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Joe Holt, Jr.: The first student to challenge Raleigh's segregated schools

Posted June 24, 2020 3:50 p.m. EDT
Updated June 28, 2020 1:35 a.m. EDT

— At 13 years old, Joe Holt, Jr. was like any teenager, nervously standing on the precipice of high school. However, as the first black student to challenge Raleigh's segregated school system, he dealt with fears and pressures no child his age should have to face.

The ringing telephone kept his family up at night – a constant stream of anonymous bomb threats, lynching threats and threats to kidnap little Joe Holt, Jr.

When asked how he managed to keep moving forward, Joe Holt, Jr. said he kept a "quiet determination."

In 1956, roughly two years after Brown vs. the Board of Education legalized desegregation of schools across the country, Joseph Holt, Sr. and his wife Elwyna applied to enroll their 13-year-old son at the all-white Josephus Daniels Junior High School.

Joseph Holt, Jr.'s parents: Joseph Holt Sr. and Elwyna (Image courtesy of Raleigh Hall of Fame)

The Holts were one of three families in Oberlin that applied to go to a white school.

"It was our objective to cast away the shackles of second-class citizenship through seeking a first-class kind of life through education equality," said Holt, who remembers his family's fight for equal education.

The next several years would be an uphill climb, facing an onslaught of rejection by school officials, anonymous death threats, hateful rhetoric and the ever-looming risk of losing their jobs.

Separate was not equal: Lack of equal education opportunities for black students

The popular phrase 'separate, but equal' implied black and white families could live equally rich, meaningful and fulfilling lives with equal access to opportunities; however, the concept often fell short in reality.

Josephus Daniels Junior High School was within walking distance of Holt's family.

But despite living on the same road as the school itself, black students in the Oberlin community were sent to Ligon High School, located in East Raleigh. They didn't even have a school bus, recalled Holt.

"Students in Oberlin would catch a city bus – there wasn't a bus paid for by the Raleigh Board of Education to come and pick them up," said Holt.

The students would be dropped off on Fayetteville Street, where they'd catch another city bus to take them into Chavis Heights. Then, students would walk through Chavis Heights to get to school.

The students also had to pay bus fare for each ride.

"Before my generation, I understand, a lot of them walked from Oberlin all the way down to the old Washington High School," said Holt.

Holt's account: Initial meeting with the Superintendent for Raleigh Schools

"There were two other families that applied at the same time, and the students in those families were my classmates in 8th grade," said Holt.

At the time, Holt had no idea his family's application to Daniels was unusual. He said he envisioned all of his neighbors and classmates going to Daniels together, integrating with the white students. He said, "I thought it was going to be great!"

One of the three families withdrew their application to Daniels early-on. However, the Watts family and the Holt family continued the application process.

Both Mrs. Watts and Mrs. Holt were Wake County School teachers, but in those days, the Raleigh school system was a separate entity from the Wake County school system.

"They were each asked to come to a conference with the Superintendent of Raleigh Schools, Mr. Jesse O. Sanderson," said Holt.

According to Holt, after Mrs. Watts had her conference with Sanderson, she decided to withdraw her application.

"She said she felt threatened, or warned, by the superintendent that her job was in jeopardy if she continued her present course of action," said Holt.

Holt said his own mother's experience with Sanderson was a little different. Sanderson asked Mrs. Holt why she wanted her son to attend an all-white school.

"My mother was a school teacher, not a political negotiator," said Holt. "So she began to try to explain the inconvenience of the kids in Oberlin having to catch the city bus, rather than explaining the stigma and humiliation associated with being told you cannot go to a certain school because of your race."

Holt recalled that when his mother told Sanderson it was a matter of inconvenience, Sanderson said he would ensure the students living in Oberlin could have free bus transportation – but only if she would agree to withdraw the application.

"She said, 'If you would like to provide free transportation for our children in Oberlin, I'll accept that. But the application stands,'" said Holt.

According to Holt, this was the last instance of Oberlin students riding on a city bus or paying bus fare. "From my very first high school day of Fall 1956, we rode a bus provided and paid for by the School Board," he said.

However, he rode the bus to Ligon High School – Holt was not accepted into the all white school in his neighborhood.

So the Holt family continued their efforts.

Three and a half years of 'hell'

The newspapers began regularly carrying the 'Holt' name, describing the case of "a young Negro attempting to break the color line at all-white school."

"We went through about a three-and-a-half-year process of trying to integrate the schools," said Holt.

"We started receiving all kinds of hate mail, threats on the phone, all sorts of sinister phone calls at night. We began to live under a great deal of stress," he recalled. In the meantime, Holt was expected to maintain impressive school grades and excellent strength of character and integrity – any failure on his part could easily be interpreted as a reason not to allow him into a white school. As the first black student to challenge segregation in Raleigh, he felt the weight of history on his shoulders.

"We were getting all sorts of threats on our lives. My family learned there was a threat to abduct me. We were getting hate mail from white supremacist groups," Holt recalled.

"That was one of the summers from hell, as I described it," he said.

