Black History Month
written by Kathy Huffstetler
February is Black History Month, and I imagine most of us would like to see this interest in black history extend throughout the year. The longer I live the more I realize there is so much I do not know that has taken place right under my nose. I think it would be fair to say that much black history hasn’t made our history books, but I think some of this can be rectified as our communities endeavor to right wrongs, begin digging into our past and unearthing new information, and providing more accuracy to what has been the narrative. Outlined below are two projects that are currently engaged in the fight to fill in our history.
The first one is “Respecting Our History, Building Our Future,” a project through the Wake County school system. Attention has been given to the first African Americans who integrated formerly all-white schools, but less focus has been placed on the experiences of students and teachers in the all-black schools before integration. In the face of Jim Crow laws and under-resourced black schools, African American teachers and leaders had to harness their creativity and leadership skills in order to provide their students with excellent and meaningful education. Now, the Wake County School Board has asked schools to form teams of students and teachers to research historically segregated schools in our area and capture this history before it is lost. A February 7, 2019 News & Observer article details this fascinating project. Historic Washington Elementary School is featured in the article. “Our” Bob Grant, principal at Washington, and some of his students made a delightful, short video about their participation in this project.
The second project deals with the history of Oberlin Village, a thriving black community formed by the first freed slaves after the Civil War that extended out from Oberlin Road in Raleigh and stretched from Hillsborough Street to Glenwood Avenue. Several years ago a group called “Friends of Oberlin Village” formed and they have dedicated themselves to researching and documenting the history of this area. The group is committed to bringing historic recognition and restoration to what remains of Oberlin Village, including some houses and a cemetery. One piece of history that has come out of this forum is the story of Joe Holt, Jr., who grew up on Oberlin Road in the 40’s and 50’s.
Again, with more attention being given to the first black children who integrated formerly all-white schools, little attention or credit has been given to the Holt family, who were pioneers and for years tried hard to get their son, Joe Holt, Jr. admitted to all-white schools. Their journey began in 1956, two years after the Brown vs. Board of Education Act of 1954 that ruled it was unconstitutional to have segregated schools. The Holts lived on Oberlin Road, a few blocks from Daniels Jr. High, and Joe Holt Jr.’s parents wanted him to go Daniels rather than have to catch the city bus to travel three miles across town to Ligon. So in 1956 they applied to have Joe Jr. attend Daniels. Road blocks were put in their way, time passed and then it was time for Joe Jr. to attend high school. They then tried to get him in Broughton for the same reasons. Again, year after year the officials in power sat on requests, dodged questions, and dragged their heels. Joe Holt Jr.’s family was vilified in some circles for having the audacity to want an equal and equitable opportunity for their son. They received death threats, and Joe Holt Sr. lost his job. They tried every avenue they could but were ultimately unsuccessful.
Through Friends of Oberlin Village I learned of the airing of a 37 minute documentary on this family’s brave struggle and sacrifice and how they paved the way for the first successful integration of a Raleigh white school in 1960 by Bill Campbell. The documentary was produced by Joe Holt Jr.’s daughter, Deborah Holt Noel, who is the director/producer of “Black Issues Forum” and “NC Weekend” on PBS. She and Joe Holt Jr. were both at the Olivia Rainey History Library this weekend and showed this fascinating documentary followed by excellent discussion. There are other interesting stories of the Holt family on the internet.
If you are interested in learning about Exploris students striving to get a school named for Joe Holt’s mother, Elwyna Holt, visit WRAL.
If you are interested in learning more about the Oberlin Village project, visit the Friends of Oberlin Village website. They meet the last Monday of every month at 6pm at Wilson Temple UMC.