Looking Back 50 Years – Durham school desegregation

Celebrating 50th Anniversary

Charmaine McKissick-Melton offered her views on this historic event.

Durham Herald Sun – June 1, 2010 Guest Column

Fifty years after DPS integration, we must remember

By Charmaine McKissick-Melton, Herald-Sun, 01 June 2010

My sister Joycelyn McKissick and Larry Scurlock graduated 50 years ago tomorrow from Durham High School, which was an all-white institution until their arrival.  Larry wrote in their yearbook, “There will always be a frontier when there is an open mind and a willing hand.” Joycelyn chose “Vouloir c’est pouvoir,” “where there is a will there is a way.” Joycelyn and Larry believed it was their honor and duty to help African-Americans, no matter what it cost them personally.

The city of Durham and the Durham Public Schools haven’t announced any plans to mark this occasion. At the time, neither The Durham Herald nor The Durham Sun newspapers marked this historic event either. In contrast, the front page headline of the African-American community weekly The Carolina Times was “Durham Youth Make History: First to Finish White School.”

Joycelyn followed in the proud shoes of our father, Floyd B. McKissick Sr., the first African-American to successfully sue UNC Chapel Hill’s Law School for admission. He became a civil rights attorney, a judge, the national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) and he founded Soul City.

But it was my mother, Evelyn McKissick, whose name was on the 1957 lawsuit that led to Joycelyn’s graduation from Durham High School. My mother believed in school desegregation and fought for the right of her children to attend the school of their choice. My mother watched over all of these brave kids. “Don’t mess with my children,” is what she always used to say, “because I’m going to be there to tell you about it.”

In September 1959, the Durham School Board finally agreed to reassign seven black students, including Joycelyn and Larry, then starting their senior year. Henry Vickers and Andree McKissick, another sister, were admitted to Carr Junior High; Lucy Jones and Anita Brame attended Brogden Junior High, and Anita’s older sister, Claudette Brame, enrolled as a junior at Durham High. In 1963, my brother Floyd and I followed our sister when the Durham School Board finally extended integration to the elementary level. We were among the first black students to attend North Durham Elementary School.

Joycelyn wrote a Carolina Times column back then called “Mack’s Quack: Teenage Happenings.” “Due to token integration in four Durham Public Schools, it’s going to mean more seriousness on the part of all students of both races,” she wrote. “Good luck and God be with you all. Don’t forget to strive for the topmost branch and study hard. I’ll be studying, too, but don’t worry, I’ll see you next week. Bye, teens.”

Studying hard was not Joycelyn and Larry’s only challenge. One day, several students pushed Joycelyn down a flight of stairs. She was left unconscious. The only African-Americans in the building were janitors and cafeteria staff. Thank goodness one of those folks found her, called our parents, and brought her home. This story helps to explain the magnitude of their personal sacrifices – my words, not theirs.

Unfortunately my sister and Larry Scurlock have both passed away. But that doesn’t mean that those of use who remember their bravery and determination – or who benefit from their principled support of equality for all – should let this historic anniversary pass us by. Their service must be commended and remembered.

I am committed to telling stories like these through my involvement in the Pauli Murray Project, an effort committed to recognizing our “whole past.” Murray believed that our stories of conflict and struggle are not something to hide but are powerful tools for shaping the future. School desegregation is still an issue. The fight to ensure that all students have access to an excellent public education and diverse classrooms continues. Acknowledging our past is an important step in this journey.

I am proud of my sister and all of the young people of her generation. They faced violence and overt racism in their schools. We honor them by remembering their groundbreaking efforts and continuing their work, and by acknowledging the sacrifice and risk that accompanied their struggle.

I feel akin to Pauli Murray, who also explored her family’s history in the book “Proud Shoes”: “This is not just the history of a single family – it is the history of an entire people in all the grandeur, violence, courage, and pride, of the hardships they endured and the obstacles they surmounted. The dogged determination of the Fitzgeralds [or, in my case, the McKissicks] and their generation is your legacy and mine. Let us use it well.”

Charmaine McKissick-Melton is an associate professor in the department of English and mass communications at North Carolina Central University and a steering committee member of the Pauli Murray Project.