by Heather Killelea McEntarfer
Joe Holt’s troubles didn’t begin the summer of 1957. But when he thinks back, that’s where he lingers. Late summer, 1957, his cousin tearing down a country road, crying and shouting: Lord have mercy! Late summer of 57: the summer hell slipped the grasp of the devil himself, and settled contentedly in the Holt family home.
It was a Saturday. Joe, fourteen, had been shipped to his father’s family in the backwoods of eastern Carolina—a little vacation, he’d been told. That day, his relatives had visited an aunt who owned a television. Joe had decided to stay home. He was a city kid, after all, and television old news. Hardly worth a quarter of a mile.
But then his cousin rushed through the front gate, hysterical. Lord have mercy!
“What’s the matter with you?” Joe asked.
“It’s all over the television! Oh, Lord have mercy, they gonna destroy ya’ll’s house!”
Raleigh does not remember Joe Holt. The family that made television in eastern Carolina, 1957, slipped from the narrative of a city willingly—or something close to willingly. In a city just as eager to forget, that story fell to fragments. A misgiving here; tight tug of anger there. Typed lines in old records, bound and shelved. A story that, for nearly half a century, no one chose.
It was a Joe, Sr. kind of a thing to say.
“Perhaps this strikes every boy about his dad,” Holt says now, “but my dad stood tall, as a man. It was a matter of pride to him as a man that he stood his ground. To me, he was the epitome of strength, both physically and in character. He was strong, and he stood tall.”
Joe, Sr. grew up in eastern North Carolina, where Joe visited that summer of 57. Out there, a city boy like Joe, on childhood visits, could collect attitudes and anecdotes, stockpile them the way children do with random treasures: rubber bands and buttons and shards of colored rock. Hide them in bulging pockets or the folds of a tree; spread them out later for examination. There was the way, in that community, white folk lived among the blacks, if not too close. The way you could address a white man by his first name, no Mr. This or Mr. That cluttering up the conversation. You couldn’t get away with that in Raleigh. Still, Holt says he never saw his father subordinate himself to anyone.
Joe Sr. found a match in Elwyna. She was, Holt says, intellectual, cultured, refined. She knew her rights. A local schoolteacher, Elwyna wrote the application to Daniels’, arguing that Daniels’ was closer than Ligon. It was—with better facilities and books that weren’t hand-me-downs. But for the Holts, admission to the white school was not about convenience, nor even entirely about facilities. It was about their son not being made to feel unworthy. As long as you went to Ligon High School, Holt says, “You still carried with you: this school is for you; that school is for our white kids.”Joe Holt’s application to Daniels’ Junior High was denied. According to the city school superintendent, it was not the time for that.
The next year, 1957, the family tried again. Too old now for junior high, Joe applied to Broughton High School.
This time was harder.
Rules sprang up, thick as kudzu. School transfer policies before 1956 were not particularly complex; school transfer had never posed a problem. A year earlier, Elwyna sat down in August and wrote the superintendent a letter. School board minutes show that other parents requested transfers in the same way.
But by 1957, things had changed. The Holts had happened. The Board’s new Pupil Assignment Policy required forms, signatures, notaries. The Holts made the deadline with time to spare.
But Joe Holt remembers another rule: in order for any school board decision to be made, a certain number of members needed to be present. Joe’s application reached the board in June 1957, and it was a funny thing, those summer months: each time the Holt matter came up, seemed there weren’t enough board members present to make a decision one way or the other.
June 11, 1957: Upon motion by Mr. Martin, seconded by Mr. Powell, action on this application was deferred until the next meeting of the full board.
So the Holts waited. Meanwhile, the harassment that had begun late fall of 56 reached a screaming pitch. Hate mail, bomb threats, phone calls all through the night, every night. What’s more, the Holts felt even the black community had averted its eyes. Before his application, Holt says, his parents had been accepted members of Raleigh’s black community, their names cropping up on guest lists for events and socials.
And then, this strange silence. We live today in a world that’s known the Sixties, a world in which African-American resistance to racism has become an integral shade in the collective hue of American history, American politics: a shade without which we wouldn’t know ourselves. That’s not to say resistance is new, nor even that it’s entirely safe. Just that it’s easy to forget how dangerous it was. There were hands in the night that could ring your house with gasoline, pour poison down your well, string you from a tree and set you aflame. Emmett Till was whispered as a warning to young boys. And danger was catching: a disease transferred not through a cough, but an unwise smile on the bus. Joe, fourteen, didn’t notice it so much. But his parents began to sense that friends were distancing themselves.
