Segregated Charlotte schools and the legacies of desegregation
In this meandering excerpt, Griffin describes growing up in segregated Charlotte, North Carolina, and touches on a number of issues affecting the black community in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The Queen City Classic, a football game between West Charlotte and Second Ward High Schools, drummed up enthusiasm for the high schools; residents discussed the destruction of First Ward and the potential rebuilding of Second Ward High School; black professionals started moving to send their children to better schools. Second Ward was left behind.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Arthur Griffin, May 7, 1999. Interview K-0168. 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
PG: All right. I guess just start, before you get to Second Ward, with where you grew up.
AG: I was born in Good Samaritan Hospital, which was located on the site where Ericcson Stadium is currently located. It was located on Mint Street. I grew up on 6th Street, which is in First Ward. I entered public schools in 1954. That was called Alexander Street Elementary School. That was, I guess, the colored elementary school at that time for folk that lived on that part of the city, which was the eastern part of the city?–I’m not real sure about the directions right now. I went to Alexander Street, and black people that lived on the other side, in Brooklyn, went to what’s called Myers Street. So I did know a little about that. And I went to Alexander Street up until about the 4th grade. At that time, the upper end of First Ward, Ninth Street, Tenth Street, Brevard Street, that was white. The southern part of First Ward was black. Davidson Street, Alexander Street, the McDowell Street was black. So as whites sort of migrated or left the area, they left what’s now the First Ward Elementary School. It was an older school, but when we moved to Alexander Street to First Ward, we thought it was a brand new school because conditions are so much different with regard to quality of facility. That’s why this whole desegregation thing was really unique. Simply because First Ward Elementary was an older school, but their facilities, their books and everything were a hell of a lot better than the facilities
at Alexander Street. As a matter of fact, going to Alexander Street, since all of the black kids had to go to one school, we had a double shift, and you would go to school from 8 to 12, and another shift would come in at 12 o’clock and would go from 12 to 4. And that went on until the guys who went to First Ward–it was like being delivered and going to Heaven. Going to First Ward, and living in First Ward, you’d be blind, deaf, dumb, not to know about Second Ward, because there was an event called the Queen City Classic, and that was like a huge homecoming. And living in First Ward, walking to what was called the Park Center–now it’s called Grady Cole Center–it was the Charlotte Armory, at one point while I was growing up, then they changed it to Park Center. But you could just walk up Seventh Street, [ ] Sixth Street, and walk all the way up to the Park Center. And right behind Park Center was Memorial Stadium, which was this huge event for little kids--to even think about looking at something as great as the Queen City Classic, which was your two black high schools, West Charlotte versus Second Ward. And it would fill up Memorial Stadium. So for us growing up, I mean, that was the event. All these black people just filling up a big huge arena, it was just unheard of. So every year you’d just wait till the Queen City Classic. Growing up, Second Ward was the school closest to my home, although it was a couple of miles to get there, a mile and a half, two miles to get to Second Ward. You just grew up knowing you were going to go to Second Ward High School. As I said, I entered school in ‘54, so I graduated from elementary school in 1960 and went to Second Ward. Second Ward was 7th grade to 12th grade when I was there. And urban renewal came about in Charlotte in the middle and late ‘50s. So we knew some things were going on because you could read in the paper where some places, people were telling, “You got to tear these houses down, they’re not safe, decent and sanitary by the government’s standards.” And so it never dawned on me that they were going to tear First Ward down. It was like, oh, some of these places over by Brooklyn was going to be torn down, and I didn’t really–I wasn’t clued in to politics at that time. I mean, seventh grade, it’s like, I don’t know what’s happening. Also, in the sixties, of course, you had John F. Kennedy being shot and stuff. But right before that, we were told that Second Ward was going to be rebuilt. Now, I’m just a youngster at that time, probably 9th grade, I’m not real sure if I was in–9th, 10th grade. And there were drawings, because somebody decided that this would be a governmental center, a plaza, and that Second Ward would be rebuilt as a vocational high school. The community voted, in a bond referendum here in Mecklenburg County, in ‘62 or ‘63 to rebuilt Second Ward High School. However, at the same time, discussions about school desegregation as a result of the Brown decision, and folk would move out to West Charlotte. Black professionals moved out into University Park. C.D. Spangler had first built Double Oaks Apartments, and then University Parks Homes. And a lot of middle class or upper middle class blacks were continuing to move in that direction. I guess going to West Charlotte. And I still don’t know to this very day–I guess you’d have to talk to Darius Swann or Julius Chambers to really get that history-but our perception was that those kids, the brightest black kids, the most affluent black kids, really had second-class resources. There was absolutely no question about what we had at Second Ward; they were truly second-class, even to West Charlotte. It was sort of the school for kids who weren’t that affluent in the African-American community. That’s why when you said you were going to do the story about West Charlotte, “What about Second Ward?” We didn’t have a whole lot of money and political clout, but we got some political clout and money now.