Rural Education in Rockingham County During the Jim Crow Era
Centering the Narrative of the United States Supreme Court Case of Griggs vs. Duke Power Company
Even folks familiar with North Carolina probably could not tell you much about Rockingham County. Bordering the Virginia State line and geographically one of the largest counties in the state, it also has a high poverty rate. It is a county that is traversed with five rivers, outstretched land that was once fields of tobacco, and people that worked hard and long in mills, which have become places of service entry positions. But Rockingham County was the ideal location for the Dan River Steam Station, which began operation in 1949 and was owned and operated by The Duke Power Company. Here at this Station 14, African Americans placed a signed note on their supervisor's desk requesting to apply for other positions throughout the plant. They were denied the request, and this was the bases of a 1971 United States Supreme Court Case, Griggs v. Duke Power Company. The contention was that they were discriminated against when Duke Power Company required them to possess a high school diploma and/or pass a standardized general intelligence test to obtain certain positions at the Station, neither of which was found to have a bearing on the employee's ability to perform the sought out positions. At that time, the education requirements disproportionately harmed African-Americans, and white employees were only filling well-paying positions without subscribing to the educational mandates.
Early in my research process, I knew that I was going deep into the educational aspects of the Griggs vs. Duke Power Company case, as that was a vital component of the decision. When the stars aligned and I received the notification that the National Council of History Education was going to do professional development on the rural experience, after the initial thrill of seeing PD that focused on The Rural Experience, which I had never seen before. The next thing was that NCHE would provide this local historical research vehicle to do it. Spending months through sessions 1 and 2, I was able to network, expand my pedagogical strengths, and to think deeply about "what is rural?" The summer ended with my first visit to Oklahoma with the Onsite Colloquium, and the ability to practice the previous months' learning.
Now to make the project work with the proposal. Looking at the case, I knew the men came of age during the Jim Crow Era, with the last of the 14 being born in 1929, Willie Griggs, whose name carries the case. Recruiting students from the school district, the ten students ended up coming from my school's sponsored History Club, which made the scheduling process much easier. They agreed to attend 4 Saturday sessions and a virtual program on March 8th (the date of the actual US Supreme Court decision was released). The objective was to conduct an oral history interview of anyone that attended schools in Rockingham County from 1920-1970. This was to give us a more vivid understanding of the people of Rockingham County during the Jim Crow Era and to look at the argument regarding educational requirements for the Griggs vs. Duke Power Company US Supreme Court case. There were apparent and racist discrepancies between white and Black schools. For example, "the average rural white school was valued at $1,290, while the same for blacks were a mere $350" during the early 1920s. (Sarah Caroline Thuessen, Greater Than Equal African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina 1919-1965, p. 30). At the same time, there were instances where differences in schooling could be indistinguishable between races, or in some cases, the men of the Labor Department may have had more schooling than their white supervisor. The granddaughter of Robert Jumper shared the story where her high school graduate grandfather had to help out his illiterate supervisor.
We have spent the last several months diving and deconstructing historical research in ways that I don't always get to perform in the classroom setting, such as the students having the opportunity to use a microfilm machine, providing skills and engagement that are more akin to real historical experiences. The most relevant experience to my 21st-century interns is the ability to communicate beyond a computer screen. The skill set it takes to schedule, show up, ask questions, and engage with others as they share a part of themselves is a valuable tool no matter what career path these students will enter.
The overall relevance of this project, which I have been working on since 2018, is that we are saving history, particularly Black History, which oftentimes is neglected or falls through the crevices of having actual documentation. Before becoming a teacher, I worked at a customer service job, and the motto was, "if it isn't documented, it didn't happen." Even though we know actual history is not that way, it can seem that way. So these stories must be documented.
Now local History, in a place that most people have never heard of, Rockingham County, North Carolina, is bringing attention to a piece of the Civil Rights Movement narrative that should have been rightly placed before. This local, rural history will be receiving a North Carolina Civil Rights Trail Marker and a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker.