White teacher transformed in majority-black environment
When the school where Culp had been assigned to teach closed, Culp was sent to West Charlotte High School. In this excerpt, he speculates about the desegregation process in Charlotte—Second Ward High School, which was a school in poorer condition attended by poorer students, closed, leaving the newer West Charlotte as the predominantly black school in the area. Culp was well-received, and he soon became the object of the change he sought to spark: in his words, he "began very quickly to get beyond race." He describes one incident that reveals how concerned students and faculty were about maintaining a racially harmonious environment.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with William Culp, February 19, 1999. Interview K-0277. 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: Well, as you got this assignment at the Second Ward you obviously spent some time there. What was your frame of mind as you approached starting to teach?
WC: Well, the interesting part was, of course, that I was assigned to go to Second Ward, and then during the summer of 1969 they closed Second Ward.
PG: So you hadn’t actually taught there?
WC: I had taught there as a student teacher, but I had not taught there as a faculty member. So when Second Ward was closed that left West Charlotte as the predominant black high school in Charlotte, and my new assignment was to West Charlotte, and I really didn’t know anything about West Charlotte. What I came to learn as I began teaching there was that West Charlotte was in many ways the elite black high school, Second Ward being sort of the lower middle income black high school. So interestingly enough West Charlotte was the one that survived. Second Ward was the one that was closed. Second Ward was also in an older building, West Charlotte in a little bit newer building, and I think that probably had a lot to do with which one survived as well. I have to be honest with you that I was a little frightened. I was a little uncertain about how I would be received as a teacher. I didn’t really have any doubts about the treatment that I would receive from the administration or the faculty, because I had interacted enough during my student teaching experience. I was a little bit concerned about what would be the reaction of students, and that was sort of the way I approached it, but I was pleasantly surprised that my race didn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference to students. Student who would respect the teacher would respect the teacher whether he or she were white or black. Those that were trouble makers were trouble makers and it had little to do with race. I really, I think, found a great deal of acceptance and a certain amount of grudging respect for someone who would volunteer. It was clear I was one of only about three or four white faculty members that year, that being the last year before integration took place. There were a number of black teachers who had gone to white schools on sort of the same basis. I found a lot of acceptance among everyone, students as well as faculty. Really, after a month or so, I became very comfortable with my situation and really began very quickly to get beyond race. In that particular situation where all the students were black and most all the faculty was black as well, very quickly began to feel that race was not an issue, at least not for the folks that were at West Charlotte.
PG: Was there sort of a moment or incident that you remember, a time when you realized this was the case?
WC: Well, as I look back on it I guess the incident that really sort of galvanized my feeling of acceptance was one of the problems that any high school has even today, is folks who are not students and not faculty who come onto the campus from the neighborhood. I hadn’t been there but a couple of months when a non-student of student age was loitering in the halls, and I went out to confront him about what he was doing in the halls, and he pulled a knife on me. One of the students looking out the door saw it and buzzed the office and within a matter of minutes a number of administration members one in particular, Pop Miller, rushed down the hallway and grabbed the guy and the incident was defused very quickly. What I came to realize out of that situation was that everyone was particularly concerned that I not view this as an attack on me because I was white, but instead to realize that this had happened to black teachers as well. I had number of black teachers come up to me and relate similar experiences. My students were very concerned that I not feel frightened or threatened by the environment. It was an experience that made me feel good about where I was because very quickly everyone sort of rallied to me in that kind of situation. I’d have to say that I very quickly got over any fear of differences or fear of the environment that I would have had going in.