Most of us know from our high school American history classes that the Brown v. Board decision of 1954 ordered an end to segregation in schools. The ruling effectively reversed the longstanding precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson, from 1891, which established the legal-though-unjust “separate but equal” rule. But, in the South, the process of accomplishing Brown‘s herculean edict would meander along through the rest of the 1950s, 1960s, and into the 1970s. What could loosely be called integration occurred in the South mainly during the 1970s and 1980s, even though the tenuous balance was counteracted heavily by “white flight” from public schools and the creation of private schools and academies.
Forty years after Brown v. Board, though, some measure of “separate” still existed. My millennial students find it strange when I tell them that, back in 1980s and ’90s, some public schools in the South used to have two separate prom or homecoming courts: one white, one black. This now-odd arrangement was actually an effort at being conciliatory, and even progressive, about racially integrated schools: everyone had a chance. Having been in high school during that time, I remember it being accepted as such, by students and families and schools alike.
However, in 1994, in the small and otherwise insignificant Alabama town of Wedowee – the county seat of rural Randolph County, with a population that hovers around 800 – this kind of arrangement provided the backdrop for one scene to go horribly wrong. According to New York Times coverage from March 1994, Wedowee High School’s principal Hulond Humphries was well known for maintaining de facto segregation long past its prime:
Mr. Humphries has been principal of Randolph County High for 25 years but he has not exactly been a champion of integration. In a 1989 report by the Civil Rights Office of the U.S. Department of Education, he was criticized for maintaining disciplinary standards that resulted in “disparate treatment of black and white students,” and for allowing students to be transported in buses that were segregated by race.
And he had let his school’s juniors and seniors know, at an assembly in February 1994, that he intended to enforce a kind of segregation at the prom, too, saying “that if any students were planning to take dates of a different race to the prom, there would be no prom.”
Revonda Bowen, then a student at the school, took exception with the pronouncement. Bowen was of mixed race and wanted to know from Humphries who she was allowed to go with.
According to Ms. Bowen and several other students who attended the assembly, Mr. Humphries replied: “That’s a problem, Revonda. Your mom and daddy made a mistake, having a mixed-race child.” The students said he added that he was trying to prevent others from making the same mistake.
And right there, the proverbial stuff hit the fan. In 1994, forty years after Brown and thirty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a principal in an American high school effectively called a mixed-race student a “mistake” in front of everyone. Even the sensational tabloid rag People covered the story:
Humphries, 56, retracted his prom ultimatum the next day and issued a statement explaining his remarks as prompted by concern over “the risk of disorder” at the dance. But many Wedowee residents—especially African-Americans—demanded that the part-time hog farmer and father of two either step down or be fired. He was suspended with pay for two weeks, but then the school board reinstated him without a public hearing. That prompted some parents, including Revonda’s, to yank their children out of the high school and temporarily enroll them in “freedom schools” organized by two civil rights groups and held in two local African-American churches. Even so, Revonda and her boyfriend, Chris Brown, 19, went to the prom on April 23. The only mixed-race couple to show up, they were treated politely, she says, but were shocked when the crowd gave Humphries a loud ovation when he made his official entrance.
By late summer 1994, the tensions had grown to small-town enormity. In August, The New York Times was again reporting from Wedowee because someone had set fire to the high school. They weren’t 100% sure that the fire and Humphries’ remarks were linked, but it was likely, officials said. After those controversial remarks, there was also “a campaign by black parents to have Mr. Humphries removed.”
To see how drastically things have changed one needs only note the FBI agents guarding the home of a local mixed-race girl because of threats on her family. Or hear the state fire marshal declare that arsonists set the fire that gutted the local high school last Saturday. Or the former principal deny that he participated in the weekend beating of a black television news cameraman.
Less sensational but possibly more profound is the hint of deeper, societal change. At the heart of the controversy that has rocked Wedowee (pronounced we-DOW-wee) for the last six months is that quintessential Southern bugaboo, race-mixing, and one man’s alleged obsession with suppressing it.
By the spring of 1995, the story was gracing the pages of Rolling Stone and of the Los Angeles Times again. The Rolling Stone coverage, which is substantial in its scene-setting, tells us how the story panned out, after the fire:
This February – one year after RCHS principal Hulond Humphries was almost universally dismissed by the national press as a toothless anachronism, a throwback to a racist era long gone – Humphries was awarded the newly created job of consultant to the school board and put in charge of rebuilding the school. Lionized in some quarters for having vanquished the interfering “outsiders,” Humphries is even considering running for Randolph County schools superintendent next year. Some folks think he can win.
As stunned blacks keep a cold eye on the man they claim humiliated and abused black students for a quarter of a century, they confront a school board that has spent nearly $200,000 defending him. The Justice Department, apparently determined to oust Humphries last spring, has grown curiously compliant in the wake of last November’s elections. The FBI, meanwhile, is unwilling to identify a suspect in the arson case for fear it will spark a new spasm of anger. Or so the rumor goes.
The LA Times then relayed the news that no one wanted to hear: the son of local black minister was arrested by the FBI for setting fire to the high school. The young man’s father was one of the founders of those “freedom schools.” Later that fall, however, in October 1995, he was acquitted by a federal jury, though his father was still insistent that the charges had been based on retribution, not on any notions of justice.
As the ordeal in Wedowee faded into time, Hulond Humphries was far from vilified for his remarks and actions. In July 1997, Humphries was sworn in as Randolph County’s superintendent, much to the chagrin of local blacks and many national media outlets. He had run unopposed.
As for Revonda Bowen, the girl he called a “mistake” in front of her classmates, she tried to move on but still went through her own struggles, mostly of a more personal nature. She eventually wrote a book titled No Mistakes, No More Tears, which was published by AuthorHouse in 2005.
Living in Alabama, I remember this vitriolic controversy well, and I also remember wondering back then if Alabama would ever stop gleaning the national spotlight for questionable acts committed by people in leadership positions. (That was twenty-two years ago, and we’re still not done with those habits.) I also remember wondering why anyone cared what happened in Wedowee, Alabama. I didn’t, particularly. Though now I understand more thoroughly how these situations are a microcosm for something much larger. Martin Luther King, Jr. said famously, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and these events in a small Southern town and the vehement response to them were indicative of that idea.
As we near the end of Black History Month, this two-decade-old story from an Alabama small town reminds us that, when black people and white people are polarized, there are people stuck in the middle. The long-standing dichotomy – call it “the color line” – doesn’t work, and hasn’t ever worked.
For any news coverage that highlighted those who supported segregation, and though we recognize Revonda Bowen as most obviously caught in the middle, what about her friends, her boyfriend, and the teachers and students who wanted their integrated high school to be truly integrated? Bowen may have been the symbol, the bell-weather, the harbinger of race relations, but she was not the only one caught in the middle. And to be frank, when any leader forces us to choose sides, everyone loses when the demonizing begins.