Some parents in Southeastern North Carolina are discussing the idea of charter schools- schools that operate slightly outside the general public school system. They want more responsibility for the education of their children. This idea is not new, especially for blacks in rural areas, who for many years had little or no governmental support.
At the end of the War Between the States, blacks in the rural Cape Fear Region were more than willing to take responsibility for themselves, including the education of hundreds of landless, illiterate freedmen. Following the direction of their white brethren they began to set up Sunday schools. The former slaves who could read were recruited to teach at these, their first schools.
This was the the beginning of a long-standing practice of segregated schools for blacks.
Surprisingly, for many blacks this was not a particularly dark time in our history. Today, more than ever blacks are commemorating the demise of their ‘community controlled schools’. One such alumni reunion took place at East Arcadia School in Bladen County.
They filed through the doors. The younger one moving hesitantly as though they were returning to the scene of the crime. The elders set their own individual pace - some moving with the stride that belied their age. Others used canes to guide their not so steady legs. These were the graduates of East Arcadia School. The classes of 1937-1970 were returning to celebrate their segregated school years.
Some sons and daughters came with parents. Several of the Dixon family graduates came with their father, Mr. Levi who spoke eloquently of a distant past when there was no school beyond the seventh grade. “You had to go to Burgaw to attend the nearest high school”. Mr. Levi Dixon who at the time was is in late seventies, recited “If” by Ruyard Kipling, never pausing except, when Kipling deemed it appropriate.
There was much talk of how wonderful things were back then. Memories that time had made sweeter. Forgotted were the books that were never new and bore familiar names of whites in the county. Instead, we chose to recall our struggle and triumph in learning to recite classics such as “The House by the Side of the Road.”
Some recalled the barn-like gym, built by the WWII veterans of the East Arcadia community. My daddy was on of those who traveled to Camp Butner, near Raleigh, brought the building to the present site and reconstructed it. One of my sharpest memories is of a place where the smell of mustard on steaming hot dogs filled the air — a place where girls basketball ruled the day — a place where men stepped outside for a nip of “fresh air” while mothers set on the sidelines and openly nursed their babies.
I remembered the games of the 1960s when my mother, stayed up late to talk to us about our game that night. She wold recant the days when she played guard for the 1937-38 East Arcadia Panthers, “I used to throw the ball all the way down court to Evelina, who was right under the basket.” She and my eldest sister, Fredia (class of ‘58) were taught and coached by ‘Pop’ Davis.
East Arcadia was one of the many all-black schools that existed long after Brown v. Broad of Education — undisturbed in it’s segregated status. “With all deliberate speed” in this part of North Carolina meant “when we get around to it.”
It wasn’t until 1970 that the inevitable happened — “with all deliberate speed” was right now. Black parents in the East Arcadia community met the de-segregation order with resistance. You would have thought they would be pleased that their children were going to a “white school.” But to those parents, there had to be more justification for their children getting up at the crack of dawn in order to travel 30 miles to Elizabethtown. Ben Chavis, a member of the “Wilmington 10” eagerly joined the parents in their March to Raleigh, but to no avail. Integration and forced busing had finally arrived.
For a community that considered change to be what you got back from a dollar and a place where home-grown teachers were more accountable to the parents than to the Board of Education- this was an end of an era. One that had begun at a time when blacks had no choice but to take control of their own destiny. That time has not past.
— Earnestine Keaton is a historian from the East Arcadia area. She can be reached by email at Ektn10@aol.com.