Fifty years ago, the Ku Klux Klan was burning crosses in Orange County yards.
But when the Orange County Schools dragged their feet on integration, black high school students stood up and walked out.
A few had started attending the all-white Orange High School in 1963, but full integration with the all-black Central High School didn't come until 1968 — 14 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
This weekend, blacks and whites will celebrate that milestone and share memories of Central High, the home of today's Hillsborough Elementary School.
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"Things have changed, and things have gotten a little bit better," said Harvey Bumpass, a Central alumnus. "But people need to be mindful of [that history] and not forget but ... keep working toward that change."
The Class of 1968 was the last to graduate from Central, which opened in 1936 as the 11-grade Hillsboro High School for Negroes.
Eliza Jones, 98, graduated with 10 other students — nine girls and one boy — in 1939, she said.
After attending the North Carolina College for Negroes (now N.C. Central University) in Durham to become a home economics teacher, she moved to Goldsboro to start her career at the all-black Dillard High School.
"In the '30s, we only had black students in the class. We had no white ones, and we were very respectful of the teachers," Jones said. "We did not have the kinds of subjects we have now. We did not have glee clubs and different clubs that the schools have now. It was just the major subjects that we took."
The only living member of the Class of 1939, Jones will be in town for this weekend's reunion.
The fun will start with a basketball game Friday night and continue with a car cruise and tailgate party Saturday. Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens has agreed to join him as co-drum major, organizer Thomas Watson said, and the Orange County Jammers cheerleaders will perform.
Following a dinner and dance in the school’s gym Saturday night, everyone will meet Sunday for gospel singing.
Watson, president of the Central-Orange Alumni Association, said they’ve spent the last 10 years trying to bring the black and white communities together to talk about their shared history. He noted that Freddie Parker, a retired NCCU history professor, is filming an anniversary documentary.
Ups and downs
The 1940s were a pivotal time for Hillsborough's black school, which expanded to 12 grades and hired former math teacher and coach, A.L. Stanback, as principal in 1942. Stanback led the change in the school’s name to Central High School and pushed for opening the all-black Cedar Grove Elementary School.
Under Stanback, the school grew from 400 students and 14 teachers in 1942, to 1,200 students and 44 teachers in 1964. It also built a new high school, when the original burned to the ground in February 1958.
The fire's origin was never found, but out of the ashes rose resolve. Ike and Tina Turner were just some of the Motown Records stars who played there after the school's new gym opened in late 1958.
Most of the Motown acts were just starting out and had not yet been accepted by white audiences, Watson said. But when they came to Durham, the school's Patron's Club would help bring them to Hillsborough to raise money for band uniforms, playground equipment and other needs, he said.
"They were on that stage, the lights were bright, and they were very entertaining. We just loved it," Watson said. "They were just as important to us then as they are now, but they were early in their careers. ... We were young. We just thought of them as big stars."
'Stand up like soldiers'
The 1960s brought Klan rallies, boycotts and desegregation.
The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare approved a local "freedom of choice" plan in 1965 that let parents transfer their children to white schools, but few did. In 1967, the federal government told school officials to draft another plan.
By 1968, the Orange County School Board offered to integrate slowly, sending black 10th-graders to the white high school that fall and adding other grades in 1969.
Central High's black students said no. Over 500 walked out of their classes on May 14, 1968, The Carolina Times newspaper reported.
The mass boycott continued through the week. Bumpass, a 1969 Orange High graduate, remembers being among the students who walked out of a school board meeting later that week.
"[The board was] on the stage, and all the students, we were sitting out in the audience in chairs down on the floor, and one of our organizers said when the Board of Education gets up and starts telling us, we'll all stand up like soldiers," Bumpass said.
"He blew a whistle, and everybody stood up like soldiers, laid their chairs down on the floor and marched out of the auditorium," he said. "I think the Board of Education thought it was going to be a riot. I think they called in the National Guard because we marched to downtown Hillsborough and had a meeting at the courthouse steps."
Buses of black students from Lincoln High School in Chapel Hill and Hillside High School in Durham came in support, he said. Several students were arrested but later released, according to local accounts.
On Friday, May 17, 1968, Durham civil rights activists Ben Ruffin and Howard Fuller spoke to hundreds of black students. The Wilson Daily Times reported that Fuller, who would later co-found the Malcolm X Liberation University, led hundreds of students to the steps of the Orange County Courthouse.
White culture has to spread a misconception that “black people are stupid people,” Fuller told them. "If things don’t start changing around here, this is going to be a summer for North Carolina to remember."
