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Local Writer Pamela Grundy Discusses Her New Book on West Charlotte High School 

A history in progress

When Pamela Grundy set out, in 1998, to write a book about West Charlotte High School, it was supposed to have a happy ending.

For decades, the school had served as shining example of the success of integration; of why busing works. Within a couple years, that all started to fall apart.

Capacchione v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools would eventually lead to the end of mandatory busing in Charlotte, and wipe away much of the progress that had made Charlotte a precedent for integration.

On September 5, 20 years to the day that William Capacchione filed a lawsuit claiming his white daughter, Cristina, was wrongfully denied admission to a magnet school due to racial quotas, Grundy's new book, Color & Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle over Educational Equality, hits shelves. The book covers the the school's history, from the day it opened on September 6, 1938, through integration, to the end of busing and resegregation of West Charlotte and many other local schools.

We talked with Grundy in the lead-up to the release to discuss her 20-year process of writing Color & Character, and why the story might still have a happy ending.

Creative Loafing: This tale took some turns while you were writing it. How did your mission change along with the story?

Pamela Grundy: I really felt the Charlotte schools were still desegregated at that point, and I felt that the busing plan was the most historic thing that ever happened in Charlotte. Lots of other things had happened, but the thing that really was distinctive and important was school busing, so I felt that I should do something related to that, and I was interested in that.

click to enlarge Pamela Grundy
  • Pamela Grundy

In 1998, the story was that West Charlotte had been a model for segregated schools. It had gone through a rocky period and then emerged and became a marvelous integrated school. It was a national model. This was a time when there were a lot of questions, stuff was swirling, Capacchione had been filed, so there was a lot of discussion about that.

I felt like it was really important to tell the story that it had worked, because this was also the time when people started to say that desegregation was a failure and we need to abandon it because it hadn't done what it was supposed to do. And a lot of that was related to, what did you expect school desegregation to do? If you expected it to turn the world into a perfect place, no, it didn't do that. If you expect that it created perfect institutions where everyone was all perfect, no, it didn't do that either. But if you expected it to introduce students to each other to create these new kinds of institutions where students have a chance to be with each other and learn about each other and figure out how to negotiate the problems that come up at schools that are relatively equal, it actually did a pretty good job.

But then, of course, very soon after I started the project, busing stopped. Resegregation happened faster than anybody thought it would. The speed with which everyone scrambled for the best — or what appeared to be the best, meaning highest test scores and the wealthiest student population — it was a great shock to everybody. And particularly with West Charlotte, a school that had become so beloved, resegregation changed things so quickly and so dramatically. At that point, it was really hard to know what to say, because my story was about West Charlotte becoming a great integrated school. But then it wasn't a great integrated school.

I think everyone who writes about the civil rights movement is really dealing with this right now because a lot of sacrifices were made, and it appeared that those sacrifices were made in order to make a better world with greater opportunities, and for a considerable period of time it looked like we were making fairly steady progress and things were changing. It seemed like the nation had been set on a different path and it was kind of working that out, but with the end of desegregation, it wasn't about that anymore.

What stuck with you while researching the book?

One of the things that came home to me very strongly was the trauma that the African-American community went through from the late '60s into the '70s. These were things that I knew had happened, but when you really look at the urban renewal, on top of schools being closed in communities, on top of when desegregation happened, African-Americans had no control over what happened. It was being run by a group of powerful white people.

The challenges, particularly for black teachers and black students... There has been a tendency, in talking about this period, to focus on the Grand Compromise, and the willingness of community leaders to send their children to West Charlotte to be part of this, instead of pulling way. And that's very important. But in that sense, the focus is on the compromise and after that, everything was good. Telling it in a little more detail shows more of the struggle, and particularly the pain, that took place as this African-American world in some ways crumbled. Certainly in terms of African-American education, it was no more.

