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How a Black teen’s turbulent journey sparked integration efforts within North Carolina Schools

Joe Holt, Jr. was a central figure in the effort to first integrate the Raleigh school system after Brown vs. the Board of Education ruled Black students should be able to attend white schools.
Kate Medley
/
For WUNC
Joe Holt, Jr. was a central figure in the effort to first integrate the Raleigh school system after Brown vs. the Board of Education ruled Black students should be able to attend white schools.

A family in Raleigh was one of the first to fight to get their son Joseph Holt Jr. into an all-white school in the 1950s. As part of Black History Month, Wake County libraries highlighted the family as well as State Administrator Dudley Flood, who traveled across North Carolina assisting schools with integration.

In 1956, the parents of 13-year-old Joseph Holt Jr. applied to get him into Josephus Daniels Junior High School, an all-white school in Raleigh. He attended Oberlin School, an all-Black school that was further away from where he lived.

This took place two years after the Brown v. the Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, which made it illegal to segregate public schools.

“I think probably very soon after that, Black people began to think, OK, you know, we can go to better schools,” said Joseph Holt, who is now 80. “Now, it wasn't a matter of going to schools with white kids — it was a matter of going to a school that had the best facilities.”

As a young boy, he remembered how encouraged Black people in his neighborhood were by the Supreme Court’s decision.

This later led Holt’s family to be one of three families that applied to Josephus Daniels Junior High School. Holt’s mother Elwyna applied by writing a letter to the superintendent of Raleigh Schools. The year before in 1955, the Pupil Assignment Act became a state law in North Carolina, which made it harder for schools to integrate.

For example, a report said a school district disqualified a Black family’s petition because their child was an "A student," and the district said it did not want to disrupt the child's academic success. Holt said his family's request was immediately rejected by the school board in August 1956, based on that law.

Shortly after, his mother was contacted by the superintendent of Raleigh Public Schools for a meeting. Holt said another family that applied was also contacted by Raleigh Public Schools for a separate meeting. Holt recalled that the mother in the Watts family was threatened financially during the meeting.

“She perceived in her conversation with the superintendent that … she'd lose [her] job,” said Holt.

Next, Mrs. Holt went to her meeting. She explained the kids had to pay bus fare and travel very far so it was an inconvenience. Holt said Superintendent Jesse O’Sanderson made her a counteroffer if she withdrew her application.

“He said ‘I will make sure that free bus transportation is provided for the Negro kids in Oberlin [School],’” Flood said.

Mrs. Holt declined the offer.

Holt v. the City of Raleigh Schools

Holt went on to 10th grade at J.W. Ligon Junior Senior High School in 1957. His mother had applied for him to go to Needham B. Broughton Senior High School, but their request was rejected again.

This led to The Holt v. City of Raleigh School Board, where Holt's family sued the school board.

“The judge’s decision was that you are denied admission to Needham Broughton High School because the family failed to exhaust all administrative remedies under the law," said Holt.

Holt said the reason the courts sided with the school is because he did not have an in-person meeting with the school board, which was a requirement under the law. Pursuing the case led to many dangers.

For example, when the case was filed, his parents took him to stay with their family in rural eastern North Carolina on his uncle’s farm. Holt said he thought it was for a vacation but he later found out it wasn’t.

“My parents received word that there was a plot to abduct me,” he said. Holt's family also received bomb threats and harassing calls.

One day, after his parents were gone, his cousins decided to go up the road to his aunt’s house to watch television. But Holt didn’t go.

“My cousin [came] running down the road and ran through the gate and ran into the yard yelling and shouting and crying, ‘Lord, have mercy, Lord, oh, my gracious,’” said Holt.

Joe Holt, Jr. was a central figure in the effort to first integrate the Raleigh school system after Brown vs. the Board of Education ruled Black students should be able to attend white schools.
Kate Medley
/
For WUNC
Joe Holt, Jr. was a central figure in the effort to first integrate the Raleigh school system after Brown vs. the Board of Education ruled Black students should be able to attend white schools.

His cousin and other family members had seen his parents on television being interviewed by a reporter about receiving threats that their house would get blown up.

Later, in spring of 1959, the case went all the way to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. The ruling agreed with the lower court in North Carolina.

By then, Holt was in his first semester of his senior year. In 1960, he graduated Salutatorian at Ligon High School in Raleigh. He would never go to a desegregated school until his postgraduate years at UNC-Chapel Hill. But the retired Air Force Lt. Colonel’s journey paved the way for others.

Desegregating North Carolina Schools

Over a decade later, schools in Wake County and across North Carolina started to integrate.

That's where Dudley Flood with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction stepped in. The state administrator was tasked with helping North Carolina schools be in compliance with Brown v. the Board of Education.

"Now, there was some who acknowledged that right away and said, here [are] the difficulties we have,” said Flood. “We're bringing students together who have never been together, not even on a playground, and we are bringing faculty together, who have never worked with each other."

But, Flood said through efforts, like speaking at Parent-Teacher Association meetings and church gatherings, helped make strides in successfully integrating schools.

“Everybody in North Carolina was in compliance by 1974,” he said.

And, while he's accomplished a lot, Flood said his work in education is still not finished yet. Holt and Flood co-led a virtual discussion about desegregation hosted by Wake County Libraries last week.

“I'm still working on my goal,” he said. “So, you know, I'm a young man, I'm just 92 years old.

Sharryse Piggott is WUNC’s PM Reporter.
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