This week, we look back at the violence and controversy surrounding in Anson County in the late 1960s. This year will also mark the 50th anniversary of a lawsuit — intended to combat racism — against the Anson County school board.
About a half-century ago, the homes and cars of Anson County families were bombed when black children attended a recently desegregated school.
The newly-formed Anson County Board of Education was sued by minor Frankie M. Singleton and her guardian, Ada Mae Ford, as well as then-U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
The school system was formed on July 1, 1967 and made up of the former Anson County, Morven and Wadesboro city schools, according to the lawsuit.
“Prior to the commencement of the 1965-66 school year, each of the three school units in Anson County operated a dual school system based on race,” the lawsuit stated.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional during the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, but many districts were slow to comply. Anson was one of them.
The schools were ordered to desegregate and give black students the choice to attend formerly all-white schools.
Black families attacked
Clyde Owens, a black Morven resident, had four children in the public school system in 1966-67. All four had attended McRae School in Morven, but in 1966, his oldest two decided to attend the formerly all-white Morven school.
“On a Friday night in September 1966, after these two children had begun to attend Morven, a bomb exploded in his yard approximately twenty feet from his house,” the lawsuit said.
Owens testified that when he called the policeman, Officer Northcutt’s wife told him that her husband was looking into an explosion.
“Mr. Owens drove to Morven and saw Mr. Northcutt and a crowd of 15 to 20 others looking at the poolroom in Morven where a bomb had apparently just exploded,” the lawsuit said. “He told Mr. Northcutt of the explosion at his house and returned home.”
Although Northcutt and other authorities looked into the explosion at Owens’ home, at the time of the lawsuit, Owens said he didn’t believe there were ever any arrests in the case.
“He had never had any acts of violence directed at him or any members of his family before his two children attended Morven,” the lawsuit said. “He can think of no reason for the bombing at his home except for having had children at Morven.”
Lula Liles, a black McFarlan resident, had four children in school, all of whom had attended McRae. When her oldest child, Larry, went to Morven, in August 1966, “a bomb was thrown at her house which broke every window and mirror in the house” at 1 a.m. on Sept. 12 of that year.
The family decided to stay indoors before seeing the sheriff since it was dark, but the sheriff soon showed up. As in the Owens family’s case, Liles didn’t believe there were ever any arrests. Her family had lived in Anson for 19 years and had never experienced any attacks before Larry went to Morven City School.
Ellis Broadie, another black McFarlan resident, also reported a bombing on Sept. 12, when the family’s 1962 Chevrolet was destroyed. The explosion also “broke almost every window pane in the house, destroyed two window frames and broke a large quantity of dishes.”
Just 10 to 20 minutes later, Broadie heard an explosion at the house of Thomas Liles. Broadie’s two oldest children had decided to attend Morven that year.
Some families received letters from the superintendent at the time telling them that their children had been assigned to attend Morven City School, but the families refused to send their children there after hearing of the violence that other families were experiencing. Some, like Mary Norma Robinson, a black Morven woman, had read of the attacks in the Anson Record and the Messenger and Intelligencer — which were separate papers at the time — and decided to keep all of her children out of formerly all-white schools.
“She never considered sending her children to a formerly white school because she is afraid that some violence might be directed at her or her family if she did,” the lawsuit said.
Some parents sent their children back to a black school, according to the lawsuit, while others went out of the county for their education.
A total of 77 black students had planned to attend the white Morven City School in 1966-67. None of them went.
School board attacks
Black families weren’t the only ones facing violence. On Feb. 25, 1967, a bomb exploded outside the Peachland home of Baxter T. McRae, then-chairman of the school board. Only the week before, the board had publicized its plans to merge the board with the Morven and Wadesboro systems.
The next chairman, James A. Hardison, was also targeted. On the evening of June 29-30, there were explosions in five places, including at Pee Dee Oil Company, where Hardison was the president.
“One was at the summer cabin of W.E. Stegall Jr., school board member,” the lawsuit said. “Two were at the residences of Glenn Martin and G.E. Tucker, school board members. One was at the residence of L. Wildermuth, school superintendent.”
