WHEN AN ALABAMA PRINCIPAL SAID NO TO INTERRACIAL DATING, A SMALL COMMUNITY WAS FORCED TO CONFRONT ITS RACIST HERITAGE
May 18, 1995
By Sally Jacobs
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
IT WAS NEARING 4 ON A WINDLESS AUGUST MORNING LAST SUMMER, AND THE Randolph County High School (RCHS) was burning. Within the low-slung brick building, the football jerseys enshrined in plastic cases were melting. The burnished trophies were oozing into a molten pool. The air conditioners, paid for with bake sales and door-to-door fund drives, were long gone. And then, just as the pink of dawn licked the night sky, the last of the white wooden columns supporting the porch roof collapsed into a fiery mass.
David Daniel, a member of the Randolph County Board of Education and an electrician, watched the inferno from a distance as the wails of the gathered alumni on the hillside swelled around him. There wasn't much time left. Wrenching his tie from his neck, Daniel elbowed through the crowd and seized a crate from the last man in the human chain that was working furiously to salvage school records from the maw of the inferno. As the sweating men screamed directives at one another, Daniel grabbed another box of files. And then another. And another. When the last filing cabinet had been heaved onto the back of the truck that would transport the records to the courthouse for storage, Daniel pulled himself onto the flatbed, and the old Ford lumbered toward town. As he braced himself against the hot rush of air, it occurred to Daniel that he was a perfect target for a sniper's bullet.
"I had a strong feeling that I could possibly be killed or shot," recalls Daniel, 39, who's also the pastor of Big Springs Baptist Church. "That there was someone in the woods with a gun... That's a very odd feeling for a person from a small town in the country. I mean, you just wonder, 'How did this ever begin?'"
It began in February 1994, when the principal of the school was accused of calling a student of racially mixed parentage a "mistake" and canceled the prom because of interracial dating. At least that's how it seemed as the TV stations erected their satellite towers over Wedowee (pronounced wih-DOW-ee), Ala. (pop. 796), and the story flashed across the country. But it was a much older story than that. It was a story of hostility between blacks and whites that had erupted in the 1960s only to be muffled by the placid social fabric that wraps the rural South. It was a story of humiliation small and large that were whispered from one generation of black students to the next, along with other family truths. And it was a story about small-town rivalries that collided with the federal government on shifting political sands, a story that is not yet over.
This February - one year after RCHS principal Hulond Humphries was almost universally dismissed by the national press as a toothless anachronism, a throwback to a racist era long gone - Humphries was awarded the newly created job of consultant to the school board and put in charge of rebuilding the school. Lionized in some quarters for having vanquished the interfering "outsiders," Humphries is even considering running for Randolph County schools superintendent next year. Some folks think he can win.
As stunned blacks keep a cold eye on the man they claim humiliated and abused black students for a quarter of a century, they confront a school board that has spent nearly $200,000 defending him. The Justice Department, apparently determined to oust Humphries last spring, has grown curiously compliant in the wake of last November's elections. The FBI, meanwhile, is unwilling to identify a suspect in the arson case for fear it will spark a new spasm of anger. Or so the rumor goes.
There are those in Randolph County who see a chilling moral in the fact that Hulond Humphries is now poised to seize greater power than he had before. It is not just that beneath all the crisp flounces flourished by the New South, the heart of the Old South pumps steadily on. But at a time when the nation's framework for assisting the disfranchised is being dismantled, when affirmative action is under assault, some blacks regard it as a sign that they have lost not just a battle but the war. "It seems as though we as black people can no longer rely on the courts," says Charlotte Clark-Frieson, the head of the local chapter of the NAACP. "We can no longer rely on the government. We are marooned."
Meanwhile, up on the RCHS campus at the edge of town, students live with the lingering effects of last year's implosion. These days classes for some of the 680 students are held in 10 white trailers parked next to the charred remains of the school. Students say the trailers are too hot. And too cold. And are falling apart More annoying, many see the trailers as a constant reminder of how they were made to suffer for ancient arguments in which they had no part. And yet, on second thought, maybe they were a part of it after all. “This thing had been going on for years, and there were some of the older black community who accepted, who said, ‘This is, the way it is,’ says Shieketa Herring, a junior. "But we were a younger generation. We began to realize we didn't have to be treated like this.”