People were thrust into a situation where, there were people who were mean and awful and there were people who did their very best, but it was still a very difficult and painful thing to go through. Some people, I think, survived it better than others.

As [former West Charlotte principal] Bill McMillan says, there were kindergarten teachers who were afraid of kindergarten children; white teachers who were afraid of these little black boys. It's hard to understand the level of separation and fear and all of that. I think it's kind of a dramatic book because there's a lot of dramatic things that happened.

You had a son while working on this book, and he entered CMS while you were working on it. How did that affect the way you viewed the story?

Obviously just doing this story, I was very aware of what was happening. I was very aware of resegregation. We lived in Plaza Midwod, which was assigned to Shamrock, which the reputation was terrible and they were among the lowest in the state and they had brown water coming out of the taps. The shape that Shamrock was in in 1996, 1997, the state school board came to visit in part because they scored so low, and one of them just said, 'I don't even know what to say. All I can say is I'm glad my child doesn't have to go to this school.' That's how awful it was. Just the physical building. This is one of the schools that was allowed to physically deteriorate while they fixed up the suburban schools. You go into the media center and it's got duct tape holding the carpet together and there's mold everywhere. This person was stunned that a school in Charlotte, North Carolina, could be in such horrible shape.

I didn't want to just sit by and be part of this problem. We were very aware that neighbors were scrambling to go to these quote-unquote better schools. My son entered Shamrock in 2006 in kindergarten. For a couple years leading up to it we had been thinking about it, and there had been efforts over a period of years to try to do something about Shamrock, because it actually had an integrated attendance zone. So it could have been naturally integrated; you don't have to bus kids from all over.

We did lobbying to put a partial magnet at Shamrock. I had done all this work to do it and I was trying to convince everybody to do it. You can't ask people to do something if you're not totally committed to doing it yourself, so my husband and I said, "OK, we're just going to make this decision now, we're going to send [our son] Parker there."

The thing about Shamrock, it was a really nice school. They had fixed a lot of the physical things by then. It was a school where you went, and the teachers cared about the kids, the kids were cheerful and you felt good when you were there. It wasn't a school with a toxic, awful atmosphere. There weren't, as some people envisioned, children running up and down the corridors holding knives. It's elementary school. These are little kids. And they're nice little kids for the most part. Some of them have really hard lives, but you know, they're little kids. Academically it wasn't up to snuff and everybody who was at the school agreed with that, too. It wasn't what you wanted. They needed spark, they needed this other kind of stuff, but it wasn't a bad place to be. I didn't feel like I would be sending my child to a place where he'd be scared and unhappy. I would have never done that. If it had been what I felt was not a good place for children to be I would never have sent him there.

The research I had done told me that [integration] could work and it was a really good thing, and I wished I — who went to a high-performing high school in southern California with three black kids in the whole school and probably 20 Hispanic kids and everybody else was rich and white — I sure wish I had gone to West Charlotte High School. I was very aware of all the things I didn't learn at this school where I achieved and got into a good college, and blah blah blah. But over the years I had come to understand what I didn't know. And I wanted my son to have a different experience. I thought that that was tremendously important.

You've become a bit of an activist in your own right since then. Did working on this book inspire that?

click to enlarge pamelabook.jpg

It's very upsetting that some kids have opportunities that others don't have, and it was also very upsetting that, at the time, this corporate reform, they were coming in and doing all this stuff that made no sense. This whole testing thing where they were making learning not fun. The people who design the tests say, "We'll tell you they're not being used the way they're supposed to be." It's all political. It's all about politics and money, the way that schools are being run, and that made me angry, because it shouldn't be about politics and money.

