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. (more…)