Revonda Bowen and son, Saeje: Vice-president of the student body, Bowen is considering going to bartending school in Atlanta after graduation.
WEDOWEE, NAMED AFTER THE CHIEF of a Creek Indian village, is about a two-hour drive west of Atlanta and near dead center of northeastern Alabama's Randolph County. It is lush and undulating land spliced by the bass-rich waters of the Little Tallapoosa River. High school boys sometimes head into the woods with their rifles before school and have been known to attend class in their bloodied camouflage. It is the kind of place where chewing tobacco and snuff take up more shelf space in the grocery store than pain relievers do. With a black population of about 24 percent, located a half-hour from the nearest interstate, the county experienced virtually none of the state's civil-rights turmoil that convulsed the cities of Birmingham and Montgomery. When the Randolph County Board of Education set out to find a new principal in 1968, they were looking for someone who could shore up lagging discipline at the school as well as oversee impending integration. They found that person in Hulond Humphries. A stocky former history teacher and basketball coach from northern Alabama, Humphries shaped his 26-year tenure as principal at RCHS with a distinctively iron hand. Shorts 1 inch too short meant a three-day suspension. A rebellious word or too-tight pants earned a few licks with the heavy wooden paddle in Humphries' office. And when some students of different races began to date one another in the 1970s, a few anguished parents asked him to stop it.
"We don't have the kind of problems they have in some schools," says Grady J Wakefield, 65, a semi retired county agricultural agent whose two daughters graduated from the high school, “and the reason is Hulond. You just need that kind of discipline. Hulond has stepped on some toes with that, and I think this whole thing is just a small segment trying to get back at him."
Humphries, in fact, magnified the subterranean currents that had long percolated in Wedowee, for Humphries was also a strong force in public life, a quality that earned him the lasting admiration of some of the town's most prominent citizens. Active in a host of civic groups, Humphries, a hog farmer, was the one who not only donated pigs to numerous community functions but also cooked them. And when the school was engulfed in flames, Humphries risked his life as he tried to save it. "[Humphries] poured his life into that school," says school board member Daniel. "You'd go on the campus ... and you'd see Mr. Humphries with a pipe wrench under the sink in the lunchroom or fixing a light fixture. Every sporting event, anything that went on at the school, he was there, and a lot of times he didn't have to be."
Bryant Heard, left, and Buddy James Gilbert: students often went to school, gun racks loaded, camouflage bloodied from an early-morning hunt.
Karren Parker, right, with boyfriend Lovell Knight, claims Humphries asked her, "why can't you black girls not have so many babies?"
Lawrence O'Neal does not agree, and he's been saying so for a long time. A retired TV repairman and a member of one of the county's oldest black families, O'Neal challenged Humphries' behavior after O'Neal's six children began having run-ins with Humphries in the late 1970s. First, O'Neal's daughter - the first black president of the student council - overheard Humphries say that he would like to "send all the black students back to the black schools." Then, O'Neal's son was barred from the RCHS junior basketball team in 1981 because he would not shave. O'Neal and a friend repeatedly objected to the school board and ultimately filed a lawsuit against school officials in federal court. And when they lost, O'Neal began writing letters to the federal government.
"It was ridiculous because [my son] didn't have nothing but peach fuzz," says O'Neal, sitting in front of his wood stove in green cotton pants and a white T-shirt. A rangy, soft-spoken man whose neck has been hollowed by cancer surgery, the 56-year-old O'Neal does not come easily to the public dais. In fact, when he read in Ebony about the fate of Emmett Till - the black youth who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman - O'Neal was so enraged that he vowed to withdraw from a society so unjust. Even now, having retreated to the pinewoods where he initially earned a living as a logger, he clenches his fist at Till's memory. And then Hulond Humphries came to town.
"I guess I was like Daniel [in the Bible], running away from the job that God had for me, but God pulled me back," says O'Neal, whose lean limbs remain roped with the muscles of his logging years. "God showed me that Humphries wasn't the problem. The problem was the board. They wouldn't reprimand him for anything. And the board was elected by the people of Randolph County."
