In the Small Town Where I Grew Up

By 1960 Havelock Elementary School (originally called the Cherry Point School) in Havelock N.C., had more black and white children going to school together than any other public school in North Carolina. Photograph courtesy, Eddie Ellis Collection

By 1960 Havelock Elementary School (originally called the Cherry Point School) in Havelock N.C., had more black and white children going to school together than any other public school in North Carolina. Photograph courtesy, Eddie Ellis Collection

This is the second part of my look at black Marines and the struggle for civil rights on the North Carolina coast in the 1950s and ’60s. 

A year before I was born, in the small town where I grew up, three African American children walked into my future elementary school while a line of U.S. Marines with rifles watched over them. The date was August 28, 1959. The children’s names were Alphonso, Roland and Margaret Scott.

That was in Havelock, North Carolina, my hometown, which at that time was a little military community located between the Outer Banks and the great swamps of the Croatan National Forest.

The town of Havelock and the Cherry Point MCAS are located in Craven County, N.C., on the central part of the North Carolina coast. Courtesy, Wikipedia

The town of Havelock and the Cherry Point MCAS are located in Craven County, N.C., on the central part of the North Carolina coast. Courtesy, Wikipedia

On that day, the Scotts and eight other black children broke the color barrier in Havelock’s public schools for the first time. Eight of those children enrolled at Havelock Elementary School, while three other children attended the town’s other public elementary school, Graham A. Barden.

Three days later, another six black children enrolled at Havelock Elementary, bringing the total number of black students in Havelock’s previously all-white public schools to seventeen.

All of those young people’s fathers were African American men stationed at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), a sprawling military installation on the edge of Havelock that had originally been built during the Second World War to prepare Marine units for service in the Pacific Theater.

One of those black Marines was Cpl. Roland Scott, Sr., the father of Alphonso, Roland Jr. and Margaret Scott.  More than 50 years later, his children shared their memories of that first day of school desegregation in Havelock with a reporter for The Havelock News.

That reporter was a very talented journalist named Drew Wilson. His story astonished me. Even though I had grown up in Havelock just a few years after 1959, I had never heard of the Scotts or any of those other children who showed so much courage that day.

But I was also surprised that school desegregation had begun so early in Havelock. In the fall of 1959, racial segregation was still the rule in every school district in the state of North Carolina.

Even though the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education had come five years earlier, hardly any black and white children attended public schools together in North Carolina at that time.

In fact, at the beginning of 1959, only 11 black children attended public school with white children in the entire state of North Carolinaand those 11 students attended schools in urban areas more than 200 miles from Havelock and the Cherry Point MCAS.

With a little research, I soon discovered another surprise: the arrival of those 17 black children in Havelock’s previously all-white public schools had made headlines in  newspapers across the United States.

According to a UPI wire story, the enrollment of those black children at Havelock Elementary and Graham A. Barden was “the largest [school] integration move so far in North Carolina.”

And that was only the beginning. By 1960, according to the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, Havelock Elementary School had more black children attending classes with white children than any other public school in North Carolina.

Over the next two years, school desegregation in the rest of North Carolina was at a virtual standstill. Havelock’s public schools continued to move forward, however. Indeed, by 1961, my hometown had almost as many African American children attending school with white children as all the other public schools in the rest of the state of North Carolina put together.

All of this was astonishing to me. I had no idea this had happened. I called around to my friends from Havelock and even talked to one of my former teachers– like me, they entered or taught at Havelock’s public schools just a few years later, but this was all news to them as well.

As so often happens when I study history, I felt as if a veil of forgetfulness had been placed over my eyes, our eyes.

Naturally I wanted to know more: I wanted to know exactly what did happen at Havelock and the Cherry Point MCAS in 1959. I wanted to know how school desegregation happened, why it happened so early and what it meant both in my hometown and beyond.

So I decided to do a little historical research. And as I got ready to start, I remember thinking, maybe this is one of those times like in the last of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “when the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”

 * * *

I quickly discovered that an excellent scholarly study produced by the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History was a key to understanding why and how school desegregation occurred so early in Havelock.

Published in 1981, the 647-page report was written by Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., a career historian for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense. The title of the report is Integration of the Armed Forces: 1940-1965. You can find the whole report on line here, but I can summarize the parts that are most relevant to understanding school desegregation in Havelock fairly quickly.