An article in the Thursday, July 6, 1967 issue of the Anson Record gave front-page coverage to the attacks with the headline: “Educators bombed Thursday midnight.”
“Thursday’s bombings doubtless grew out of a major conspiracy directed at school officials who are confronted with ultimatums from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and from the Justice Department to get about the job of eliminating the dual school system,” the paper reported.
The bombings were almost simultaneous and involved dynamite.
At Pee Dee Oil, “a large charge of dynamite was placed on the steps of the office building in an areaway across from a storage building belonging to the same firm,” the paper reported. “The resulting explosion woke dozens of Wadesboro residents at midnight and ripped the door, windows, part of the roof, a section of ceiling and wrecked the interior of the oil company’s offices. It also demolished the steps leading to the building and knocked windows out of the adjacent storage area building.”
Some of the homes suffered more minor damage; Tucker’s house was undamaged and Wildermuth’s home on South Rutherford Street in Wadesboro had less than $100 in damage. But Pee Dee Oil had $3,000 in damage while Steagall’s summer cabin was “leveled” and had an estimated $6,000 in damage.
According to an online inflation calculator offered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $6,000 would have had the same buying power as $43,115.03 in 2016.
Some school board members did not show up for a special meeting held the day after the attacks or swearing-in ceremonies held the following Monday, leading to suspicion that they were quitting because of the violence.
At least one school board member, Charles Ratliff, resigned due to the bombings. He listed a few reasons, but told the paper for the same article, “The main reason is the feeling for my family and the fear that something might happen to them, too. There was too much repercussion from the people while we (the school board) tried to handle this situation.”
School board member J.D. McLeod told the paper that he quit two months before the bombings.
“We decided last fall to send our daughter to private school next year and I was not going up there to vote to send someone else’s children out there (to Bowman High School) when I wasn’t sending mine,” he said. But he said a lack of time to attend the meetings was the biggest factor in his resignation.
Gene Ed Tucker, the third school board member who did not go to be sworn in, was unable to be reached by the paper “as he is apparently on vacation but school officials say that he has been trying to resign for months.”
Then-Gov. Dan K. Moore offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the bombings. The county commissioners and the Wadesboro town council each offered $1,000, and other offers brought the total amount to $8,400. Later rewards bumped the amount to $8,550, the next issue reported. Moore and then- Rep. Fred M. Mills Jr. of Wadesboro both condemned the bombings.
Hardison accused “racial extremists” of the attacks.
“I’m sure in my mind that these acts were done by people who, if not members of the Ku Klux Klan, believe in Klan principles,” he said following the attacks. “This is the result of frustration of extreme racists when they saw that the school board was going to go along with the law of the land.”
Black schoolchildren were listed in a class action lawsuit filed on July 3, 1967. Freddie Singleton was listed with her guardian, Ada Ford.
The issue was batted back and forth. A preliminary injunction was held on Aug. 21 and Sept. 5 of that year “on plaintiffs’ claim that Negro students in the ninth and tenth grades should be granted immediate transfer rights to the predominantly white Anson Junior High School,” the law suit said. The court denied the request for relief on Sept. 11, saying that there was no evidence that students had been assigned to schools by race.
The children and Ford appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, “which affirmed remanding the case for an early hearing upon the merits,” according to the suit.
On Nov. 29, “upon the attorney general’s certification that the case was one of public importance, the United States moved for leave to intervene in the action and to file a complaint in intervention,” the lawsuit said.” The court allowed it.
The court found that of the school system’s 6,500 students, about 3,800 were black and 2,700 white, with about 293 teachers, 138 white and 155 black.
Of the system’s 15 schools, seven were filled with nearly all-white students and staff and seven had predominantly black students and staff. Only one school, Bowman High School, was desegregated for grades 11 and 12. It had only opened that school year.
