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The Integration of Douglass High School, Cabell County, WV

Nathaniel Crow

For decades prior to Brown vs. Board, Douglass High School had been a fixture of the black community in Huntington, WV. It served as the only Black high school in the county until its closure in 1961. The story of its integration and its resulting closure is telling of the larger social changes that gradually came about as Huntington transitioned from Jim Crow to Civil Rights. Unlike many school systems throughout the country, forced integration did not cause a great public outrage. The integration of the Cabell County school system was publicly a much quieter affair. This is not to say that it was well received by all, black or white, nor that it was without its serious issues, but rather that the discussion of racial conflict was in large part understated in the public forum. In fact, during the integration process proper, which lasted from 1954 until the closure of Douglass in 1961, most media reports and public records involving integration or race issues were sparse and minimalistic. The magnitude of the racial divisions in Huntington would not come to light not for several years after the closure of the closure of the school and the “completion” of the integration process. After the closure of Douglass, records of racial issues virtually disappear until the late 1960’s. However, during the period lasting from the late 1960’s through the mid 70’s, the question of social (as opposed to legal) equality was brought to bear both in the records of the school system and the media.

Many questions arise from this seemingly disjoint timeline, such as why the record keepers and reporters chose to avoid the issue of race in the 1950’s, why the subject went virtually unmentioned in the public forum for over six years after blacks and whites began attending the same schools, and why, having been left untouched for six years, the issue suddenly burst back in public view. The answers to these questions all become clear when one realizes that the implications of integration reached much further than merely the school which one attended or the people with which one came in contact. Integration was not just a question of rights or racial equality, but also a question of personal values, community, and the sense of security granted to people of all races by the maintenance of the status quo. Douglass High School, like many high schools, was more than a place in which students gathered to gain information and training which they could use to pursue future career. It was a focal point of the black community in Huntington and while its dissolution represented the promise of the freedom and equality denied to blacks for nearly 100 years, it also represented the collapse of the familiar, close knit social systems which both blacks and whites had formed during the years of segregation.

In order to present a complete and clear picture of the integration of Douglass High School and its social repercussions, it is best to divide its history into three phases: the years from the implementation of the first integration legislation in 1954 to the closure of Douglass in 1961, the ensuing “quiet years” from 1961 to 1967, and the years from 1967 through the mid 1970’s in which Civil Rights issues reemerged in the media and public records. Each of these periods had distinct attitudes towards racial issues which can be understood, at least in part, by examining the ways in which events were recorded taken in the context of the prevailing social climate of the time. As such, before any serious discussion of the complexities of integration and student civil rights in Cabell County can be had, it is necessary to first understand the general timeline and social conditions of each time period individually.

After the integration of public schools was mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1954 the Cabell County Board of Education (CCBOE), like most school systems in the country, slowly began to consider the means by which it would desegregate its schools. However, no official action was taken on the issue and so on August 4, 1954 a delegation led by Mrs. Memphis T. Garrison approached the board with a petition asking them to act on the newly passed legislation. The delegation questioned the board about what plans had been made in regard to implementing integration policy. They were informed that no official policy was yet in place for integration. After some discussion the board stated that they would hold a meeting to decide a policy to put into place. Later that month the board came through on this promise and held a meeting in which they decided that first and seventh grade black children, those in their first year at a new school, could choose to attend the school in their district if they so desired. Additionally, black students in secondary school who wished to transfer to take advantage of courses not offered in their school could do the same. Also, any white students and any transported students could enter into the school of their district if they should choose. This policy of voluntary integration was to be short lived, however, due largely to the fact that integration activists saw the continued existence of all black schools a violation of Brown vs. Board. 1

The following summer Mrs. Garrison once again approached the board, this time representing the NAACP. She inquired about plans for further desegregation and requested that all schools be open to all children, but the board held to the policy they had enacted the previous year. In June of 1956, one year later, the NAACP filed a suit against the board with the primary intent of attaining complete desegregation of public schools in the county. The board members were all served subpoenas and approached by the prosecuting attorney in the case in early June. By the end of the month they had drafted and passed a resolution which unambiguously desegregated public schools at all levels and nullified their previous policies. No further mention of the case was made in the news or in board records. 2,3

This new policy of complete but voluntary desegregation was implemented and until February of 1958, at which time Mrs. Garrison again came before the board on behalf of the NAACP, CCBOE records make no mention of integration policy. According the board’s minutes for the meeting, Mrs. Garrison expressed the complaint that despite four years of voluntary integration, Douglass and Barnett remained entirely black schools, and that the facilities available at these schools were far inferior to those of other areas schools. However, the board minutes make no mention of any further discussion of the issue. Later that same year, in May, another delegation came before the board on behalf of Simms school, a local elementary which was experiencing overcrowding, and inquired about the lack of black teachers transferred to schools with significant numbers of black students. They also expressed that they would support the closure of Douglass High School. Once again, the issues brought before the board were mentioned but the minutes bear no record of any discussion. They simply state that “the board took their requests under advisement.” 4

