One Sunday in September of 1950, the residents of Old Fort were startled to see dozens of African-American children marching down the main street of town carrying signs saying “We Want Our School Back” and “What Happened to Our School”. The young students were protesting the decision to close the all-black Catawba View Grammar School in Old Fort, which meant that they would have to travel 15 miles to Marion to attend the“Consolidated Negro School”.
From our vantage point now- over 50 years later- this public demonstration is even more remarkable when we realize how early this act of defiance was within the context of what we now know as “The Civil Rights Movement”.
The Old Fort demonstration was:
- Just two years after President Truman had integrated the Armed Forces by executive order
- Only two years after Martin Luther King, Jr. became an ordained minister, and seven years before he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to fight segregation
- Four years before the Supreme Court Brown Vs. Board of Education decision that desegregated American schools
Despite petitions by the parents and the protests by the children, the black elementary school was demolished and the orders to attend school in Marion remained. One of Old Fort’s most notable and respected citizens, Col. Daniel Adams (find out more about him here) published an opinion in the local newspaper calling the closing and razing of the black school “acts of aggression” and “disgraceful”.
After Catawba View School was destroyed, the African-American parents in Old Fort began to submit petitions to the McDowell County Board of Education for their children to be allowed to attend all-white Old Fort Elementary. The applications were denied, and the families tried every legal avenue available to them without success. Then came Brown vs. Board of Education.
The Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional but left the timing and speed of desegregation up to the states and to individual school systems. Therefore, change was slow in coming.
In the summer of 1955, with their children still having to travel to Marion to school, the Old Fort parents decided to make a bold move. They would attempt to register a group of black children in person at Old Fort Elementary on the first day of the new term.
Albert Joyner was a nurse at the VA hospital in Oteen and had only recently moved to Old Fort. At the time, he had no school-age children. He knew of the plans for some leaders of the black community to escort a group of children to the elementary school on the morning of August 24th, but he was not involved.
However, when Mr. Joyner looked out his window that morning as he was getting dressed for work, he saw the children standing there alone. There had been threats and warnings from some whites in town, and the designated escorts had gotten cold feet. They didn’t show up.
Without a second thought, Mr. Joyner put on his best suit, walked outside, and led the children through town. A mostly hostile crowd lined the route, but he felt no fear. He felt that he had been called by God to step into this role, so there was no need to be afraid. Some members of the crowd at the schoolhouse were reportedly armed, but there were no incidents. Albert Joyner politely asked that the children be registered but was told by McDowell County School Superintendent Melvin Taylor that “integration will not be begun this year”. In addition to coverage in area newspapers, a full-page photo of Mr. Joyner and two of the children appeared in Look magazine, and Jet magazine also followed the story.
Shortly after the attempt to enroll the children, Mr. Joyner was in downtown Old Fort when white railroad worker W.W. Arney punched him, knocking him into the town fountain. Mr. Joyner’s sister went across the street to a drug store to call the police, but the store personnel would not allow her to enter. The police came anyway, arresting Mr. Joyner as well as Arney. (The charges against Albert Joyner were eventually dropped.) Many times over the ensuing years as the Old Fort integration case wound its way through the court system, Albert Joyner would be subject to threats and intimidation. He never backed down, and always appeared in court.
Years later, W.W. Arney was a patient at the VA Hospital after a serious automobile accident, and his nurse was none other than Albert Joyner. Mr. Joyner performed his duties as he would for anyone else in his care, but he made it a point to look Arney in the eye when he talked to him. In an interview with Reagan Robinson for the McDowell News in 2004, Mr. Joyner said, “I didn’t forget, and I know he didn’t forget. But you don’t try to get even with nobody. You do what’s right and you go on.”
Albert Joyner’s story came to the attention of Buncombe County Commission Chair David Gantt, and he told it before a capacity audience at the Martin Luther King Jr. prayer breakfast in Asheville in January of 2011. Among those in attendance were Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, US Congressman Heath Shuler, US Senator Kay Hagan, and CNN commentator Donna Brazile.
At the conclusion of Gantt’s presentation, Albert Joyner received a long, enthusiastic standing ovation.
Here is a partial transcript of our interview with Albert Joyner, courtesy of Rob Neufeld of the Asheville Citizen-Times:
Interview with Albert Joyner, 2009
Interviewer, Kim Clark, McDowell Oral History Project
Q: I’ve been going around since April, talking with people about history, asking them what kind of important events happened and we need to get somebody talking about—and nobody mentioned this.
