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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Bennie Higgins, December 28, 1990. Interview M-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Racism continues to pose challenges to black students and educators

Higgins offers advice to aspiring black principals and lays out some of the difficulties that black educators face. In doing so, he reveals some of the unique power dynamics in post-desegregation schools. Paramount is his claim that black students see black administrators as part of an oppressive system, which means that black administrators bear a special responsibility and face a special challenge. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that black educators tend to defer to their white counterparts and the de facto resegregation of schools.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Bennie Higgins, December 28, 1990. Interview M-0003. 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

GOLDIE F. WELLS:
Well, the two groups that I am interviewing, the 1964 group - at that time there were over 200 Black high school principals and last year when I sent to the State Department to find the number and the Black high school principals in 1989 there were 41 on the list. But some of them are in alternative schools. So that means that there are less than 40 that have graduating classes as high school principals. If you had to give some advice to a Black young person who was aspiring to be an administrator of a high school in North Carolina, what kind of advice would you give them.
BENNIE HIGGINS:
First of all, they ought to get involved in all facets of the school. They ought to learn as much about the school as they possibly can as a teacher. There is a real shortage of men, Black and White, and an even greater shortage of Black men, there was an article in our local paper last week about the shortage of Black teachers generally. So Black administrators and Black teachers are truly needed today. I would say get to learn as much about the school as you possibly can as a teacher, volunteer for as many things, get involved in as many committees in the school as possible. Get yourself involved in every facet of the school. I want to say it is easy and in a way it is easy for a Black male to get into administration because there are so many school systems who are looking. So the thing I say to young Blacks is to learn as much as you possibly can so that when the call comes you are going to be ready. And one of the worse things that could happen is for a Black to get the opportunity, not only a Black but we are talking about Black administrators, and not have the background and experience. And then not only are you going to hurt yourself but you are going to hurt the future Black administrators, even the ones who are really competent if you aren't ready and let's face it, the way our society is we're looked upon that they don't expect us to be able to be competent and to be successful and because the opportunities are out there for Black men if a Black man who is in education and he wants to get into administration if he prepares for it it is going to be relatively easy for him to move to the top.
GOLDIE F. WELLS:
What are some of the skills that you think are absolutely necessary?
BENNIE HIGGINS:
Some of the skills are verbal skills, people skills, a person who is able to make fast decisions, to judge situations and be fair, a person who is competent and is viewed as competent by students and teachers, a person who presents himself well. He doesn't have to be a fashion plate but you know the dress of our teachers today is not what it used to be and I think that first image before a person says anything the way he looks is going to be very important and then once he passes that test he has to present himself well verbally and has to have something to say. Not just saying something for the sake of saying it.
GOLDIE F. WELLS:
Any other words of wisdom.
BENNIE HIGGINS:
Well, we're on the firing line so to speak and I think for Black children you are going to be--Black administrators are in a tough situation because you are going to be seen by many Black kids as a part of a system and some Black kids make an assumption that because you are in an administrative position and even as a teacher that you are part of a system and that the system opposes Black kids and there have been so many things that have happened in our society to make Black parents think that that is true and to know that it is true but we need Black teachers and we need black administrators to influence our black students so that they don't throw their lives away because I see so many Black kids rebelling against the system that they don't really realize that they are playing into the hands of those who say that Blacks can not, will not be successful and I see so many young Black kids just playing right into the hands so we need some Black teachers and Black administrators to try to turn them around and that is a tough job as I said because of your position you are going to be viewed as the enemy so to speak. And that is a really, really tough job but I think once you get in there and they see that you are sincere and they see that you can help them, that you will help them, that that will turn around but there are not enough of us now I don't think. So we ought to get some more Blacks and that is getting harder and harder to do. Just start over with one of the problems that I see for us and one thing that concerns me for Black children and Black educators is an attitude that some of our Black teachers have in a desegregated situation. A feeling that more principals and especially Black principals will cater to white teachers at their expense. And it has been difficult for me to get our Black teachers involved in leadership roles that they ought to be involved in for the benefit of our students to get them to serve as advisors for clubs and organizations, to take the leadership for things like American Education Week, to be in positions where they can influence the number and the involvement of Black kids in extra curricular activities which to me are just important as a formal education because students get an opportunity to experience leadership opportunities that will augment what they get in the classroom. But it is difficult to get many of our Black