In the Mountains: The history of desegregation in North Carolina schools

The fight for equal educational opportunities in North Carolina and throughout the American South did not start and end with the famous Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision

When Kansan Oliver Brown filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas following the rejection of his then third-grade daughter Linda Brown from an all-white elementary school, he set in motion a series of events toward equality in education that is yet still ongoing. The 1954 United States Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, and the court’s decision that ruled discrimination on the basis of race in public schools unconstitutional, was a keystone in the Civil Rights Movement at the time. While the ruling was foundational in the fight for educational equality, it was not the beginning or the end of the history of racially segregated education in North Carolina.

Before Brown

Nineteenth century North Carolina laws made the education of enslaved people illegal, and reading and writing were punishable offenses to both the teacher and the student. Even when the Freedmen’s Bureau—a government-sanctioned organization that sought to assist formerly enslaved people become self-sufficient—began efforts to establish schools in the South for newly freed Black Americans following the Emancipation Proclamation, Black Appalachians were largely overlooked. The Freedmen’s Bureau’s efforts and resources were focused on larger cities with a substantial population of formerly enslaved people, but that meant those families and communities peppered on the state’s borders did not receive the support they needed to establish themselves in a society that fought against and actively opposed their freedom and success in society.

As Betty Jamerson Reed discusses in her book “School Segregation in Western North Carolina,” the efforts to establish and ensure education for Black Appalachians fell onto the shoulders of the community members themselves. While they were often ignored by government assistance programs in favor of communities in larger, more metropolitan areas, the Black communities in Western North Carolina continued to develop and strengthen themselves, eventually leading to the establishment of businesses, places of worship, and schools for the people in the community.

“In North Carolina’s western counties schools and churches created a strong sense of unity that empowered Black citizens to confront the difficulties of living in a predominately white culture,” Reed writes. She explains that these community centers also went on to play a major role in the region’s desegregation movement.

The lack of governmental resources and support for African American communities in the High Country directly following the Emancipation Proclamation continued throughout the era of segregation. Segregation often meant that teachers in Black schools battled with underfunding and undertraining. Regardless of the “separate but equal” ruling in the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson, facilities and supplies were not distributed equally between Black and white schools in the region and throughout the country, and therefore, neither was the quality of education equally applied.

School segregation shifts

Although eventually the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka declared it unconstitutional for public schools throughout the country to be separated on the basis of race, this was not the end of the road when it came to ensuring an education of equal quality for Black and white students.

Due to the deeply ingrained social separation of Black and white Appalachians, as well as the institutional frameworks that held those social separations in place, the passing of Brown did not immediately turn the tides when it came to segregation in schools. To illustrate the difficulties Black Appalachian families had to overcome in order to secure an education for their children, Reed references a speech made by Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s School Program William Bagwell in 1962, eight years following the Brown decision.

In this speech Bagwell demonstrates these roadblocks, pointing out the long distances and substandard facilities that Black students at the time continued to deal with despite the court’s ruling. “Thirteen Alleghany County children make a 100-mile round trip each day to attend school—leaving before daylight and often returning after dark (and) passing other schools (two or three) along the way,” Reed writes. Additionally, Black high school students right here in Avery County had to attend a small, one-teacher school with only a handful of students while a “large, modern school with several hundred students is located nearby.”

One of the primary ways that North Carolina lawmakers continued to uphold these roadblocks, even after Brown vs. Board of Education, was the 1955 Pupil Assignment Act. This removed all references to race in North Carolina’s laws around schools and reallocated the responsibility for pupil placement from the state to the boards of education of individual counties and cities. To replace racial criteria, the Pupil Assignment Act outlined other vague, often non-sensical, criteria for each board of education to refer to when determining an individual pupil’s school placement. Such criteria included previous schools attended and what was referred to as “local conditions.” The act also installed a complicated appeals process, making it difficult for parents to push back on a board’s decision regarding their child’s school placement.

Due to the elimination of race-based criteria from the school laws, North Carolina argued that the Pupil Assignment Act legally complied with Brown vs. Board of Education, which prohibited the separation of children in schools by race, but that does not mean it upheld the decision in practice.

According to NCPedia, through the Pupil Assignment Act, “enough obstacles that were not specifically race based had been created that even the most qualified African American student could be turned away from a white school on nonracial grounds. According to one report, a school district rejected one black family’s request to transfer their son to an all-white school because he was a C student and therefore too academically weak, but disqualified another black family’s petition because their son was an A student and should not have his academic success disrupted.”

These workarounds of the law were common throughout the region, state, and country, and resulted in countless schools that, while desegregated on paper, were not so in practice. According to a 1961 statistical summary of school segregation and desegregation by the Southern Education Reporting Service, of the 173 public and elementary school districts in North Carolina at the time, all 173 of them were home to both Black and white families, but only 10 of the districts’ schools were desegregated. Only one of these desegregated school districts, Yancey, is designated as an Appalachian county. When it came to higher education, only five of the 17 tax-supported higher education institutions in North Carolina at that time accepted students of another race than was historically served at the institution.

Because it is a private institution, and does not rely on funding from North Carolina taxes, Lees-McRae was not required to meet the same standards of diversity and integration that public educational institutions were held to. In fact, little legal action was taken to discourage or ban racial discrimination in private schools until a 1983 decision by the United States Supreme Court that made racially discriminatory private schools ineligible for the benefit of federal tax exemption.

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger authored the majority opinion, stating in the decision, “there can no longer be any doubt that racial discrimination in education violates deeply and widely accepted views of elementary justice. It would be wholly incompatible with the concepts underlying tax exemption to grant the benefit of tax-exempt status to racially discriminatory educational entities.”

Regardless of the lack of legal desegregation requirements, Black students began enrolling at Lees-McRae as early as the 1960s. Over the last almost 70 years since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and 40 years since the Supreme Court penned its opinion on racially discriminatory private schools, Lees-McRae has made strides toward becoming an institution that supports, values, and prioritizes the education and experience of Black and other students of color.

Although the college and Western North Carolina as a region has made progress toward true equality, there is always more work to be done to create a better and more just society for all. In the words of Acting Associate Professor at Emory University Crystal Sanders, who delivered the keynote address at the college’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony in January, “we have the ability as a nation to overcome racial inequality; the question is whether or not we have the will.”

Learn more about Black Appalachian history with these resources:

Black history-makers at Lees-McRae: Darryl Gibson '68


Darryl Gibson ’68 became the first African American basketball player at Lees-McRae when he started on the team as a freshman in 1967. As a senior in 1968 he made two all-conference basketball teams, All-Western Carolinas Junior College Conference, and All-Region Ten; the only Lees-McRae player to earn a spot in either conference.

Gibson was very involved with student life during his time at Lees-McRae. In 1968 he was elected as vice president of the Student Government Association; served in Order of the Tower; worked on the Program, Service, and Fellowship Committees of the college’s Christian Council; and was a member of the Monogram Club and Demosthean Fraternity Club.

This excerpt from the college's Ontaroga yearbook from 1968, summarizes Gibson's success on the men's basketball team that season. In the photo Gibson is shown alongside Head Basketball Coach Jack Lytton displaying the team's second place conference trophy.


By Maya JarrellFebruary 09, 2023