Today my Black History Month tour of eastern North Carolina’s civil rights history concludes with a look at Pamlico County and a historic civil rights lawsuit that was filed in 1951.
Few people today remember this part of our history, but African American citizens in the little coastal village of Oriental filed one of the first lawsuits in the U.S. calling for black and white children to go to school together.
The Pamlico County lawsuit was the first to call for an end to racially segregated schooling in North Carolina. It was only the second such lawsuit in the U.S.
That was three years before Brown v. the Board of Education, the historic case in which the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that racially separate schools were unconstitutional.
Pamlico County’s Schools
A history professor at Guilford College, Sarah Thuesen, tells the story of Pamlico County’s lawsuit in a tremendously well-researched and insightful book called Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965.
In Greater Than Equal, Prof. Thuesen notes that Pamlico County basically had two different school systems in 1951—one for white children, and one for black children. That was true all over North Carolina.
But public schooling in Pamlico County and the rest of North Carolina wasn’t just separate, it was also unequal—by a lot.
In Greater Than Equal, Prof. Thuesen quotes a state official declaring that Pamlico County’s black parents and teachers were “struggling against almost insuperable odds—big classes, very, very poor buildings, limited supplies.”
The State of North Carolina had not funded white and black schools anywhere near equally since the 1890s. Across the state, schools for children of color were chronically underfunded, classes overcrowded and school buildings neglected.
But Pamlico County’s black schools were among the worst. At the Pamlico County Training School in Grantsboro, teachers sometimes moved children into a school bus on stormy days because the building shook so badly. They were afraid it might come down.
“The school was leaking, and lights broke out and everything,” one of the school’s former students, James Jacob Fulcher, later recalled.
Overcrowding was also an issue. At a black school in Oriental, teachers taught 133 students in a single room.
Separate, but not Equal
A decade ago, a team of black educators and local alumni of the region’s historically black schools, led by Linda Simmons-Henry, interviewed many of the oldest African American elders in Pamlico County.
That project was called “Preserving the African American Experience in Pamlico County, N.C.”
In the project’s interviews, the former students of the county’s black schools remembered their teachers with great fondness. They took immense pride in their teachers and parents for creating good schools, despite overcrowding, dilapidated physical plants and official neglect.
One of those students, Joseph O. Himbry of Bayboro, felt great nostalgia for the historically black schools.
“I remember the camaraderie, the caring of the teachers,” he later reminisced.
“The teachers were very much respected; they cared about the students personally and they gave the weakest ones the most attention and they also gave the smarter ones more encouragement. Everyone had attention there. And there was a love of teachers for students that I don’t see anymore in school.”
That kind of community support for the African American schools and their teachers was widespread in Pamlico County, but for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs the issue was fairness.
At the time of the lawsuit, black citizens made up 40 percent of Pamlico County’s population. In Greater Than Equal, Prof. Thuesen notes that the county’s black school buildings had a total value of only $31,000.
The total value of the white school buildings, on the other hand, was $585,000—nearly 20 times the value of the black schools.
For many of Oriental’s black families, the final straw was the passage of a state school bond referendum.
Instead of using the school bond funds to address overcrowding or leaky roofs in the black schools, the Pamlico County Board of Education voted to construct a new high school for white children.
In response, a group of 55 black citizens in Oriental filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court.
Taking a stand against Jim Crow in the rural South was fraught with danger in 1951 . The lawsuit’s plaintiffs were obviously willing to risk a great deal for the sake of their children’s futures.
From the oral history interviews I mentioned earlier, I know that they shared a deep faith. They must also have had great courage.
The Lawsuit Moves Forward
The black parents in Oriental also had the help of John Beaman, an attorney in New Bern, N.C., 30 miles west of Oriental.
Beaman, who was white, apparently had a penchant for standing up for the little guy.
Around the same time, he was one of three local attorneys representing a group of more than 50 mostly low-income homeowners and business people whose property in New Bern was being confiscated as part of the reconstruction of Tryon Palace. A former residence for colonial governors, Tryon Palace is now one of the state’s leading historic sites.
In the early 1950s, however, all that was left of the original Tryon Palace was a building that had been a stable.
One of the Pamlico County lawsuit’s plaintiffs, James Jacob Fulcher, later described how the black parents found another attorney to be part of their team.
In the Pamlico County oral history interviews, Mr. Fulcher remembered that he and a friend, William Henry Johnson, Sr., had truck-driving jobs that often took them through Durham, N.C., where Johnson’s brother lived.
On one of their trips through Durham, they visited Mr. Johnson’s brother and discussed the school problems in Pamlico County with him. The brother, apparently a member of the city’s NAACP, suggested that they contact a local black attorney that specialized in civil rights litigation.
That attorney’s name was H. Hugh Thompson and he and John Beaman teamed up to represent the black citizens from Oriental.
“This suit demands that colored children attend white schools”
It was a historic moment. The NAACP and other African American groups had previously filed lawsuits in other North Carolina school districts to gain equal funding for black schools– but Pamlico County’s black citizens sought more.
One of the nation’s leading African American newspapers, the Baltimore Afro-American, quoted North Carolina’s attorney general on what was special about the case in Pamlico County:
“this case differs from other suits filed by colored plaintiffs in that the others asked only for facilities for colored children equal to those provided for whites but . . . this suit demands that colored children attend ‘white schools.’”
The truth was somewhat more nuanced. In reality, the Pamlico County parents had petitioned the federal court to admit their children to white schools only until the school board had provided equal facilities for black children.
But the black parents must have believed that the school board would never fund black and white schools equally– no school board in North Carolina’s history had ever done that.
So they really were making a new and radical demand.
In effect, the black parents were telling the county school board, if you won’t live up to Plessy v. Ferguson (the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous 1896 “separate but equal” ruling), then we want an end to Jim Crow in our public schools.
It was an extraordinary lawsuit. It was all the more remarkable because it arose in a poor, rural section of the South, where the plaintiffs were tenant farmers, fishermen, mill workers, oyster shuckers and domestic workers.
Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP
Ultimately they did not. The LDF attorneys incorporated five other cases from other parts of the country into Brown, but they decided that they did not need to include the Pamlico County case because one of the other cases, Briggs v. Elliott from Clarendon County, S.C., was so similar.
Though not included in Brown, the Pamlico County case was still history making. As best as I can tell, the case never went to court, but was settled at a meeting of state school officials, Pamlico County school leaders and the black plaintiffs and their attorneys in Raleigh.
As a result of that settlement, the state of North Carolina and the local school board moved quickly to fund and build a new black school for the 1st through 12th grades in Pamlico County.
At the same time, the Pamlico County case sent a powerful message to African American communities across North Carolina and beyond: the days of struggling simply for equal school funding were coming to a close. A new day had dawned: the battle to end Jim Crow schools was on.