This weekend, four retired teachers will gather to once more give the people of Franklin County an education.
The annual Franklin County NAACP Freedom Fund Luncheon will take place Saturday, Sept. 22, starting at 12 p.m. at the Pigg River Community Center.
This year’s event will reflect on the “Freedom of Choice” initiative in place from 1965 to 1970 before full integration was mandated by federal law.
A panel of four local educators — Betty Huffman, Linda Mullen, Florella Johnson and Henry Foster — will talk about their experiences teaching during those five years.
NAACP member and luncheon chairperson Glenna Moore’s experience as one of the first black students to attend the then all-white junior high school helped to inspire this year’s theme.
“I think it’s important to understand how we got to this point,” said Moore. “It wasn’t fast and furiously that we got to the point of full school integration. I think there are so many folks that don’t realize even when the federal government mandated that schools be fully integrated, how long it took to even get to that Freedom of Choice period.”
According to a study published by the Booker T. Washington National Monument and the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia in 2007, the Franklin County School Board developed a plan to desegregate completely by the year 1967 after the Federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare threatened to pull federal funding for schools. In an effort to ease this process, several white teachers were assigned to or hired at schools serving black students and black teachers were sent to white schools.
Moore hopes that the panel of teachers will provide some insight on that time in history as well as stir up memories from the crowd.
“I don’t have all the facts so I’m anxious to hear from these teachers and maybe some folks from the audience who can fill in some blanks,” Moore said.
Betty Huffman was the first white teacher to accept a job at Lee M. Waid School in 1966. Huffman had previously worked in a small impoverished community in Washington County, Virginia near her home town of Bristol and reflected on a message passed to her by another teacher when she accepted the job.
“Mrs. Henderson told me I might have cousins in my class,” recalled Huffman. “She said ‘We do not bus our black children out of the county. You’re going to see some black children, I don’t know how you feel about that, but I’m going to remind you, you never know who your cousins are.’ Everyone was family in that place. So when I came to Rocky Mount and they told me I’d be working in a school with black kids, to me it wasn’t a big
Henry Foster was one of the first African-American teachers at Franklin County High School. He worked as the Agriculture Science and Mechanics instructor from 1966-1976. Similarly to Huffman, Foster recalls the transition going smoothly.
“Whatever I asked them to do, they did it willingly,” Foster said. “I loved it. I’m from the country and Franklin County is the country so it was just home for me, and plus I needed a job.”
Foster recalled discussing with another teacher the problems experienced at other schools around the county, and that he felt lucky to be working with the students and teachers in Franklin.
“The kids at the high school were very cooperative and anything I wanted from the community, they would give it to me. It could be molasses, some special meat, or moonshine. If I wanted it, they would bring it to me,” Foster said.
The 2007 study published by the Booker T. Washington National Monument noted similar comments and reflected that while other urban areas of Virginia and the country were reporting violence as a reaction to integration, Franklin County had very few negative reports.
“These former students and faculty attributed the relative lack of tensions or conflicts to the county’s rural nature. As opposed to more urban areas which were increasingly becoming residentially segregated by the mid to late 1960s, whites and blacks in Franklin County had ‘grown up alongside one another,’ and despite segregation, ‘knew each other fairly well,’” the study says.
Although the transition was relatively smooth, in 1965 the Franklin News-Post reported on an incident that occurred on the bus between two black students and five white students. In 1966, the News-Post wrote about an anti-desegregation rally held by the United Klans of America.
Moore reflected that while attending the junior high school she had been occasionally bullied, she also had a strong support network of friends, family and her church to help her through it.
“I was a part of a real strong and politically active youth group at First Baptist Church, so I remember one time we were in Sunday school and there were four or five of us and we were telling our teacher about some of the issues we were having at school,” Moore said. “He just put the Sunday school book down and talked with us. He was from Birmingham, I think, and he talked about the bus boycott. I think our support systems encouraged us to follow through with what we knew was right.”
Conversely, Huffman recalled losing some of her support system when she accepted the teaching position at Lee M. Waid.
“My mother’s family in Richmond just thought I had literally ruined myself. I was totally unprepared for the disconnect from them,” Huffman said. “As far as they were concerned ‘the South was going to rise again’ and they could not let that go.”
Even with disapproval from some of her family, Huffman never regretted the decision to take the job. She shuffled through old class photos as she spoke fondly of her first years at Lee M. Waid.
“I came in and met people that became my best friends,” Huffman said. “I was welcomed. I have never met better teachers than those people. It wasn’t like, ‘here read this manual’ or ‘take this class.’ I got hands-on training. I had support, I had respect and I had a lot of respect for what they were helping me do. They didn’t know me, but they took me as I was.”
The proceeds of the event on Saturday will go toward the NAACP chapter dues so that members can “continue to provide support to people of color within the Franklin County community,” Moore said.
Moore stated that the local chapter has been communicating with Franklin County legislators, the Board of Supervisors and the public schools’ superintendent about several issues faced by local minority groups. One topic of concern is the lack of racial diversity among Franklin County teachers.
“We keep in touch with the superintendent of schools because we are concerned with how few African-American teachers there are,” Moore said.
“I think introducing a new race to all of those schools made a difference in how children saw people.”
Tickets for the luncheon are still available and cost $20 for adults and $5 for students. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Glenna Moore at 540-483-9469.