“Plaintiffs have made allegations and offered evidence concerning racial class assignments, discriminatory practices relating to school activities, inadequate faculty desegregation, teaching assignments and other matters concerning the operation of Bowman High School,” the lawsuit said.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 led the way to the schools taking on the freedom of choice plans in 1965 allowing students to pick where they attended. About 55 black students went to formerly all-white schools in the 1965-66 school year. In the 1966-67 school year, students were assigned with the plan and 152 black students decided to go to nearly all-white schools. In 1967-68, students in first- through eighth-graders could choose where to attend. Fifty-one black students went to desegregated schools. All 11th- and 12th-graders went to the new Bowman High School.
“… All white and 33 Negro students in grades 9 and 10 (were assigned) to Anson Junior High School; all other Negro 9th and 10th graders (405) were assigned to several all-Negro Schools,” the lawsuit said.
Bus routes were also overlapping to pick up mostly white or mostly black students. Many of the all-black schools in the county were lacking both in the facilities and educational supplies.
The lawsuit also noted the bombings and shootings that black families had faced since black students had begun attending white schools in the 1965-66 school year.
Ada Ford Singleton
The lawsuit was led by Ada Mae Ford, the county president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It gained a large amount of front-page coverage in the Anson Record at the time as the paper documented the court proceedings.
Ada was married to John Ford until he was killed in Korea in late 1955. In 1956, Ada and her son, Charles, moved to Wadesboro, where she met her next husband, Freddie Singleton. He had six children — five girls and one boy — who had been abandoned, but Ada rescued them and later adopted them.
Before she married her new husband, she led the lawsuit against the school system, listing herself and little Freddie, named after her father, on the lawsuit.
“She represented all of them, because she was their guardian,” her son, Charles Ford, now 73, said. “Mostly anything for blacks back then, she would spearhead it.”
Her efforts and those of others fighting for equality were documented in the Anson Record at the time. In the Thursday, Aug. 31, 1967 issue of the paper, a photo of Ford leading students in a boycott of Bowman was on the front page.
“Only the antics of Ada Ford in setting up a boycott of certain junior high schools marred the opening of Anson County Schools on Monday and it appeared yesterday that that effort was dwindling away,” the paper reported. Although there were about 400 absences, only about half of those attended the boycott meeting, according to the paper. Those students met at Lowry’s Memorial Presbyterian Church on Salisbury Street the day before the paper printed.
She told the paper that she had to do it.
“I’ve already had a call from Washington, D.C. this morning and I have to go along with them or they’ll fire me,” Ford said, indicating that the NAACP would let her go.
“Bowman High School, the county’s first totally integrated school, opened quietly and without incident although a variety of law enforcement officials patrolled Highway 52 in the vicinity of the school,” the paper reported. Only 135 of East Polkton School’s 309 students showed up. East Polkton and Faison High School were the two most affected by the boycott, according to the paper.
The paper reported that most people were “shocked” that Bowman was a focus of the boycott, and that Ford listed “segregated buses, insufficient number of letter girls and not enough Negro faculty” as the reasons for it.
However, the paper disputed Ford’s reasons.
“School officials indicated that in the difficulties of merging the school systems and opening a new school that they simply did not have time to work out a new bus system,” the paper reported. “It was pointed out that three Negro girls tried out for cheerleaders at Bowman and that all three were named. It also appears that there is a greater shortage of Negro teachers than white teachers throughout the system, so that in effect none of the complaints seem valid.”
Even as the attacks continued, Ford continued her fight, pushing for full integration of the schools.
Charles Ford said that his mother’s legacy should be her fight for equality.
“Remember her for her concern and help for people, not just blacks but every race,” Charles said. “She fought for Indians and everything. She didn’t say everything has got to be black. She would always look into it, had enough foresight to see, look into it and see. She didn’t want to get in and be embarrassed.”
Sometimes, people would come, even in the middle of the night, and tell her that an employer or someone else had treated them poorly. Ada would get on the phone and investigate.
“They might have said, ‘Well, Ada, he’s not doing his job properly. I’m paying him for what he does, not a job he’s not educated for,’” Charles Ford recalled. “Before she’d move, she’d check it out. That’s one thing she taught me.”
Reach reporter Imari Scarbrough at 704-994-5471 and follow her on Twitter @ImariScarbrough.