Three years later, in the summer of 1961, this suggestion became reality when the board announced that Douglass, due to its declining enrollment, would be closed and its students and staff transferred.  After this decision, the board records contain no information regarding integration policy or any racial issue for 6 years, until 1967. This fact is quite remarkable considering that this period coincided with a great deal of Civil Rights activism. Though no evidence as is ever explicitly given by the school board or the media for the lack of attention to racial issues during the time of integration and directly thereafter, when one considers the social climate of the 1950’s and early 60’s, some likely reasons become apparent without the need for a great deal of speculation. 5,6

In his book Silent Convenants, Derek Bell argues that the resolution of racial issues, including Brown vs. Board, was motivated in large part by anticommunist sentiment. He states that racism contradicted the nation’s position as the “self-proclaimed exemplar of freedom and democracy.” It is plausible that local newspapers and public record keepers avoided the issue of racism for much the same reason. As William Smith, the current superintendent of Cabell County Schools and student under segregation explained, communism was a popular subject because it was a common enemy against which people could unite, while race issues were uncomfortable because they hit so close to home. Likewise, as Bell explains in his book, there were economic factors which contributed to the perpetuation of racism. However, there is one point he raises which seems to coincides exceptionally well with the historical evidence associated with Douglass: the fact that the fight against integration was in large part a fight to maintain the status quo. However, contrary to popular perception, the desire to maintain the status quo was not clearly divided along racial lines.7

Interviews with locals who attended Douglass or were part of the Douglass community confirmed that Douglass High School was an important part of the local black community, not only for students and parents, but for the general population. The school served in much the same social capacity as would be expected from a church or social club, often being the center of community sponsored events such as talent shows and plays presented by the students. While reading the interviews or talking to former community members one cannot help but notice the sense of pride and fondness with which Douglass is remembered. In addition to this sense of community, the teachers at Douglass were stated to have held a sincere concern for the welfare of their students. Mrs. Norma Jean Fullen, a member of the Douglass class of 1950, stated is most succinctly when she said, in reference to her teachers, “one thing about going to Douglass: they cared about you.” For these reasons the end of Douglass could be considered bittersweet. While it signaled the potential for new freedom and equality, its closure was also an indication of, and perhaps in part responsible for, for the breakup of a community in the tides of social change. Because of these factors, as one interviewee recalled, there were members of both races divided between the moral issue of racial inequality and the sense of social security which integration would surely degrade. 8

This, of all proposed theories, perhaps best explains why public records were not kept in detail during the years surrounding integration. Racial issues in themselves are sensitive, but when the security of close knit communities are also at stake the tension increases significantly. It would therefore not only be uncomfortable to discuss integration, but to editorialize the issue would be to risk alienating members of both races. There may in fact be a myriad of other factors which played into the story of Douglass, but based on the evidence at hand and the personal testimony of those who lived it this is by far the most plausible and well supported motivational argument. When the issue of race reemerged in the late 1960’s, however, there was an entirely different social climate, an entirely different attitude, and as such a distinctly different body of evidence concerning the long term repercussions of the integration of Douglass.

In 1967 the board was involved in a lengthy discussion of growing violence at Huntington High School (HHS), the school which most of the student population in the former Douglass district attended. The board moved to shorten lunch hours and generally increase the level of disciplinary enforcement at HHS. During the discussion no explicit mention of race was

made in the school board records, but news media specifically states racial tensions, including student cross burnings and the absence of black majorettes and cheerleaders, as the primary cause of the disciplinary issues. It should be noted that both news articles and board minutes

from this time on were full and detailed, unlike those of the preceding decade.9

In February of 1969 HHS was faced with the challenge of handling of a walkout of over 100 students, mostly blacks, which occurred during a visit by Senator Robert C. Byrd after he was questioned about his involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. The senator was quoted by the Herald Dispatch as saying “good riddance to them” when questioned about those who left during his speech, citing the fact that they came to the speech specifically to stir up trouble. Shortly following this incident some 100 white students refused to attend class in response to what they saw as lax punishment of the students who walked out. In this case the school board did not become involved, but rather left Principal Roy Straight to decide what measures should be taken. By his decision, no students were expelled for either protest, but were not allowed to make up any work they had missed.10

