Those that Stay– A Civil Rights Pioneer in Martin County, N.C.

Parmele Industrial Institute, Parmele, N.C., circa 1917. From the Internet Archive.

Parmele Industrial Institute, Parmele, N.C., circa 1917. From the Internet Archive.

When it comes to the history of the civil rights movement in eastern North Carolina, my deepest sympathies and respect have always been with the local men and women that stayed in their hometowns, come hell or high water, and worked to make this a better world.

One of those people is the topic of my “Black History Month” feature today. His name was William Claudius Chance, Sr., and he was born in Parmele, in rural Martin County, N.C., on the 23rd of November 1880.

W. C. Chance’s parents and grandparents had all been born in slavery. As a boy, he struggled in school because he had to work such long hours on his family’s little dirt farm. Yet he graduated from the Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race (later N.C. A & T)  in Greensboro, N.C., and he studied law at Howard University in Washington, DC.

In 1909 Chance returned home determined to start a school for African American children. The local black public school was overcrowded and underfunded, with 60 students that were mostly the children of impoverished tenant farmers and sharecroppers.

They met in one room, the school had few supplies and school terms were short.

The school was also subject to the whims of white school leaders that often seemed to look at black children primarily as farm labor.

Of Schools and Dynamite

Chance had a different vision of African American education. He believed that education was a powerful way to lift those children out of the cotton and tobacco fields. He believed a school with high academic expectations, community support and a caring learning environment could help them to make a better future for themselves and their families.

His first school was a private institution that met in his home and at a local church. He and two other teachers taught approximately 30 students, and they often worked without salaries.

In 1911 his private school and the local one-room black public school merged and became the Parmele Industrial Institute (later the Martin County Training School). Chance became the principal.

By 1914 he and the school’s other supporters had raised sufficient funds to build the county’s first brick school.

Some of Martin County’s white citizens apparently believed that a brick school was too good for black children. That same year they dynamited Principal Chance’s home.

The W. C. Chance High School

There wasn’t much else to Parmele by then. It had really just been a boomtown that had sprung up with the arrival of two lumber mills and the railroads around 1890. The town’s heyday was short. To a large degree, the town faded away after a big fire in 1904 and the closing of the mills.

Map of Martin County, N.C. ca. 1940. You can see Parmele on the lower left near the instersection of Hwy. 64 and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. From the Federal Writers Project. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Map of Martin County, N.C. ca. 1940. You can see Parmele on the lower left near the instersection of Hwy. 64 and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. From the Federal Writers Project. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Yet Principal Chance persisted. For 40 years he provided leadership to the school and support to a largely rural African American community, and he never moved away from Parmele.

By 1948 the school in Parmele had 460 students, 12 teachers and 4 buildings, as well as 78 students that were black veterans of World War II enrolled in a special trade program.

The students’ record of accomplishment was extraordinary. One of the chancellors at N.C. State, John T. Caldwell, did research on Chance’s life in the 1970s. As he put it:

Under [Chances’] leadership, the school in 1948 had the highest percentage of graduating seniors entering college . . .  of any school in Martin County…. Many of his former students rose to become attorneys, doctors, college presidents, college deans, businessmen, ministers, school principals, and teachers.

After Principal Chance’s retirement in 1951, the school was re-named the W. C. Chance High School.

Refusing to Move to the Jim Crow Car

Principal W. C. Chance was also a civil rights pioneer. The incident for which he is best remembered occurred in 1948, when he was in his 60s.

Principal W. C. Chance. Courtesy, Julia Chance and Martin County, NCGenWeb

Principal W. C. Chance. Courtesy, Julia Chance and Martin County, NCGenWeb

On June 25 of that year, he was returning from a trip to Philadelphia on the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. That day the train had 5 coaches, 3 reserved for black passengers and two for white passengers.

At a stop in Washington, DC, the 3 black coaches were overcrowded, so the conductor had directed Chance to move to one of the white coaches. There were no problems between DC and Richmond: the mixing of black and white passengers on that route was common.

The railroad did not enforce the Jim Crow rules until the train reached Richmond. But when the train stopped in Virginia’s capital, the conductor directed all the black passengers in the white coaches to move into the black-only coaches and all whites in the black coaches to move into the whites-only coaches.

All the other passengers acceded to the conductor’s directions, but Principal Chance refused to move.

Principal Chance must have made that trip many times. I don’t know why he picked that day to refuse to take a seat in one of the train’s black carriages.

The train’s conductor did not force Chance to move in Richmond. At the following stop in Emporia, Va., however, local police, alerted by railroad officials, boarded the train and arrested him.

He went peacefully and offered no resistance. The officers took him to the police station and charged him with disorderly conduct, and he remained in jail until he posted bond a little later.  He took the bus home.

Chance v. Lambeth et. al.

With the support of the Virginia NAACP, Principal Chance took the railroad company and the train’s conductor to court.

Frontispiece portrait of Rev. Henry Highland Garnet for "A Memorial Discourse by Rev. Henry Highland Garnet" (Philadelphia, Joseph M. Wilson, 1865). Courtesy, Honey and Wax Booksellers

Frontispiece portrait of Rev. Henry Highland Garnet for “A Memorial Discourse by Rev. Henry Highland Garnet” (Philadelphia, Joseph M. Wilson, 1865). Courtesy, Honey and Wax Booksellers

In January 1951, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in his favor. In Chance v. Lambeth et. al., the court’s judges declared that the enforcement of Jim Crow laws imposed an undue burden on interstate commerce and was consequently unconstitutional.

Principal Chance had helped to establish an important precedent in ending Jim Crow in all interstate commerce.

He was of course not the first African American to challenge Jim Crow on the nation’s railroads.

As early as 1847 the great abolitionist, civil rights leader and ex-slave, the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, was badly beaten on a train in New York State for refusing to move out of a white carriage into a car behind the coal engine.

Similarly, the wife of a black state senator from Texas was thrown off a train in 1871 for refusing to move into an all-black carriage.

Ida B. Wells, ca. 1893. Photo by Mary Garrity

Ida B. Wells, ca. 1893. Photo by Mary Garrity

In 1883 20-year-old teacher (and future anti-lynching leader) Ida B. Wells literally fought with conductors on a train in Tennessee when they tried to make her move into a Jim Crow car. She took the railroad to court, but lost.

Likewise, Homer Plessy (of the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous Plessy v. Ferguson case) unsuccessfully challenged Jim Crow laws on trains in Louisiana in 1892, and there were many, many others.

By the early 1950s, however, those civil rights pioneers– some famous, but most not– had laid the groundwork to challenge the constitutionally of racially segregated trains. The time had come when Principal Chance and others could successfully challenge Jim Crow, at least with respect to interstate travel and commerce.

So here’s to Principal W. C. Chance of Parmele, N.C. Here’s to all those many other educators and activists that were like him here in eastern North Carolina. Here’s to hometown heroes.

Here’s to those who stay home and work to build a better world for us all.

* * *

If you have your own “hometown heroes” from eastern North Carolina’s past, I’d love to hear about them!

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