History in Black and White: DC and JCSU Students Collaborate to Study Desegregation
May 16, 2001
Students at Davidson and Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) collaborated during the spring semester on a unique oral history project to document school desegregation within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, focusing on North Mecklenburg High and West Charlotte High.
The thirteen students involved, nine from Davidson and four from predominantly black Johnson C. Smith, met together once a week to learn how personal interviews can illuminate history.
Before venturing into the community with their own tape recorders, students spent several weeks studying the history of desegregation and oral history techniques, and discussed the responsibilities that researchers have to the people and communities whose lives they document. They also considered the many roles that race plays in school life, looking at areas such as classroom encounters, athletic teams, curriculum design, student-teacher relationships, and connections to surrounding communities.
The class met alternately at the two campuses, and was led by Pamela Grundy, visiting assistant professor of history at Davidson, and Marianne Bumgarner-Davis, professor of history at JCSU. Grundy is also a research associate at the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) at U.N.C. Chapel Hill, and many of the interviews conducted for the class will become part of the permanent collection there.
The class's diversity, racial and otherwise, made for a lively atmosphere. "It was interesting to note everyone's opinion, especially the white students," said JCSU student Marsha Owens. "I always wondered how some of them felt about these issues."
Participants often challenged each other. In one such instance, JCSU students contested Davidson classmates' assumptions about the benefits of desegregation, arguing that many black students had been better served by the supportive atmosphere of all-black schools, despite inadequate funding.
The class was especially enhanced by JCSU student Jaci Whitten, a 1970 graduate of West Charlotte who shared many stories from her own experiences with desegregation there. "Jaci lived 'herstory,'" JCSU student Gary Davis explained. "I have learned more from Jaci than any book or hand-out."
Students drew lessons not only from interviews and discussions, but from more subtle encounters as well. After the class met for the first time at Davidson, David Rosenberg, '02, reflected in a journal entry, "I think it was obvious that the Davidson students were much more vocal than they were at Johnson C. Smith last week, and the Smith students were much more reserved...I guess it indicates that it matters where you interview someone. People will probably be more comfortable on their own grounds."
Students also found that their interviews raised questions well beyond the immediate subject matter, as when Rosenberg pondered the differences between his interview with a white man and his interview with an African American man.
"For every question I asked, the first gentleman seemed to continue on for upwards of fifteen minutes. I had little control of the conversation, but the two of us laughed at his stories and the interview felt quite comfortable," he explained. "However, the second gentleman came across as very shy, though he opened up towards the end. Was this because of my race? What would I have heard from him had I been black? What would a black interviewer have gotten out of the first gentleman? Something different? Something better?"
The students' final projects, which took the form of Web site proposals, reflected the mixed outcome of desegregation, and demonstrated how its repercussions are still being felt in present-day debates about Charlotte-Mecklenburg pupil assignments plans. The students designed their sites to showcase direct quotations from the interviews, and they were careful to emphasize that their many interviews only scratched the surface of a complicated topic.
"Each of us left the project with a different impression about West Charlotte," concluded the group studying that school. "We are unable to create a unified assessment of the school's history and performance. But we can conclude that West Charlotte was indeed a 'Good High School' and the people we talked to held a special place in their heart for it. We hope that this web page can begin to do justice to the experiences and struggles that helped make West Charlotte the proud school that it is."
Final papers from the class, in which students reflected on their experience, suggested the range of ideas and convictions they took away from the course.
Katie Young, '01, discussed her initial trepidation over asking people to talk about their lives on tape, and explained the way she came to justify her actions. "The aspect of oral history that I really value was its ability to record the history of normal people whose life experiences and opinions would otherwise go undocumented," she wrote.
Jaci Whitten, who had such a close relationship to the material, described the way she had wrestled with the strength of her own convictions. "I did not want to seem to be leading the interview or the class to make my point or to be looking only to hear the points that prove my theories," she explained.
She ended the class with a strengthened resolve "to listen for what a person has to say," and a desire to carry oral history into other aspects of her life. "This is what I want to do for my family reunion," she wrote.
Mandy Lauria '01, touched on the lasting significance she saw in the class's interviews, writing: "For the first time, a course left me with a feeling that I was part of something very important. We managed to record the experiences of around thirty individuals and add their perspective to the study of desegregation in Charlotte. This course helped me think about the types of things that people leave behind for the next generations to learn about their experiences."
"I was very proud of all the students," Grundy concluded. "They tackled a difficult and emotional topic in very thoughtful ways, and I think they learned a lot. I hope we'll get the chance to do the class again."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.