The principal’s policy of tolerance for this sort of activism on the part of students was soon reversed however. Later that same year, in late September, Mr. Straight met with members of the student body and parents to discuss a list of demands submitted by protesters concerning such issues as the black studies program and the lack of black cheerleaders and majorettes. Also mentioned were the elimination of clubs which discriminated against blacks, the right to form black dominated clubs, and the mandatory inclusion of blacks on all athletic teams. The principal, in an interview with the Herald Dispatch, stated that he had agreed to seek improvements to the existing black studies program, perhaps even dedicating one a day each week to black studies, in order to ease the racial tension in the school. These negotiations apparently failed, and soon growing tensions led to student organized protests outside of the school, which at one point actually grew so intense that the school was closed for a day. In retaliation many white students gathered for a rally in Ritter Park. The school board met the day the protests shut down the school and granted HHS Principal Straight authority to use suspensions and other disciplinary measures at his discretion to ensure the school remained open. Around this time Mr. Straight openly expressed, in interviews with local papers, that parents were largely responsible for the current issues with the school. He also made an appeal to the football team, which he referred to as “a fine bunch of boys of both races,” to help restore attendance. Within the week, local newspapers reported that an “uneasy calm” had returned to HHS and attendance was back to normal levels.11

Another major incident occurred in 1975 when no blacks were placed on the school’s majorette squad despite the fact that three of the twenty three girls who attended tryouts were black. This led to an NAACP investigation of the issue and the eventual expansion of the squad from 12 to 14 members in order to include black students who had tried out but not been selected. Around this same time there was another delegation which came before the board concerning the disciplinary procedures at HHS and, more importantly, the racial tension still present at the school. Though this was the last major instance of unrest during the time period, as late at 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice visited Cabell County schools to investigate and resolve racial tensions and promote communication between groups. 12

The single most important lesson to take from this resurgence of racial issues is that when Douglass was integrated and closed, the community which was built around it did not simply disappear, but rather slowly changed as civil rights activism took hold. It is important, therefore, to distinguish between the physical integration of the school and the dissolution of the social groups which continued to exist side by side in the integrated Huntington High. Both personal accounts of social life at the school and the historical records indicate that within the school system there still existed sharp divisions along racial lines. Ironically, the school system which was now officially “colorblind” was forced to view social issues in black and white terms. The fact that the first of the demands submitted by 1969 protestors was “the right of black dominated organizations and black originated organizations to be recognized as a school club” clearly indicates that even eight years after integration there still existed those who in some sense wished to preserve the autonomy of the former Douglass community.

It is also important to note the drastic shift in the writing style of publicly available records, both official and in the news media. In sharp contrast to the records of the integration period, both the news media and the school board’s records give ample coverage to racial issues. In this period, as in the previous, there are many possible explanations for this shift, but unlike the previous years it is only when the personal stories of those involved are taken into account that one can find evidence that strongly supports any specific opinion. According to Mr. Smith, who, as an HHS student, was in attendance of the speech during which the group walked out Senator Byrd, the years were characterized not by a concern with the practical legal implications of one’s rights, but the “principle of the thing.”  This represents a complete paradigm shift from the battle for legal integration. The focus was no longer on the community itself, but rather on an ideal, and as such the pressures that prevented adequate reporting on the issue in years past were removed.  Now free from the burden of directly offending the public, record keepers and journalists were free to report on the incidents at HHS without fear of major repercussions. 13

At first glance the story of the integration of Douglass seems to be in many ways a series of contradictions, but after careful analysis of the available historical evidence and more importantly, the personal accounts of those who lived it, it becomes clear that the perceived discontinuities in its historical representation are in reality all part of the natural progression of the integration process and the breakdown of the social structure which had formed around the school. In many ways, the integration of Douglass parallels the sweeping social changes that occurred throughout the country during this turbulent time. It exemplifies the complexities and long term implications of the integration in that it was not simply a battle between oppression and freedom in which freedom prevailed. It was also a question of values, in which the participants were forced to choose between the opportunities integration presented and the security and comfort that would necessarily be lost to obtain them. This is not to say that this loss permanent, however. As time passes and memories of the injustices of the past fade, perhaps it will someday be possible to regain the closeness that was lost through integration, and perhaps this in way which does not divide based on the color of one’s skin.

1 Minutes of the Cabell County Board of Education, August 4, 26, 1954;“Modified Desegregation Plan Will Go Into Effect Septemberember 7,” Huntington Advertiser , Augustust 27 1954.

2 Minutes of the Cabell County Board of Education, May 16, June 6, July 5, 1955; Apr 3, June 15, 25, August 16, 28, 1956;“Nutter Gets Subpoena In NAACP Case,” Huntington Advertiser , June 12, 1956; “Board Sets NAACP Suit Conference,” Huntington Advertiser , June 14, 1956; “To Prepare Answers to NAACP Suit,” Huntington Advertiser , June 16, 1956; Dorothy Buzek, “Will Discuss Answer To NAACP Suit,” Huntington Advertiser , June 26, 1956; “Integration Resolution Is Studied,” Huntington Advertiser , June 27, 1956.

