Black and white classmates tell real-life story of desegregation

MIDDLEBURY — Fifty-one years ago, Rose Strayhorn Bell, sisters Donnie Copeland Meadows and Fernanda Copeland, and Jim Grimsley showed up for the first day of sixth grade at Alex H. White Elementary in Pollocksville, N.C.
That morning Strayhorn Bell and the Copeland sisters broke the color barrier at what had been an all-white school.
Grimsley had never attended school with African American children.
The four North Carolinians told their personal story of desegregation in a presentation at Middlebury College this past Thursday. It was the first time the four have come together to recount their experiences.
“The very first day the principal escorted us to that classroom,” recounted Strayhorn Bell. “There were 30 students. We were number 28, 29, 30. I walked into that classroom. All eyes were on us. Yeah, we were different. Because of the color of our skin. So I go in there, and the way I looked at it was this: I know who I am, and I know what I stand for. I stand for right. Even though I’m outnumbered, I’ll stand for what’s right.”
Grimsley, an award-winning novelist and playwright, has recounted his awakening to his own racism that began that first day of sixth grade, in the 2015 memoir “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.”
   ROSE STRAYHORN BELL sings from the podium during a presentation with author Jim Grimsley at Middlebury College last Thursday night. Seated on the panel are Donnie Copeland Meadows, left, and Fernanda Copeland. Photo by Todd Balfour/Middlebury College
In 1966, full racial integration had not come to small-town Pollocksville. But a North Carolina policy called “freedom of choice” ostensibly allowed families to choose schools. In fact, the policy was intended as a last bastion of school segregation. Nonetheless, a handful of Jones County families decided to exercise that “freedom.”
In the Copeland family, the choice to attend the previously all-white school was made by the girls’ father. For Strayhorn Bell, the choice was hers alone.
In both cases, the goal was the superior education likely to be obtained from the school that had more materials, more money, more manpower and more resources. That school, of course, had previously been reserved for white students only. The end of legal segregation by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 had challenged but not eradicated the pernicious influences of “separate but equal.”
“My parents did not decide for me,” said Strayhorn Bell. “I told my parents that I wanted to go to the white school. They said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m sure.’ I wanted to know what they were learning. We had been told they had the new books. We got the books after they did.”
“The black schools got the second-hand books, so they were cheated,” Donnie Copeland Meadows added.
Fernanda Copeland remembered her own clarity, even as a child, about the importance of getting the best schooling she could and how that drive put steel in her spine that first day and throughout the school year.
“My dad said, ‘You’re going to go there, and I want you to sit there, and I want you to learn. I want you to stand up for yourself but be respectful. I was not nervous. I knew that I needed to go because even at that age we were taught that anything in life that you want — education was the key. Without education, you could not do anything. So I wanted to learn. I wanted to go on. I wanted to achieve different things.”
All three women emphasized again and again how important it was for them to seize the opportunity for a better education. “It was a miserable year, but still it was a good year,” said Strayhorn Bell.
For Grimsley, suddenly sharing his classroom with black students changed his outlook on himself and on the world around him. But not at first.
“I was raised to be a racist,” Grimsley told the Middlebury crowd. So he — like the rest of his white classmates — behaved like one.
A life-changing moment came the day he called Rose an ugly name.
“The name I called her was a ‘black bitch,’” Grimsley recounted.
“I was trying to make the white boys laugh. I didn’t fit in with them. I already knew I was gay. And I remember the impulse to call the name, and I thought, ‘Well, they’ll laugh. They’ll think I’m funny. I didn’t even think about Rose.
“And I said that to Rose, and she didn’t even hesitate for a second. She said, ‘You’re a white one.’ And I just blinked. And then she said, ‘You didn’t think I’d say that, did you?’
“And that was it. This light came on in my head. I don’t mean that I could articulate it, but I had expected her to defer to me because I was white. I had expected her not to talk back. I had internalized this notion that she was less than I was. And she let me know in no uncertain terms.
“What I learned was that everything I knew was wrong in terms of that. And so from that point forward I realized she was exactly like me. She did exactly what any child would have done. I called her a name; she called me one right back.
“We came into school the next day, and she said, ‘Are you going to call me a bitch again?’ and I said, ‘No.’ And from that point forward we were just two children in school.”
Added Strayhorn Bell: “Been friends ever since.”
Grimsley acknowledged that shedding his racist skin is a lifelong endeavor.
“I am still a racist because that’s not training that goes away from you,” he said. “But on a particular day when I was 11 years old, I was confronted with my racism in such terms that I could not deny it. And I wanted to change it. And that launched me on a journey that I’m still on.”
Within a few years, North Carolina schools were ordered to be fully integrated. Most white families fled to private schools, many sponsored by white churches. Grimsley, Strayhorn Bell, Copeland and Copeland Meadows said that by the time they were in high school, the school was two-thirds African American and one-third white. Still, Grimsley said, the school tried to reinstitute segregation through the back door by creating different educational tracks. The college prep track, which all four participated in, was heavily weighted toward white students. Tension continued. One year a white teacher called black students “the scum of the earth.” Black students walked out in protest. Another protest erupted over the firing of a black teacher.
During the Middlebury forum, a striking quality was the grace and courage exemplified by the women’s words and actions — as children and as adults, in the past and in the present.
In her initial remarks to the audience, Strayhorn Bell took a moment to sing the gospel song “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” striking a theme that resounded throughout the evening. Over and over again, each in her different way, the three women articulated the value of knowing yourself, being true to your own values, doing the right thing in words and actions, and seeing others for who they truly are.
“Love” and “respect” were two watchwords threaded again and again in their conversations.
“I try to teach love through my actions.” Strayhorn Bell said. “I try not to look at the bad. I try to look at the good in everybody, whoever I’m with. I just try to let my life be an example.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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