Report Calls For Referendum To Overturn Ban On Dual Citizen MPs

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"The tool the South used for so long to oppose segregation has been shattered."

The Wilmington News, which came out in the afternoons in the Port City in the 1950s, managed a banner headline for the day's top story on May 17, 1954:


Sixty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate public school facilities for black and white children were inherently unconstitutional.

A team of lawyers from the NAACP, led by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, had persuaded the justices to overturn the court's 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson and find that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Chief Justice Earl Warren had negotiated with his colleagues to make the the decision unanimous, with no dissents.

As the News' sister paper, the Wilmington Morning Star, would editorialize on May 19, "The tool the South used for so long to uphold segregation has been shattered."

The Brown decision involved school systems in Virginia, South Carolina and Kansas. As an Associated Press story noted at the time, though the ruling would affect 9 million white students and nearly 3 million "Negro" students in 17 Southern states and the District of Columbia. (The Brown ruling only covered de jure segregation, or segregation by law. Efforts against de facto segregation would not come until the 1960s.)

North Carolina leaders – at least white leaders – were stunned. Gov. William B. Umstead said he was "terribly disappointed" by Brown v. Board but postponed further comment until he had time to read the ruling.

Alton A. Lennon of Wilmington, who was fighting to hold his U.S. Senate seat in the 1954 election, charged that his Democratic primary opponent, former Gov. Kerr Scott, "and certain of his top political associates and advisers have encouraged the abolition of segregation in our public schools for many years." Scott's campaign manager, Terry Sanford (a future governor and U.S. senator) responded with a statement from his boss, declaring "I have always opposed and I am still opposed to Negro and white children going to school together. It is my belief that most white and Negro citizens of North Carolina agree on this point."

Except for a brief United Press report, of trustees from a Negro training school in Georgia petitioning for continued desegregation, neither the Star nor the News (predecessors of today's StarNews) ran coverage of what African-American residents of Southeastern North Carolina might actually be thinking.

The Star largely missed one of the big stories of the day – and one of its biggest ironies. As the Brown ruling was being announced, black leaders in Wilmington were dedicating the new building for Williston, New Hanover County's segregated black high school.

Guest speaker for that day was Dr. Rufus E. Clement, president of Atlanta University. As New York Times reporter Peter Applebome recounted in his book "Dixie Rising," in the midst of the ceremony, Clement was called away for an urgent phone call. When he returned, he whispered the news to Wilmington physician Dr. Hubert A. Eaton: Segregation was outlawed.

Separate, unequal

Three years earlier, Eaton and other supporters had successfully sued the New Hanover County Board of Education, arguing on the basis of Plessy v. Ferguson that black schools in the county were demonstrably unequal to white schools.

Eaton had assembled dozens of comparison photos to make his point. As historian John L. Godwin wrote, the photos "showed wood-framed dilapidated structures with outhouse toilets and black students using worn-out textbooks and hand-me-down desks, while whites used the more recently dated equipment." Laboratories, the band room and the cafeteria at all-white New Hanover High School were clearly superior.

Eaton's suit essentially forced the school board to push a $3 million bond referendum to pay for massive improvements to the "colored" schools – including a new building for Williston.

Now, however, the rules had changed. Ten years later, in 1964, Eaton and his children would sue the school board again, this time demanding total desegregation.

Meanwhile, the Star's editorialists, along with other whites, grasped for straws. "Supreme Court's Specific Decision Awaits Arguments," noted a News headline; the specific details of school desegregation would have to be worked out. "Seeks Gradual Adjustment," noted the Star.

"It is a tremendously dark day for believers – in both the Negro and white races – of segregation in the schools," the Star's editorial concluded. The editorial noted the "billions of dollars spent" on maintaining dual school systems.

"But the day could be made darker through snap judgments, emotional acts and demagogic talk," the editorial continued. "Most Southerners ask for the time to read the decision and think." The editorial closed by calling for "cool, clear thinking … as the South wrestles with the biggest problem placed upon its back since Reconstruction days."

Meanwhile, on page 2, the Star, as it always did, ran "Hambone's Meditations," a cartoon of an African-American man with a witticism in Uncle Remus dialect.

White leaders in New Hanover County would think about Brown vs. Board for 14 years. Token desegregation in New Hanover County would begin only in 1964 when 19 students (including Eaton's daughter Carolyn) would enter formerly all-white schools. In 1968, pressed by a U.S. District Court order and regulations by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the New Hanover school board finally opted for full desegregation.

That plan, however, came with a catch that would anger and sadden much of the black community. The school board, including its only black member, voted to close Williston High School.

Losing Williston

Supporters cited the high costs of renovating Williston to bring it up to HEW standards and the threat of losing $700,000 in federal school funding. More quietly, Godwin noted, some black and white leaders acknowledged fears of a white backlash if white students were forced to attend Williston.

For alumni and supporters, however, losing Williston was a blow. The school had a high academic reputation, even sending some of its graduates to Ivy League colleges. Its athletic teams were often state champions; its marching band was renowned throughout the region and was featured every year in the Azalea Festival parade. Stars like Leontyne Price gave concerts or recitals at the school.

"Williston was a bedrock of the community," said Wayne Moore, later prosecuted as one of the Wilmington Ten and granted a pardon of innocence in 2012. "It was like our churches, like a surrogate parent or grandparent. And then, something you leaned on was suddenly gone."

Moore, 61, who remembers the "hand-me-down books" of segregated schools, added, "We knew desegregation was something that had to happen eventually. It was just the traumatic way it came about." He blames the white school leadership: "They had 14 years to plan for this."

Bad feeling about Williston's closing, and racial tensions at New Hanover and Hoggard high schools, would simmer for two years until January 1971, when black students, angered by assaults, declared a boycott of the county school system. Troubles escalated into weeks of violence which left two people dead and a number of Wilmington buildings firebombed.

Other historically black schools throughout Brunswick and Pender counties would also abruptly close or be consolidated.

"We've heard stories of shelves of trophies just being swept off and thrown out," said Anne Brennan, director of the Cameron Art Museum.

Since January, the Cameron has been digitally documenting memorabilia and artifacts from historically black schools of the segregation era. These will be assembled into an installation by artist Willie Cole to be titled "School Pride: The Eastern North Carolina Story," which will open at the museum on June 28.

Ben Steelman: 343-2208

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