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Race and Desegregation at West Charlotte High School

During West Charlotte High School’s three decades as an African-American institution, the school’s teachers labored to prepare students for a world much larger than the one circumscribed by the era’s Jim Crow restrictions, turning out graduates who reached the top of many fields and helping to lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1971 ruling in the landmark Swann case, however, West Charlotte took on a new identity as a national symbol of the cross-town busing policy that made Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, the most desegregated major school system in the United States.

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Given that federal judge Robert Potter lifted the city’s thirty-year-old busing order in the fall of 1999, the Southern Oral History Program’s “Listening for a Change” initiative on race and desegregation at West Charlotte High School was particularly well timed. In a series of interviews, project coordinator Pamela Grundy captured the voices of West Charlotte’s former students, parents, teachers, and administrators. The oral histories reveal that the story of the school goes much deeper than issues of busing, race relations, and public policy – West Charlotte is an institution that has instilled pride, maturity, and spirit in its graduates, whether black or white. As interviewee Bill Culp, who taught briefly at West Charlotte and then sent four children to the school, explains: “I really think that education is more than just what you learn out of books. It’s a lot about what you learn from other people. And in order to have a good education, you have to have experiences from lots of people who are different than you are.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the project was an exhibit curated by Grundy for the Museum of the New South, Charlotte’s highly regarded post-Civil War history museum. The exhibit, “Carrying the Spirit: Voices of Desegregation at West Charlotte High School,” gave several thousand teachers, students, and other visitors a chance to explore the historical dimensions of present-day debates over diversity in education. In conjunction with the exhibit, Grundy wrote an opinion piece on the subject that was published in The Charlotte Observer. Read and listen to the interviews here.