A: Back then, you had a small town(?), you don’t get no recognition. Certain people will be outstanding in a community. Certain white people supposed to be outstanding. Certain black people supposed to be outstanding. If anybody do anything between (?) outstanding, they overlook it. The blacks overlook it because of when the right black(?) and white overlook it, and the blacks don’t talk about it, and the whites don’t talk about it, you’re not (?) going to have Black History. Black history won’t talk about it. That’s what it is. You’re only gonna have to worry about that. You just make your point, and you just back on off. Certain things people can do, and certain things people can’t do.
Q: Have you lived in the Old Fort area your whole life?
A: No. That was my problem. I migrated. I came here from the eastern part of the state. In 1952. And white (?) took the school, the Old Fort School, they closed the black School down, and had to(?) send their children there(?)…applied (?) for a school but in the meantime the rule had always been, be in a separate school…?…you couldn’t be in more school but black and white…came about after integration. That’s what started it all.
Q: How did you get involved?
A: I wasn’t involved. That’s the problem. I wasn’t involved. All the Negroes were going around—certain people wanted to do certain things, and certain people wanted to do (other) things. And if you weren’t in town(?), if you weren’t born here, you were an outsider. I never came to a meeting or nothing. Well, anyway, I knew they were supposed to take them down at a certain date. I take (?) this back (?) to the Lord because I got up that morning, and dressed, and the children were standing out there in the road, and the people that was supposed to take them didn’t show up, and I went and took them down, and that’s how I got started. I wasn’t in it…And you had no trouble, you had no fear, no nothing. That’s how it happened.
Q: So it had been arranged that the children were going to go and they were going to ask them to get them admitted.
A: …One was a preacher from Black Mountain. Two other men were from here, but they were scared to go. That’s the way it was. They were afraid to go. That’s the way it was back then. Blacks were afraid to stand up to the whites. And you’re talking about Old Fort—Marion was worse than Old Fort.
Q: How so? How was it worse?
A: Race was worse in Marion than it was here because they were having an NAACP meeting one day in Marion. That was before then at the United Church. They were scared to open up. And they were going to have an NAACP meeting there, and this chaplain, they were friends, so they had to get another church. The black people, they’re scared of whites up here.
Q: Was there ever any violence or was it that they just knew there was going to be trouble if they pushed too hard?
A: Maybe, if they had done anything about it, they’d have shot you in the foot, or do something, nobody would have said nothing, and they would have gotten nowhere. That’s the way it was. That’s why they were afraid. They were afraid if I took them. They were scared to death. I’m telling you, you wouldn’t believe it. When I brought them back, some of them fellas came up when I brought them down there. All of the white people all over the neighborhood down there. There wasn’t nothing but white. But I wasn’t afraid. I came on back. One of the fellas(?) asked me, do you see something…I said, “I didn’t know it. I didn’t know it.” “Well, alright…”…and then I went out one time to take my sister and meet the bus, and that’s when they all beat me up. That’s when they knocked me in the back, and it started from there.
Q: You got beat up?
A: Yeah. I got beat up bad. I sure did. And then the police came out there and asked what I tried to start. They pulled me out of the water, and I said, “Nothing.” And so, some cab driver brought me home that day. I called the sheriff, and he said he’d be up there in the morning. I said, “”I might not need him in the morning. I might be dead.” Well, anyway, that’s what that place was. They got scared.
Q: How long did it go on after that, that you got harassed and messed with?
A: Oh, it went on quite a while. I didn’t pay no attention because I had a job. I couldn’t get fired, I worked for the government, but the fellas waiting while I took the children, they got fired out of their plant. If anybody asks you(?), they got fired.
Q: What did you do for the government?
A: I was a nursing assistant.
Q: Oh, okay. Well, that day when you went to the schoolhouse, I guess the town knew that somebody was going to come, because you were all gathered.
A: They knew we were coming….There was one black there, one black…working with P.B. Cross there— school, then the black principal, he came…the blacks were afraid, really afraid.
Q: After you took the children to try to get them into school, they weren’t let in that day. What happened next?