I have to start though with a bit of a deep dive into the history of African Americans in the United States Marine Corps (USMC).

First, let’s remember that the United States Marine Corps was founded in Philadelphia in 1775 and that the first African American to serve with the Marines was actually an enslaved man. He was known by an English name, James Martin, and by an African name, Keto.

Without informing the man that held him in slavery, James Martin/Keto joined the marines in 1776. He served with a marine platoon aboard a brig named the USS Reprisal. He fought many a battle on her and went down with the brig when she sunk in a storm in the fall of 1777.

Engraving of the U.S.S. Reprisal. From O. L. Holley and Alexander Anderson, The Life of Benjamin Franklin (1848). In addition to the brig's combat history during the Revolutionary War, the Reprisal is remembered today for transporting Franklin to France during the Revolutionary War on what was the new nation's first diplomatic mission.

Engraving of the U.S.S. Reprisal. From O. L. Holley and Alexander Anderson, The Life of Benjamin Franklin (1848). In addition to the brig’s combat history during the Revolutionary War, the Reprisal is remembered today for transporting Franklin to France during the Revolutionary War on what was the new nation’s first diplomatic mission.

Despite the valor that he and other black Marines displayed during the Revolutionary War, the officially re-instituted Marine Corps excluded all African Americans from the service beginning in 1798. For the next nearly 150 years, the USMC prohibited black enlistment.

That finally changed during the Second World War. The first black Marines began to train at Camp Montford Point, 45 miles west of Havelock, in 1942. At that time, the USMC still segregated training, housing and military units by race, however. During the war, Marine commanders consigned nearly all black Marines to all-black battalions in the Navy Seabees, which supplied construction, stevedoring and other support services to USMC amphibious forces in the Pacific.

A group of Montford Point Marines in dress blues, ca. May 1943. Courtesy, National Archives

A group of Montford Point Marines in dress blues, ca. May 1943. Courtesy, National Archives

During battle, black Marines were sometimes rushed into combat, however. They played an especially important role at the Battle of Peleliu, a brutal contest with  Japanese forces on a remote atoll in the Western Pacific that unfolded over 73 days in the fall of 1944.

(My father, by the way, was at Peleliu, too.)

The experience of black Marines began to change soon after the Second World War, however. In 1948, President Truman issued the now famous Executive Order 9981, which ordered the top-to-bottom racial integration of the USMC and the rest of the United States Armed Forces and prohibited racial discrimination in recruitment, duties and promotions.

Trained at Camp Montford Point, African American Marines were part of the landing force of the 1st Marine Division on the island of Peleliu in September 1944. Photo by Franklin Fitzgerald. Courtesy, National Archives

Trained at Camp Montford Point, African American Marines were part of the landing force of the 1st Marine Division on the island of Peleliu in September 1944. Photo by Franklin Fitzgerald. Courtesy, National Archives

Truman was no believer in racial equality, but he had good reasons for issuing Executive Order 9981. The NAACP and other national civil rights groups had made racial integration of the Armed Forces a priority, and Truman desperately needed the black urban vote in the north if he was going to be re-elected in 1948.

In addition, Truman, like so many Americans, had been outraged by a series of lynchings and other racially-motivated attacks on black veterans who had returned to their homes in the southern states after the Second World War.

Lt. Gen. George S. Patton pins the Silver Star on Pvt. Ernest A. Jenkins on Oct. 13, 1944, in recognition of his heroism during the liberation of Chateaudun, France. Overall more than 1.2 million African American men and women served in the American military during WWII. Photo courtesy, National Archives

Lt. Gen. George S. Patton pins the Silver Star on Pvt. Ernest A. Jenkins on Oct. 13, 1944, in recognition of his heroism during the liberation of Chateaudun, France. Overall more than 1.2 million African American men and women served in the American military during WWII. Photo courtesy, National Archives

According to Integration of the Armed Forces: 1940-1965, racial integration in the USMC was made an operational imperative over the next decade. The rubber hit the road during the Korean War: Marine commanders desperately needed black recruits and agreed that the effort necessary to maintain racial segregation was hurting fighting readiness.

They also worried that maintaining Jim Crow in the Marine Corps would undermine the morale of black servicemen and might well damage efforts to recruit more black enlistees.