The great part about being at Shamrock when I was doing that is you could just see it all happening around you. It wasn't some abstract thing. You knew where the problems were, you knew where the potential strengths were, and you could argue from that, as opposed to what often happens in education, which is sad, where you get people advocating for kids at high-poverty schools, whose kids go to private schools. Peter Sidebottom ran for school board but he sent all his kids to Trinity [Episcopal School]. You're not just sitting off in your privileged area, which is what happened at West Charlotte. It wasn't the well off saying, "Well, we'll do something to help them," it was them sending their children. No one's going to care about a school more than people whose kids are there, and if you want schools to be equal, you've got to have the kids of people who have power and resources in all the schools or you get what we've got today, which is so appallingly unequal it's – I don't even want to say.

A lot of the same debates described in your book that have happened over the decades are the same arguments that are happening at CMS today. Is that disheartening to you?

You see that the arguments in the '60s — particularly if you're talking about the arguments from the people who live in the suburbs and want to go to their suburban schools because that's part of the reason they bought their houses out there — the arguments they were making in the '70s against [Julius] Chambers and [Judge James B.] McMillan, the arguments they were making in the late '80s against trying to shift back, which ended in John Murphy and the whole magnet thing, and the arguments they're making today, they're pretty much the same.

There's two parts to it. There's the argument of choice: "This is what we want for our children, we're the parents, we should be able to choose what we want. We moved here with certain expectations, etc." There's not an act of hostility, except for a handful of certain people, perhaps some of them being elected officials, one in particular. [Editor's note: She's referring to Commissioner Bill James. Read the book for further explanation of that.] But you get lots of arguments as to why it's just better for the poor kids to stay in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools, and I think that is just not true.

The arguments that are being made for "Oh, if we do this, and this, and this," have all been tried, and they all don't work. The way our political system works is resources flow to those in power, and if power is distributed unequally, the combination of public and private resources are going to flow unevenly, and you're going to get the difference between Providence High and West Charlotte, and that's just what happens. It would be nice to say that, "Well, if the government would just properly run and if the school system just did things right, this imbalance would not exist, they would be able to make that not happen through policy," but that has never happened in actual reality because of the nature of the political system. And that's what Julius Chambers argued in 1969, and that's what Judge McMillan understood, and we'll all have to keep re-learning that.

Are you hopeful for the future of CMS?

Where I see a lot of possibility is in the younger generation, particularly people who are less interested in going to the suburbs, maybe a little more adventurous. Even though when you have kids, all of a sudden you become much more anxious, because that's just what happens, but young people are a little more willing to try to step out. I'm heartened by the folks, the Cotswold/Billingsville folks, the Dilworth/Sedgefield folks. There are a lot of folks who are really genuinely trying to make this work rather than everyone screaming and trying to run away. I think that's helpful. I think it's possible. Shamrock actually worked, amazingly enough. We brought the school up and now tons of Plaza Midwood people go there and it's nicely mixed. It's far from perfect. There are lots of imbalances that everybody has to work on every day, but it's a whole lot better school than it was.

One of the things that I think is so important and one of the reasons why I talk about Shamrock now because it's more recent, is to say this can work.

This isn't hopeless. You can have a mixed school. Again, if you expect it to be perfection, that won't work, but if you really want to turn it into a place where everybody learns and everybody gains from each other and all that, that can be done if people put their effort into it. And I think it's a whole lot more interesting and better for your kids. That's what I think, anyway. It's better for Parker than had I sent him somewhere else. I think if people really work at it, there are potentials for things that can be done. We're never going to have busing like there was, because people just wouldn't. I mean, it was forced by the federal government, as it should have been, I think it was a great thing, but not in this legal climate, it's never going to happen. But what you really do have to do is work to create these schools that people want to send their children to, that everybody wants to send their children to, and that people who would have other choices choose to send their children to. Make them as West Charlotte was, a place that worked for everybody and that's hard and it takes a lot of work but it's really cool. I see the possibility of that happening. There are places where it works. Mallard Creek is a good example. There are places where it works, But how do you make that work in other places where it's not working, particularly places like the west side, where you have particularly a high poverty population, but there are changes happening in the area? So that's the future for me.

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