Holt's parents went so far as to send him out of town for a while. Looming in the background of all the tension and angry phone calls was the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was brutally lynched and murdered for offending a white woman in a grocery store. His body was left in the river after being beaten and shot – and not discovered again for three days.

It was later revealed the woman had fabricated at least part of the story.

Holt vs. the Board of Education

As rejections and postponements continued, Holt eventually aged out of Daniels, and his family began applying to Needham Broughton High School.

"They kept postponing action," said Holt.

He said the school board and legislature had come up with various laws and rules that made it nearly impossible for a black student to integrate into a white school.

Betty Jamerson Reed, a historian for school integration in North Carolina, detailed these convoluted legal attempts by the North Carolina legislature and General Assembly to undermine black citizens' constitutional right to integrate schools for a first-class education.

"To delay the transfer of blacks to white schools, the General Assembly enacted the 1955 Pupil Assignment Act. By deliberately omitting any reference to race, and by specifying that local boards take into account the best interest of the child as well as the safety and health of school children, the plan provided a means to circumvent desegregation," Reed writes in her book School Segregation in Western North Carolina.

In 1956, the NC legislature approved the Pearsall Plan, which stalled integration even more. Delay tactics like complicating enrollment forms and creating indecipherable deadlines were legally put in place to discourage black families from applying to white schools, according to Reed.

Holt described it as "a set of elaborate legal machinery, designed specifically to prevent school integration."

According to the documentation from Holt vs. the Board of Education, the Pupil Enrollment Act was used as justification for denying the Holt's application and legal pursuit:

"We think it clear that applicants are not entitled to the writ of mandamus which they ask, for the reason that it nowhere appears that they have exhausted their administrative remedies under the North Carolina *863 Pupil Enrollment Act, and are not entitled to the relief which they seek in the court below until these administrative remedies have been exhausted."

From one year to another, the Holt family didn't know which school their son would be attending.

"We were right on the edge of our seats. My mother was about to have a nervous breakdown," he said. "She was worried she might be fired. My dad had already been fired."

Sit-ins and token integration: The changing tides

Joe Holt, Jr. was caught up in an endless wheel of legislation and delay tactics meant to discourage integration even after the results of Brown vs. the Board of Education. His family went to the highest court in the country, but despite their immense effort and well-respected legal team, their applications were delayed year after year until Holt finally graduated from the school system and went to college.

However, the Holt family effort is remembered by many citizens of Oberlin Village who were there to watch the Holts challenge the legal system for three and a half years. Who watched them endure threats to their lives, their children and their livelihood. That battle resounded in the local news, slowly chipping away at an unconstitutional system to make room for a new generation of black students – a generation that would begin to see access to equal education opportunities.

In 1960 the Greensboro sit-ins began, making national news and shifting cultural opinion.

Three other large cities in NC began what Holt referred to as "token integration." Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte each had begun dipping their toes in integrating.

"Then in April of 1960, right here in Raleigh we see this conference of students from across the south on Shaw University's campus. And that's when the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was founded," said Holt.

"All of this is now sitting on the doorsteps of the Raleigh Board of Education," he said.

Then, in September of 1960, Bill Campbell began second grade at Murphey Elementary, becoming the first black student in the all-white Raleigh school.

Joe Holt monument in Oberlin Village

Paving the way for future generations of black students

Joseph Holt, Jr. was the central figure in the initiative to integrate the Raleigh public school system. His family's work has been recognized with monuments in Oberlin Village, and they've been honored in the Raleigh Hall of Fame.

Holt paved the way for Campbell, who is often honored as the "first black student to integrate a white school."

His work also paved the way for the three students who integrated Broughton: Myrtle Capehart, Dorthy Howard and Cynthia Williams.

Cheryl Williams, who serves on the board of Friends of Oberlin Village, said, "The activism that Mr. and Mrs. Holt did paved the way for these kids to finally be able to integrate schools."

More than 50 years have passed since Holt first sought to integrate Josephus Daniels Middle School, which was named after a man who instigated the Wilmington Massacre in which 300 black people were killed.

Now, 50 years after denying entrance to a black student, Daniels has changed its name to Oberlin Middle School to honor the black community that once fought to gain equal education.

In 2017, a group of students petitioned to have Daniels Middle School named after Joe Holt, Jr., for being the first black student to seek integration there. Holt said his family didn't fight segregation to gain glory; they did it for justice and equality.

Deborah Holt Noel, his daughter, produced a short documentary on Holt's story called Exhausted Remedies: The Joel Holt Story.

After battling through his high school experience, Holt gained a Master's degree, taught at Fayetteville State University. He was an Air Force officer, who served the nation for more than 25 years. "I served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and participated in numerous combat airlift missions and aerospace rescue flights."

He retired in 1990 at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. While on active duty, he earned his Master's degree. Later, he taught at Fayetteville State University and St. Augustine's College.

He still gives talks to students, sharing lessons he learned from his own experiences as a student in the era of de-segregation.

Holt's family's story is not uncommon for black families prior to and during the Civil Rights Era. At the end of their legal push for equal access to education, Holt may not have gotten to attend an all-white school himself, but through years of fighting to break the color barrier in education, he paved the way for others to follow.

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