3 The board office, in a recent project to help recover parts of its history, has been gathering all the historical documents it can find from area schools and internally. Most of these documents have not yet been organized or catalogued and are stored in random files in a number of large boxes at the central office. In order to find what relevant material, if any, existed in these records it was necessary to search through each of these boxes individually. During the days spent performing this search I sorted and labeled many of the unlabeled folders and boxes (if any clear pattern could be found in their contents), and in the process was able to find several original news releases from the board office as well as a copy of the original 1956 resolution on integration. The items found in these boxes will be labeled as “CCBOE History Project Documents” in subsequent footnotes. Resolution of the Board made June 26, 1956, CCBOE History Project Documents, CCBOE Central Office, Huntington, WV.

4 Minutes of the Cabell County Board of Education, February 4, May 6, 1958.

5 Minutes of the Cabell County Board of Education, June 23, 1961.

6 All records kept at the Cabell County Board office are typed and bound into large books covering a 2-3 year period each and range in length from around 500-1000 pages each.  In order to find board meetings in which integration and other race issues were discussed it was necessary to manually search through the board minutes page by page from 1954-1969, well over 3000 pages of typed notes. This undertaking took three full days to complete. Having performed this search personally, I feel comfortable making the absolute statement that there was no mention of any race issue explicitly made during any board meeting between the 1961 and 1967.

7 Derrick Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown vs. Board and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 59,78.

8 Oral Interview with Mr. Bill Smith, current Superintendent of Cabell County Schools. Interviewer Nathaniel Crow. Mr. Smith Grew up in Huntington, attended a black elementary and after integration, Huntington High School. He was one of the students present at the assembly during which student walked out on Senator Robert C. Byrd. I would like to thank Mr. Smith and also Mr. Jedd Flowers for the pivotal role they played in the completion of this research, both in offering their time to conduct the interview and their help in locating and searching board records. Interview with Norma Jean Fullen. Morrow Library, Marshall University, Oral History 64-796. Ms. Fullen attended segregated schools and later become a teacher at an integrated school, both in Cabell County. Interview with Ancella R. Bickley. Morrow Library, Marshall University, Oral History 64-675. Ancella Bickley is a social activist and graduate of Douglass High School.

9 Minutes of the Cabell County Board of Education, May 2, 1967;Ralph Turner, “School Board Acts To Curb HHS Incidents And Tension,” Herald Dispatch, May 3, 1967; News Release from HHS in 1967, CCBOE History Project Documents, CCBOE Central Office, Huntington, WV. No exact date was listed on the document itself, but it made mention of the prior board meeting mandating stricter disciplinary measures at the school.

10 “’Kids Provoked, Angry,’ Says Principal At HHS,” Huntington Advertiser , February 28, 1969;“125 At HHS Walk Out On Byrd; ‘Good Riddance To Them,’ He Says,” Herald Dispatch , February 28, 1969; “White Students Protest Walkout Handling,” Huntington Advertiser , March 1, 1969.

11Minutes of the Cabell County Board of Education, October 1, 1969;“Talks At HHS Take Up Blacks’ Demands,” Herald Dispatch , September 30, 1969; “Students Back In Classes,” Huntington Advertiser , October 2 1969; Ed Nichols, “Suspension Possible, HHS Students Warned,” Herald Dispatch , October 2 1969; Russell Scott, “Straight Hits Parents For Unrest At HHS,” Herald Dispatch , October 8, 1969;“HHS Principal Puts Chief Blame On Parents,” Huntington Advertiser , October 8 1969; List of demands submitted to HHS by black students, CCBOE History Project Documents, CCBOE Central Office, Huntington, WV. This list has handwritten responses to each of the demands, some of which are illegible. There is no signature on the document, but the responses which can be read appear to be in line with the views expressed by Principal Strait to the news media. Resolution by CCBOE authorizing the principal to use whatever disciplinary measures are necessary, including suspension, ensure the school remains open on October 2, CCBOE History Project Documents, CCBOE Central Office, Huntington, WV. No date is listed, but the school was closed Wed October1 and the resolutions speaks of October 2 in the future tense, so it can safely be assumed that this resolution was drafted on October. 1 1969. October 2 news release from CCBOE describing the policies drafted in the special meeting on the previous day. These give greater authority to the Principal Strait to enforce disciplinary measures at the school. CCBOE History Project Documents, CCBOE Central Office, Huntington, WV.

12Minutes of the Cabell County Board of Education, Aprilil 1, 1975;Judith Casto, “School Board Told Off Concern For Black White Issue At HHS,” Herald Dispatch  April 2, 1975;Arlene Gordon, “Two Blacks Added To HHS Majorette Squad,” Huntington Advertiser , May 27, 1975; “HHS Adds Majorette Alternatives,” Herald Dispatch , May 29, 1975.

13 Oral Interview with Mr. Bill Smith, current Superintendent of Cabell County Schools.

 

 
 

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