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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Talking racial injustices in the NHC school system with Clyde Edgerton

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In 2016 Clyde Edgerton made statewide news (and The Huffington Post) when he was banned from New Hanover County School property.

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“There was a meeting last night. I wish you could have been there—there’s one next week—it was great!”

COMMUNITY ALLY: Local author Clyde Edgerton has been very vocal about racial injustices that have and continue to take place in the New Hanover County School system. Photo by Stephanie Trott

COMMUNITY ALLY: Local author Clyde Edgerton has been very vocal about racial injustices that have and continue to take place in the New Hanover County School system. Photo by Stephanie Trott

Clyde Edgerton was in my kitchen and just bubbled over with excitement. I handed him a glass of water and steered us into the garden for a chat that has been three years in the making. The words rushed out of him:

“Restorative justice—they’re working on that in Wilmington in terms of implicit and explicit racial bias,” he explained. “Restorative justice has a model in which people talk to each other about issues, and the issue of the next two [meetings] will be implicit and explicit racial bias in the school system.”

Edgerton was flushed and effusive. Though known across the state for his infectious grin and a wry sense of humor—which he uses to tackle topics considered taboo by some and sacred by others (some compare him to Mark Twain), I have never seen him this garrulous.

Actually, every time I have tentatively broached the subject of the New Hanover County School Board these last few years, Clyde’s face has gotten solemn and he’s changed the subject.

In 2016 Edgerton made statewide news (and The Huffington Post) when he was banned from New Hanover County School property, including his son’s elementary school graduation. It might be the first time a 5th-grade graduation celebration was so squarely at the center of a news story. It was so absurd it almost could have come from one of his comic novels.

Speculation and confusion swirled: How could this happen? To Clyde? People get banned from public school property for communicating a threat to a student or employee. The mere idea Clyde would do such a thing was so beyond his character that, to quote Bertie Wooster, “the mind boggled.”

A few weeks earlier Clyde made a public statement at a school board meeting. On a sunny, cool spring day in my garden, he agreed to sit down to discuss the events and his concerns.

“I am part of a movement, not really an organization. It’s a movement called the ‘Southern Coalition for Equal Protections Under the Law,’” he starts. “People have been meeting to try to decide what we might do to make things better for children in Wilmington. We came up with six cases from different sources to be investigated impartially by the [school] board.”

Clyde points out, with the election of three new members, the new school board effectively does not have a history. However, the old board is a different story.

“Things happened in the school system that need to be investigated,” he notes of the old board. “So we’ve asked the board to investigate six cases we have unanswered questions for, and that parents have unanswered questions for, and at this point the board has decided not to investigate those cases.”

He pauses before enumerating the very specific instances: “Two are about racial discrimination and four are about issues related to, in one way or another, sexual abuse … in the school system. The FBI is investigating one. The question for us is not that the board investigate what the FBI is investigating, but the board investigate how the FBI had to be called in.”

With a dip of his head, Clyde acknowledged he was involved in at least one of two cases addressing racial discrimination. His case was the subject of the recent statement her made to the school board on March 5.

“It was a short statement I gave to the board chair just prior to making the [written] statement—just as a courtesy so she would know what was coming,” he tells. “When I finished making my statement, a board member asked the board, ‘Was it OK for the board lawyer to respond?’ There was no objection. The board lawyer spent close to 4 minutes responding. The board member used my name. The board lawyer used my name.”

He paused and looked me full in the face with kind but perceptive eyes. “I couldn’t help but think about a parent who wanted to get up enough nerve to go before the board, in public, to make a statement, possibly to complain about something and how that act sanctioned by the board, initiated by someone, either on the board or in the administration, or the board lawyer himself—how [it] could intimidate someone into not exercising their rights to freedom of speech in this country. It was disturbing to me that I would be responded to in that way. It doesn’t slow me down.”

It’s no surprise, either, as Clyde does not lack courage or savvy. Yet, to imagine someone walking into a room without Clyde’s list of strengths (male, white, educator, member of the NC Literary Hall of Fame and arguably one of Wilmington’s most famous writers and residents) well, it would be a lot harder. It might even be impossible.

