CONTESTED HISTORY IN SWAN QUARTER, NORTH CAROLINA: “Nothing like that ever happened…”
Summoned to the school lobby in tiny Swan Quarter, North Carolina, a white grandmother told us, yes, she’d gone to area schools in the 1960’s. Eyeing George, a tall gentleman of the African-American persuasion, she denied that there was ever any serious conflict over integration in Swan Quarter and stressed that “everyone always got along just fine.” When I mentioned that I’d read of demonstrating students trapped and tear-gassed in the Hyde County courthouse in 1968, the grandmother laughed in spontaneous hilarity. Yanked from her as if by an irresistible punchline, her horse laugh was joined by other white women eavesdropping from the doorway. “Tear gas!” she cried, still breathless. “Nothing like that ever happened…”
Confronted by a living witness to contested history and being the object of her aggressive mirth, feeling like the dumb-shit outsider again, I didn’t know how to react. The laughing grandmother had been called to the lobby by the school receptionist and, unprompted, spoke her viewpoint to complete strangers who’d just arrived.
Skirting the Dismal Swamp as we passed into North Carolina, intent on reaching Swan Quarter while its schools were still in session for the day, George and I had just hustled along the shore of Pamlico Sound. Here the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge blended with the Dare County Bombing Range and merged into the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, mile upon mile of swampy forest alternating between dismal—dying stands of cypress forest—and sparkling views of the sound and canal-like estuaries. The Swan Quarter area was so obscure that no North Carolinians we met outside Hyde County had ever heard of it, but I was intent to update what I’d read in David Cecelski’s Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina, and the Fate of Black Schools in the South. From the vantage of 1994,Cecelski detailed the 1968 the tear-gassing of high school protesters confined in the upper floor of the county courthouse. In the chaos, one teenaged girl fell from the window, breaking her pelvis and nearly sparking a riot. Part of what freaked me out about the laughing white grandmother in the Swan Quarter school lobby was my knowledge that the injured teenager now worked just down the hall in that very school as the staff’s child nutrition manager—had she not been off-site for a work conference, she could have easily overheard that grandmother’s denial of her own experience.
The school receptionist, who’d witnessed my exchange with the grandmother, signaled me closer. She arranged for George and me to speak with the principal in his office, footsteps away.
Principal Thomas Midgette, 53, African-American and a local native, welcomed us, then looked incredulous and stricken when I repeated the grandmother’s words. He personally knew many who were involved in the 1968 Swan Quarter boycott as adults and high school students, and he himself had childhood memories of being taken to the marches. He noted how local whites “often simply ignore the painful parts of their past and sometimes are truly unaware.” Thomas and George caught eyes and nodded in that black “uh-huh, tell it brother” exchange.
I could easily play the white Pollyanna, because I really did see progress all around us, within these very walls and in the skin tone of this principal. I mentioned that fifty years later, the boycott seemed to have been a success. In a twist of the usual post-Brown vs. Board of Education integration story across the South, in Swan Quarter the black public did not want to lose their prized local school and have their kids bussed elsewhere in the county. After having their voices ignored, the school community—including alumni and churches—initiated the shut-down by refusing to let their children attend classes. They sought outside guidance and legal help from the state’s branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A year-long struggle ensued to keep their local schools from being closed for consolidation, including teach-ins and marches in Swan Quarter itself, which culminated in protests at the capitol in Raleigh. Victory came for the black parents and students, keeping the local schools open and integrating the entire district. It all led to the modern school we were sitting in, but Thomas did not seem at all celebratory.
After a moment’s hesitation he confided that integration itself had been one of the greatest obstacles to the progress of the black community “because it cut ties and systems within the black community.” It brought positive results, of course, since integrated schools were better resourced than the all-black, segregated ones Thomas remembered; one emblem of those times was a basketball court without bleachers. Among the black teachers he felt embraced, nested in a world of caring elders—who would also correct him at his home if need be, in the community at large and especially in church. But in integrated schools, Thomas recalled white teachers “who would hold hands with the white kids but grasp black kids by the wrist.”
He felt constrained in cultivating the embrace of connections among his own staff today. Most important, he didn’t see a lot of progress with economic justice in Hyde County, telling us “whites owned 99% of area farms.” Most of the working-class kids and those on public assistance continued to struggle academically. Despite being “the third in a linkage of black principals” Thomas also spoke of his own struggles—in reality, he was relegated to a dean, head only of the elementary school and not the upper grades, and sometimes the victim of the staff’s low expectations. “I get praised for being able to write a memo without errors!”
