very divisive time. “
You always have some people that don’t like it and throw a fit, and you have other people that are more accepting to it,” he said. “We were more accepting to it.”
Whitley said despite “having to deal with the fear of people who were against those of us who were for integration,” it was still worth the fight.
“Yes it was, because growing up in that era, I had a lot of black friends,” Whitley said. “We all lived on a farm, and we didn’t care what color anybody was. It was good for us because we got to go to school with our friends and that was good. ”
Integration of Wilson County Schools, Wilson City Schools and Elm City Schools would ultimately only take place as a result of federal court orders in 1970. That led to the consolidation of all three systems into one district in 1976.
Christine Fitch, chairwoman of the Wilson County Board of Education, remembers when Wilson County Schools was under a court order to provide a racially balanced system because previous school systems were segregated.
“Because we were under court order and the Department of Justice, we were monitored for our balance, and we had percentages that we had to work within,” said Fitch, who has been on the board for 30 years. “We were juggling and moving, and students were bused, and our performance and our integration was achieved. And then there was the move to come from under court order and go back to a unitary status where we were not mandated.”
Fitch said that while the school district was under the mandate, there was a constant effort to shift students from school to school to try to keep the numbers in sync with the court-ordered 60-40 black/white percentage split that was required.
On Jan, 3, 1997, U.S. District Court Judge James C. Fox released Wilson County Schools from the 1970 federal court order overseeing Wilson County Schools’ racial desegregation.
Then-superintendent Ann Denlinger said at the time that the school district’s “track record of treating students equally and fairly caused the order to be released.”
A Dec. 13, 1997, editorial in The Wilson Daily Times took the board to task.
“Nearly all-black and all-white schools will be in Wilson County’s future if the board follows through with its decision to ignore race/ethnicity in setting school attendance districts,” the editorial stated. “Schools that are initially 90 percent black will soon be all-black.
Schools that are initially 80 percent white will see their white enrollment increase. With such disparity in race will come disparities in parental support, achievement, academic quality and voter support.”
The school board began the process in early 1995 of the getting the district released from desegregation order.
Since 1970, the school district was required to file annual papers demonstrating the racial breakdown of its schools.
“When the unitary status was granted so that we were no longer demanded to keep our numbers within certain boundaries was when we began seeing our schools gradually become more segregated again,” Fitch said.
At the time, there was a popular movement against busing and in favor of the creation of neighborhood schools.
“That was what basically occurred when the mandated busing no longer occurred,” Fitch said.
Bill Myers, a 40-year educator in Wilson County Schools, was concerned about the change to unitary status.
“I was a little bit bothered by that because we had fought so hard and long for the integration of schools,” Myers said. “And let me be clear on this. It wasn’t so much about integrating the schools; it was about making the schools equal. The courts had said that segregation was legal as long as you have the same thing, separate but equal, which was another way of saying segregated. We fought so hard to get over that. Now we have integrated schools, and things are being more equal.”
It now appears schools are re-segregating, Myers said of the trend that’s occurred in the 22 years since the district was released from the court order.
In 1988, enrollment figures for Wilson County Schools showed 52 percent non-white students and 48 percent white.
Today, a breakdown of Wilson County Schools’ 11,164 students shows the student population is 44 percent black, 30 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic, 1.4 percent Asian and 4.6 percent other race.
According to PrivateSchoolReview.com, Wilson area private schools have a lower percentage of students of color. The site notes that Greenfield School has 11 percent students of color, Community Christian School has 17 percent students of color, Wilson Christian Academy has 5 percent students of color and Garnett Christian Academy has 11 percent students of color.
U.S. Census information shows Wilson County’s population is 47.3 percent white, 39.5 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, 0.8 percent Asian and 2.3 percent other race. The total population is 81,671.
“Even now, we have schools that are predominantly black,” Myers said. “They are minority schools, basically, and that’s what we were trying to get away from. Going back to the neighborhood thing has put us right back where we were before that happened.
So I don’t know how we are going to work through that. I think that’s caused the rise of more charter schools and more private schools that are popping up everywhere and people who are trying to get equal access to things. I think our school board people do a good job of trying to make sure that happens, but it doesn’t look good if I go to this school and everybody in the school is minority, everybody. What happened when we were trying to integrate the schools?”
Fitch said there are residents around certain areas going to certain schools in the neighborhood.
The school board doesn’t make adjustments in the school population unless there is a case of overcrowding.
“Let’s take a school, B.O. Barnes (Elementary School), that was built in an African-American community and its base is African-American,” Fitch said. “You have the children who are at New Hope, which is a country club area, and so your primary base is going to be Caucasian.”
According to the North Carolina School Report Cards issued annually to schools, in 2017-18 Barnes Elementary had 74.7 percent economically disadvantaged students, while New Hope had 21.6 percent of its enrollment economically disadvantaged. By contrast, in 2017, charter school Wilson Preparatory Academy had 31 percent of students economically disadvantaged, while at charter school Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts and Education, 64.3 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.
Fitch said Wilson County Schools is dealing with the hand it’s been dealt.
“When we were mandated to be more inclusive and integrated, it was done,” Fitch said. “When it was adjudicated through the courts that we no longer had to do that, then we no longer did that.”
The result is that children go to the schools that are in their neighborhoods.
“And so, when we make those changes now because of overcrowding, there are persons who are unhappy because we have moved their children,” Fitch said.
“This whole thing called school is not easy, and trying to make sure that we are within the bounds that are mandated to us, whether through the courts, whether through the legislature, whether through the federal government and their mandates, we have to work within those. So we do have schools now where you have less of a mingling of the affluent and the non-affluent and whatever, and it is what it is and we have to work within that and still try to provide the best options we can for our students.”
“The school business is very difficult,” Myers said. “It is extremely difficult.”