The school board changed its plan, and in the fall of 1968, integrated the 10th- and 11th-grade students, Parker said in a 2014 interview for UNC's Southern Oral History Program. Full integration was in place by 1970, he said, but it was not without bloodshed and the loss of many black teachers and jobs.
"Whites were not accepting; blacks were not going to take any junk," Parker said. "What we didn’t realize when we were fighting to bring down the walls of segregation was — I don’t think we really had the foresight to see what it really meant, because if you decide that you’re going to bring the walls of segregation down, the white students are not coming to your school."
Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee remembers "the cooperation and the collegial interaction" among white and black students in Orange High's agricultural class was different from other classes. He had never attended school with black students, but they had worked together in the tobacco fields.
"It's been almost 50 years back, but I still remember the tension that was in the school, but I no longer remember the details of why," he said. "What I will say is that small things can cause big problems."
Trouble will come
Newspaper reports chronicled many fights in the early days of Orange County's integration, in one case after one student slapped a hat supporting 1968 presidential candidate George Wallace, the Alabama governor, off another student's head.
In November 1968, The Carolina Times reported between 40 and 50 black students were expelled after walking out to protest a black student's expulsion for a fight; the white student involved was not punished.
Sheriff's deputies remained stationed at the school that week, and a "stop and frisk" rule for weapons was instituted, the report stated.
Kay Crawford, a 1959 Hillsborough High graduate and former teacher, said the high school even chose white and black homecoming queens to stem potential issues. Hillsborough High was the all-white school until Orange opened in 1963.
The time that black students got permission to hold an African-American history day stands out in her mind, she said.
"Those kids were so pumped for that event ... they were doing people like Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis, the big names, and they were so into it," Crawford said. "Then they started doing the 'Black Power' sign and holding their fists up in the air — pump, pump — and the audience started doing it."
"I was down near the front, and I was doing it with them. I suddenly looked around, and I was the only white teacher standing," she said. "One of the teachers was so incensed about what was going on on the stage ... that she grabbed her umbrella and went stomping out. ... and about 200 students followed her, and they all went off campus."
Principal Fred Claytor then called over the intercom for everyone to return to homeroom.
"Up until that point, my students had really blended well within each class," she said. "But when I got back after that assembly, the blacks were on one side, and the whites were on the other. I didn't know what might break out."
As she sat at her desk, a student raised his hand to say a black student had a gun. She had the black student bring it to her desk, and they went to the principal's office, where he faced his father's wrath before being suspended. The gun was loaded with blanks, she said.
"I don't know if he thought trouble was going to happen that day or what. He never gave a reason to me."
Trouble did come, in 1972, when a white student was fatally stabbed and another injured while trying to protect a black assistant principal, The Carolina Times reported. Five black former and current students attacked the principal when he tried to get them to leave the school bus parking lot; all were later arrested and convicted for the attack.
The white students' actions "kept that from turning into a much more awful situation, because somebody crossed the racial lines to help the black principal," Crawford said. "The students I had had the year before, several carloads of them came rushing to my house ... and told me what had happened. They were so scared."
It's hard for people to accept change, Bumpass said, especially when it's forced on them.
Finding common ground — like when the 1969 Central High basketball team and its mostly black players won the state championship — helped bridge the divide, he said.
""People started getting along a little bit better," he said.
The country is having some of the same conversations today, McKee said, pointing to the megasize Confederate flag raised in Hillsborough last month.
"I think there's still tensions for people to sit down and be able to talk about race without overthinking their words and trying to be too careful about what they say [because of] the perception that they may say something wrong," he said.
At Central High, students learned to work hard, speak out and stand together, its alumni said. It was a foundation they took to the streets, to college and work, and into the next 50 years.
"You were taught that you had to be better than whites in order to survive. [There was] a lot of camaraderie," Parker said. "I learned more in that setting than I have in the last forty years."
The Central-Orange Alumni Association will kick off the festivities with a basketball game from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday night at Hillsborough Elementary School.
A Central Orange Alumni 50th Anniversary Cruise, featuring vintage, classic and new vehicles, will start the day Saturday in downtown Hillsborough. The car cruise starts at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 19, in the Orange County Board of Elections parking lot on South Cameron Street.
A tailgate party will follow at Hillsborough Elementary School on Nash Street, rain or shine, and a dinner and dance in the school’s gym Saturday night. The Reunion Dinner-Dance begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are limited and available from Danita Thompson at 919-641-6643.
On Sunday, a gospel singing will take place at the Farmer’s Market Pavilion, 144 E. Margaret Lane in downtown Hillsborough. The event, from 2 to 5 p.m., is co-sponsored by the nonprofit Free Spirit Freedom. Lawn chairs are welcome.