This week marked the end of an era, when the Supreme Court ruled against using race to determine public school assignments. For more than 50 years, since the court ruled in Brown versus Board of Education, schools across the country had been under court orders to design and implement the desegregation plans.

At the end of this historic week, we look back on the story of Richard McElrath. He was a young black teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, when the schools there first integrated almost two decades after Brown.

Mr. RICHARD McELRATH (Retired Teacher): And, you know, the court order said with all deliberate speed, and that meant different things to different people. So at Mecklenburg it meant 17 years.

ELLIOTT: McElrath was part of a group of black teachers sent to integrate a brand new all-white school way out on the edge of Mecklenburg County.

Mr. McELRATH: They built a school out there and it was an all-white school in an all-white suburb. And Dr. Self(ph) who was assistant superintendent of the schools thought it would be a great idea to put a bunch of black teachers out there with a black principal and see how that was going to work. It was so tough because at that time, you had a group called the Concerned Parents and they were supported openly by the Ku Klux Klan.

Even with the location of the school, it was way back down in the woods, now it's well lit and well, but it was dark and down a dirt road. It was a one-way out and one-way in. And a lot of people said that, you know, they probably have to come down and carry our bodies out of there. But it didn't happen.

We had numerous incidents. When we first got out there, parents would come up to the school. They would not stop by the office. They would try to go into the various teachers' classes. They went into some teachers' classes and upset them to the point where they just would have got in the car and went home. They were a little frightened. I was never - I never felt intimidated by them. I was more aggravated.

But, you know, I'm the type of person that if there's a problem out there, if you've got a problem with me, I'm going to confront it. There was one point where the Concerned Parents had a meeting so I said, well, I'm just going to go down to the meeting with the Concerned Parents and Ku Klux Klan and whoever else was down there. And there were a lot of people concerned about whether or not I'd ever get back out of there.

To ensure people that I was going to be all right, I went to Reverend Holden(ph). I asked Reverend Holden to go down there with me. And I said, they're not going to do anything with you there, so he agreed. So we went down there and confronted them. And I walked in. They were having a nice, busy meeting and I walked in and then you could hear, you know, a rat wee-wee on cotton, it got so quiet in that place.

And so I just told them, you know, if, you know, let's get it all out. And I tried to convince them. I'm here to teach your children and that's all I wanted to do. So - but I didn't realize that it was anything special in what we were doing.

ELLIOTT: McElrath did make it out of that meeting unharmed and just three years later, busing made Charlotte-Mecklenburg one of the most celebrated integrated school systems in the country. The busing order was lifted in 2000.

Richard McElrath told his story to NPR producer Rachel Guberman.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from