Black History of Charlotte Part 5: The Battle Over Desegregation in Charlotte
Highs and lows in all communities
The following is the final chapter in a five-part history of Black culture in Charlotte, and touches on desegregation in Charlotte schools. You can read the entire Black History of Charlotte series here.
In September of 1964, Vera and Darius Swann wrote the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education to request that their son James be assigned to predominantly white Seversville Elementary.
The Swanns had recently returned to Charlotte after years of mission work in India. Darius had joined the Johnson C. Smith faculty as a professor of theology, and the family had moved onto the Smith campus. When the school year started, they sought to enroll their son at Seversville instead of all-Black Biddleville Elementary.
“We believe that an integrated school will best prepare young people for responsibility in an integrated society,” they wrote the board. “Having lived practically all of his life in India, James has never known the meaning of racial segregation. We have been happy to watch him grow and develop with an unaffected openness to people of all races and backgrounds, and we feel it our duty as parents to insure that this healthy development continue.”
Their appeal fell on deaf ears. The all-white school board was focused not on the value of school desegregation in Charlotte, but rather on accommodating white families who opposed it.
A decade after the Supreme Court required schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed,” only 722 of Charlotte’s 20,000 African-American students attended predominantly white schools. The board unanimously rejected the Swanns’ request.
“We have a plan, and we’re working toward it,” Chairman David Harris stated. “We’re picking up momentum every year.”
But board members could not stall much longer. In January of 1965, the Swanns joined several other Charlotte families in a lawsuit, Swann v. Board, which would upend Charlotte school assignments and transform districts around the nation.
Making Law Reality
The Swann case arose because neither federal legislation nor Supreme Court rulings could advance racial justice on their own. Turning a mandate for equality into on-the-ground reality required hard, patient work, community by community.
Julius Chambers, the lead lawyer in Swann, had come to Charlotte to do just that. Born in nearby Mount Gilead, Chambers overcame the third-rate education provided by that community’s profoundly unequal public schools to graduate first in his class at UNC Chapel Hill’s newly desegregated law school. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund tagged him as a rising star and sent him to Charlotte to pursue civil rights cases.
Two months before the Swanns made their appeal, in the same week that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 24-year-old Chambers opened a law office on East Trade Street.
Chambers would become the most celebrated civil rights litigator of his generation. At a time when judges were especially open to applying legal remedies to racial wrongs, he and his partners filed hundreds of cases and devised innovative legal strategies that produced landmark Supreme Court rulings in the fields of education, employment, and voting rights.
“We were the legal arm of the civil rights movement in North Carolina,” explained longtime colleague James Ferguson II. “We were litigating in court every day fully confident that we were going to bring about some change in the social and political fabric that had fostered three centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, bigotry, prejudice, and brutality against Black people . . . It was exciting to prepare a case. It was exciting to talk to people who had a problem because you felt like there was something you could do through the courts to make a difference.”
Of all those cases, the one that would mean the most in Charlotte was Swann v. Board.
Why Desegregation in Charlotte?
Participants in the Swann case saw integrated education as essential to a more equal society. As the Swanns noted in their letter, they believed that integrated learning would prepare children, Black and white, to work together in a post-Jim Crow world.
For his part, Chambers focused on resources. Since whites controlled public funds, he argued, only schools that educated white children could be sure of getting what they needed.
“I don’t think that those who are now in power would provide the facilities and services that would be necessary in order to accomplish [separate but] equal educational programs,” he would tell the U.S. Senate in 1971. “As I view it, the only way that we can obtain quality education for all children, Black and white, is to accomplish racial mixing of students in the various schools.”
Chambers argued Swann before federal judge James McMillan in the spring of 1969. He cast his net wide. Charlotte’s still-segregated schools, he contended, were a direct result of the Jim Crow policies that had separated the city into Black and white sectors.
He laid out evidence that revealed striking gaps in performance between Black and white students, and showed that Black students who attended majority-white schools performed far better than those who remained in all-Black schools.
He ended with a staggering conclusion: The only way to remedy the wrongs of Jim Crow segregation, and to ensure that all children received equal opportunities, was to fully integrate every school in the 83,000-student system. McMillan was taken aback by Chambers’ ambition — no one had ever called for that degree of change. But he listened carefully, and by the end he was persuaded.
In late April, he issued an order that required Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) to eliminate all racially identifiable schools — a mandate that would require cross-town busing on a massive scale. The ruling set off five years of conflict that nearly tore the city apart.
Victory and Loss
Historically Black schools were among the first casualties. Swann was decided at a time when Black Charlotteans had legal but not political clout. The school board continued to focus on protecting white students — especially those from well-off families — regardless of the effect on Black students.
