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Oral histories recount integration of Mount Hope High School

November 4, 2017
Associated Press

MOUNT HOPE, W.Va. (AP) — Kat Scott recalled that auspicious day in 1956. "We were called into our cafeteria," she said.

The call for all students to gather came near the end of the school year at the all-black W.E.B. DuBois High School, in Mount Hope, in Fayette County.

"We were told some of the students would not be coming back to Mount Hope. Some would be going to other schools in the county — Oak Hill High, Fayetteville," she said.

A host of black students would not return, while a bunch of white students would be joining them that fall at DuBois. It had to do with desegregation and integration.

"So, a lot of our friends would not be coming back to go to school with us. It was heartbreaking. A lot of us cried," recalled Scott, who lives in Mount Hope with her husband, Howard, a fellow graduate of the school.

"I didn't know what they meant by it. I remember asking the question: 'What do you mean by 'integrated' or 'integration?'" she said.

It meant a sea change in the tiny Fayette County community.

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The integration of American public schools began with a court case on the flat plains of Kansas that ended up in Washington, D.C.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decided on May 17, 1954, ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th amendment and was, therefore, unconstitutional.

But the wave of desegregation that followed from the court's unanimous decision took years to move through the country's public schools.

One of the earliest places the wave struck in West Virginia was Mount Hope, in the state's heartland.

And there lies a tale that Jack Spadaro, a Mount Hope native, wanted to tell. It is a story of how — not without a few bumps — desegregation came peacefully to his hometown.

And why was that?

On Oct. 15, the Mountain of Hope Organization held a public forum at the Mount Hope Presbyterian Church to showcase part of "Oh Deep in My Heart," an ambitious interracial oral history project about desegregation in Mount Hope, with key backing from the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The project — recently renamed "Hope" — includes more than 40 oral histories compiled by Michael and Carrie Kline and O.H. Jackson Napier of Talking Across the Lines.

The idea for the effort began with a casual conversation Spadaro had a few years ago with a black high school classmate, Nathan Shelton, about why desegregation in Mount Hope seemed to go fairly smoothly.

Spadaro and Shelton both ended up attending the integrated W.E.B. DuBois High School, which was renamed Mount Hope High School the school year after that meeting in the cafeteria.

Spadaro, who is white and graduated in 1966, was co-captain of the school's integrated championship football team.

"I said, 'Nathan, why do you think it worked so well here? It wasn't perfect. There were still vestiges of segregation in the community. Why do you think we managed to pull this off?'" he said.

Because, Shelton told Spadaro, "We were all in the same boat. We were all working-class people or the children of working-class people. So we weren't afraid of each other. We had something in common."

Spadaro thought about that for a bit.

"When Nathan told me that, I thought, maybe we need to tell this story," he said.

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For decades, Michael and Carrie Kline have collected thousands of oral histories across the region.

In compiling hundreds of hours of interviews on the history of desegregation in Mount Hope, they pieced together a portrait of a community well-suited to a relatively peaceful transition, but one that was not without pain.

Mount Hope was already an ethnically diverse community. Black and white folks grew up together and worked in the coal mines, where you might find Spaniards, Italians, Jews, Ukrainians, Poles and other immigrants toiling underground.

"So, you had this de facto diversity going on in the town," Michael Kline said. "It had sort of filtered up from underground, from these close associations of the workers. They set the tone for the rest of the town."

At the newly christened Mount Hope High, there were gains and losses, both literally — on the ball field — and figuratively, for some students.

"The new system worked out well for Mount Hope High School because DuBois High School had had champion ball teams; they had outstanding players," Carrie Kline said. "Now, these teams were melded — they were both black and white. In two years, they became state champions.

"So, this was a great thing for the people in the town. And the feeling was, that really helped them accept integration more than any other one thing."

In fact, one of the oral history pieces is titled "Gamechanger." The title has double meaning, given the impact on area residents, black and white, as they rooted together for their integrated high school team and its successful pursuit of state trophies.

But it was not all cheers and congratulations.

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In the transition from DuBois to Mount Hope High, the black cheerleaders of DuBois were told there was no place for them on the new school's squad.

