Stanley Vickers. Photo courtesy of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. 

Last week, Stanley Vickers made a special journey back to Chapel Hill, his childhood home. 

At a Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board meeting, Vickers, a Black man in his 70s with a balding head, wearing a blue tie, was honored for a decision his family made that changed the course of history in North Carolina. When he was 12 years old, Vickers’s family won him the right to attend an all-white high school, with the help of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

“We knew it then: every child should have a right to a good education,” Vickers said at the August 12 meeting. “We have come a ways, but there is still a long way to go.”

In August 1961, the Vickers family won a U.S. district court case that declared that the Chapel Hill Board of Education had to let him attend Chapel Hill Junior High, instead of the all-Black Lincoln Junior-Senior High School. The decision came one year before Durham schools were forced to desegregate, and a decade before the same was ordered in Charlotte.

District court judge Edwin Stanley, who became known for his work desegregating North Carolina schools, wrote in the opinion that “the conclusion is inescapable that race was an important factor in the decisions made with respect to the transfer of the minor plaintiff.”

Stanley Vickers’s mother, Lattice Vickers, said she wanted Vickers to attend Chapel Hill High since it was solely a junior high and because she didn’t agree with race-based school separation.

Stanley was just starting school when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and declared school segregation unconstitutional. According to later interviews with Stanley’s sister, Gloria Vickers Warren, Lattice was particularly invested in her children’s education, and doggedly followed desegregation movements in other school systems across North Carolina. Years prior, she’d gone back to finish high school while pregnant with her third child, Laverne. Lattice’s husband, Lee Vickers, worked at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Sigma Nu fraternity house.

Stanley attended Northside Elementary, despite living half a mile closer to the all-white Carrboro Elementary School. In 1959, Lee and Lattice Vickers asked the school board to allow him to transfer to Carrboro for the 1959-1960 school year. The request was denied 4-2; the two voters who wanted to induct Stanley into Carrboro Elementary were a local Black pastor and a UNC law professor. The law professor ultimately resigned from the board out of frustration with the outcome. 

Despite the denial, the school board decided that all incoming first graders for the 1960-1961 school year could petition to attend whatever school was closer to them. Stanley, about to enter junior high, applied to transfer to Chapel Hill, instead of attending Lincoln. That he lived closer to Lincoln was the reason the board gave to deny a request from the family request once again.

“I can only imagine what your life was like as that only person,” board member Rani Dasi told Vickers at the meeting. “When we talk about what we know today about social-emotional learning, and the impact of how a child is treated outside the academic setting, being alone in the classroom–having teachers literally dismiss you or ignore you, and to persevere through that—I have so much gratitude and respect for you.”

Today, 11 percent of the students in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools are Black, and no school within the district is “predominantly Black” according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The closest example of a racially divided school would be Frank Porter Graham Elementary School, which is predominantly Hispanic thanks to its bilingual curriculum.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro, however, are not perfect parallels of North Carolina’s demographics. Both towns have a slightly higher number of white people than the rest of the state; while more than 22 percent of the state is Black, the towns each have closer to 10 percent Black residents. There is also a higher number of Asian residents in Chapel Hill and Carrboro—they make up less than three percent of North Carolina’s total population, but 13 percent of Chapel Hill’s and nine percent of Carrboro’s.

Deon Temne, the board’s vice chair, asked if Vickers felt that the sacrifice he made was worth it, based on the loss that accompanied desegregating the school system.

The Black students were forced to give up their school, their team colors, and their mascot (see The Legends of Lions Park), although, later, Chapel Hill High adopted the tiger mascot as its own. Following the creation of a new Chapel Hill High School in 1966, Lincoln High School—a source of pride in the town’s Black community—was dismantled for integration.

“We also lost some things,” Temne said. “We lost some of that community, some of that to get something better, or maybe worse.”

Vickers says that, for him, it was worth it. But he says he just wishes other folks were given the same opportunities he was when his family made that call.

“I got to see and meet people who [are] renowned, as it were, in a lot of different areas because of where I was,” Vickers says. “I was in school with the children of university professors and businesspeople. I was fortunate.” 

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