A 1959 graduate of Wedowee High School, O'Neal lives in a tired lemon-colored house just off Route 15 in the old black community of Flatwood. The journey passes not just through the winter-gray pastures but amid the shadows of the high school's history. There, in the reddish brown house on the right, is where Carol James' mother lives. Now 33, James left long ago for Las Vegas, where she is a nurse. But she has not forgotten what she says Humphries told her when she asked him why he chose a white girl with less experience than herself to be the cheerleading captain.
"He said, 'Carol, if you don't stop bothering me with this, I'll have to call the Klan on you’," recalls James, an RCHS graduate who was eventually made co-captain.
Drive a little farther up Route 15, and down a dirt road on the right sits Shirley Knight's white trailer. There at the Formica-topped kitchen table, her five children and several grandchildren surging about the room, Knight's voice rises in anger as she talks about Humphries. Knight, 38, claims she was expelled in the seventh grade after fighting with Humphries in an effort to resist a paddling. Her daughter Tiffany was suspended for three days in 1993, Knight claims, when Tiffany refused to peel gum off the bottoms of desks - the punishment for producing a piece of paper too slowly.
“Sometimes when Knight looks at her granddaughter Precious, she thinks of Humphries. "This child," Knight said on a sticky fall night last year, pointing to the toddler sleeping on the couch, "got to go to Humphries, too. It almost makes me cry."
Keep on driving through the scratchy pinewoods, and the neighborhood's cast goes from black to white. Yet even here, more than a few of the current students (62 percent of the total are white) say Humphries made no secret of his opposition to racial mixing. "He called me into his office," recalls Sherri Forman, a white senior. "He said it was wrong for me to date a black boy. He said if we broke up, no white boy would want me anymore."
BY THE MID-1980S THE RUMBLING ABOUT THE school system was getting louder. In 1984 the NAACP's local chapter president, Wilkie Clark, issued a press release that listed 22 charges of discrimination against the county school board and Humphries. The release cited discrimination in the hiring and treatment of staff and the administering of discipline. The release also claimed that the school was operating two school buses: "one bus filled with white students and one filled with blacks." Jimmy Holmes, superintendent of schools from 1980 to 1988, says Humphries told him, "’I'm not telling [the kids] how to get on those buses. They get on them on their own.' So you know, I said, 'OK' I had no reason to believe differently." Now school-board lawyers maintain that the board was never told about most of the incidents when they allegedly occurred. But Humphries, they argue in court papers, never made the racial statements attributed to him by such students as Forman and James, nor did Humphries discipline black students more harshly than he did white students. The dispute with Forman was over a car, not interracial dating, and Humphries didn't interfere with the cheerleading-captain selection, according to the papers.
Despairing of the school board, the NAACP, Lawrence O'Neal and a few other people started writing letters to the federal government and civil-rights agencies in 1984. About three years later the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights came down to investigate. In 1989 the OCR issued its findings: Randolph County High School was operating racially segregated school buses and had disciplined black students more often and more harshly than white students. Both practices, it concluded, must stop.
The segregation on the buses did stop, but a lot of folks say that's about all that did. Joyce White, the black mother of a RCHS junior and a 1978 graduate herself, remembers going to Humphries' office last year when her daughter Shieketa was suspended for speaking back to a teacher. "For 30 minutes ... he told me that most of the trouble was the black kids," says White, 35, a machine operator in a textile plant, "that the black girls had the filthiest mouths in school, that the black kids are loud and unruly, and they are the worst students in the school."
In person, Humphries does not have much to say about all this, though specific denials exist in court records. Other than denying that he called a mixed-race student a mistake, the 56-year-old former principal has publicly said little about the matter. Only after the school burned to the ground last August - after the name Wedowee had become so linked with racism in the national psyche that local trucks bearing the town's name were stoned on the interstate did Humphries step forward. "Wedowee has suffered enough," he said, tears streaming down his cheeks.
In his new job as consultant to the school board and now in charge of rebuilding the school, Humphries works out of a basement office in the county courthouse. He sits at a nearly empty desk beneath a wall covered with civic awards, boxes of school documents amassed by justice lawyers at his feet. It is no secret that he is writing a book about the events of the past year to set the record straight. Asked what it will be about, his blue eyes flash over his bifocals. “I been screwed, blued and tattooed by your profession" is all he will say.