During the 1950s, the USMC not only ended the practice of racially distinct training camps and fighting units, but also ended the racial segregation of barracks and other base housing. In addition, USMC commanders ordered the desegregation of mess halls, recreational facilities (gyms, athletic fields, pools, service clubs, etc.) and base hospitals.

Bolstered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, Marine leaders also ordered the desegregation of the federally-funded schools that had been built on some USMC bases. This was accomplished with some, but relatively little trouble or fanfare at all military installations in the U.S. and abroad by 1957.

The USMC’s implementation of Truman’s Executive Order 9981 transformed the experience of black Marines on base. The problem, however, was what happened when they left the base and attempted to eat out, go shopping or do other activities in the surrounding civilian communities, especially if those communities were located in the southern states.

In those cases, black Marines, including even distinguished combat veterans in uniform, were inevitably consigned to “Negros Only” facilities. Restaurants would not serve them. Soda fountains would not permit them to sit down. Motels would not let their families stay the night at them. If store owners did serve them, they did so only at the back door or after they had served their white customers.

When off-base, black Marines had to sit in the “Negros Only” sections of movie theaters and in segregated waiting rooms at train and bus stations. They had to sit in the backs of buses. They had to use “Negroes Only” restrooms, while repeatedly being called “boy” and being threatened, beaten or jailed if they stood up for themselves.

Bus station in Durham, N.C., 1940. During WW II, segregated bus and train stations often became flash points for protests and altercations when black Marines passed through towns such as Durham (shown here), Raleigh and Rocky Mount, N.C. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Bus station in Durham, N.C., 1940. During WW II, segregated bus and train stations often became flash points for protests and altercations when black Marines refused to accept Jim Crow treatment in towns such as Durham (shown here), Raleigh and Rocky Mount, N.C. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

This put black Marines in an almost impossible bind.

In Integration of the Armed Forces: 1940-1965, the military historian, Morris J. MacGregor, described what all this meant for black Marines:

“But what about the black serviceman himself? A Negro enlisting in the armed forces in 1960, unlike his counterpart in 1950, entered an integrated military community. He would quickly discover traces of discrimination,especially in the form of unequal treatment in assignments, promotions, and the application of military justice, but for a while at least these would seem minor irritants to a man who was more often than not for the first time close to being judged by ability rather than race.

“It was a different story in the civilian community, where the black seviceman’s uniform commanded little more respect than it did in 1950. Eventually this contrast would become so intolerable that he and his sympathizers would beleaguer the Department of Defense with demands for action against discrimination in off-base housing, schools, and places of public accommodation.”

In some cases, this situation even led to violent confrontations between local whites and black Marines who refused to “stand down.” This sometimes happened when the black Marines were being insulted in public. Other times it happened when local policemen tried to arrest black servicemen for failing to comply with local Jim Crow statutes.

Not surprisingly, African American Marines often took such insults as more than affronts to their race and personhood. They also saw them as displays of disrespect for the U. S. Marine Corps and what its members, of all colors and creeds, had sacrificed for this country.

As the son of a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, I think I can say: disrespect for the U.S. Marine Corps was crossing a line. As I think most people know, Marines tend to share an extraordinary strong devotion to “The Corps” and a deep sense of brother and sisterhood.

But in the 1950s when a black Marine stepped off base in a southern town, he or she was entering a world in which white supremacy, not respect for the “The Corps,” came first.  It was, as MacGregor said in the quote I highlighted above, a situation that had grown “intolerable.”

* * *

The first flash point was public schooling. As I said earlier, some military installations had their own schools, but many did not. As a result, many of the children of black servicemen attended civilian schools off-base. In the Jim Crow South, that usually meant that black Marines and their spouses had no choice except to send their children to segregated schools that were often located at a great distance from the base.

At the Cherry Point MCAS, for instance, the children of white servicemen could often walk to Havelock’s public schools. All of the town’s public schools stood immediately adjacent to the base. The elementary school-age children of African American servicemen, on the other hand, were bused to a historically black school in a town called James City, which was 17 miles away, an hour round trip from Cherry Point’s main gate.