The events Clyde is enmeshed in dates back to 2015 during the kindergarten registration period that lasted over 11 days in early March. Forty slots were open for the coveted Spanish immersion program at Forest Hills Elementary School.

“On the 28th of February, before enrolment was to open, the 40 available slots were filled without one African-American in a neighborhood school that was 46 percent black,” he details. “You asked how that happened? It happened through the recruitment of white parents and children, and the blocking of black parents and children.”

Clyde summarized some of the well reported comments from the school principal at the time, regarding perceptions of safety and gang violence. The principal filled the program with a “first come, first served” policy. Clyde inquired about the policy being available for him to see in writing. “No” was the answer. “I found out later there was supposed to be a lottery for that program,” he says. “There was no lottery.”

And so he asked the administration and the then school board to address the matter. It concluded with the superintendant’s report to the school board.

“I read his report and appealed it to the board,” Clyde recalls. “The board would not hear me plead racial discrimination because of two reasons: Number one, a report had been written, and two, I had not been aggrieved.”

He shook his head.

“For any white American to say they have not been aggrieved when racial discrimination takes place in their community is not right,” he impresses.

To anyone who has read any of Clyde’s books (“Raney,” “Walking Across Egypt,” “Lunch at the Piccadilly”), such an observation would not be surprising. Clyde writes about and states clearly during our interview the importance of relationships—daily relationships—being at the core of humanity.

“If you have people living together in a community that are kept apart so they can’t have relationships, then they can’t learn about each other,” he states. “They can’t be influenced by each other. They can’t know anything about real community, so students are harmed through racial segregation. Parents are harmed through racial segregation. By ‘harmed’ I mean missing the opportunity to live the way Jesus meant for people to live.”

We went through the details of the events following the school board’s response and banning Clyde from school property. It led to our conversation about the recent “simulated slavery game” being used at Codington Elementary School. The Monopoly-like role-playing game used shackles, plantations, and simulated slaves chasing freedom.

“As long as any outside, minority, non-white person is made to feel invisible in our culture, there will be mistakes made by white people that demand education by us and through us all as citizens in democracy,” Clyde notes. “I thought the board chair apologizing was a gracious move on her part and the part of the board. Because I do not remember hearing an apology that has anything to do with racial issues in the school system before.”

As we segued into the issue of neighborhood schools, Clyde noted Forest Hills in 2015 was an integrated elementary school, with equal parts white and black students, and 12 percent Hispanic students. “The fact that neighborhood schools being integrated did not prevent a coveted enrollment program to be absent of any African Americans when it was filled before enrollment started … it was a very clear case of modern-day Jim Crow,” he compares. “It was a very clear case of racial discrimination. It was covered up. It is still covered up— and the board, up until now, is not willing to investigate, even though they know the facts. ”

The question remains whether New Hanover County really has a fully integrated school system that serves the needs of all students. It is a refrain that has been sung for so long, I can’t help but wonder if it is only a whisper blowing in the wind. For all my despair, Clyde remains hopeful—especially about the restorative justice meetings.

“They understand and believe in equality, they believe in the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment: that if you’re an American citizen, regardless of your color or belief, you have the same rights as anybody else,” he tells. “So they’re willing to fight for that and stand up for that.”

Dr. Kim Cook from UNCW’s Department of Sociology and Criminology confirmed the next meeting in the series will have a large group portion open to the public at 6:30 p.m. on April 4, in the library at Williston Middle School. “Next week we will start talking about solutions,” Cook notes. “I hope we will be able to continue to working solutions forward. It is up to the community to figure out how they want to move forward, and we are providing a facilitated process to identify those strategies.”

Clyde agrees and is very excited about the work the restorative justice meetings are doing. He’s hoping for a domino effect to begin the change. “What’s next if people come to meetings? People come to board meetings and [say] what they think is right and wrong about how we are educating our children. [Then they’re] willing to say what they would like to see happen—to the people they elected to represent them. I think there’s a period, probably with any school board, in which the school board gets its sea legs and determines who they’re representing.”

Community Conversations:
The Community Forum
April 4, 6:30 p.m. • Free
Open to the public
Williston Middle School Library
401 S 10th Street

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