REVONDA BOWEN IS THE KIND OF GIRL WHO goes for what she wants. An articulate 18-year-old whose neck is laced with silver chains, Bowen has worked hard at her school career. She is the student-body vice president and president of the Future Business Leaders of America at RCHS. She is a family kind of a person and proudly shows a visitor her infant son, Saeje - her boyfriend is the father, but she says they have drifted a bit - along with a dozen family photographs. There is also a bit of daddy's girl to her, truth be told. The daughter of a club manager, Bowen is considering going to bartending school in Atlanta after graduation. "My favorite movie is Cocktail," Bowen says solemnly. "My favorite."
The daughter of a white father and a black mother, Bowen does not recall that her family was subjected to a single harassing incident. In fact, Bowen herself notes with pride that "I have always dated blacks, whites, Koreans and everybody else, and no one has ever said anything to me." Until, that is, ReVonda Bowen crossed paths with Hulond Humphries.
It was Feb. 24, 1994, and Humphries had summoned a junior- and senior-year class assembly to discuss the upcoming prom. Alarmed about a recent fight between black and white students that school officials said involved interracial romance (students say it did not) and the discovery of a gun on campus, Humphries said interracial dating would not be allowed at the prom. Bowen promptly stood up and asked whom she should take as her date. From there the story grows murky. Humphries, according to Bowen, said her parents had made a "mistake" - precisely the kind of mistake he hoped the students would not make themselves. Stunned, Bowen stared at him as tears slid down her cheeks. As students jumped to their feet, some raising their voices, Humphries canceled the prom.
Humphries contends he never said "mistake," and the following day he reinstated the prom. But as the students flooded out of the auditorium that day, Bowen and a friend headed to a phone to call the local newspaper. And thus, Wedowee became news. "When he said that," says Bowen, "it was a feeling I'd never, ever had."
The stalking horses of the press arrived that night. An armada of reporters and TV trucks followed. In the coming weeks there were marches led by the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Black Panther Militia opened up a chapter in town. The Ku Klux Klan held membership drives on Wedowee's Main Street. Some skinheads showed up. Threats were found in mailboxes belonging to both black and white. A 100-car caravan drove through town in support of Humphries, bearing signs saying GO HULOND and HUMPHRIES FOR PRESIDENT. Federal officials in suits began showing up.
Inside the school, things were getting a little weird. Some white boys began wearing T-shirts with Confederate flags on them. A few white students snubbed their black friends. And some said they never heard Humphries say the m word at all. "Mr. Humphries never said mistake," says Leslie Hand, the student-body president, who is white. "ReVonda jumped up and asked who should she take. She was screaming, and he was answering very calmly and said this is a problem or something like that. I love ReVonda, and she is one of my best friends, but I think she misunderstood him."
As the furor settled like a dark cloud over Main Street, the poisoned vapors slowly seeped into the school. While students say they had generally gotten along well before the incident, it is also true that blacks and whites had long held sharply different opinions of Humphries. In fact, while racial disputes among students were rare, race itself ran like a layer of bedrock beneath the school's foundation.
While the federal government would eventually probe larger issues of discrimination, it was the little things that gnawed at some students more - like the way black students were sometimes held in during break if they had asked to go to the bathroom during class. Or the way Humphries always paused in the hallways and broke up groups of black students while passing by clusters of white students without a word. "[Humphries] was always after the black kids to move on like it was dangerous if we stood together," says a black student, James Terrell, 16, an RCHS junior.
Karren Parker, an 18-year-old black senior at RCHS, estimates she got paddled nearly 100 times throughout her school years - for anything from speaking in class to wearing tight pants. Two years ago she got into a fight with a teacher and was sent to Humphries to get three licks with his wooden paddle. And when the round-faced Parker, then two months pregnant, turned for her paddling, she says Humphries asked her, "Why can't you black girls be more like white girls and not have so many babies?" Humphries has denied the statement, saying he didn't know she was pregnant.