At its national conventions in the early 1950s, the NAACP had applauded the military’s leadership in civil rights policy. But as the decade went on, neither black servicemen or national civil rights leaders were satisfied with the military’s stance on Jim Crow schools. Increasingly, they pushed for military leaders to use their influence to bring an end to racial segregation in the civilian communities where black servicemen sent their children to school.

There was clearly a great deal of room for improvement. Throughout the 1950s, the Department of Defense’s official policy generally supported racial equality, but was silent with respect to the treatment of black servicemen and women in the civilian communities near military installations.

Fundamentally, the military’s policy left base commanding officers with the responsibility of working with local civilian leaders on issues that arose involving black servicemen and Jim Crow practices, but did not encourage or require those commanding officers to take proactive measures to change the racial climate outside a military base’s gates.

Of course, all USMC base commanders were white at that time. Many of them supported racial segregation and Jim Crow schools. Others did not. But regardless of their personal views, the commanding officers at military installations in the southern states typically chose “not to rock the boat.”

Fearful of disrupting the relationship between their military installations and local white civilian leadership, they at least acquiesced to the enrollment of the children of military personnel in segregated schools.

In 1959, however, somebody at the Cherry Point MCAS did not acquiesce.

* * *

As best I can tell, that individual was Brigadier General Ralph Kaspar “R. K.” Rottet, the commanding officer at Cherry Point from 1959 to 1961.

Any issue that was likely to be controversial and which had far-reaching consequences both for the Marine Corps and the surrounding civilian community was inevitably the responsibility of the air station’s commanding officer.

Lieutenant General Rottet ca. 1967-68, when he was a deputy chief of staff at Headquarters Marine Corps. He received his third star on July 1, 1967. Photo courtesy, Sherry (Rottet) Wynn

Lieutenant General R. K. Rottet ca. 1967-68, when he was a deputy chief of staff at Headquarters Marine Corps. He received his third star on July 1, 1967. Photo courtesy, Sherry (Rottet) Wynn

When Brig.-Gen. Rottet reported for duty in March 1959, he must have come into a crisis involving black Marines and the local public schools.

All I know for certain is that an unknown, but significant number of black Marines had requested transfers away from the Cherry Point MCAS around that time because of racial segregation in the local public schools.

I do not know whether or not those black Marines voiced their concerns about racial segregation in other ways– they may have.

But however the concerns of those black Marines reached his ear, Brig.-Gen. Rottet seems to have been the kind of military leader that was likely to listen them.

Born and raised in Indiana, Ralph Kaspar “R. K.” Rottet had graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1934. He was a decorated combat aviator during the Second World War and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism in the Marshall Island campaign of 1943-44.

He again saw action in Korea and later held senior leadership positions at USMC bases both in the United States and Japan.

Ralph K. Rottet and his wife Adele and their children in June 1967. John is standing on the far left. Sherry and her sister Charlene are standing on the right. Their brothers Rick (on left) and Spark are in front. Photo courtesy, Sherry (Rottet) Wynn.

Ralph K. Rottet and his wife Adele and their children in June 1967. John is standing on the far left. Sherry and her sister Charlene are standing on the right. Their brothers Rick (on left) and Spark are in front. Photo courtesy, Sherry (Rottet) Wynn.

When I talked to his daughter Sherry Wynn, who now lives in Gainesville, Georgia, and with his son, John Rottet, in Durham, North Carolina, they told me that their father and mother were not civil rights crusaders, but were people with an abundance of principled decency.

Both, they told me, firmly believed that people should be judged by their character, not by the color of their skin.

Sherry, who was 12 years old when her family moved to Cherry Point, remembered, for instance, how her father had championed black Marines under his command and supported their promotion into leadership positions.

John, who was only in the 3rd grade when his family moved to Cherry Point, told me that he was too young to think about race at that age. However, he was not surprised that his father stood up for the black Marines under his command, or that he did not talk about it (or, for that matter, his war experiences either) with his family.

He told me, “My dad was a man of principle. He was definitely not a braggart. He was a doer.”

Their father retired as a lieutenant general in 1968, after 34 years of active duty in the Marine Corps.

Only weeks after arriving at Cherry Point, in late March or early April of 1959, Brig.-Gen. Rottet made or at the very least put his authority behind a special request to desegregate Havelock’s public elementary schools.

The request was directed to what was called the “District Committee of the Havelock School District.”

