a badge of honor
From 1934 until the late 1940's, my grandfather, R. L. Cox, was a member of the Wayne County Board of Education.
While he had many fine attributes, his tolerance of others and--to use a modern term–an ability to think outside the box, served him well while on the Board. Both my grandfather and his wife, Winnie McWhorter Cox, were wholeheartedly committed to the principle of public education. Winnie’s father, Zach Davis McWhorter, had devoted his entire life to opening public schools all over Eastern and Piedmont North Carolina. By the time R. L. was elected to the Board of Education, both he and Winnie knew that public education was an entitlement that must be extended to all children, black and white alike.
Upon being elected to the Board of Education, R. L. was full of ideas. But there were past injustices that he felt honor-bound to correct. The first of these was that black teachers were paid less than white teachers. R. L. made elimination of this pay disparity his first objection. With a mixture of appeals to his fellow board members better instincts and backroom politics, R. L. obtained equal pay for equal work.
The next objective concerned the high schools in my home town of Mt. Olive, NC. By the late 1930's, the white high school, which was already over twenty years old, was starting show wear and needed to be replaced. At the same time, the separate black school in Mt. Olive was even older and was a disgrace. While R. L. was a progressive thinker, he was also mindful of the need to preserve the public’s purse. When faced with both the physical need of replacing the white high school and the moral necessity of replacing the black school, my grandfather suggested at a Board meeting, “Why don’t we just build one high school and let everyone go there.” One of his fellow Board members responded, “Even the Negroes?” R. L. firmly replied, “Yes.” R. L. later described the ensuing pause as, “It was like a fart in church, everybody heard it, but they acted like they didn’t.” R. L.’s fellow Board members probably thought they were doing him a favor by ignoring his suggestion.
But R. L. knew that no man who valued his honor could stand by and let the black children of Mt. Olive continue to be educated in the sham of a building that had been foisted off on them. With full knowledge of the risk it would pose to his political career, R. L. did the right thing. He called in every favor that he had accumulated and lobbied for funds for a new black school in Mt. Olive. The local black community in Mt. Olive was galvanized upon learning what R. L. was up to at the Board of Education. They quickly scoured the country for money and found a foundation established in honor of George Washington Carver. This foundation would supply matching funds for school construction, provided the school was named after Dr. Carver.
With the final trump card of a matching grant in his hand, R. L. was able to pry the funds needed for a new black school in Mt. Olive from the Board of Education. A new brick school, with separate buildings for the high school and elementary school, a cafeteria, and a gymnasium, was completed in time for the start of the school year in September, 1941. But R. L. wasn’t satisfied with mere bricks and mortar. He wanted the intellectual fitness of the school to be equal to its physical attributes. However, his plans on this front were sidetracked by World War II.
At the end of World War II, R. L. decided the best manner in which to demonstrate the soundness of the Board’s expenditure of money for Carver School was to have it accredited by the Southern Educational Association. If Carver School gained that distinction, then it would be the first black public school in North Carolina to do so. R. L. promised the black community of Mt. Olive that he would do all in his power to secure the materials necessary for accreditation. But he also knew that accreditation, especially this accreditation, was more than books and buildings, it was political. One aspect of the politics involved entertaining the all-white accreditation committee. Normally, such entertainment was conducted by the principal of the school under review. But given the times, R. L.--as gently as he could--offered his house for entertaining the accreditation committee. While the black principal was a proud man, he was a realist. He swallowed his pride and accepted my grandfather’s offer; knowing it was in the best interest of the school.
The members of the accreditation committee arrived and started their inspection; school rooms were measured, library books were counted, school lunches were eaten, curriculums were examined, and teacher certifications were checked. In the evenings, the principal and his wife guided the committee members to my grandfather’s house for dinner. While this may seem a mere trifle today, in the South of the 1940's, it was no small thing for a white woman to entertain and serve a black couple in her home. But my grandmother Winnie’s fierce dedication to education knew no bounds and she never gave it a second thought. Winnie knew what had to be done and she was proud to do it.
In the end, two things happened. In 1947 Carver School in Mt. Olive became the first black public school in North Carolina to be accredited by the Southern Educational Association. This feat would not be duplicated by the local white school for over fifteen years.
And, this was the final straw for my grandfather’s political career. For the rest of his life, he was called a “nigger lover” and was sent anonymous threatening letters.
Those who called him names could never understand why it didn’t upset him.
In the immediate aftermath of the Carver School accreditation, the members of the local Klu Klux Klan threatened to burn a cross in his yard. R. L. didn’t mind being called names, he worn them as a badge of honor. But if someone was talking about putting a burning cross in his beloved garden, well they had gone too far and he wouldn’t stand for that.
Because R. L. knew that all Klansmen were basically cowards, he understood just how to deal with them. A wonderful raconteur and in great demand as a Methodist revival preacher, R. L. started spicing up his stories with the exploits of his next door neighbor and son, Zach, in the South Pacific during World War II with the Marine Corps. He also told about how his son Zach had never had to buy a Thanksgiving turkey, because he always won the turkey shoot every November. He also let it slip that he had purchased a new shotgun with which he intended to go bird hunting. Once the Klan realized that they had been threatening the father of a hardened veteran of five World War II campaigns in the South Pacific, they reverted to their cowardly nature and slunk off without another word.
R. L. never regretted the political career that he sacrificed for Carver School. The steady stream of graduates from that school who went on to college and successful careers was a far more satisfying acknowledgment of his efforts than any political office.