Joe Holt understands that distance now—understands the fear. Still, it hurt. Dr. Prezell Robinson served as academic dean of Raleigh’s historically black St. Augustine’s College in 1957. In Robinson’s memory, most of Raleigh’s black community supported the Holts. But Robinson also remembers the fear. The “White Citizen’s Council,” he says, did everything it could to intimidate black people who supported Joe Holt.
The threats regarding jobs weren’t idle; by that summer of 57, Joe, Sr. had lost his own job and begun a series of odd jobs that tended to dry up as bosses realized just whom they had on their hands. His periodic joblessness left Elwyna the family’s sole breadwinner, her teaching job precarious at best. And as the fight wore on, Elwyna bore the brunt of the verbal abuse directed toward the family. She answered the phone, fielded the name-calling and threats. Joe watched his mother, saw how the very way she moved about the house changed. Jittery, on edge. He swears now that his mother was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“When you are in a subordinate position like blacks are,” Holt says, “you have been conditioned, unfairly, to feel that you have to be perfect in order to be accepted, where a white person doesn’t have to think twice about it. I knew that I was like in a fishbowl. I was a black kid that everybody—every black person in Raleigh that I knew—was looking at as somebody special. I felt I needed to be a genius, okay? So that I wouldn’t let anybody down. I wasn’t a genius. Okay? I was a good student—but I wasn’t a genius.”
Joe worried about his parents and his grades. But as far as actually going to the white school, it wasn’t Broughton that scared him the most. Maybe that was too far off in the distance—unimaginable, really, in North Carolina, 1957. Maybe Joe’s fear latched on to something he could imagine. At any rate, what scared Joe Holt during the summer of 57, as the school board stalled and his parents worried and the phone raged in the night—what scared him was the prospect of going before the school board for his transfer request. To go to a hearing, surrounded by whites, not knowing what they might ask? Maybe they’d make him work out an equation, differential calculus or something. He didn’t know. He knew from intuition and experience that anything he said that didn’t satisfy that board would be exaggerated. Maybe headlined in the paper, whispered and frowned over by the black community he believed was counting on him.
The worry followed him out of Raleigh to his aunt and uncle’s house, a fear he couldn’t say, lest anybody see it as unwillingness. Joe Holt was willing to go to Broughton. But now he had to go to some sort of damn inquisition?
And then the trip down east, and his cousin flying down that dirt road, carrying on about dynamite and fire and Joe’s parents on TV.
Joe didn’t believe her at first. He thought he was on vacation. He didn’t know about the woman back home who’d overheard something somewhere and issued Elwyna a warning: Get Little Joe outta here.
He shook his head. “You didn’t see them on television. C’mon.”
The cousin insisted. “They were on TV, Joe! They had a picture of them right there at your house!”
It took Joe a while to believe her. When he did, he said, God. He'd been trying not to think about anything related to Raleigh or school boards, but the terror in his cousin's eyes was real. Within 48 hours, Joe’s parents had joined him down east. They were quiet, and Joe was too. He worried, but his parents were usually open with him. Joe figured whatever they wanted to tell him, they’d tell him.
And if they didn’t tell him anything, that meant Dad had it under control.
One night, though, he stood out on the front porch with his father and his Uncle David. Little Joe was silent, but his uncle and father began to speak.
His uncle asked, “Do you think you really need to go through with this thing?”
Joe remembers his father saying, “David, I’m going through with it.” And, “Everything’ll be alright.”
And then his uncle said something that surprised Little Joe. Here was this big strong farmer, formed on the same parcel of earth that had formed Joe, Sr., and both with cores like pillars of oak: big on strength and fortitude, but not necessarily on sensitivity. Little Joe didn’t picture his Uncle David as big on reading people either, and he’d been working so hard to hide his fear.
But there was his uncle on that porch, saying, “I’m not sure you ought to put Little Joe in that situation.”