At that time, the Havelock District Committee had a largely advisory role in overseeing Havelock’s public schools. The Committee fell under the authority of the Craven County Board of Education, which was based in New Bern, the county seat.

I think we can safely assume that Brig.-Gen. Rottet put the full weight of his command behind the request. It  was certainly going against the prevailing winds at that time, and no school board was going to accept school desegregation without being pressured to do so.

At that time, in March of 1959, only 12 black students attended public schools with white children in the entire state of North Carolina.

Those 12 black students attended schools mainly in three urban school districts more than 200 miles west of Havelock and the Cherry Point MCAS– in Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

East of Raleigh, in the part of the state where plantation slavery had ruled prior to the Civil War, only one black child attended public school with white children at that time. That child was an 8-year-old boy (also the son of a serviceman) who had just been accepted for admission to Meadow Lane Elementary School in Goldsboro. (More on Meadow Lane later.)

Nevertheless, the influence of the Marine Corps in Havelock and in Craven County as a whole can scarcely be exaggerated.

The town of Havelock was bound by birth to the Cherry Point MCAS. Prior to the base’s construction in 1942, Havelock– or “Havelock Station,” as it was often called–  was a remote rural community with a single paved road, a couple stores and a railroad depot.

The town had boomed with Marines and thousands of construction and other civilian workers during the Second World War. In a way, the little community was still getting its feet on the ground in 1959. That year, in fact, was when Havelock officially incorporated as a town.

Havelock's official insignia still emphasizes the town's relationship with the Cherry Point MCAS. Courtesy, Town of Havelock

Havelock’s official insignia still emphasizes the town’s relationship with the Cherry Point MCAS. Courtesy, Town of Havelock

There was not much that Havelock did not owe Cherry Point. Few, if any, local businesses did not rely on the patronage of Marine personnel. In addition, the Cherry Point MCAS was one of the largest civilian employers not just in Havelock and Craven County, but in the entire state of North Carolina.

Likewise, the town’s two elementary schools had been built with federal funds that the Department of Defense explicitly made available for educating the children of Marines at Cherry Point.

Under those circumstances, Brig.-Gen. Rottet and his staff may not have had to raise their voices very loud to be heard loud and clear.

* * *

Things moved quickly in the spring of 1959. In April, the Havelock District Committee passed a resolution in favor of admitting the children of black Marines to the local elementary schools and forwarded the resolution to the Craven County Board of Education.

At a county school board meeting on July 6, 1959, the county superintendent of schools, R. L. Pugh, brought forward, according to the meeting’s minutes, “a suggested resolution for the integration of certain children in the Havelock School District for the ensuing year.” The board agreed to study the matter.

Only a week later, on July 13, 1959, at a closed door meeting, the school board voted in favor of the Havelock School District’s resolution. The school board members agreed to accept applications from black families at Cherry Point for enrolling their children in Havelock’s public schools “on a limited basis.”

The next day the Sun-Journal, New Bern’s daily newspaper, published the full text of the  school board’s decision.

In that decision, the school board did not discuss school integration in terms of right or wrong. The school board also did not say that its decision had anything to do with racial justice, civil rights or living up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown versus the Board of Education.

The school board took a different tack, and one that was perhaps astute under the circumstances.

Instead of acknowledging race as the issue at all, the school board explained its decision to desegregate Havelock’s schools as a common sense solution to the practical difficulties of a group of military parents who were obliged to bus their children to a school that was in another town.

Of course, countless other school boards could have used that same reasoning to justify putting an end to racially segregated schooling. I am not aware of any others that did.

The school board’s resolution made clear the the difference in the case of Haveock was the Cherry Point MCAS.

In the July 13 resolution, the board expressed “a willingness and desire to cooperate with said military authorities” and emphasized that it acted both out of concern for the black parents and out of a desire not to impede Cherry Point’s mission.

“The difficulties arising from such transportation have created hardships for some of the parents, resulting in instances in their requesting transfers from the [Cherry Point Marine Corps] Air Station,” the school board’s resolution read.

The board members did not indicate how they would evaluate applications from black parents or if they would place a limit on the number of black children that they would accept.

Another factor may have also influenced the Craven County Board of Education’s willingness to support school desegregation: local black families in Havelock had also been pressuring the board to integrate the town’s high school, and they had been doing so since at least the summer of 1958.