But white students say they got paddled just as often as blacks. "And maybe more so," says Bryant Heard, a white student who graduated in 1994. "Me and my friend got more paddling than all the black people in the school." The friend to whom he refers, James Gilbert, adds: "I mean, it was just part of his job. [The blacks] kinda blew things out of proportion. I guess it's 'cause they ain't disciplined at home more."
And even those who differed from Humphries' views on the subject of interracial dating wondered what some of the fuss was about. Everybody knew that Humphries didn't approve of blacks and whites dating, though it wasn't mentioned in the pink student handbook. The kids who did it - and there were plenty of them - met on the sly or communicated by letter. Even some of those who thought it was wrong had most definitely thought about doing it - like Gilbert, who attended RCHS before transferring to a nearby high school. Gilbert, an Amway salesman who is hoping to patent a new hunting-camouflage design he's developing with his buddy Heard, maintains that "the Lord did not intend for the races to mix. But he didn't say they couldn't look: "I seen some gooooodlookin' black girls, that is for sure."
But the storm was just beginning. In March the seven member school board - which has a single black member - suspended Humphries with pay. But two and a half weeks later, when the board reinstated Humphries as principal and voted not to hold a hearing on the incident, blacks, and some whites, were incensed. The board's action was not only the subject of national press coverage but also drew the attention of a variety of black leaders. For years local blacks had been represented before the board by Charlotte Clark-Frieson. At the time of the incident, she was in the awkward position of being the head of the local NAACP chapter and also the sole black member of the school board.
A heavyset woman with a preacher's lilt, Clark-Frieson inherited the advocacy role from her father - along with the family's funeral-home business - five years earlier. She sometimes wheels one of the company's black Cadillacs on her NAACP rounds. Earlier this year the small office outside her embalming room had become a command post in the war against Humphries, but Clark-Frieson has become practiced at juggling her twin callings. "We get more compliments on our remains," says Clark-Frieson.
As calls for Humphries' ouster grew louder, other activists appeared on the scene. State and regional civil-rights leaders began speaking out. Solomon Seay, a prominent black attorney from Montgomery who had represented the plaintiffs in the original desegregation suit brought against the state's schools in 1967, would step forward. Emboldened by national media attention and the stridency of their leadership, black citizens decided the time had come to fight. In early April 1994, a boycott of the school was announced, and two "freedom schools" were established in local churches. Hundreds of protesters marched to the courthouse steps in perhaps the largest civil-rights demonstration in the town's history.
For the students, however, it was the freedom schools that plunged them more deeply into the conflict. The schools - staffed by local volunteers and parents and paid for in part with donations - were seen as an important political statement to some of the roughly 110 black students who attended. But not all were happy about the situation. "We wanted to get away from everything," says Pam Briskey, 19, then a senior, "because we felt we weren't wanted by the teachers. But we didn't want to leave our white friends."
In town, on the other hand, communication between blacks and whites was deteriorating. As the furor escalated, loyalties polarized, and many white citizens rallied to Humphries' defense - even some who had not particularly liked him before. When Joe Ballow went against the rest of the white school-board members and voted with Clark-Frieson to hold a hearing on the incident, he found that some white workers at the yarn plant he manages - as well as some friends - refused to talk to him.
"I resigned because what the board was doing was morally wrong," Ballow says. "Part of it was they just didn't want to find out the truth. Part of it was politics."
Some speculated that the elected board members did not want to risk alienating Humphries' supporters by holding a public hearing.
But to Humphries' supporters, the real political player was the U.S. Justice Department. In the weeks after Humphries returned to his office, federal investigators swarmed through the school-board offices in the county courthouse. They pored over files. They demanded records going back a decade. And at the end of the day, they lugged their cardboard boxes bulging with papers out the courthouse doors as town employees watched from their office windows.
On May 17, 1994, there came a greater humiliation: The Justice Department's civil-rights division filed a motion in federal court, claiming that the Randolph County school system was in violation of a 1970 desegregation order. Citing complaints by parents and students of discrimination in discipline and classification, the government said the school district had created a “hostile racial climate” at the school. (In fact, the Justice Department later found that while blacks account for 38 percent of the high school's student body, they represented 63 percent of the students who were disciplined in the 1993-94 school year.) The Justice Department also cited a failure to integrate teaching and administrative staffs: Only 10 percent of the district's teaching posts were held by blacks, while all of its central office positions were held by whites. Hulond Humphries, the justice Department said, should be fired or reassigned.