Joe was silent. There were words on his tongue, but they could have been misconstrued: a worrisome prospect in a world where a child did not correct his elders. If his father and uncle got the idea that Joe wanted to back off the fight, there would have been no respectable way to set them straight. But in the silence that followed, Joe’s father went quiet. Finally, Little Joe did speak, something along the lines of, “Well, I wonder what they’re gonna ask me?”
“Hell, no,” he said, “you’re not going down there in front of that damn board.”
Back in Raleigh, the Holts’ lawyers agreed. Listen, they said, we’re your lawyers. We have power of attorney. There’s no reason for you to go down there. In fact, the Holts’ lawyer, Herman L. Taylor, thought Joe’s intuition sound.
“In those days,” Taylor would say later, “they used every ruse they could find to delay, and one reason we didn’t want your father and his parents to go to that school board meeting was that we knew that they wanted to get them there and try to intimidate them, brow-beat ‘em, see, and put them through all kinds of torture. And as their lawyers, it was our business to shield them from that.”
The decision would prove critical.
The school board finally addressed Joe Holt’s application in August of 1957, when it ruled, “In the interest of the public, and in the best interest of the Raleigh City Schools, and for the welfare of Joseph Hiram Holt, Jr.,…” Joe would not be allowed into Broughton.
The Holts filed suit in federal court, but in September of Joe's junior year at Ligon, the court denied the application. The official, legal ruling? Joe couldn’t go because of the Holt family’s “failure to exhaust all administrative remedies before the law.”
In other words: Joe hadn’t gone before the board.
Failure to exhaust all administrative remedies? The phrase ran through their minds, a taunt laced with guilt and what-if’s: what if Joe had just gone? Would the fight be over? Because, coming when it did, the court’s ruling was like high water rising. Not an end; not an answer. A continuation. It meant Joe couldn’t go to Broughton, at least not yet. More immediately, it meant that all of the abuse, the phone calls, the threats, the fear, would all continue. High water rising, and nothing to do but tip back your head, grab what air you could, and keep paddling. If the family thought of stopping, they did not say it. But they were tired.
Once again, they fought back. Their lawyers appealed the ruling, and finally in fall 1959—Joe’s senior year—the Eastern District Court upheld the Administrative Remedies ruling. The Supreme Court would not hear the case; the Eastern District Court was the final recourse. A few months later Joe graduated from Ligon, and the matter was over.
There'd been no fanfare. The article was small, set beneath the fold. A few days later another article, tucked into the inside pages, recorded the milestone: “Raleigh’s public school system was peaceably integrated Friday.…”
They watched. But they were only a handful.
That week, a few letters to the editor derided Bill Campbell’s admission. At the Murphey School, a few parents withdrew their children.
Within a few days, most were back.
In September 1960, Raleigh’s local papers focused on Hurrricane Donna pummeling the Florida Keys. Letters to the editor focused on the relative propriety of a Catholic running for president.
Three years earlier the Holts fled this city for their lives; in 1960, the public record portrays Raleigh’s introduction to integrated schools as a sidenote. According to Casper Holroyd, a white Raleigh parent in 1960, that’s just about right. Bill Campbell’s acceptance, Holroyd says, “didn't seem to be any outlandish thing.”
The claim invokes a public front. Within the Murphey school, five years passed without one black face for Bill Campbell’s eyes to rest on. Within the family home, the phone erupted with threats from which the family fled, unable to trust the police. And every morning on Raleigh’s streets, a small group of citizens escorted mother and son to school, protecting them from taunts, shouts, spit. Every morning a white woman called down from her porch, “Nigger, why do you want to go to school with those children?”
There is, to be sure, the public front—one that does justice to neither Bill Campbell nor his family. But the public front has become the story that’s survived, one that takes on its own importance: the story Raleigh claims. The story of a city that had its controversies over race, no one denies that—but a city that can also point to relative calm in a time when the state and the South and the country all seemed to have gone just a little bit mad.
Bill Campbell's admission should have been a right, a good thing—and it was. But coming on the heels of the Holt family ordeal, that admission also became a twisted sort of mirror—one in which the Holts’ reflection came out poorly. If the school board was willing to accept a black child in the fall of 1960, why should it not have been in the fall of 1959? Bill Campbell’s acceptance lent failure to exhaust all administrative remedies a new legitimacy, in the black community and the Holt family. That failure became the story told in hushed tones: black children in Raleigh couldn’t go to white schools because the Holts screwed up.