At that time, Havelock did not have a high school for African American students. Rather than allow black students to attend Havelock High, the school board bused them outside of the county to Beaufort/Queen Street High School, a historic African American high school located 22 miles away in Beaufort, N.C.

In July of 1958, the parents of 25 local (non-military) black high school students in Havelock had requested permission to enroll their children at Havelock High instead of sending them to Beaufort. At the time, news reports indicated that their petition was the first request for school desegregation anywhere east of Raleigh.

Led by the Rev. Willie Hickman, a local NAACP activist, those parents threatened to file a lawsuit to gain admission to Havelock High after the county school board turned down their applications. I am not sure of that potential lawsuit’s status as of August 1959, but black students had not yet enrolled at the high school.

* * *

In the racial climate of 1959, when progress toward school desegregation was stalled in most of the South, the Craven County Board of Education’s decision to allow the children of black Marines to attend school with white children was noticed far beyond Craven County.

The news drew attention particularly in the black South. In Durham, N.C., the state’s most prominent African American newspaper, The Carolina Times, had a typical reaction.

On July 18, 1959, the newspaper ran an editorial about the Havelock schools titled “The Walls of Segregation Continue to Crumble.”

Civil rights leader and journalist Louis Austin was president of the Carolina Times from 1927 until his death in 1971. His paper was widely read in black communities throughout eastern North Carolina. Courtesy, Durham County Public Library

Civil rights leader and journalist Louis Austin was president of the Carolina Times from 1927 until his death in 1971. His paper was widely read in black communities throughout eastern North Carolina. Courtesy, Durham County Public Library

In that editorial, Louis Austin, the newspaper’s publisher and editor, wrote:

“The announcement this week that the Craven County Board of Education has approved the admission of Negro pupils to two white schools at Havelock is another crack in the wall of segregation in this state. Though the pupils are all children of Marine Corps personnel living in government quarters at the Cherry Point Marine Corps air station[,] they are without a doubt Negroes and will in time make it easier for integration in schools not located on government grounds.”

Austin apparently did not realize that the two elementary schools in Havelock were not located on “government grounds.”

* * *

Six weeks later, on August 24, 1959, Superintendent Pugh announced that the Craven County Board of Education had admitted 17 children of black Marines stationed at Cherry Point to Havelock’s elementary schools.

That number may seem small, but we have to remember that it was larger than the total number of black students attending white schools in the whole state of North Carolina the previous school year.

On the day before classes began in Havelock, the Charlotte Observer reported that, “The 17 children come from 9 families and range in age from 6 to 12 years.” All were military.

While most of the children had previously been bused to James City, the children from at least one of the black families had been attending the Annunciation Catholic School there in Havelock.

Annunciation, a local parochial school, had been one of the first racially integrated private schools in North Carolina. (I grew up in the Annunciation Catholic Church, but never attended the school.)

Though a social conservative and extremely dogmatic on ecclesiastical matters, Bishop Vincent S. Waters had ordered the racial integration of all Catholic schools and churches in the Diocese of Raleigh in 1953, the year before the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education. The diocese was the first to do so anywhere in the United States. The bishop’s order was extremely controversial in North Carolina, but was greeted with great support from civil rights and human rights leaders both in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world.

* * *

The first day of classes was August 28, 1959. According to Havelock News reporter Drew Wilson’s interviews in 2014, armed Marines were present at Havelock’s public schools that day to help make sure that things went as smoothly as possible.

Their presence may have been in response to rumors of potential trouble by white citizens opposed to school desegregation. However, it may also have indicated simply an abundance of caution on the part of Brig.-Gen. Rottet and his staff and on the part of Havelock’s school leaders.

The threat of white violence was very real in the South at that time. The memory of the Little Rock School Crisis of 1957 was still very fresh, and white resistance to school desegregation would prove to be very fierce and often violent in many communities in the coming months and years.

Klansmen burning a cross in Pitt County, N.C., just north of Craven County, in March 1966. White opposition to school desegregation fueled a resurgence of the Klan in eastern North Carolina primarily from 1964 to 1967. From The Daily Reflector Image Collection, ECU Digital Collections

Klansmen burning a cross in Pitt County, N.C., just north of Craven County, in March 1966. White opposition to school desegregation fueled a resurgence of the Klan in eastern North Carolina primarily from 1964 to 1967. From The Daily Reflector Image Collection, ECU Digital Collections

That included other parts of Craven County.

