Grimsley Returns With Classmates to Discuss School Integration


Photo by Sarah Asch

From left to right, Jim Grimsley, Rose Bell, Donnie Meadows, and Fernanda Copeland spoke in Wilson Hall last Thursday about their experience with school integration in North Carolina.


Author Jim Grimsley returned to campus on Thursday Oct. 26, almost exactly a year after he last visited, to discuss his book “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning Lessons From a Racist Childhood.” The book is about his experience living through school integration in Jones County, North Carolina. This year, Grimsley was joined on stage by the three black women who integrated his all white sixth grade class in 1968: Donnie Meadows, Fernanda Copeland, and Rose Bell.

“They all changed my life in different ways,” Grimsley said.

Grimsley explained that the reason that Meadows, Copeland, and Bell were the only black students in their middle school was because of a program called Freedom of Choice.

“Freedom of choice was white people’s last-ditch effort to refuse integration altogether,” he said. All three women had to elect to attend the white school, though Copeland and Meadows, who are sisters, said that their father made the decision for them. “We moved from Washington, D.C. so schools were already integrated there,” Copeland said. “I knew what it was like to go to school with people of different races. It didn’t bother me.”

Their father chose the white school because he wanted his daughters to get a better education.

“My dad said you’re going to go there, and I want you to sit there and I want you to learn. I want you to stand up for yourself, but be respectful,” Copeland said. “I was not nervous. I knew that I needed to go because we were taught that anything in life that you want you have to work for, and education was the key.”

Bell said she also chose the white school because of the better educational opportunities, but she made that decision herself.

“I told my parents that I wanted to go over to the white school. They said, ‘are you sure?’ I said, ‘yes, I’m sure.’ I wanted to know what they were learning. We had been told that they had the new books. [The black students] got the books after [the white students] did,” she said.

Meadows said that even back then she was impressed that Bell had decided to integrate.

“I would like to say that Rose was the champion because Rose decided to attend the school that was all white,” she said. “Not her father, not her mother, she did. And that age it took some guts to do that.”

Bell talked about what it was like to walk into the classroom for the first time.

“All eyes were on us,” Bell said. “We were different because of the color of our skin, which was something we could not help. So I go in there and I said it’s like this: I know who I am and I know what I stand for. I stand for right. Even though I’m out numbered I’ll stand for what’s right.”

All three women described that first year as difficult as they settled into a new learning environment. Bell said that the boys sitting behind her often called her fat, and that sometimes her classmates would push chairs into her back.

“A lot of times I didn’t say anything I just took it,” she said. “Then it got to the point, sometimes, I would have to defend myself. I would have to actually get into arguments with the boys. Our teacher at that time was an older white man and he would be in and out of the classroom a whole lot. And that caused a lot of friction in the classroom. Most of the time everything would start was when the teacher left the classroom.”

Copeland also talked about standing up for herself rather than telling the teacher, including once when several of the boys in her class exposed themselves in front of her.

“I never told the teacher because I felt like I handled that myself,” she said.

The group also addressed an incident that Grimsley writes about in his book, when he decided to call Bell a name in class.

“When Jim called Rose the name, I’ll never forget that day,” Meadows said. “He wasn’t ready for her. It came out of his mouth so quickly, and she came right back, and she came back stomping. And I couldn’t believe that she had it to go back like that.”

Grimsley credits Bell with helping him see his own racism that day, so he could eventually work to counteract it.

“As white children we were shaped to be very quiet and not to talk and not to ever make noise. Rose came into that classroom prepared to make any amount of noise she needed to to make her point,” Grimsley said. “On [that] particular day when I was 11 years old I was confronted with my racism in such terms that I could not deny that I wanted to change it.”

After their two years together in middle school, the Supreme Court ruled that Freedom of Choice was not an adequate form of integration. Going into their first year of high school, all four students were faced with a fully integrated school system. Grimsley pointed out, however, that many of his white classmates opted to go to white private schools when this happened, which meant that white students were in the minority at the newly integrated public school.

Grimsley also discussed the tracking programs at their high school to force a new kind of academic segregation.

“As soon as full integration happened, what happened all over the south was there were different tracking programs within the integrated schools that re-imposed a kind of segregation at the classroom level,” he said. “The first strategy was the notion of college preparatory courses….The school was 70 percent black, 30 percent white. But I was never in a classroom in which the balance was not reversed. Our college prep classrooms were always 70 percent white, 30 percent black.” Meadows, Copeland, and Bell were all in the college preparatory track as well, along with seven other black students.

The four speakers described a high school experience full of turmoil.

“When we walked three miles to the courthouse and to the community center, you got suspended for 15 days,” Copleand said, at which point her father drove down to the school. “He had choice words for the superintendent. He went to the superintendent’s office that next day and when he came back he told us, ‘you guys will be in school tomorrow.’ And we were there the next day. Finally, they lifted the suspensions and the other students were allowed back in.”

The women also talked about the presence of religion in their lives, and the differences between the white church and the black church when they were growing up. Meadows described Jones County as deeply Southern Baptist.

“You had two churches, the white church and the black church. And there were two different messages being taught out of those two churches,” she said. “The black church, that’s where Martin Luther King got his start. Everybody knew that the black church is where the NAACP would come and hold their meetings. And everybody was in the NAACP when we were young. And so the black church did not teach us to hate.”

The white church, on the other hand, had an active role in spreading racism, and Grimsley remembers hearing sermons about white superiority and segregation.

“What they would say was, well, you cannot love them the way you love another white person. If God had intended us to be one people, he would have made us all the same color,” he said. “Once you begin to use a holy place for that kind of purpose, it’s not altogether a holy place anymore.”

Today, Copeland and Bell still live in Jones County, and they say it hasn’t changed much.

“We learned to be cordial to one another, greet one another, we go to each others churches and we tolerate one another,” Copeland said. “But the underline is we are still not equal.” She says she still sees racism, which is part of why she has decided to run for a county commissioner position.

Bell said she also tries to get involved.

“I try to get on as many boards as I can in the country, be very instrumental, and let my light shine before people. Because that’s all I can do,” she said. “If I could help one person to change then I feel like I have accomplished something.”