In the years that followed, the entire experience—most of all, that decision not to go before the board—haunted the Holts, silently. The late fifties became a time not talked about. A time worked over on the inside. If we had just.... If I had only....
Meanwhile, Raleigh’s black community beheld Bill Campbell with a kind of awe: this child who carried so much into that school. Centuries of pain, and the promise of all they could imagine. Everybody needs heroes, Joe Holt says. And if the young Bill Campbell embodied an up-and-coming city and an up-and-coming people, he seemed—for a whileto have made good as an adult: in 1993, Atlanta elected him mayor. Campbell’s name even cropped up on lists of potential running mates for Al Gore in 2000. When Campbell spoke at the 2002 commencement of Raleigh’s historically black Shaw University, President Talbert O. Shaw told him, “You are a favorite son of Raleigh. As a boy, you were so brave.”
And behind all of that: Joe Holt. Seventeen years old in September 1960. Soon he’d earn honors at St. Augustine’s College. Airlift materiel into and out of Vietnam with the Air Force; forge a career; retire as lieutenant colonel. Raise, with his wife, three children who would give him three grandchildren.
But in September, 1960, he sits down at the kitchen table, unfolds the paper, and What in the world is this? Who are these people? What did they do that we didn’t do?
The questions tormented Joe. Bill Campbell was seven years old; the timing was not the child’s fault. And Joe Holt, then and now, is not by nature a vengeful man. But now, when he speaks of his family’s story, and particularly of the Campbells, his voice rises in pitch. The fiery Ralph Campbell: that’s how black people in Raleigh would come to describe Bill Campbell’s father. And any thought directed by Raleigh toward the Holts? Not much, and always filtered through the Campbells: See, the people would say, they did it right.
If it weren’t for Deborah, the story would end there. A family disgraced and then replaced in the collective memory of a city. But Deborah Holt, Joe’s daughter, knew about her father’s experience. And when she needed to produce a documentary to complete her masters, she began making phone calls, and rummaging through boxes in basements. What she found offered insight in all sorts of ways. Her father’s head shot, for example, in Ligon’s National Honor Society book, and the same photo labeled salutatorian in his yearbook. The same Joe Holt who speaks, in abstract terms, of segregation’s degrading influence seems utterly sincere when he presents himself as merely a “good” student. Dr. Prezell Robinson, from St. Augustine’s, held meetings on campus for the brightest black students in the city, including Joe, and remembers Joe’s academic credentials as impressive.
And Deborah found something else: the man who answered the questions that had haunted her father’s adult life. Of the three school board members who took part in that vote to reject Joe’s application to Broughton, only J.W. York was alive when Deborah began her research. Deborah told York over the phone that she wanted to speak about racial integration in Raleigh. He agreed. When she arrived, York, large and jowly, greeted her pleasantly. Unbeknownst to York, Holt sat nearby in the waiting room: moral support for Deborah’s most tense interview. He could hear them speak.
York began to speak proudly of Bill Campbell and Murphey Elementary. Deborah told him that was all very interesting, but she’d like to ask about Joe Holt.
J.W. York’s eyes got wide.
York haggled, insisting suddenly on legal forms. But he talked. And he offered a rationale for Joe’s denial that no one—Joe nor his parents nor their attorney—had ever heard. Joe Holt, York said, had been denied entrance to Broughton High School because of his age. “Our feeling was that when we got ready to integrate the schools, we should start at the primary level,”York says on the documentary, “so that the children would grow up being used to the integrated schools.”
Not necessarily such a bad idea; Holt now believes that had he actually been allowed into Broughton, he’d likely have been hurt. But blame had been placed for forty years on his family. York was re-writing the story before his very eyes. “They never advanced that reason to us at any time during the Holt case,” the family’s lawyer Herman Taylor tells Deborah on the documentary. “See, they never even mentioned that.”
York was backpedaling; Holt could smell it.
Deborah’s research inspired Joe. He’s read other cases from the time, Raleigh’s school board minutes, and the Student Assignment Policy the district passed in response to his own application to Daniels’ Junior High.
That policy holds another clue. In July, the school board minutes include “A motion by Mr. York… that Joseph Hiram Holt Jr., and his parents be requested to be present at the August 6 [school board] meeting.” But the rules in the Pupil Assignment Policy include no such requirement. They offer parents the right “to be heard and to present witnesses” —but nowhere do they state that to do so is a responsibility. In regards to transfer requests by white families, the minutes include no details about who was present. The Holts were “requested” to be present, yes. But that request stood up in federal court as if it were a rule.