I have written a number of stories on the Ku Klux Klan and white resistance to school desegregation elsewhere in Craven County, N.C. in the period from 1964 to 1966. See “The Bombing of the Cool Springs Baptist Church,” “The Klan Last Time- Part 6,” and “Remembering a Church Bombing: A Conversation with Retired State Trooper Bob Edwards.”

Whether the Marine guard was necessary or not, newspapers around the state reported that the first day of racially integrated classes in Havelock passed without any major disruptions.

In an article in the Durham Herald-Sun, Principal W. J. Gurganus (who was later my principal) summed up the first day of classes at Havelock Elementary, saying, “Everything went as smooth as silk.”

An article in the Raleigh News & Observer echoed Principal Gurganus’s sentiments.  “There were no incidents the first day of classes Friday,” the newspaper reported the next morning.

In Burlington, N.C., a front-page headline in the local newspaper, the Daily-Times News, read:

“HAVELOCK SCHOOL INTEGRATION STARTED WITHOUT INCIDENT.”

Similar headlines appeared around the state and nation. To both national news media and civil rights groups, the situation in Havelock often seemed like the only progress on school integration anywhere in the state of North Carolina that was worth reporting that year.

Later that fall, for instance, a UPI wire story summarizing the progress of school desegregation in every southern state stated that the enrollment of the 17 black children in Havelock’s public schools was “the largest integration move so far in North Carolina.”

* * *

The point of view of the black children at Havelock Elementary and Graham A. Barden was rather different, however.

According to Drew Wilson’s interviews, at least some of the first black children who attended the local public schools in the fall of 1959 did not recall either the first day of classes or their first year of school as going as “smooth as silk” and having “no incidents.”

When talking with Wilson in 2014, Roland Scott, Jr., then 62 years of age, remembered his first morning of classes at Havelock Elementary.

“I didn’t know why all of the soldiers were there. They were lined up on the sidewalk on both sides and we went between them. There were a few people shouting some things. At the time, I didn’t understand why they were shouting…. We were escorted up the steps and reporters were in front of us, behind us, taking pictures…..”

His younger brother, Alphonso Scott, recalled that day as well.  Unlike his older brother and sister, he had never been to school prior to that August day in 1959– it was his first day of first grade.

“I remember walking to school and some people were saying some things, you know, and I just tried to ignore them. I felt uncomfortable because of all the name calling and things like that…. You got the feeling that people didn’t like you and that they didn’t want you there. I remember getting our picture in the newspaper going up the steps and into the school.”

In that interview, Alphonso Scott confessed that he did not often let himself think about his days at Havelock Elementary.

“I never felt welcome at the school . . . ,” he explained.

“You heard a lot of the N word and stuff like that…. When I went to the classroom, I just sat there and didn’t say anything at all. Nobody would talk to me anyway. . .. None wanted to play with me…. It was just stuff I had to deal with. I understood it after a while.”

Alphonso Scott told Wilson that he had a hard year at Havelock Elementary, though he did eventually find a white friend.

Scott remembered his white friend’s family with great fondness. “They were good people. No prejudice at all. Me and him played daily even though his friends would try to turn him against me. . . . I believe his name was Tony. He was my only friend, but he was a good friend.”

The Scotts were only in the Havelock public schools for a year. By the beginning of the next school year, their father, Cpl. Roland Scott, Sr., had been transferred to another Marine Corps base.

Whether Cpl. Scott requested and was granted a transfer because of his children’s experience in the Havelock public schools is not known.

* * *

Despite the challenges, black Marines and their children did not give up on school desegregation in Havelock. Once started, the momentum built.

According to the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, 25 black students had the courage to attend Havelock Elementary School by 1960. That year the school had more students in racially integrated classrooms than in any other school in North Carolina.

At that time, Havelock’s two elementary schools and one other elementary school, Meadow Lane Elementary School in Goldsboro, N.C., had more black children enrolled in classes with white children than all other school districts in North Carolina combined.

