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Community members reflect on school desegregation and civil rights leaders

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Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock

On Sunday, Hillsborough community members, leaders and teachers came together for a screening of “The Road to Brown,” a 1990 documentary about the Brown v. Board of Education landmark case, and more specifically about Charles Hamilton Houston, a Black lawyer who led early cases to abolish Jim Crow policies. 

The event was held at the Passmore Center and was put on by the Orange County Historical Museum and Spirit Freedom Inc., a nonprofit organization co-founded by current member of the N.C. General Assembly, Rep. Renée Price (D-Caswell, Orange)

Charles Hamilton Houston, known as "the man who killed Jim Crow," grew up in Washington D.C., facing discrimination in the armed forces during World War I before eventually becoming a lawyer, dedicating his life to fighting for civil rights. 

One of the primary scholars on Houston is retired professor Genna Rae McNeil, who wrote a biography on Houston. She was featured throughout the documentary and was also the first Black tenure-track faculty member of UNC's history department.

Houston worked as the vice-dean of Howard Law School and mentored countless Black attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, who argued the Brown v. Board case in front of the Supreme Court and would go on to become the first Black Supreme Court Justice.

Houston was the chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He focused on targeting smaller-scale cases to create the precedent that would eventually lead to the Brown v. Board decision, which overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine. This doctrine was established in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, and was used to justify discriminatory policies throughout the Jim Crow South.

At the time, Plessy was represented by a legal counsel that included Samuel F. Phillips, a UNC graduate whose father was one of the first professors of mathematics at the University and who also served twice as acting president.  

Like many Southern states, N.C. school districts took decades to properly implement the Brown decision, and Orange County did not start desegregation efforts until 1968. Over the next two years, however, many Black teachers lost their jobs because of these integration efforts. 

This damage created and maintained by Jim Crow policies still persists today, Price said

“We still have achievement gaps and we still have issues with teachers understanding children from different cultures, and children from different cultures understanding their teachers, vice versa,” she said

A 2018 Stanford study found that Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools had the second widest achievement gap between Black and white students of any school district in the country. While the U.S. student population is more diverse than ever, with white students representing 48% of the K-12 public schools compared to 87% in 1955, school segregation is still an issue, with 14% of students attending a school where almost all of the student population is the same race.

Panelists on Sunday discussed Pauli Murray, a Durham native who was denied admission to UNC in 1938 on account of her race and was instrumental in the Brown v. Board decision. Thurgood Marshall kept copies of her book, a comprehensive compilation of discriminatory laws across the United States, in NAACP offices and referred to it as the bible of Brown V. Board of Education.

Currently, the UNC building that houses the history, sociology, political science and peace, war, and defense programs — officially known as Hamilton Hall — is in the process of being renamed Pauli Murray Hall.

“Pauli is critical to overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson court case for public schools with the Brown v. Board case in 1954,” Xavier Adams, a teacher at Orange County High School and panelist at Sunday's event, said. “And that's a local hero.”

Adams said that he is worried about being able to teach in the wake of Florida's Department of Education banning AP African American Studies in 2023. Five other Republican-led states reviewed their own laws following the ban, including Arkansas, Virginia, North Dakota, Mississippi and Texas. Adams said North Carolina's stance is dependent on the outcome of upcoming elections, including the 2024 gubernatorial, superintendent and General Assembly elections. 

“The students in Orange, they’re interested in learning, they want to know what they haven’t always been able to learn in their traditional classes,” he said. “And, I think for a lot of them, they continue to be engaged politically or be informed politically, which drives their interest in taking these classes.” 

In May, the UNC Board of Governors voted to repeal Section 300.8.5 in the UNC Policy Manual, which required diversity and inclusion services throughout the UNC System. 

At Sunday’s event, panelists discussed this recent repeal. Adams said that efforts made to undo progress in social justice and inequality goes back to the Civil War and what historians refer to as the Redemption period, which occurred after the war and describes Southern Democrats’ efforts to undo progressive policies. 

“There’s always intentionality met with counter-intentionality that we see,” he said. “And so, unfortunately, that’s happening in our state, that’s happening in our country. And it’s important for people to be, not just mindful of that, but then, to respond to that.” 

The Orange County Historical Museum will continue to host events throughout the summer, which are free and open to the public. Past events can be found on the museum’s Youtube channel, and future events are announced on their website

Courtney Smith, the museum’s exhibits and programs coordinator, said that the museum works to create programs that engage, inspire and connect people to the history of Orange County. 

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“It is important to me both that this legacy is not forgotten, and that we are able to place our local history within the context of events of national importance,” she said

Price said that this documentary sheds light on the importance of unsung heroes who continue to do much of the work for civil rights and other social justice causes.

“Nowadays, so much attention is put into celebrity on the national, international scale,” she said. “But I think we need to recognize that we all come from greatness, or else we wouldn't be here. And so, I think we need to know about Charles Houston, what he did and understand some of the steps that he took, because those are some of the same steps that people, even today, are taking to get us to the next level." 

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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