This Day in History

Aug. 24, 1955: Old Fort School Desegregation Struggle

Time Periods: 1945
Themes: African American, Civil Rights Movements, Education, Laws & Citizen Rights, Racism & Racial Identity

“What Happened to Our School?,” a mural painted by Brooklyn artist Don Rimx on the former Sanderlin Theater in Old Fort, was inspired by a photo of Albert Joyner and his attempt to enroll local children in a segregated school in 1955. Painted on Sept. 19, 2020. Photo by Fred McCormick. Source: The Valley Echo

The struggle for school desegregation and racial justice during the 1950s in Old Fort, North Carolina was bitter and ongoing.

As is written at the Old Fort Together website,

One Sunday in September of 1950, the residents of Old Fort were startled to see dozens of African American children marching down the main street of town carrying signs saying, “We Want Our School Back” and “What Happened to Our School.” Local officials unilaterally decided to shut down the Catawba View Grammar School and bus its 75 elementary students to a poorly equipped Black school in Marion, 30 miles round trip.

Faced with losing an institution that represented years of personal investment, school patrons hired a white attorney [George Sandlin] and collected eighty-six signatures on a petition demanding the school’s preservation. At the time, parents were not demanding integration, but rather reestablishment of a Black school at Old Fort.

Despite Black opposition, petitions by parents, and protests by children, the school was shut down in 1952 and razed. A state investigator found that “there was not one person interviewed who did not regret the removal of the school from the community.” One white Old Fort resident published an opinion in the local newspaper calling the closing and razing of the Black school “acts of aggression” and “disgraceful.” Continue reading.

Black parents in Old Fort spent the next few years unsuccessfully trying to get their children accepted into the local white elementary school. Then, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional. As in many places throughout the South, Old Fort did not willingly accede to this court ruling.

The Old Fort Together website continues,

Having reached a dead end, 31-year-old nursing assistant and WWII veteran Albert Joyner resorted to direct action protest. Mr. Joyner was a new resident to Old Fort. He had no school-age children at the time. He knew of the plans for some leaders of the Black community to escort a group of children to the elementary school on the morning of August 24th, but he was not involved until he noticed outside his window five Black children standing alone.

Earlier that week, word of plans had circulated through town and several hundred white spectators gathered that morning. There had been threats and warnings from some whites in town, and the designated escorts had gotten cold feet. They didn’t show up. In an interview, Joyner revealed “That’s the way it was back then. Blacks were afraid to stand up to the whites.” Without a second thought, Mr. Joyner put on his best suit, walked outside, and led the children through town. . . .

Joyner and the children approached the schoolhouse “in an orderly manner” and asked politely that the Black children be registered. The county superintendent informed Joyner that the school board had not authorized integration but that a committee was studying the issue. Joyner and the children left without incident. The newspaper headlines the next day read “Negro Pupils Report To Old Fort School, Denied Entry” and “Five Negro Children Attempt Admittance At Old Fort School.”

Several weeks after the attempt to enroll the children, Mr. Joyner was in downtown Old Fort taking his sister to meet the bus when a white railroad worker punched him, knocking him into the town fountain. Mr. Joyner remembered the incident by saying “That’s when they knocked me in the back . . . I got beat up bad.” Mr. Joyner’s sister went across the street to a drug store to call the police, but the store personnel would not allow her to enter. The police came anyway, arresting Joyner and the railroad worker. Many times, over the ensuing years as the Old Fort integration case wound its way through the court system, Albert Joyner would be subject to threats and intimidation. He never backed down and always appeared in court.

In reviewing the case in late 1955, U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that Brown had indeed “made inappropriate” the establishment of a segregated school as a form of relief, but the judges did not offer easy alternatives. In 1957, 66 Black parents applied to send their children to Old Fort’s white schools, but the school board rejected them, arguing that they had incorrectly filled out their applications and that additional enrollment in already crowded white schools posed health and safety risks. The color line in McDowell County’s schools remained intact for another seven years. Continue reading.

Watch a short film about the creation of the mural and the struggle for racial justice in Old Fort.