Wake County Schools

Students want school named for family that tried to integrate Raleigh system

Posted June 5

— The latest battle in the fight for civil rights is being spearheaded by a group of Raleigh middle school students.

The Exploris Middle Schools students, who were born decades after Wake County schools were integrated, are asking county leaders to honor a family whose story was a crucial part of that process by naming a local school for them.

Joe Holt Sr. and Elwyna Holt wanted their son to attend school down the street, not across town, so they applied in 1956 for Joe Holt Jr. to attend the all-white Daniels Junior High School.

"From that point on, our lives changed," Holt Jr. recalled recently. "We began to get hate mail, numerous phone calls, sinister phone calls, threats from white supremacist groups to bomb our home."

Although the U.S. Supreme Court had already outlawed school segregation, Raleigh was slow to integrate its classrooms, requiring black families to request placement in white schools. Superintendent Jessie Sanderson rejected the Holts' request.

A year later, the family tried again, seeking a transfer to all-white Broughton High School. Again, the answer was no. Again, the reaction was intense, and it included a threat to abduct Holt Jr.

"What came to mind immediately was what had happened to Emmett Till two years earlier, so they got me out of town," he said.

The family continued its efforts despite the threats – and Holt Sr. getting fired from his job – and sued to integrate Raleigh's public schools.

By the time the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 1960, Holt Jr. was getting ready to graduate from all-black Ligon High School. He would go on to earn a degree from St. Augustine's College and to a career in the Air Force.

The year after Holt Jr. graduated high school, Bill Campbell, who would later serve as Atlanta mayor, became the first black student to attend an all-white school in Raleigh.

The Exploris students, who wear shirts with the slogan "Be the Change" and use the hashtag #ItsNeverJustBlackandWhite, plan to appeal to Wake County commissioners on Tuesday to name a school after the Holts for their sacrifices in Raleigh's civil rights movement.

"By naming a school after (them), it gives the chance to honor a greater amount of people who fought for their rights in the '60s," Jack Wielding said.

The school board has already declined the students' request, saying that geographic names on schools are now preferred.

The students said they don't understand that position, with so many local schools named after people who fought integration, such as Sanderson and Daniels.

"All of these schools were named after people who denied Mr. Holt access to a school that would have given him the greatest education possible," Mac Mollins said.

The students are hopeful that the county commissioners will back their cause, noting that they have already named a school for Vernon Malone, a former commissioner and state senator who, as a black school board chairman, presided over the merger of the Raleigh and Wake County school systems in the mid-1970s.

"They are really interested in knowing the truth. They have a real sense of social justice that maybe gets a little jaded as we get older," Exploris teacher Shannon Hardy said. "They are much better at this than we adults."

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