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To Attend a Black School?
If you're too young to remember segregation, or if you attended a high school with no African Americans, schools that were like Second Ward were not very different from any other school. Before the late 1950s and early 1960s, people of different skin colors were not allowed to be present in the same public places. In fact, before 1923, African Americans who wanted to get a high school diploma had to go to a college like Shaw University because there were no schools for black children. And black children were not allowed to go to school with white children.
Second Ward High School changed that, opening its doors in Charlotte in 1923 to the first African American class. Until 1940, students entered high school in the 7th grade and graduated in the 11th grade. In 1940, students preparing to graduate had to stay another year to graduate from 12th grade.
Subjects and activities didn't differ from today's high school. After saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning, students attended classes in English, math, foreign languages, social studies, music, science, civics, biology, chemistry and physics. After-school activities included sports like basketball and football (at that time taught by Vermelle's father, the French teacher), drama club, Girl Reserve (similar to YMCA) and debate teams.
However, instead of typing, shorthand and driver's education, students took more basic classes to prepare them for the world outside of school. Classes like home economics, cooking, tailoring, horticulture, brickmasonry and journalism gave students a foundation to enter the working world or start college. Students who wanted to take typing had to go somewhere after school to learn it.
Resources were quite different between black and white high schools. As white high schools ordered new textbooks, they donated their used ones to the black schools. Most students had to walk to school since they had no school buses, sometimes amidst jeering or projectiles being thrown by white teenagers. Students also dressed quite differently; African American parents understood the value of an education, many having been denied one themselves, and the bright, clean clothes they dressed their children in reflected the seriousness with which they took a school day. So the clothes that children wore to school were often no different from the ones they wore to church--they wore the best that they owned.
To Be Black In North Carolina?
In 1941, when the original Second Ward film was made, Caucasians and African Americans lived completely separate lives. Caucasians were called "White" and African Americans were called "Colored." The two races could not mix: they lived in separate neighborhoods, went to separate schools and colleges, ate in separate restaurants, and drank from separate water fountains. "Whites Only" or "Colored" distinguished which public places each race was allowed to enter, which restroom each could use. In fact, white and black people could not even be treated by the same doctors or at the same hospital.
Plessy vs. Ferguson was the court case that made the separation of races legal. The decision influenced not only where black people could and could not go; it created the atmosphere for the type of relationship that the two races would have.
In addition, the North Carolina General Assembly added laws to the state constitution that dictated the boundaries within which black people could live. These laws, now known as the "Jim Crow laws," legalized discrimination in schools, public buildings, city and county areas, and relationships. They returned to white people the superiority over blacks they had lost after the 13th Amendment.
Bessie and Sadie Delaney talk about their experiences with the "Jim Crow days" in their autobiography, Having Our Say:
"We encountered Jim Crow laws for the first time on a summer Sunday afternoon. We were about five and seven years old at the time. Mama and Pap used to take us to Pullen Park in Raleigh for picnics, and that particular day, the trolley driver told us to go to the back. We children objected loudly, because we always liked to sit in the front, where the breeze would blow your hair. But Mama and Papa just gently told us to hush and took us to the back without making a fuss.
When we got to Pullen Park, we found changes there, too. The spring where you got water now had a big wooden sign across the middle. On one side, the word "white" was painted, and on the other, the word "colored." Why, what in the world was all this about? We may have been little children but, honey, we got the message loud and clear.
On another day, soon afterward, a teacher from Saint Aug's took us to the drugstore for a limeade, which was something we had done hundreds of times. Well, this time, the man behind the counter said, 'I can't wait on you.' The teacher got very upset. She said, 'I can see you not waiting on me, but surely you are not going to deny these young children?' And he said, "Sorry. It's the law.'" (excerpted from Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years)
Despite the "separate but equal" provision of Plessy vs. Ferguson, black people typically were constrained to less desirable neighborhoods in each county. With the exception of politics, most black people were not accepted in traditionally "white" jobs. White children would beat up or throw stones at black children just for walking near a light-skinned person. While public schools existed for white students, none existed for black students until 1929, and even then black students would receive old uniforms worn by white students and old textbooks already marked up, while the white schools bought new sports equipment and textbooks. A black man who even dared to look at a white woman risked being arrested, beaten, or even hanged.
In North Carolina, hundreds of blacks were tortured, mutilated or killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Despite the voting rights given to them by the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, many blacks were kept from exercising those privileges or killed because they voted.
Despite the dangers and the ill-will between the races, black families developed their own communities, and black businessmen began their own business communities, many quite successful. In addition, many blacks had a sense of closeness and caring from the others in their community. The Delaney sisters remember one such example:
"Papa would drag us all the way to Mr. Jones's store to buy groceries, since Mr. Jones was a Negro. It not only was inconvenient to shop at Mr. Jones's, it was more expensive. We used to complain about it, because we passed the A&P on the way. We would say, 'Papa, why can't we just shop at the A&P?' And Papa would say, 'Mr. Jones needs our money to live on, and the A&P does not. We are buying our economic freedom.' So Papa put his money where his mouth was. Papa really had that good old American spirit. He believed in individuality, but at the same time, he was dedicated to the community." (excerpted from Having Our Say)
Plessy vs. Ferguson was finally overturned in 1954, when the decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education outlawed the separation of races in public schools. This decision paved the way for other court decisions ruling segregation unconstitutional and for the Civil Rights Movement to demand that those decisions be enforced.