Durham’s Civil Rights Heritage
Although the historic Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education had declared "separate but equal" schools inherently unequal, each state was allowed to decide its own response. North Carolina instituted the Pearsall Plan, which allowed schools to remain segregated unless legally challenged.
Although students were now allowed to apply for reassignment on the basis of factors other than race, African Americans were asked to remain in their segregated schools voluntarily in order to avoid civic unrest. Not willing to comply with voluntary segregation, African Americans in Durham submitted 225 reassignment requests for the 1959-1960 school year. When only eight of these requests were approved, they turned to litigation.
The first of these suits, Wheeler v. Durham City Board of Education, was brought in April 1960 by 163 pupils and their parents. The second, Spaulding v. Durham City Board of Education, was instituted in September 1960 by the parents of 116 students, including many of the same individuals who filed the Wheeler suit. The complaint in each case requested that pupils not be assigned to schools on the basis of race and that criteria for black pupils seeking reassignment be the same as those for white pupils seeking transfers.
True action was not taken towards school desegregation until the mid-1960s, when the school board approved over 100 applications for reassignment (at the threat of losing federal funding) and was not fully achieved in the Durham City Schools until the 1969-70 school year.