The board had closed several historically Black schools back in 1966, not long after Swann was filed. In August of 1969, three months after McMillan’s ruling, it abruptly shuttered several more, including Second Ward High. In 1965, Mecklenburg County had seven Black high schools. By the fall of 1969, only West Charlotte High remained.
Many Black Charlotteans had been wary of school integration. While they knew Black schools in Charlotte were underfunded, they feared desegregation would lead to the loss of the supportive environment they provided.
“I never felt that our kids would get the same thing in the white situation as they would get from us,” longtime West Charlotte English teacher Barbara Davis explained years later. “That was just my basic feeling. I was leery of being consumed. And that’s what I was afraid of. I didn’t want our people to be consumed by the white people.”
The first years of desegregation in Charlotte bore out those concerns. The closing of Black schools meant the loss of Black jobs — the 1966 closings had put nearly 200 Black teachers and administrators out of work.
For the 1968-69 school year, just before the second round of closings, CMS hired 722 new teachers. Only 17 were Black. In 1965, African Americans held 44% of the county’s teaching jobs. By 1969, they were down to 22%. Those Black teachers who remained were scattered through the system. Most Black students were bused to historically white schools.
Bill McMillan, a Second Ward graduate hired by the school system as a race relations specialist, spent the 1970-71 school year visiting schools plagued by racial difficulties at every level.
“Kindergarten teachers afraid of kindergarten children,” he noted. “Teacher white, children Black, teacher afraid of students. Throughout the entire school system we had some of those . . . I’m pretty certain without reservation that there were some people who were trying their darndest to make that environment as wholesome for all children as I was. I would say, on the other hand, that there probably were some who maybe were trying, but didn’t know how and were making a mess of things.”
For their part, many Black students felt out of place, sensed the unease of white teachers and administrators, and often had no Black administrators that they could turn to for advice or support.
The school system’s demographics — 70% white and 30% Black – meant that Black students were in the minority at every school. Almost 6,500 students were suspended that school year, double the previous year’s total. Nearly 90% of those were African American.
Opposition and Accomplishment
The busing order also sparked massive opposition in many white communities, where residents formed an organization called the Concerned Parents Association. In an effort to shift the debate from racial justice to individual rights, these families contended that busing would deprive them of a Constitutional right to attend the schools of their choice.
“I am not opposed to integration in any way,” one parent stated at the association’s first anti-busing rally. “But I was ‘affluent’ enough to buy a home near the school where I wanted my children to go. And I pay taxes to pay for it. They can bring in anybody they like to that school, but I don’t want my children taken away from there.”
Fearing a massive flight to private schools, the school board at first refused to bus students out of the city’s wealthiest white neighborhoods. That decision increased the amount of busing required not only of Black families but of white families from less-privileged neighborhoods.
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld McMillan’s order in 1971. Still, stability proved elusive, and tensions continued to rise. White families were especially resistant to sending their children to West Charlotte High, sparking fears that the board would close that school as well.
Eventually, however, a grassroots group of parents decided to take matters into their own hands. Two dozen people, Black and white, began to hold regular school assignment discussions, calling themselves the Citizens’ Advisory Group. A few months later, Judge McMillan asked the group to draw up a plan that would distribute the busing burden more equitably. Realizing that the prolonged strife was damaging Charlotte’s reputation, the city’s business elite actively supported the new effort.
The Citizens’ Advisory Group presented its plan in the spring of 1974. In a dramatic demonstration that everyone would need to do their part, the plan included every neighborhood, and assigned students from several of the city’s most prestigious white enclaves to West Charlotte High.
The plan transformed the city. Eager to put the years of strife and instability behind, a broad range of community members began to work together, sparking a period of widespread civic engagement. Warnings that well-off families would flee the system in droves proved unfounded.
From 1974 into the 1990s, CMS was the most desegregated major school system in the nation. Student performance rose across the board. Charlotte became known as the city that made desegregation work, and that accomplishment became a major point of civic pride.
Forward – for Some
The favorable publicity that came with desegregation success put Charlotte in a prime position to take advantage of growing national interest in Sunbelt cities. Between 1970 and 1990, more than 1,000 new firms moved to Mecklenburg County and the population swelled by more than 150,000 residents. Civic leaders routinely cited desegregation as a key factor in that growth.
“I believe public school desegregation was the single most important step we’ve taken in this century to help our children,” leading banker Hugh McColl would famously write. “Almost immediately after we integrated our schools, the southern economy took off like a wildfire in the wind. I believe integration made the difference. Integration — and the diversity it began to nourish — became a source of economic, cultural and community strength.”
Charlotteans could point to many benefits of working together. After Black principal Elizabeth Randolph was promoted to the central office, she developed a visionary project that established the first kindergartens in schools across the city.
