Today we welcome a guest post from Sarah Caroline Thuesen, author of Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965. During the half century preceding widespread school integration, black North Carolinians engaged in a dramatic struggle for equal educational opportunity as segregated schooling flourished. Drawing on archival records and oral histories, Sarah Thuesen gives voice to students, parents, teachers, school officials, and civic leaders to reconstruct this high-stakes drama. She explores how African Americans pressed for equality in curricula, higher education, teacher salaries, and school facilities; how white officials co-opted equalization as a means of forestalling integration; and, finally, how black activism for equality evolved into a fight for something “greater than equal”—integrated schools that served as models of civic inclusion.
Previously, Thuesen cautioned against retreating too soon from efforts to create diverse classrooms. In today’s post, she discusses the history and impact of the North Carolina NAACP as it celebrates an important anniversary.
This fall marks the 80th anniversary of a remarkable grassroots rally in Raleigh. On 29 October 1933, around 2,500 black citizens assembled at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium. The gathering marked the culmination of a two-day meeting called by both local and national organizers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It aimed to boost the NAACP’s membership, federate local chapters into a statewide conference, and draw attention to racial inequalities at every level of society.
Among the issues raised at the meeting, the question of racial differentials in teacher pay merited particular notice among state leaders. National leaders within the NAACP hoped to organize a series of lawsuits against states practicing such discrimination and believed that North Carolina was an ideal state to launch that campaign.
The issue here was not a subtle one. The state based its teacher pay on experience and training, and yet for each pay grade, the state permitted one salary for white teachers and a lower one for black educators. In 1933 that meant that while black teachers possessed nearly as much training as white teachers their salaries were only about two-thirds of what white teachers took home. The differentials in many states of the Deep South were even starker. Such income inequalities were compounded by the hardships of the Depression years, when state cutbacks had lowered what were already meager salaries for all educators.
Many of the attendees at the October 1933 gathering were rank-and-file black teachers who personally had experienced the hardship of discriminatory salaries. What was most remarkable about the meeting was the willingness of those educators to link forces publicly with national organizers of the NAACP, a group widely denounced by white southerners. Even many of the more progressive southern whites kept their distance from the New York-based organization, believing it to be a potentially dangerous source of outside interference. Thus, one NAACP organizer deemed it “miraculous” that so many black southerners had dared to attend a public event featuring “speakers not always enjoying the approval of white people and their hand-picked colored yeomanry.”
The white press predictably took a dim view of the gathering. Raleigh’s News & Observer judged NAACP executive secretary Walter White to be a “clever propagandist” who was likely to stir up trouble among the local black population.
To be sure, not all local black leaders were thrilled by White’s visit to the South. The elder leaders within the black teachers’ association, for example, feared that the NAACP would compromise the fragile ties they had established with white officials. Primarily for that reason, the NAACP was never successful in convincing the leaders of the black teachers association to sue the state. It was not until 1944, when state officials felt pressure from lawsuits in surrounding states, that North Carolina equalized teacher salaries.
Even if some of the NAACP’s goals for its 1933 rally were not immediately met, the meeting nonetheless marked an important new phase in black activism in the state. It helped pave the way for the eventual creation (formalized in 1943) of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. Moreover, in the post–World War Two years, the NAACP grew in strength and numbers in North Carolina. As a leader in the fight for equalized—and eventually integrated—education, the NAACP inspired many average black citizens to take direct action in the struggle against Jim Crow schools. For example, in 1946, black young people in Lumberton, mobilized in part by a local NAACP Youth Council, organized a school equalization protest and boycott that garnered state and national attention.
It is fitting that in this 80th anniversary year of the 1933 rally the North Carolina NAACP is once again in the headlines, this time for its leading role in the recent Moral Monday protests at the state legislature. In one sense it is a testament to the success of its earlier work, and that of the larger civil rights movement, that the current protests have represented a racially and ethnically diverse representation of the state’s citizens. And yet it is a testament to the movement’s unfinished business that many of the issues that concerned the NAACP in 1933—removing racial bias from the justice system, supporting economic justice for all, backing worker unionization, protecting voting rights, and insuring educational equity for all children—resonate with the challenges of the 21st century.
Sarah Caroline Thuesen teaches history at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965 is now available.