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No apology, but praise for desegregation pioneer

by Jordan Green

A small professorial woman, she stepped out of the white limousine into the sunlight of the school parking lot. With proud family members dressed in resplendent business attire beside her, she was guided by students Marcus Tillery and Blaine Stanaland ‘— respectively a black sophomore and a white junior ‘— toward the arched entrance where a hanging banner announced, ‘“Grimsley says, thank you Dr. Bradley.’”

Two rows of smiling students clapped as Josephine Boyd Bradley, 66, passed through them on her way to the school office during her return to the school on March 31.

It had been much different almost 50 years ago when the 17-year-old Josephine Boyd set foot on the campus of what was then Greensboro Senior High School on Sept. 4, 1957 as one of a handful of black students across the state attempting to integrate what had previously been all-white segregated high schools.

On that first day of school, a discordant crowd gathered outside to meet her.

‘“Go home, nigger,’” she recalled some of them saying.

The school’s resources impressed her as lavish compared with Dudley High School, which she’d attended the previous three years, but Josephine Boyd’s senior year among her new white peers was marked by acute loneliness.

‘“There were brand new books,’” she said. ‘“Our books at Dudley were never new. There was a special classroom with typewriters at every desk. We never had that at Dudley. We had a lab fully equipped with microscopes for every student. There were three microscopes for a class of thirty-five at Dudley.’”

Josephine Boyd endured students dumping ink in her textbooks and leaving tacks in her seat. A man identifying himself as the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan would call her at home to tell her God didn’t intend for black children to attend school with white children. She faced white hostility in the hallways and classrooms alone, but members of the black community gave her quiet encouragement.

‘“There was a group of women in the community who made sure I had enough clothes to get through the days because I was always having to wash my clothes to get the catsup out and get the eggs out,’” she said. ‘“It took me a long time to eat eggs again.’”

She endured the hallway taunts of ‘“nigger bitch’” by quietly singing ‘“Leaning on the Lord’s Side.’”

The harassment and ugliness was extended to anyone who showed support to Josephine Boyd. A white student named Julia Adams, who now lives in Portland, Maine, and two other girls rearranged their schedules so they could sit with Josephine Boyd in the lunchroom. Adams found that her pool of friends quickly dwindled after this show of solidarity.

‘“At night I frequently received threatening calls from a young man claiming to belong to the KKK,’” she said. ‘“Naively, I would try to reason with him until he would hang up. My mother was denied membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. This became a badge of honor for which she was extremely proud.’”

Closing her remarks in the Grimsley High School auditorium, Adams said: ‘“It is late, but not too late to honor Josephine for her courage.’”

A simmering controversy among some Grimsley parents in the editorial pages of the News & Record over whether it would be appropriate for the school to apologize to Bradley, now a professor of African-American studies at Clark Atlanta University, preceded her visit to Greensboro. The heartburn might have been avoided because it was never clear that an apology was planned.

The prickly question of who would apologize on whose behalf did not have to be answered. The public expression that came closest to an apology was made by Dianne Bellamy-Small, a black Greensboro city councilwoman who graduated from the integrated RJ Reynolds High in Winston-Salem in 1970.

‘“In terms of apologizing to you I stand here as one who has also come to eat at the table, seeking reconciliation,’” she said.

Rather than apologize, the school’s student government association chose to celebrate the first African American to graduate from a previously all-white school in North Carolina by proclaiming the last Friday of every March ‘“Dr. Josephine Boyd Bradley Day.’” The proclamation was made ‘“in gratitude for the tremendous sacrifices she, her family, and her friends made to integrate the school; in recognition of her ability to defy obstacles and not let the actions of narrow-minded people define who she was and what she could become; and in honor of the illustrious place she occupies in the history of our school, our city, our state, and our nation.’”Guilford County Schools Superintendent Terry Grier sent a letter of gratitude and congratulations. NC Rep. Maggie Jeffus, a member of Greensboro High School’s Class of ’52, read a letter of commendation from Gov. Mike Easley, and presented the desegregation pioneer with the Old North State Award.

Vindication expressed more personally came from Peter Byrd, a member of the Class of ’74 and the school’s historian.

‘“Thank you for not giving up when things got really ugly and you were subjected to really degrading treatment,’” he said. ‘“I’m proud to have you as a role model for the way you have consciously chosen to not be bitter but to move forward. I am very proud that I got to graduate from your high school.’”

When at last Bradley took the podium she seemed relieved.

‘“I had promised myself that I would not cry,’” she said, ‘“but now as I struggle to hold back the tears I realize the mission has been accomplished so I can at last cry.’”

And yet the discomfort of some white parents with the idea of an apology suggests that Josephine Boyd Bradley does not fit neatly into the city’s safe and officially sanctioned civil rights history, as do the four NC A&T University students who desegregated the Woolworth’s lunch counter little more than a year after she graduated from Greensboro High School. Today, the idea of black citizens being legally restricted from certain shopping areas seems scarcely conceivable, while the idea of black and white students attending separate schools seems to be not far from reality.

In a panel discussion the previous evening at UNCG that included two other women who led the way in desegregating educational institutions, Bradley told a college student from Durham that few people have wanted to hear the personal stories of those who challenged educational segregation.

‘“Nobody bothers to come to us and ask us, ‘What did you learn?”” she said. ‘“You’re missing a golden opportunity. You need to take advantage of the knowledge base before there is no knowledge base.’”

Millicent Brown, who was among the first black students to attend previously all-white schools in Charleston, SC in 1963 and who now teaches history at A&T, acknowledged that white resistance to achieving socio-economic balance in schools is on the rise at the same time that some black parents are increasingly advocating neighborhood schools.

‘“We’re getting a lot of backlash because desegregation was handled so badly,’” she said. ‘“The losses to the black community were unbelievable. All of our black principals were made into lunchroom monitors and disciplinary officers. We started seeing losses of black teachers.’”

Brown, the daughter of the state president of the NAACP, was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that desegregated the state’s schools. As the center of publicity, Brown’s family was the target of bomb threats and their house was set on fire. During her junior year Millicent Brown was hospitalized because the nerves in her chest tightened as a result of maintaining a constant show of strength while enduring the relentless hostility of her fellow students.

‘“We’ve got a lot to get off our chests,’” she said. ‘“We are so ambivalent. Was it worth it?’”

She answered her own question.

‘“People are saying to us, ‘We were better off before desegregation,”” she said. ‘“We have to say, ‘Of course it was worth it.’ You cannot have apartheid in America. What we did not do is stay vigilant. Integration didn’t mess it up. It was not having the will to make it work.’”

Desegregating UNCG was a less traumatic experience, said JoAnne Smart Drane, a retired educator from Raleigh who was one of the first two African Americans to attend what was then known as Women’s College in 1956. The other was Bettye Davis Tillman. The two were assigned an entire wing of their dorm for some reason, but did not experience any overt hostility.

‘“Student leaders had demanded immediate desegregation,’” she said. ‘“We were practically adults; we didn’t have a lot of adult interference.’”

By 1956, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University in Raleigh had already been desegregated. Claudette Burroughs-White, a former city councilwoman, entered Women’s College the year after Drane.

‘“Claudette grew up in Greensboro,’” Drane said. ‘“She said she didn’t realize it had been desegregated. She thought she would be the first.’”

With new economic realities, a realigned but intact color line and increasing educational challenges, the women suggested it’s time to pass the torch.

‘“Our time has passed,’” Bradley told the UNCG freshman. ‘“It is now your time. The question is, what are you going to do? Can you move beyond individualism and move to collective responsibility? You have to take up that challenge. We have put on hold our lives, and for what?’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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