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How Brown v. Board impacted West Charlotte High School in North Carolina

Students from Charlotte High School in Charlotte, N.C., ride a bus together, May 15, 1972. (Harold L. Valentine/AP)
Students from Charlotte High School in Charlotte, N.C., ride a bus together, May 15, 1972. (Harold L. Valentine/AP)

There’s one thing that many alumni from West Charlotte High School have in common: pride.

The school’s rich history sheds light on the country’s history of school desegregation. West Charlotte was a segregated, predominantly Black school before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling on May 17, 1954. Justices ruled that segregating schools was unconstitutional.

But that decision itself did not change things in practice. For more than a decade, most schools remained segregated, including West Charlotte High.

“When I was at West Charlotte, the faculty was desegregated, but the students weren’t,” says Ella Dennis, who attended the school from 1963 to 1966, before it was integrated. She’s now the historian for the school’s Alumni Association. “We had a very progressive, forward-thinking principal. Mr. Blake probably was more amenable to [white faculty] coming and being a part of us… Most of the teachers at West Charlotte, they wanted us to feel like we were not different, that we could do anything that we wanted to do.”

West Charlotte High desegregated around 1971, a few years after Dennis graduated. Around then, a Supreme Court decision let schools bus students from one neighborhood to another to achieve integration.

“Fights started to break out — this was with the students,” says Dennis. “But the West Charlotte students, a group of them got together and did what they call a ‘love in.’ They just left the building and they started holding hands and singing.”

By the 1970s, four of 10 students there were Black. Six of 10 were white.

Rev. Joe B. Martin was bussed from his affluent, mainly white neighborhood to West Charlotte High in the 1980s when the school was integrated. Now he’s the senior pastor at the Sardis Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.

Rev. Joe B. Martin was bussed from his affluent, mainly white neighborhood to West Charlotte High in the 1980s when the school was integrated. (Courtesy)

“There was always an effort to make sure everything was integrated. The school council was, by design, 50/50,” he says. “Even though we were bussed across the city to go there, the folks who had been a part of that school for generations welcomed us like family right off the bat.”

After Martin graduated from West Charlotte High in 1985, things changed again. In the 1990s, a federal judge ruled that bussing was no longer needed.

And Ella Dennis remembers that many white students left West Charlotte High.

“They redrew the line so you had a concentration of high poverty areas that were fed into the school. That’s my opinion,” she says. “When that happened, the test scores went down for the students as a whole.”

Today, West Charlotte High says about 75% of its students are Black, 18% are Hispanic and a very small portion are Asian or white.

Martin says before it was integrated, West Charlotte High was a “very proud institution with devoted teachers and had a pretty high rate of college-bound students.”

But he said it didn’t have the resources of other schools.

“With integration, some of those resources were added,” he says. “Then when bussing ended, some of those resources went away. So a lot of it is just the struggle for equal resources to other schools.”

Martin and Dennis are both involved with the school today.

Malachi Thompson is a senior at West Charlotte High and student government president. (Courtesy)

“They have this saying: restoring the roar. The lion is our mascot, and restoring the roar involves a lot of commitment to the school as well as the school’s history,” Dennis says. “I think that we have a faculty up there now and administration and I think they’re committed, and they know that we’re committed to keeping that legacy alive.

Malachi Thompson is a senior at West Charlotte High School who is well aware of the history. He’s student government president and the fourth generation of his family to attend the school. He said his family and alumni have told him about the school’s past.

“What they tell me is, it was hard. It was difficult, but they survived,” he says. “That’s the message that they bring… That’s what I like to share with a lot of our freshmen that come to West Charlotte that our elders have already fought that battle so let’s make sure that we continue to welcome everybody that comes from everywhere to the doors of West Charlotte High School.”


Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Ryan also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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