Thomas was anxious for us to continue talking with locals and jumped up to phone Alice Mackey at the Davis Youth Center, who as a student had been involved in the ‘68 movement along with school nutrition manager Mamie Harris Brimmage. Greeting us at the day’s end in her office, Alice echoed many of the principal’s misgivings about the county’s future, despite having seen so much progress, “which seems to have stalled.” She even wondered if Thomas Mittedge might not be the school’s last black principal as a result of power shifts in county politics. As one in daily contact with the area’s youth, Alice lamented their determination to leave the county after their schooling; “when they do get a college education, they don’t come back here, except to retire. There just aren’t any jobs, and almost all of the businesses are owned by whites.” She worried that too many people relied on public assistance, with too many young people lured by the “fat dollar” of drugs and the resulting high number of prison-bound kids.
From the high windows of this former school, I looked out at the trees wavering in late-afternoon breezes and the flat, cultivated expanses leading to Pamlico Sound, feeling that this litany of problems seemed so out of place in this pastoral landscape (until I considered that my seaside home town on Northern California’s coast had the same drug and brain-drain problems). Proud and proprietary as she was of the youth center, Alice raised her arms to the promise of that very panorama: “So…so much more needs to be done to build this county!”
Asked about the boycott, Alice seemed relieved to turn to the successes of 1968, the hard-won glory of what she called “the movement.” She emphatically verified the courthouse tear-gas incident and summarized a year of marches, rallies in the capital and press attention. She also looked back with astonishment at the array of national leaders who helped support their cause, including Ralph Abernathy and Josea Williams. The young protestors learned to practice non-violent resistance using Ghandian principles. She recalled her personal development with the same sense of wonder, emphasizing how the movement helped shape the person she is today. Organizing press briefings as a teenager gave her confidence in speaking to others, which later earned her positions in community leadership. “I learned more in the boycott year than many years of schooling. I learned to love and respect others as I earned respect from them.”
Alice connected us by phone at last with Mamie Harris Brimmage, now home from her school conference. After a small-town series of near-miraculous connections, George and I headed several miles from the youth center without an address or any prior rendezvous arrangements. We almost bypassed Mamie’s dinky one-lane hamlet just off a stretch of old highway. Still, as if taking a role in some enchantment, two men working by the roadside were looking for us, one being Mamie’s son-in-law, who directed the older man to lead us to her mobile home.
Now in her early 60s, Mamie welcomed us inside and recounted the details that lead to her injury at the courthouse in 1968. Trapped on the second floor and affected by the tear gas fumes, she sat near a window trying to get fresh air but felt unable to move, her mind completely addled. “I just sat there wondering about my next step and hoping to be rescued by my family.” Instead, she toppled back and slipped out the window—“I was not pushed.” Her pelvic injury was so severe upon falling that she lay in a body cast for eight weeks, after which she had to learn to walk again.
Mamie did not blame the local sheriff, contradicting contemporary news accounts that local law enforcement deliberately escalated matters. The culprit was instead a state trooper they called Bigfoot, who had a reckless and perhaps racist nature. “Bigfoot was the one who used tear gas and trapped the kids.” Mamie was surprisingly magnanimous and reconciled about the event and struck me as an earth mother personality, caring for and nurturing people, not grievances. Her satisfaction with the movement was palpable. “We kept our school open after all that. We won.”
Mamie’s moment of gratification matched that of Alice—a fond look back at a youthful pinnacle. As a white schoolboy at the other end of the continent from Alice and Mamie, facing another once-provident ocean, I recalled my own distant but real young Californian’s sense of wonder at those faraway civil rights successes. I’d cheered on my idealistic Southern peers, believing America would finally fulfill its promise; that I too could face adulthood in a much saner, fairer society. But leaving Mamie’s little lane of trailer houses now and passing one yard that was nothing but waist-deep mud, I questioned whether economic equality would ever match our civil rights victories.
“Hyde County is a microcosm of our problems,” George said. “A successful struggle fifty years ago doesn’t bring much of a solution today.” He echoed Thomas’s lament that integration had so many unintended negative consequences, North and South. George’s youthful experience in Dayton, when his family returned from their stint at an Army base in Kentucky, was to witness the loss of community. Legal integration progressed but industrial jobs vanished. Black businesses shuttered and elders no longer stepped in to help guide other folks’ kids. “When white people suffer economic losses, black folks get slammed.”
Learning that integration was not an unmitigated positive jolted my own idealistic certainties as we rejoined the highway and stopped at the original Hyde County courthouse. A friendly middle-aged white guy pulled up in a pickup and explained its survival in 2003 during Hurricane Isabel. “The old building took in plenty of water, though. We’ve lost so much in this community,” he said, “and even our fishery is in serious decline.”
As the evening went dark, I felt impressed by the area’s endurance but could not ignore the locals’ lament for its stymied progress.