In January 1970 — 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education — Judge Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. ordered the school district to desegregate, ending the era of “separate but equal.”
When schools reopened on Feb. 17, “some 58,000 students and 2,000 teachers and 105 schools had been peacefully integrated,” the New York Times reported.
It was a pivotal moment in Greenville’s civil rights history. Later, national news outlets noted that Greenville had integrated with “grace and style” and held the district up as a model for the South.
But the move was far from seamless.
In order to thoroughly mix each school in the system, some 7,500 blacks and 5,000 whites were transferred to new schools. Black students bore the brunt of integration, Nell Sullivan Hinton, a senior at J.E. Beck High School, recalled.
“There were siblings in the same household that were sent to other schools,” Hinton said. “Families were split.”
Clyde Mayes, the All-American basketball player who had led Beck to the state championship the previous year, was transferred to Wade Hampton. His older sister went to J.L. Mann.
Mayes recalled how much the split had upset their mother.
“She wanted me to be going to school with my sister [to] watch over her,” Mayes said.
He said their mother tried to keep the siblings together and even appealed to a judge, but the answer was no.
“We were pulled up and uprooted,” Hinton said. “We were treated as pawns on a chess board.”
Hinton was nearly finished with her senior year when she and her classmates were transferred to J.L. Mann, and Beck — along with most other black schools in the district — was closed.
From freedom of choice to desegregation
Yet black students had already begun to enroll in all-white schools several years before the court order.
In the summer of 1963, A.J. Whittenberg, president of the Greenville NAACP, led a group of black families in filing a federal lawsuit that forced the school district to admit blacks.
According to news reports, Whittenberg had visited an all-white school for a Democratic precinct meeting in 1962 when he noticed stacks of new textbooks set aside for the students. They were not at all like the battered ones his 11-year-old daughter, Elaine, used.
Whittenberg believed his daughter should go to the white Anderson Street school, which was closer than the one she had been assigned to.
Five other black parents thought the same for their children, and when the school board denied their request, the parents sued.
The next year, U.S. District Judge J. Robert Martin ordered the district to enact a freedom-of-choice plan. By that fall, 55 black students were enrolled in 16 white schools.
Elaine Whittenberg was among them.
She later recounted her first day and the crowds that had gathered in a 2019 interview with the school district.
“I see all these people all across the street everywhere, the media and everything’s going on, and [my father] tells me to get out of the car and go in,” she said. “I think I’ll never forget that.”
By 1969, however, the state Supreme Court had declared freedom-of-choice plans unacceptable and ordered school districts to desegregate. No more delays.
School board members in Greenville called on the community to help. A biracial committee was formed to coordinate the move, and volunteers were enlisted. Newspapers reported that local businesses raised money to distribute 75,000 buttons proclaiming: “The Important Thing Is Education.”
Mayor Knox White, then a sophomore at Greenville High School, recalled that the students “took it all in stride and took it very well.”
“There was a high degree of awareness of what was happening in that we needed to pull together to make it successful,” he said.
But integration had been forced and resentment lingered
It all came to a head when black students began objecting to the playing of “Dixie,” the school’s fight song, at school events, Bob Farnsworth, then a senior at Greenville High, recalled.
Farnsworth, who was the student body president, said there had been no issues with the song before.
“Suddenly, somebody gave that song power, and this fight song was demonized,” he said. “It got out of hand very quickly.”
The unrest spread to other schools the following year. In November 1971, disruptions were reported at six area high schools. Fights broke out between blacks and whites, and hundreds of black students walked out of class.
The U.S. News & World Report described police using tear gas to break up a brawl at J.L. Mann and said National Guardsmen had been put on “standby alert.”
Yet no students were expelled. The school district, led by Superintendent J. Floyd Hall, quietly pushed forward, appointing black and white ombudsmen to help settle students and pass questions and complaints to the administration.
Federal money was used to fund programs on black history and black culture and to bring in black artists. In May 1971, the Christian Science Monitor published an article saying Greenville had regained its luster.
The headline read: “Carolina school district stages desegregation comeback.”