Harvey Gantt, the first Black student to attend Clemson University, was elected mayor in 1982, becoming the first African-American mayor of a predominantly white Southern city.
Anthony Foxx, who grew up in his grandparents’ home in the Dalebrook neighborhood, thrived in desegregated schools, including West Charlotte High, which had become a nationally renowned example of successful integration. Foxx became Charlotte’s second Black mayor in 2009, and four years later was selected by President Barack Obama to be U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Many more Black Charlotteans rose to key positions in business, politics and government.
Others, however, fared less well. In the 1970s, just as legal and political efforts began to open jobs to African Americans, major shifts in the U.S. economy shut down many of those opportunities. Wages stagnated. The income gap grew. Periods of job growth, such as the late 1990s, were followed by setbacks such as the Great Recession of 2008. Many of Charlotte’s African Americans never caught up with whites in terms of income, employment or homeownership.
The 1970s also saw a major political realignment, as opponents of the civil rights movement flocked to the Republican Party. In 1968, then-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon had launched a “Southern strategy” campaign that capitalized on dissatisfaction with civil rights legislation. Led by future North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, conservative Southern whites began to leave the Democratic Party, where they had been so influential for so long.
In 1980, these new Republicans helped carry Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
The Crescent and the Wedge
These evolving political and economic circumstances meant that Charlotte’s desegregated schools did not lead to desegregated neighborhoods.
Developers focused on building profitable subdivisions on empty farmland farther and farther out from town, with city, state and federal government providing roads, water lines, sewers and other infrastructure. The effects of generations of “redlining” — federal investment guidelines that kept banks from making mortgage loans in historically Black neighborhoods — meant that few Black families could afford homes in those new communities.
Dramatic cuts in federal housing funds made it almost impossible for city officials to build lower-cost housing in them.
African-American families thus remained concentrated in aging neighborhoods around the center city, in communities that struggled to attract public or private investment.
This new form of racial segregation created a pattern known as the “crescent and the wedge” – a half-circle of high-poverty, predominantly Black neighborhoods broken by a wedge of affluent, predominantly white communities that stretched out to the county’s southern edge.
Despite the gains of the civil rights movement, Mecklenburg County was more segregated in 1990 than it had been in 1970.
The significance of these new patterns became evident as the century drew to a close. In 1997, a group of white suburban parents filed a new lawsuit, Cappachione v. Board, that challenged the use of race in student assignment. When the case came before Reagan-appointed judge Robert Potter, he issued a ruling that forced the school system to end its busing plan.
As soon as a neighborhood-based assignment plan went into effect, schools resegregated with astonishing speed. As Julius Chambers would have predicted, predominantly white schools that educated the children of the politically and economically powerful fared far better than predominantly Black schools, most of whose families lived in poverty.
High-poverty schools were further affected by the transience experienced by so many of their students. A profound affordable housing crisis left many families homeless and forced others to move from place to place, requiring young people to constantly adjust to new schools, new teachers and new classmates. Old patterns also began to emerge.
In 2010, over vehement community objections, the school board voted to close the predominantly Black E.E. Waddell High School, shutter three of the west side’s four middle schools, and abruptly transform eight west-side elementary schools into K-8 schools.
Residents of center city neighborhoods also had to contend with a new generation of “real estate men.” Charlotte’s rapid growth had brought an influx of well-off young professionals, some of whom had developed a taste for city living. Entrepreneurial investors, sometimes carrying suitcases full of cash, began to prowl the neighborhoods where Black residents had settled after urban renewal — Belmont, Seversville, Villa Heights — as well as older Black neighborhoods such as Biddleville.
In the 1960s, investors had purchased homes to turn into low-cost rentals. Now, profits lay in replacing older buildings with high-end houses and apartments. Once again families were set adrift, with few safe spots to land.
A century and a half after Emancipation, Charlotte remains profoundly marked by race. This long history holds too many inspiring stories and cautionary tales for one author to capture in one place.
Accounts of the past also do not offer clear solutions to present-day challenges. But efforts to address today’s many inequalities can draw on understanding of how those inequalities came to be and find strength in the courageous endeavors of those who have come before. History matters.
Richard Rosen and Joseph Mosnier, Julius Chambers: A Life in the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights (University of North Carolina Press, 2016)
Pamela Grundy, Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle over Educational Equality (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)
Frye Gaillard, The Dream Long Deferred: The Landmark Struggle for Desegregation in Charlotte, North Carolina (Briarpatch Press, 1999)
Davison Douglas, Reading, Writing, and Race: The Desegregation of the Charlotte Schools (University of North Carolina Press, 1995)
Stephen Samuel Smith, Boom for Whom?: Education, Desegregation, and Development in Charlotte (State University of New York Press, 2004)
Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton University Press, 2006)
Pam Kelley, Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South (The New Press, 2018)
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