What's more, the date of the filing apparently wasn't any accident: It marked the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed segregation in the nation's public schools. "The White House wants to keep this thing on the front pages to show that the administration is a champion of civil rights," says the school board's lawyer, George Beck Jr., leaning across his desk. "It's politics, pure politics."
Lawrence O'Neal (with granddaughter) began questioning principal Humphries' behavior in the '80s.
The head of the local NAACP chapter, Charlotte Clark-Frieson, was also the sole black school-board member.
Humphries' supporters conceded that their man was a tough disciplinarian, but a racist he was not. Just try getting qualified black educators to come to a small town like Wedowee. And if black students were disciplined more than white ones, well, "what if it were true that they were more trouble?" asks board member Daniel.
Some whites dismissed the black community's charges as part of "a fund-raiser for the NAACP" launched by a small group of troublemakers - many of them from out of town. And angered that the school board had paid $25,000 to Bowen to settle a lawsuit she had filed against the school system, a few whites publicly criticized the young woman who had a baby earlier this year. "OK, we're talking morality here, right?" asks white resident Jimmy McCain, a retired coordinator of federal programs for the schools. "A big guy picking on a little girl isn't moral. Well, having a baby out of wedlock isn't moral.... When the girl asked her question, Hulond should have said, 'You should bring the father of your child to the prom."
Furious at the government's move, the school board dug in its heels. Throughout the sweltering Alabama summer, the lawyers negotiated in hopes of settling the Justice Department's allegations and avoiding an incendiary trial. It was at the end of a marathon day of negotiations in Montgomery about Humphries' status that someone took the matter into their own hands. The rumors in Wedowee had flown thick that long day. Humphries was out. Humphries was in. And as school-board members returning from Montgomery drove into town around 1:30 a.m., they could see the orange flames raging against the night sky. The school was on fire.
"I felt sick," recalls school-board member Helen Bugg. "I was sick. To think that we had someone so sick in the community who would do something like that." Whites said that blacks had done it. Blacks said that whites had done it. Some whispered that maybe Humphries had done it. And some just cried. "We just couldn't believe the school had burned," says Michele Heard, a black junior. "I mean, it was really all the parents' fault. The kids could have dropped it. We could have moved on."
Perhaps, but as students passed by a phalanx of television cameras and satellite dishes on their return to school, some eyed each other warily. "I was on Good Morning America that morning," says Leslie Hand, the student-body president, “and I said there was no racial tension, but then I walked into assembly, and I realized I had lied. You could really feel it in the air. It was horrible. And it was racial."
Humphries, however, was gone. Shortly after the fire, he was moved to the courthouse basement and reassigned to oversee the rebuilding of the school. Whether he would be permitted to walk back on campus was something over which the growing band of lawyers in the case continued to wrangle. The Justice Department was hanging tough, too. In one settlement proposal that particularly peeved board members, the department called for changing the name of the school's Humphries Stadium.
But then came November. Not long after the Republicans' midterm election victory, the lawyers reached an agreement on all the allegations against the school but were still undecided about Humphries' status. But before the settlement could be finalized, the Justice Department voluntarily decided to make a few last changes of its own. After a weekend flurry of faxes in early December, the government's final version emerged. The goal for black employment had been reduced from 32 percent to 23 percent over four years, and some of the strongest language had been dropped.
If black plaintiffs were stunned, a few government insiders who had worked hard on the case were, too. One of them went to Deval Patrick, chief of the Justice Department's civil-rights division, and asked what was going on. "I asked him what had happened: 'Is someone bringing pressure on the department to back off?'" recalls the Justice Department source. "He said it's the White House. They're pulling out."
And no one could have been happier about it than the Randolph County school board. "Since the election," says Beck, the board's lawyer, "the Clinton administration has realized that federal intervention at a local level is not always the answer." Justice Department officials, however, maintain that politics had nothing to do with it. The numbers were lowered, they said, because they had originally overestimated the size of the black-teacher labor pool in the area. "I can't help what it appears like," says Isabelle Katz Pinzler, deputy assistant attorney general in Justice's civil-rights division. "But we were under no political pressure." Whatever happened, the final agreement established a biracial committee to advise the board, hear complaints and review discipline and required the school to post a sign saying that the school had no policy on interracial dating.