Meadow Lane Elementary School served the children of service families at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C. The school was located just off-base and was part of the local school system, but enrollment was limited to children in military families. Meadow Lane began accepting the children of black Air Force personnel in the spring of 1959. However, the number of black children enrolled at Meadow Lane remained small compared to the Havelock schools.

As I mentioned earlier, by 1961, my hometown had almost as many African American children attending school with white children as all the other public schools in the rest of the state of North Carolina put together.

By the 1962-63 school year, when the large majority of the state’s white public schools still refused to admit a single black student, school desegregation in Havelock expanded further. That year school desegregation extended beyond the elementary schools, with a total of at least 51 black children attending the town’s elementary,  junior high and high schools.

By the fall of 1963, three of North Carolina’s largest urban school districts– Durham, Asheville and Charlotte-Mecklenburg– finally caught up to Havelock in terms of the number of black children enrolled in desegregated schools.

Havelock’s public schools, however, continued to move forward with school desegregation.

By the time that I entered first grade in 1966, I was so young and so naive, and still had so much to learn, that I never imagined that there had once been a world where black and white children did not go to school together.

I would like to dedicate this story to Mrs. White, Mrs. Attmore and Mrs. Quackenbush, my 6th grade teachers at Havelock Elementary School. Mrs. White and Mrs. Attmore were my first African American teachers. All three women were extraordinary individuals and among the very finest educators I have ever known. I count myself very lucky to have studied in their classrooms. 

 

Special Thanks

For their help with the research for this article, I would like to express my deep gratitude to Havelock’s official town historian, Eddie Ellis; Victor Jones at the Kellenberger Room at the New Bern-Craven County Public Library ; Mgsr. Gerald Lewis and Diana Zwilling at the Archives of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh; and Drew C. Wilson, formerly of the Havelock News. I also want to extend a special thanks to Sherry Wynn and John Rottet for taking the time to correspond with me about their father.

4 thoughts on “In the Small Town Where I Grew Up

  1. Enjoying these posts about Cherry Point. I was there about a decade earlier than you. Went to Graham Barden. There was nothing in Havelock but a general store, as I recall. We had a great scout troop and fun being outdoors, on our own, in the woods and river. Everything segregated, of course, not that I realized at that time, although my father was from SC so I should have. . I do have a faint memory of my father taking me to hear Duke Ellington at the O Club. Could that have been? After leaving CP my father was posted to Korea and my mother, a Yankee, moved us to Long Island. My world changed radically but I retained a soft spot for NC, and came back here for college. Married a Greensboro boy who was active in civil rights in the 60s in CH. And we live here now. CH and SB Sending a snapshot of me, age about 10. Wearing brown oxfords I got in New Bern where they xrayed your feet!

    Enjoy your posts! Pat Thompson

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m so lucky to be weekly sent free history that’s both local and national, even international, told by a participant who sometimes doesn’t even know he WAS one. Again, sincere thanks, from just another grandson of the Sandhills.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is the first I have ever heard of this. I wish I knew years….decades earlier to discuss with classmates. My father was a Lt. Col. stationed at Cherry Point from the summer of 1958 to the summer of 1961. We lived on base about a dozen houses from the Rottet’s (I did not know them personally). I attended Annuciation School in 7th (‘58-‘59) and 8th (‘59-‘60) before attending Havelock HS (‘60-‘61) after which Dad was transferred. We had a black student in 7th grade who I assume is the one referred to in your writing. His name was Elsie Canady if I recall correctly. My memory is waning with age. I do not recall all my classmate’s names or even what they look like but I recall Elsie as he was one of my friends. He was big and affable….smiled a lot. We played sports at recess and he was sought after. I know nothing about his parents, background, etc but the same can be said of my white classmates who did not live near me on base and took the same school bus. I was not even aware of the distinction between officers and enlisted. Elsie did not attend 8th grade at Annunciation and I vaguely recall him saying his family was moving but can’t swear to it. Also, Marine officers served on the School Committee. Col. J. M. Clark served ‘59-‘60. The first sentence describing their commitment states: “These men believe that all the children of all the people should be given free and equal opportunity in education.” I have yearbooks for two previous years from my sister but are packed away. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Want to learn more about the civilian challenges that happened during that time frame and the family that kept unity in the community speak to Alvin West who was and is a sterling example for all of us to follow and get the rest of the story

    Liked by 1 person

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