The Raleigh City Museum is re-opening its standing Civil Rights exhibit with a month of special events. Let Us March On: Raleigh's Journey Toward Civil Rights has undergone a major redesign and includes new photos and information. On February 18, Joe Holt, the first African American student to try to integrate Raleigh schools, will share his documentary, “Exhausted Remedies: Joe Holt’s Story” and hold a Q&A session.
In 2004, to mark the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools, former N&O writer Tim Simmons revisited Holt's story.
In the recent history of Atlanta, William "Bill" Campbell is a former mayor. But in school board minutes of 1960, he is a 7-year-old boy -- the first black child to attend a white school in Raleigh.
It wasn't for lack of trying that Joseph Holt Jr. didn't precede Campbell by several years.
Holt was 13 years old in the summer of 1956 when his parents tried to send him to ninth grade at the all-white Daniels Junior High School. The Raleigh school board, apparently caught by surprise, rejected the application, saying it came too late to be considered.
"When our photo was put in the paper, it sent shock waves through the community, especially the black community, " said Holt, 60, a retired Air Force officer who tutors at Shaw University. "After that, the pressure was enormous."
Holt's parents applied again in 1957, this time to have Joe attend Broughton High School as a 10th-grader. Again, the board rejected the application, saying the transfer wasn't in his best interest.
The family filed suit in federal court, only to lose the first round in 1958. The court ruled that the district could reject the application because the family sent a lawyer to its transfer hearing instead of attending in person.
Looking back over 50 years of history, Holt can see there was no way Raleigh schools would enroll a black child in 1956.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that the doctrine of "separate but equal" had no place in America's schools, it did not say how towns should resolve the inequities. Those looking to the federal government for help found no guidance, particularly not from President Dwight Eisenhower, who pointedly refused to say whether he approved of the court's ruling.
By 1955, when the Supreme Court said states must integrate their schools "with all deliberate speed, " many lawmakers chose to focus on "deliberate" rather than "speed." That was especially true in the North Carolina General Assembly, which met just a few miles from Joe Holt's home.
Looking for a way to preserve segregation without defying the courts, Gov. Luther Hodges helped guide legislation that relieved the state and local school districts from the responsibility of integration by requiring that parents request transfers. Boards then rejected the requests for a variety of reasons that officially had nothing to do with race.
The state offered private school tuition vouchers to parents who did not want their children to attend integrated schools. It also allowed communities to close schools by public referendum if desegregation occurred.
If those messages weren't clear enough to black families, those who knew the Holts also understood the issue on a personal level. It wasn't long before Joe Holt Sr. was demoted and then fired from his job at a local warehouse.
Freedom of choice
By the time Bill Campbell enrolled at Murphey School, a handful of school boards were claiming integration by granting small numbers of transfer requests.
Sometimes called "freedom-of-choice" assignments, the transfers were considered only if families asked. Routinely, school administrators screened applicants in visits to their homes.
In Raleigh the task often fell to Fred Carnage, the city's only black school board member of that era.
"Basically, a family needed a recommendation from Mr. Carnage before they would be considered, " said Sylvia Ruby, a white woman who was active in the League of Women Voters during the 1950s and later served on the Wake school board. "This kept things gradual, which was the only way any integration was going to occur in the city." -- The News & Observer 5/2/2004
Ten years after the Holt family's case, Joe was in the news once again, this time as a hero. A member of the Military Airlift Command based at McGuire AFB, he "helped bring a crippled C-130 Hercules in for a safe landing in the Philippines after a tense 2 1/2-hour trip and a series of inflight emergencies over the South China Sea." -- The Raleigh Times 11/29/1967