On the subject of Humphries, though, compromise remained as elusive as ever. While justice lawyers no longer talked about Humphries being fired, they insisted that he be banned from the campus during school hours. The board refused. And so the subject of the embattled principal was set to go to court in January, and blacks eagerly anticipated their day in court.
They never made it. The day before the Jan. 10 trial was to begin, the lawyers in the case including the old civil-rights lion Solomon Seay - announced that they had reached an agreement appointing Humphries to the new position of consultant to the board while barring him from the campus during school hours. Humphries' new job would extend until July 1997, after which any future employment would be "mutually agreed upon between the board and Hulond Humphries," according to the terms of the agreement. There would be no trial.
Black residents, who said they had never been consulted about the deal, were astounded. Not only had the residents told Seay they wanted to go to trial, a group of them had driven to his office and explicitly objected to the agreement one day earlier. "We got sold out," says O'Neal. "All we want is to go to court and let the court decide, because we believe we will win. If we don't, well, we can live with that. It'd be better than having him sitting up there and no one ever knew what happened here. At least it would be documented."
But Seay disagreed. While he, too, thought that Humphries should be fired, he later testified at a fairness hearing that he advised O'Neal and others that by going to trial they might wind up with less than the proposed agreement. "I indicated to the people there," Seay said, "that I thought I would be derelict in my duty as attorney for the plaintiffs if I did not embrace this agreement."
That the settlement of a class action was opposed by some members of the class was not uncommon; invariably one or more in a large group will disagree. But black leaders maintained that in this case it was a majority that opposed the settlement, and they decided to fight. First off, Seay was fired. Then a petition opposing the agreement was signed by 265 blacks, about 5 percent of all blacks in Randolph County. The night of the canceled trial, two dozen angry blacks met at the gray cinderblock Pleasant Grove Baptist Church and selected four among them to drive to Washington the next day to register their opposition with the Justice Department. A plate passed slowly through the congregation, and at the end of its journey, there was $155 to pay for the trip, most of it in $1 bills.
"With this agreement, we have just told the world that it's all right to call our children niggers, that it's all right to beat them, that it's all right to do anything to them, and instead of punishing the person who did it, we promote him and accept it," said the Rev. Emmett Johnson as a ripple of amens passed through the pews. "Hulond Humphries is a hero."
Johnson, O'Neal and two others drove through the night in a black Ford and met with Justice Department officials the next morning for more than two hours. While Justice lawyers said they had believed Seay had discussed the agreement with the black plaintiffs, they allowed that the group could object to the agreement.
And so they did. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson - who is black - proffered a slender branch of hope and granted the group a fairness hearing on Feb. 10 of this year. When the day came, Randolph County school-board members and more than two dozen black citizens drove the two hours to Montgomery in pelting rain and filled the benches on opposite sides of the ornate federal courtroom. One after the other, the lawyers described the settlement as fair and reasonable. Then came the black citizens, some visibly nervous as they stood beneath the faux-Moorish ceiling and beseeched the judge to grant a trial so that they might tell their side of the story. The judge said no.
One week later, Judge Thompson issued an order, writing that the agreement addressed the issues of segregation and the existence of a racially hostile environment at the school by limiting Humphries' contact with students. Thompson added in a footnote, "Whether Humphries should be punished is an issue that would have to be resolved in another proceeding." Thompson did not specify what proceeding that might be.
IT IS SPRING NOW IN RANDOLPH County. The senior class, uniquely bound by memories of the chaotic events that ushered them into their final year of high school, will graduate soon. When the talk in town occasionally turns to the year just past, it is to wonder if the FBI will ever charge a suspect with the burning of the old school. And to hope, perhaps, that it will not. Sometime this summer, construction will begin on the new school, which is to look pretty much like the old school. When it is done, Humphries will move on to managing inventory for the transportation department. Unless, that is, he decides to run for school superintendent.
"I read in the paper the other day that the thing is over," says Joe Ballow. "But I don't know about that. Seems like nobody's any happier now than when it all started."