“This must be worked out locally”: race, education, and leadership in Rockingham County, North Carolina, 1820-1970

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Deborah Doss Russell (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/
Charles Bolton

Abstract: Focusing on local leadership, this work is a close study of race and education in Rockingham County, North Carolina, from 1820 to 1970. The long history of race and education is examined in the context of broader state and regional racial politics, with a focus on how both black and white citizens built their schools, maintained them through decades of segregation, and carried out the process of school desegregation, the primary path through which Jim Crow was dismantled across the South. With the historical record found in school board minutes and local newspapers as its research foundation, this dissertation reveals how the public school system was built and operated in one county in the Upper South, where, influenced by state and federal leaders over a century and a half, citizens worked out a framework of small-town and rural schools that ultimately afforded their children and youth equitable access to education. Because four separate school systems existed in the county, it is possible to compare the day-to-day functioning of schools in different communities and to understand more fully how leadership influenced local policies. Covering roughly five periods in local educational history, this study traces the efforts of those who invested in establishing, operating, and improving their public schools, arguing that the involvement of local leaders in each district significantly determined how each system developed and how racially segregated schools were ultimately eliminated. The trajectory of this local history includes the white academies of the antebellum era, the early public schools constructed in the late 1800s, the widening of the town/rural divide as well as the racial gap in the early 1900s, the challenges of operating multiple school systems during economic depression and war, and the struggle to comply with federal desegregation standards in the late 1960s. Much more than has been generally acknowledged, race was consistently a factor in building and maintaining these public schools, influenced by those who sought reconciliation of blacks and whites as well as those who deepened racial division. A local history such as this one affords us an opportunity to see how the South’s difficult racial past affected people at the grassroots level—in their community schools. This study also illuminates a century of agency and activism on the part of the county’s black community. African Americans were leaders as they helped create their own educational spaces, maintained and improved segregated institutions, chipped away at Jim Crow restrictions, and exerted as much leverage as they could to desegregate the local public schools. This long and persistent grassroots involvement was a significant part of the black freedom struggle, as incremental change was implemented in a variety of local conditions. Local leaders such as those in Rockingham County who actively sought adequate educational opportunities for their own children, the elimination of segregated schools, and a more equitable society were crucial in the success of the broader civil rights movement. No real progress in the black freedom struggle could have been achieved without eliminating segregated schools that existed as symbols of second-class citizenship in nearly every community in the South.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2019
African American history, History of Education in North Carolina, Public Schools, Race and Education, Rockingham County, North Carolina, School Desegregation
Education $z North Carolina $z Rockingham County $x History
Public schools $z North Carolina $z Rockingham County $x History
African Americans $x Education $z North Carolina $z Rockingham County $x History
School integration $z North Carolina $z Rockingham County $x History
Rockingham County (N.C.) $x Race relations $x History

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