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An Eye Witness to History

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By Eugene Pickler

Eugene PicklerWith the election and inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama it is a good time for an old eye witness to history to remind others from where we have come.  History books teach the young about the changes in the last century, but they rarely view it from personal observations.  This is one man's personal remembrances.

I was born in Stanly County and grew up on a farm located on Long Creek in the northern part of the county.  My first association with a black person came before I can remember.  James Scott, a young black man worked on the farm for my father starting in 1930.  He was a part of the Adam Scott family, which was our closest neighbor.  They were poor.  They lived across the creek in a house that had no more than 400-square feet, and the floor of the house was the ground. Three generations lived in that one room together.

James Scott usually went home for lunch, but in the summers when there was a lot of farm work to be done, my mother sometimes fixed his lunch so he could eat as quickly as my father.  He ate with us in our kitchen at the same time as my family, but always at a separate table.  Blacks and whites did not eat together.

In 1940, I started to school in the first grade at Richfield School.  There were no kindergartens in North Carolina at that time. The school bus came down the road to pick me up and I could wait in my living room and watch for the bus.  On cold days I would stay in the warm room until I saw the bus coming.  While watching for my bus, I often saw three of the Scott family children from across the creek walking by my house on their way to school near New London, four miles away.  There was no bus for black children and their family had no car.  As a child I remember thinking how unfair that was.

Their school was a two-room elementary school.  If they wanted to attend high school they would have had to walk eight miles each way to a black school in Albemarle.  After the end of World War II in 1945, a bus was provided for the black kids. For the first time a bus was available to take them to either the elementary school in New London or the high school in Albemarle.

In 1952, I enrolled in N.C. State College in Raleigh.  All students and faculty were white.  In the college cafeteria all food servers were white.  Except for some janitors and maids, all employees at the college were white.

In the summer of 1953, I was in the Naval Reserve and was sent to boot camp at Bainbridge, Maryland for two weeks.  I was put in a company with a group from New Hampshire, which included one black sailor.  At the end of the first week we had 12-hours liberty in Baltimore.  I went with several others in my company, including the one black sailor. We were all in uniform.

In Baltimore the five of us decided to eat lunch in a café.  We went in and sat down to order.  The manager came to our table and told us that our black member would have to go to a back room to eat.  We all got up and left.  Lunch that day was a hot dog sold by a street vendor.

In the spring of 1954, I was enrolled in a history class at N.C. State.  During one class, the professor discussed the upcoming decision by the U.S. Supreme Court about school segregation. He thought the Supreme Court would not declare that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional.  A few weeks later we learned that my professor's prediction was wrong.

Soon after the Supreme Court decision, several of my fraternity brothers and I were discussing the situation in a “bull session.”  One of my friends said the south would fight another war before it integrated the schools.  Some, but not all of the guys agreed.

In the fall of 1955, with no demonstrations or threats, N.C. State admitted its first black student – a young man who was enrolled in the Master of Science in engineering program.  I never saw him, but I knew he was there.

Also, in the fall of 1955, most of the congressmen and senators from the south signed the “Southern Manifesto” as it was called.  It said that they would do everything in their power to keep the schools from being integrated. One of the few congressmen who did not sign it was congressman Harold Coley from Nashville, N.C.  As a result of him not joining the segregation group, the “manifesto” was the only big issue in his primary campaign for re-election in May of 1956.  He won by a very close margin.

Late in the 1950s a law was repealed, after a lot of angry debate in the legislature, which had been passed sometime following the Civil War.  Under the law that still existed when I was a college student, it was not legally possible for a white man to father a child with a black woman.  That meant any child of mixed race with a white father had no financial help from the father and could not legally claim him as the father.

In 1956, I entered a graduate program at Michigan State University.  I ate most of my meals in the university cafeteria and for the first time in my life I saw blacks and whites sitting at the same tables and enjoying a meal together.

By 1959, I returned to Stanly County and joined the family farm business.  It was then that Pfeiffer College admitted its first black student, the wife of a black medical doctor from Abemarle, Mrs. Aline Noel.  Over the next month or two I heard a number of local men, whom I knew, say they would never contribute to Pfeiffer again because the college had accepted a black student.

In 1962, at the ripe old age of 28, I ran for the Board of Education in Stanly County and won.  The schools were segregated.  The pressure for integration was causing trouble and demonstrations in many part of the South.  Our Board of Education wanted to avoid that situation.  So, in early 1964 we held a secret (and therefore illegal under state law) meeting and decided to invite the leaders in the black community to get one or two black students to apply for admission to North Stanly High School.  One of those leaders was a black preacher, Dwight Rose, who worked at my farm.  They responded to our invitation and in the spring of 1964 we voted in a regular school board meeting to admit two black female students to North Stanly High School at the beginning of the next school year.  It was accomplished without problems.

The next school year, black students were admitted to several previously all-white schools in the county and later the black schools were closed.  In about 25 years, I had gone from watching black children walk four miles to school to helping close the black schools.  We had gone from separate and very unequal schools to one school system.

From the 1960s on, most people know the history of public education.  What happened before the 1960s is not so well known.

One last footnote:  Several years after integration, while I was still on the Board of Education, the board sold the two room elementary school near New London.  By law it had to be sold at auction.  For $50 a local community group bought the building and turned it into a community center.  It can be seen there today on U.S. Hwy 52 between Richfield and New London. 

I am glad I have lived long enough to see a black American ascend to the U.S. Presidency. Our country is not a perfect one, but there has been considerable progress, and it has risen to new heights.

Eugene Pickler, 75, is an agricultural expert and international consultant who raised poultry for five decades. He is a part-time economics professor at Pfeiffer University and has served on the faculty since 1961. He and his wife, Janet, live in New London, N.C.



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