A: We had to try to get them into school before(?) we had a case. That’s when they told them, “Your case is coming up.” We saw the(?) name in (?) Buncombe County…saw his name there. We went before him. We had had to do everything, and he said, “Keep going, going.” The court prolonged and everything. That’s what we done. But I was the only one that went in the court with the lawyer. The black people didn’t show themselves much. Them old black people would have killed me. They went to the Board of Education, I find out later on, I was talking to a white fella from Greensboro one day, his dad was on the Board of Education, I used to cut grass. He didn’t know who I was. He had no idea I was the one that took them to school. He said, “You know, that fella that went and took them children down to that school…A black man’s name came out…dead eye(?), and he said, “If y’all want me, we’ll take care of him.” …His dad told them no, “No, no need of doing that.” That’s the way it was then. Your own black people would kill you….You have to understand, the story…There was no integration. There was no integration in the plants. The only thing that blacks could do in the plants was janitor jobs. There were no women in there, period. You understand that?
A: So you see how far we came.
A: They had a right to be scared. They could cut off their bread and butter. They couldn’t even buy what they wanted. Some of them would buy a brand new car, and they’d jump in (?) and get fired. That’s how it was.
Q: They’d fire them because they got a new car?
A: Well, you couldn’t get no new car. I knew a fella. Get a new car, and they fire you. You get a car like that, we don’t need you. Sure. That’s how it was. You get what they had—you always had to be under them, you know what I mean? You couldn’t get what you want. You didn’t have no banks or no money. What are you going to do. All the banks, you need to have good credit, and they wouldn’t let you have it. I couldn’t get nothing from the bank. When I first came here, I don’t think no black had a checking account. I opened a checking account in my old eastern part of the state, and came back, and had one of those checks bounce in that back. And the fella(?) I went to see about it, he said, “We just don’t understand your name….they just didn’t want me to put no money in the bank. They didn’t want me to have no dealings with the bank. Black people back then, they had no … See, before then…Black people put their money in the post office.
Q: Put it in the post office?
A: Yeah…the post office…the bank…and that’s where the black people put their money the most.
Q: Have you have regretted that you just happened to come along that day?
A: I didn’t come along. I’m telling you, that was only the business of the Lord….I take you by the hand. If I take your hand, and you go out to the car, you ain’t got nothing to say about it. That’s the way that was. I didn’t have nothing to do about it. I never would have gone. I didn’t have to worry about getting in no trouble because the Lord guided me. He took me down there. Through all that crowd(?), and helped his step come back and walk by all that crowd, come home…the door(?).
Q: There was no trouble?
A: No. There was no trouble. And I’m not afraid either…I didn’t get mad at nobody. I…the Lord because…the Lord(?). The fella that knocked me in the fountain…on the Board of Education… The fella that knocked me in the fountain , I got to wait on him. He had a wreck(?), run over something, broke one of his legs. I worked in the hospital, and we got him over there. The first morning, I went by to take his temp…He didn’t know me…I treat him nice…as years went by, he come over…and I remember the night he died. The supervisor knowed it, but he didn’t let on he knowed that he was the one that knocked me. They never let on. But anyway, she called over to my wardess(?) for a certain fella to come over, he didn’t want me to come…I asked him who it was…It’s nothing really important now. That’s how that was. Yeah. I never worried about it. And the policeman who told me that night he wouldn’t help me none, he had a cancer(?) dying here…he came and got me one morning, his wife—his brother-in-law came there one morning, he wanted me to give him an enema. And I went on in there, and I treated him real nice and everything. It didn’t make no difference with me. I gave it to him and everything, and I cleaned up. I wanted to make sure I do a good job, don’’t mess him up, because he told me, don’t hurt me, because all of the rest of them…So, I done the job…He left me money, and I said, “No, you don’t owe me nothing.” I waited on white and black around here, and I never did charge them nothing. The only thing that made me take that money: “I want you to have it.” And I took it.. I didn’t know what he was thinking. Then I kept on going back at different times he sent for me…After he died, I went into a filling station, and filled up with gas(?), and his wife came out and said, “We’ll let them take no money from you.” So I wouldn’t go there no more because it wasn’t obligated to me. They feel like it was, but it wasn’t obligated to me. The Lord took him(?).
Hear Mr. Joyner tell his story:
And click here to read the excellent 2004 McDowell News article by Reagan Robinson.
Special thanks to Patti Holda of the McDowell County library.