This blog post was written by SOHP Mining the Archives intern Liz Kennedy.
This semester, my fellow intern Samantha and I mined the SOHP archive for clips on school desegregation in the South, looking specifically in North Carolina. We listened to the different perspectives from all sides of the school integration debate: teachers, students, staff, parents, and administrators. We also heard from different sides down the racial line: a Black student and a White principal probably had two very different perspectives on school desegregation, and we wanted to explore both sides of that story. That’s one of the cool things about oral history— it really allows us to explore the side of history not talked about in our textbooks. It’s the most primary of all historical sources, because it allows us to hear people’s stories from their own perspective. It gives a voice to the voiceless, and a platform to the preferably unheard.
Luckily for us, hundreds of oral histories have been captured from the time of school desegregation. The desegregation of American public schools started in 1954, after the Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education ruled separate-but-equal schools unconstitutional. Despite this, it would take over a decade for most Southern schools to finally integrate; Durham public schools weren’t fully integrated until 1963, with Chapel Hill following suit in 1969.
When we talk about schools integrating, we tend to view our not-so-distant past through a more positive light. We think of things like the backlash surrounding Little Rock 9 as exceptions to an otherwise smooth transition. But the truth is, school desegregation was a long, difficult process that lasted over a decade, with lots of opposition from segregationists, some of which became violent. As we continued listening to interviews, a pattern eventually emerged from the stories of the interviewees: schools may have desegregated, but very few actually integrated.
Even though there was a lot of hostility during school desegregation, what we found was that there was a lot more commonality than we thought. The one thing that seemed to unite Black and White, if only for a couple of hours, was athletics. We kept hearing, over and over again, that school athletics broke color barriers on the field. Those students had to cooperate as teammates. A lack of team unity meant certain defeat, and no athlete likes to lose. They had to choose the team over their own biases, and the best part was, it showed off the field too.
In a 2000 interview with Charles Adams, one of the several coaches that led student athletes in Cary, North Carolina during this tumultuous time, “the schools could not have integrated without athletics.” The camaraderie that students built up on the field found itself translating to the classrooms and halls of their schools. Players became teammates, and teammates became friends. It started to influence their fans, too, some of which had protested the very unity that now existed on the field.
In the words of Adams, “I think you can look back and really credit athletics as being the single most success story in integration, not just in North Carolina but in the South, in the country.” As we celebrate over 50 years of school integration, it is important to acknowledge the importance of school athletics in breaking color barriers, and the connecting force athletics provide for students, even today.