teachers to give that extra time in working with young Blacks or to work with the kids in general and indirectly to help the Black students who need that. And then there is an attitude toward Black principals. And I have talked to some other Blacks and they've felt this too. A feeling that the Black teachers feel that Black principals cater to White teachers. But it is a matter of if you are trying to do something it is better to have people who volunteer to do something than to make a person do something. And as a principal, sometimes you can direct a person to take a responsibile but if they don't have their heart in it it is not going to be successful. And I would much rather have teachers who volunteer to do something. But then when you call for volunteers the volunteers are generally White. And then the Black teachers feel that well you let them do everything. Well, it's not a matter of letting them do anything, it is a matter of they volunteered to do it and my feeling is once again that it is better to have a person to volunteer to do something and you only result to appointing people when you can't get people who genuinely want to do something. Did you notice a pattern where there was a Black teacher in charge of a club or an advisor or club that you had more Black participation. Yes, you had more Black participation but you see my feeling was even when I had Black and White teachers if it is a White advisor you are going to have more White kids to gravitate, if it is a Black advisor you're going to have more Blacks. But I would insist as much as I could that we have equal participation on the part of Black and White kids. Some of our Black teachers if they were in charge of something they would stack it with Blacks because they said that was what White teachers were doing and I was trying to get both sides to not do that. I thought that it was important for the student body that every organization in the school as much as you can without being totally artificially to try to get Black, White and Asian kids to participate. As a result my last year at Smith I started because I saw the need for it again. I started the old Human Relations Committee that we had years ago when integration first started. And while I opened it to all students I went around and I spoke to Black, White, and Asian kids because I was going to ensure that I had a broad spectrum of students. And the funny thing when the other students saw this then kids would volunteer. The Asian kids would feel comfortable coming because they knew there were Asian kids and the Black kids felt comfortable and as a result I got some good participation. But for some reason, it was hard to get our teachers, some Black and White, to see that. That they did not feel that they needed to make that special effort and I always did. I used to say that you've got to guarantee success and you guarantee success by doing some little behind the scene things to make sure that whatever you're trying to do is successful and let's face it. We've been integrated here in Greensboro twenty years but our students still come from homes and they come largely from neighborhoods that are still segregated. So if we don't do things in the schools to let the kids see that it is all right to be involved with Black kids outside the classroom and it is all right to be involved with White kids outside the classroom. We have to model that and the same thing in the cafeteria. It used to bother me to go the cafeteria and look at one end of the teacher table. All the teachers would congregate. One end would be White and one end would be Black. And I talk about that in faculty meeting. I can't make you all be friends but I think we need to model some things for our kids. How can we ask the kids to get along, Black and White, when they can look at us and while they don't see us fighting they can see that something isn't quite right and those kinds of things I think are important but there are a lot of teachers, Black and White, who don't feel that that is their responsibility. And I do feel that it is their responsibility. I think using a seating chart in a classroom. One reason I think the teachers used to use seating charts is to separate the "bad eggs". But I like to use seating charts because I want to integrate the classroom. I don't like to walk into a classroom and see the Black kids sitting on one side and the White kids sitting on another side. Once again, this is America. People are free to sit where they want to sit and that is true but once again I think that the school system is the place that this country is going to be changed. If we don't have the right people in the leadership and positions in the schools then it is going to take longer to happen. But then some kids are smarter than some of the adults. They do it on their own. But once again, you can't expect a student to come from a situation, a neighborhood that is segregated, a segregated church, segregated every phase of their life except school and then expect them to all of a sudden integrate and have friends of the opposite race. But I think if we set up situations where they get to know each other then I think the country is going to change.
GOLDIE F. WELLS:
Did you see some progress with your teachers?
BENNIE HIGGINS:
Well some. Some Black and White had the same feeling, philosophy that I did and some didn't. And once again, the faculty was split in that respect. Some people that you could go in their classrooms and you--you know it is funny and maybe it is because of my belief that I am saying this but I thought the most effective teachers academically had the better relationships among their students. You could walk in and you could feel and you could see something in their classroom, the relationship between the teacher and the students, and the students and students, and I just felt more learning was taking place in that classroom. But when I walked into a classroom and I saw the Black kids on one side and White kids on the other side I felt that the learning in that classroom was being affected because if the teacher were not wise enought to see that that was not a good situation then I would think that she would be wise to see and understand a child's learning deficiency and help him/her overcome that. So that is my belief. So whether it is true or not I don't have anything to prove it but I believe that.