The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – A group of eighth-grade students wants the Wake County school board to name a future school after a local African American family who fought for integration.

Twelve students at The Exploris School, a charter school in Raleigh, wrote a letter in April asking the school board to “give full reparations” to the Holt family by naming a school after them. The students also addressed the school board during a meeting this month.

“You can’t change the past, but you can right the wrongs,” Daniel Jordan, an eighth-grade student at Exploris, said in a recent interview.

The Holt family “went through hell, basically, for something that is handed to people today for free,” said Lev Cohen, also an eighth-grade student. “That’s just a right today.”

In 1956, Joe Holt Sr. and Elwyna Holt became the first Black family to apply to an all-White Raleigh school when they wanted their son, Joe Holt Jr., to attend Daniels Junior High, now Daniels Middle School. The application was denied, and Holt Jr. enrolled at Ligon High School, which served Black students.

Holt Jr.’s parents requested a transfer the following year to Broughton High, another all-White school, but were refused.

The family launched the first legal battle to desegregate Raleigh public schools when they sued the Raleigh City School Board to allow their son to attend Broughton.

After the family filed the lawsuit, Joe Holt Sr. lost his job and the family received bomb threats. At one point, the family sent Holt Jr. to stay with relatives in eastern North Carolina to keep him safe.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case several months before Holt Jr. graduated from Ligon in 1960.

Holt Jr., who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from St. Augustine’s University and served in the U.S. Air Force for 26 years, now lives in Durham. He said he thinks his family has not been recognized as they should be, so he was pleased students from The Exploris School have made the request to Wake school leaders.

“I was quite astonished,” Holt Jr. said. “I was just amazed and I had this deep feeling of gratitude about it. I was just very proud and honored that they would even think of such a thing.”

Under school board policy, Wake can name schools after individuals but since the 1970s has tended to name schools based on roads, geographic features and historic communities.

School board member Bill Fletcher said there’s been no board discussion about naming a new school or renaming an existing one after the Holt family. He said there’s been value to avoiding naming schools after individuals.

“The current policy has avoided a lot of community angst over what we call a school,” said Fletcher, who chairs the board committee that reviews names of new schools. “We have enough issues that cause angst without it being over a school name.”

An exhibit on civil rights that includes the Holt family’s quest for integration has been on display at the City of Raleigh Museum since 2000. Holt Sr. is among 26 local civil rights leaders listed on a monument at the Martin Luther King Memorial Garden near downtown Raleigh. In 2006, Joe Holt Sr. and Elwyna Holt were added to the Raleigh Hall of Fame.

But Holt Jr. worries that his family’s efforts will be forgotten among the experiences of other civil rights pioneers, which has inspired him to share his family’s story and seek further recognition.

William “Bill” Campbell, who went on to serve as mayor of Atlanta, became the first Black child to integrate Raleigh schools. His parents enrolled him when he was 7 at the white Murphey School in 1960, four years after Holt Jr.’s parents applied to Daniels.

Holt Jr. views his parents as trailblazers for Campbell and those after him.

“His failed court cases did pave the way for the Campbells to ultimately break through the barrier,” Fletcher said of Holt Jr.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of “separate but equal” in schools was unconstitutional in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. The court told states to integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed” in 1955, but many Southern states moved slowly.

By the 1960s, school systems in some states had moved to a “freedom of choice” model that allowed Black families to request spots in White schools.

In 1971, a federal judge told Raleigh City Schools to develop an integration plan, resulting in the district adopting a plan to bus students for racial diversity. Five years later, the city and Wake County school systems merged.

Shannon Hardy, an eighth-grade teacher at Exploris, has invited Holt to speak at the school during her segment on civil rights for several years.

Twelve of Hardy’s students decided to research and present their proposal to Wake after visiting the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro last year and hearing Holt Jr.’s story.

“He was never properly recognized for his contributions to the integration of Wake County schools, and so we feel like this is a really important issue that needed to be addressed,” said Zachary Boone, an eighth-grade Exploris student.

Holt Jr. said he is grateful for the students’ efforts.

“It’s an important part of Raleigh’s history, and I think people need to know that there was a fight to get to the point we are now,” he said. “Things just didn’t happen, and somebody had to pay and make some sacrifices for this.”

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