The Days Before Brown, Growing Up in Segregated Schools
During the early 1950s, in the era before Brown v. Board of Education,
I attended W. S. Creecy High School in Rich Square, North Carolina. Because of
the state’s segregated school system, W. S. Creecy’s students were all
W. S. Creecy was separate from but certainly not equal to the all-white
schools in Rich Square. The school enjoyed less funding than the all-white
schools, meaning that our teachers earned lower salaries and that money for lab
equipment and other facilities was scarce. Each teacher had to put the funds
that were available to their best use. Thus our equipment and books were not
substandard; we simply needed more of them in order to bolster the
I still remember the county’s school superintendent, who was white, being
accused of embezzlement. He denied the allegation but committed suicide. The
word was that he had stolen money from the county’s black schools in order to
build his palatial house.
Nevertheless, W. S. Creecy was blessed with an abundance of teaching talent.
Our teachers often held master’s degrees, perhaps because teaching was the only
profession open to educated blacks at the time. The discrimination they faced
was our gain; they were excellent teachers who inspired us to go to college and
beyond. Most of the students in my graduating class earned bachelor’s degrees.
All students had to pass courses in the traditional core curriculum, designed to
prepare us for college; we did not have electives, as many students do
My teachers were my role models. Mr. W. S. Creecy Jr., the principal, also
taught me economics and sociology. (The school was named for his father, who had
served as the previous principal.) Mr. Creecy and Mrs. Theola Moore, my English
teacher, urged me to pursue further studies. Their standards were rigorous, and
they recognized my potential.
My high school was reduced to a middle school in the 1970s, as black and
white students merged into one large high school. Some white students, rather
than study with black students in an integrated high school, chose to attend
private academies, which still exist today.
I wonder how my parents were able to send nine children to college during
those days of segregation. They had adjusted to segregation before I was born.
They never let hardships or inequality prevent them from pursuing their dreams
for themselves and their children. With a strong spiritual base (we went to
church every Sunday) and with tremendous respect for the work ethic, Mom and Dad
were determined that their children’s lives would be better than their own. At
one point, they had three of us in college at the same time. They made
sacrifices, not excuses. They expected us to study hard and to do our best.
I remember plowing behind a mule, chopping cotton on our farm (which Dad paid
for in three years), feeding the hogs, picking cotton, harvesting peanuts and
corn, cleaning my room every morning, studying hard late at night, and making
the honor roll in school.
Segregation oppressed us in North Carolina. Despite, or perhaps due to, the
disadvantages of attending a segregated high school, students were determined to
excel. Hardships can build character. The trials, tribulations, and rebuffs
enabled me to be self-motivated and to become a true professional. The beauty of
living in America is that we can all learn from our mistakes. Our country
continues to make right our wrongs. As Langston Hughes once said, “I too, sing
America,” because “I, too am America.”
-Leonard A. Slade Jr. is professor and chair of the department of
Africana studies at the State University of New York at Albany.