Holt now believes that his denial into Broughton had nothing to do with administrative remedies, and everything to do with the fear that gripped white school boards in the years following Brown. He thinks district leaders hadn’t decided what they were going to do, other than make damn sure nobody was going. He believes the acceptance of that story, in the black community and his own family, comes down in part to the timing of Bill Campbell’s acceptance—and in part to history.
“The black community,” Holt says, “was, at that time, not as… conscious, politically, let’s say, as we later became, many of us. Many people did not want to really know the particulars, and I’ll tell you why. The black man in the South lived under a system whereby he was subject to the whims of the white man; he was subject to the white man’s capriciousness. During slavery, black people learned to know as little about anything that the white man found disfavorable in respect to race situations—to know as little about it as I can. ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ You learned to distance yourself—because if you don’t know anything about it, you can’t give away, even unintentionally, any information. Nobody can sense by watching you, or baiting you.
And everybody was so interested, certainly, in a breakthrough, and the breakthrough was supposed to begin in the schools. And blacks just like me felt like, if the white man says that there’s something that you should have done and you didn’t do it, then damn it, you should have done that. It makes us all look bad if one of us doesn’t comply with the man’s rules.”
Slavery’s legacy in Raleigh was like a ghost with two hands: one clenched with white fear and prejudice, the other with black fear and self-preservation. In the late fifties, both hands latched onto the Holts and held tight.
What changed by September 1960? History again, Holt says. This was four years after his initial application, six years after Brown. Changes had begun elsewhere in the state; Raleigh had begun to lag behind. By 1960, Holt believes, those changes had reached a school board that was comparatively forward-thinking.A board so very forward-thinking, perhaps, that no one thought or had the courage or the compassion to look back: to examine what had been done, what had been said, and who’d been hurt.
What Joe Holt wants now is for people to know what happened. To remember. He wants to rewrite the story. He and Deborah have begun that work through the documentary, which aired on Raleigh’s UNC-TV, and through local speaking engagements. And as a recent Christmas present, his children made him a web site: www.joeholtstory.com.
And so it is largely through the work of his children that Holt finds himself able to honor his parents—which is what he really wants to do. Joe, Sr. and Elwyna are gone now. Joe Holt, Jr. finds himself caught in that old role reversal: protector of the parents who fought so hard for him. He cannot change the past. He can’t undo the worry, the isolation, the disappointment. But he can make sure no one else undoes them either. He wants what the Campbells have always had: a place in the history of a people. Integration in Raleigh did not happen without some people catching hell, he says. And my family caught hell. He wants an acknowledgment that his family played a role, that it means something to catch hell—even if hell, and not the glory, is all you ever get. (In the complicated stories of Joe Holt and Bill Campbell, hell and glory may always be tangled: in 2004, shortly after the Holt family received its first hints of recognition, Campbell was imprisoned on charges of racketeering and fraud.)
Joe Holt does not hate Bill Campbell. But he is bitter. How could he not be? In his senior yearbook, the boy in the valedictorian picture smiles, a little shyly. Joe stares. Four years of public scrutiny, public torment, rocks hurtling toward the house and here he still is. Salutatorian. He tilts his head upward, as if he wants to take the photographer on. Only when you freeze the frame do you realize that his eyes are the same eyes that haunted The Raleigh Times. Joe Holt is hurt.
Nearly forty years later, in the waiting room outside the office of one of the many men who said no, Holt hears the conversation take a nasty turn. A turn that won’t make the documentary’s final cut, but will call up ghosts forty years old—an old story, and all its pain. A turn that will nearly send a reasonable man flying through an office door.
“After all,” York says, “Bill Campbell went on to become mayor of Atlanta. What’d your daddy do?”
Joe Holt recounts the story. He’s a teacher now, retired colonel. Former high school salutatorian. Civil rights pioneer. Husband, father, grandfather. He repeats the words, grimaces; they’re poison in his mouth.
What’d your daddy do?
Author’s Note: Deborah Holt’s documentary “Exhausted Remedies: Joe Holt’s Story” was integral in the writing of this piece.
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