"I was a cheerleader from seventh grade on," Kat Scott recalled. "I was no longer able to be a cheerleader because we were told the cheerleaders had been picked already. That was heartbreaking to me."

It would not be until 1964 that a light-skinned black teenager was added to the cheerleading squad, after complaints to the principal, Michael Kline said.

The new cheerleader was mystified about why she'd been chosen. She told the oral historians in an interview: "I guess maybe they'd chosen me for my skin color, because you can't tell me from a white person."

Even so, Michael Kline said, the change "meant everything to the black football players."

The Klines also recorded stories of how relationships between black and white students were sometimes discouraged, even "crushed," by administrators.

"One fellow never tried for the honor role again after he was docked a grade for writing a little note to a white student in his homeroom class," Michael Kline said.

But, through the histories they compiled, the overall arc of desegregation happened peacefully and resulted in a racially mixed community in the end, even if there were many bumps along the way.

Scott said her experience of desegregation went well, as she made friends with white students and was treated well by the white teachers she encountered for the first time in her life in a classroom.

"As far as those friendships expanding out into the community, some of the things that did occur to us were not part of the school," she recalled.

"There was a sweet shop the kids went to. The black kids were not treated the same there until later on. The white students complained, and we were able to be treated the same."

Unlike in other communities undergoing desegregation, white students were moved into the black school in Mount Hope, not the other way around. That's because DuBois had just opened in a new facility in 1954-55, a school featuring excellent teachers and a newer building than the white high school.

But, with desegregation, the school lost its identity — it was named after the famed W.E.B. DuBois, an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and author, who had once visited the community.

Scott, who left Mount Hope for many years to work elsewhere, returned in 1990 to become a special education teacher at Mount Hope High. The school had a plaque on the wall recounting its history as the all-black W.E.B. DuBois High, but it was covered by a trophy case.

The principal agreed to Scott's request that the trophy case be moved to uncover the school's backstory.

"A lot of the students had no clue that it had been a black high school," Scott said.

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The ties between workers and neighbors that existed in the community helped bring people together, Scott said.

"We always tell the story of my husband and one of his white friends," she said. "They did everything together. They were neighbors. They ate with each other."

For Spadaro, the story of desegregation in Mount Hope is a hopeful one that needs to be shared.

He fondly recalled former DuBois principal E.C. Smith, who Spadaro said taught civics, Shakespeare and one other crucial set of lessons in the integrated Mount Hope High.

"Mr. Smith is the person who taught all of us — black and white students — about how racial hatred is taught. It's something you're taught. You're not born to hate other people because of color," he said. "That's a lesson that stayed with all of us, especially the white students."

Another African-American teacher, Eunice Fleming, taught a business class, led the integrated chorus and coached the interracial girls basketball squad. She and Smith were crucial in working with their fellow white instructors and administrators in addressing the challenges of combining a black and white student population, Spadaro said.

"Those two people really were instrumental in making the integration of the school work," he said.

Mount Hope had West Virginia's first black high school quarterback to lead an integrated — and championship — team, Otha Payne, Spadaro said.

"He did provide a very quiet and dignified leadership in his role," he said.

Spadaro's uncle, Gene, a longtime Mount Hope coach, was another essential figure in the successful integration of the school's football and track programs.

"He, as much as anybody, helped in making sure football and track, especially, were integrated, and everybody had a chance," he said.

Spadaro and the Klines spoke of the story of Mount Hope as "a counter-narrative" to the current depiction of West Virginia in the media as an intolerant place.

Michael Kline cited an educator named P.A. Williams, who once recounted, "West Virginia was known all throughout the Deep South as the least hostile place a black person could relocate.

"It had that reputation. But that's all been swallowed up by political interests who would like to keep us separated and at each other's throats," he said. "And it has been effective."

But they said they hope the oral history project can be spun off into a series of podcasts on West Virginia Public Broadcasting and perhaps turned into a documentary and told in schools across the nation.

Mount Hope's history is a needed one at a time when division and racial hostility get all the headlines, Carrie Kline said.

"I know that some West Virginia communities did have violence," she said. "I don't know what prevented it in Mount Hope. Mount Hope seems to be a very special place — really a model at a time when we need models of people learning about one another and breaking bread together."

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

 
 
 

 

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