At 15, Dorothy Counts-Scoggins Desegregated An All-White School in Charlotte, North Carolina; At 73, She’s Fighting To Do It Again

GETTY IMAGES/THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER/HUFFPOST ILLUSTRATION Dorothy Counts-Scoggins became the first black student to attend the all-white Harding High School in 1957.
Dorothy Counts-Scoggins became the first black student to attend the all-white Harding High School in 1957.

When Dorothy Counts-Scoggins showed up for her first day of high school almost 60 years ago, she didn’t even make it into the building before she was spat on, targeted with thrown trash and told to “go back to Africa.” 

She was 15 years old that day in 1957 and the first black student to attend Harding High, a previously all-white school in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Her only friend stopped making eye contact in the hallway before the week was out. A group of boys surrounded her in the cafeteria and spat in her food. Other students threw a sharp object at her head once while she was facing her locker. Police officials told her worried parents they could not guarantee her safety.

“I did not feel I was being protected in any way within the confines of the school because there were adults there and they did nothing,” Counts-Scoggins said. “Teachers ignored me as if I was not even in the classroom. If I raised my hand, I wasn’t acknowledged.”

She left Harding High after four days, but Counts-Scoggins never stopped fighting for desegregation. Today, at age 73, she is at the forefront of a debate about whether recently re-segregated Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools should integrate classrooms along socioeconomic lines.

Retired from a long career as a preschool teacher and advocate for early childhood education, she travels to local communities to educate them on the importance of school diversity. Her work comes as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board mulls over a new student assignment plan.

In February, the school board voted to try and decrease the number of district schools with high concentrations of poor students. When the board decides on a final plan in the next few months, Counts-Scoggins hopes to convince community members to support one that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

“[Harding High School] did change my life, but changed my life to say, ‘This is what happened to me,’ but I want to make sure with what I do in life, those kinds of things don’t happen to other children,” she said.

“Not A Lot Has Changed.”

In many ways, Mecklenburg county and its associated countywide school district are a harbinger of the nation’s attitude towards school segregation. Nearly 15 years after Counts-Scoggins’ harrowing week at Harding High, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education became a national leader when it was at the center of a Supreme Court lawsuit that spurred nationwide school desegregation busing. But, like in so many places around the country, the district began to re-segregate during the 1990s and 2000s.

The district now has a student assignment plan where most kids go to neighborhood schools close to where they live, or to magnet and charter schools with limited numbers of seats. This means that high-resourced schools filled with affluent students are often located in different neighborhoods to schools with low-income students.

The school board’s debate over whether to use a new student assignment plan to urge socioeconomic integration parallels a conversation playing out nationwide. President Barack Obama’s latest budget proposal sets aside grant money to support schools that are working to integrate along socioeconomic lines. New research from the Century Foundation found that the number of schools with economic desegregation policies has doubled over the past 10 years.

The idea of a new student assignment plan is controversial in Charlotte. When Counts-Scoggins attends school board meetings she is brought back to her days as a determined — but ultimately disappointed — civil rights pioneer. She describes raucous school board meetings in which affluent parents voice concerns about socioeconomic integration in carefully veiled language. These parents express fears that socioeconomic integration would result in their child being bussed across town, even though the school board has not mentioned the possibility of bussing.

Some parents suggested in a February school board meeting that people from disadvantaged neighborhoods might “not value education the way I do,” or “don’t share the same passion for learning.” Some suggested that low-income schools will never perform well because those parents are less involved.

“Some of the comments I have heard in some of those meetings, a lot of them are racial. Some of them are subtle and some of them are not,” Counts-Scoggins said. “These children are growing up in this country and this is what they’re hearing. That’s the part sometimes that saddens me.”

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Source: Black Voices | Rebecca Klein