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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Josephine Clement, July 13 and August 3, 1989. Interview C-0074. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Board of Education finds a rescue: Cleveland Hammonds Jr.

After letting go of Dr. Brooks, Clement and the other board members interviewed a series of candidates. She relates how they decided to hire Cleveland Hammonds, their first black superintendent, and how he proceeded to rescue the problem schools. He was later named North Carolina's Superintendent of the Year and after leaving Durham in 1988 had a distinguished career in Birmingham and St. Louis before retiring in 2003.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Josephine Clement, July 13 and August 3, 1989. Interview C-0074. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

At that particular time--here again I had not come to the place that I realized that there were black superintendents out there. I hadn't had any reason to. But as we began to advertise for a new superintendent it began to be evident that there had been a great change since 1975. This is four years, and that there were not only a lot of black applicants for the job, but there were good highly qualified people for it. As I said, this is after we had done what we did with Dr. Brooks. We were beginning to get these applications and I began to look at some of the black candidates. [Interruption]
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
We began the interviews, we narrowed it down to five people to invite for interviews. They came. We did the first, the second, the third, and the fourth, and there was no great feeling that arose from the Board about anybody. The fifth person that we introduced was Dr. Cleveland Hammonds. His resume didn't look that much better than anybody else's. We had our interview with him which was about three hours. And as I sat there and thought to myself, this is the man. I had said to the Board as we went into the meeting, "Will you please stay afterwards, we need to agree on a date to meet again." This was the fifth interview and the agreement was that if we did not select someone from the five we would go back to applications and select another group to invite for interviews. So I just wanted to be sure that we could get together on a date. I'd already started talking about another set of interviews. I said, how can I convince these people we've got to have this man. He is just what we were looking for. This is going through my mind, and at the end of the interview--they had set up a table of refreshments, we were meeting in the library of one of the schools--and I got up and walked over to the table. I was thinking, all these thoughts were running through my mind. And the one white member who was on the board who was a CPA here and had always been very nice to me although he's known as a very conservative reactionary person. I sat next to him and asked him lots of questions because I knew nothing about finance, public or private. He would always take time to explain things to me and I learned a lot. And I found another thing. I was not afraid to ask questions, the men were. They would not ask questions. I learned this. But when I'd ask a question, they'd listen. [Laughter]
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
For the answer.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
They were learning too. This man, and this is what was so significant--because he was the one white on the Board and a very conservative man and he had fought the Board about Dr. Brooks going, he was one of the two who was for him--he came up behind me and said, "Josephine, let's go with this one." Well, I couldn't believe my ears. Then somebody else came up and said, "Well, I think we've got our man." All five were in agreement! I mean it was instantaneous and unanimous that this was the man for the job, that we wanted.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Would you take a minute and describe--because I'm struck by that scene that you just outlined--it must have been something in the way that he came across . . .
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
It was.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Could you describe what qualities you felt at that time?
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
He's very quiet and unassuming, low-key, so that you don't expect very much. But when he started talking his answers were right. Every answer was right. You just couldn't believe that he was what you wanted to hear. We had begun to go down terribly from a high prestige system when it was a white--when we had white and black. Both systems were higher prestige. Hillside was one of the outstanding black high schools in the nation. Kids left here and went to Ivy League colleges and so forth. The same with Durham High. It was one of the great systems in this state. It was known. So here, now, we had gone down in prestige, our scores are falling, discipline is a problem, people are afraid to go into the classroom. I'll give you an example. We had a problem with vans parking in front of the high school, wildly painted, all kinds of scenes on the outside. Of course, you couldn't prove anything, but you'd be willing to bet, almost, that they were drug dealers and they'd be around the high schools. We asked Dr. Brooks over and over and over again to get rid of those. "I'm working on it, the police are trying, we can't do anything with it." The school yards were dirty, they were littered. The neighbors were talking about a Durham High School and this was the pride of white Durham. And now here it is dirty and littered. Worse than that, we had white parents who came to us during the year--I remember one minister represented a lot of people--came to talk to us about the safety of white girls. My answer to them was, we are working on this. We will have a school that is safe for any girl of any color to walk down the halls. It's going to be safe for all of them. If you know anything about education, the Teacher's Association is a very strong organization, it's really a union, that's what it is for all intents and purposes. You cannot fire someone just because things are not going the way you like. We had a principal at Durham High who could not cope with this situation. The superintendent could not cope with it. Getting both of them out of office took a great deal of time and strategic planning and that sort of thing. It turned out that this white principal, who had been there a long time and was highly respected in the community, became ill and just sat in his office. So there was a void there. Yes, we had some bad boys who were there. We had kids who were out of control. But when you don't have any adult presence . . .
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Who is in control?
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
Exactly. They move into the vacuum. And it was true. I understood. There was some pretty bad situations going on and I didn't deny this. But resolving the situation and getting out of it was something else. I told everybody, I said, I'm not willing to accept the fact that Durham High School has to go down the drain simply because it's become black. We can keep the high standards that we had. In fact, I'm not going to let this happen. Well, we eventually worked it out. We promoted this principal to a position in central office. And he came with his lawyer when we first started talking, and that sort of thing. But we finally sold him on it. I think he was getting sicker by this time because he had only been on that job about two or three months when he collapsed and became ill and eventually died. We were looking for somebody to do these overt things, things that the public was looking at as well as bringing up academics. These were the things that you would normally look for in a superintendent. In his own quiet, reassuring manner, he [Dr. Hammonds] assured us that he could take care of these things. He could handle it. He had been cited by the Michigan legislature for doing these things. He had a belief in black children that they could learn, that they should learn, that there should be discipline and order, that no learning can take place before you establish discipline and order. These were the things that we all wanted. He just spoke every answer, as I said, flowed out of him. You just believed him. We hadn't heard this before from any of the candidates. He turned out to be as good as his word. The school hadn't opened before he began to get those yards cleaned up. The vans disappeared. Durham High didn't turn around then, not until we got another principal and the superintendent had been here a year or two. But when he got a principal that reflected his image, this is what happens. The superintendent sets the tone and it goes down, principals and so forth. He turned that school around so that there were articles in the newspaper about it and the neighbors began to talk about the way the children walked through the neighborhood and had respect for the neighborhood and themselves. It was just the kind of thing that you read about in big cities when people turn it around. So we all went with Dr. Hammond. Then the papers started, the press started up again, because they were sure that we did this to get a black superintendent. However, in time, there were two things that bore us out. And I always told Dr. Hammonds, I said, "I will always love you Dr. Hammonds because you bailed us out." [Laughter] If we'd gotten a black superintendent and hadn't done well, it would've been too bad. The former superintendent went to another county. They came up and had a site visit and talked with them and they asked me to come in and talk. I told them, I said, it may be that he will work better with you than he did with us because we were a predominantly black system and black board and he couldn't deal with that. He was going to a different county altogether. But, you know, it didn't work out. We began to get articles from newspapers. People would go down there on the coast and they'd pick up newspapers and bring them back. They got to the place where they had to have a sheriff in their meetings. They finally bought his contract before it expired. Paid him off, paid him $75,000 and let him go. Between what Dr. Hammonds did and what Dr. Brooks did down in Brunswick County, I think we were vindicated in our opinion.