Marc Basnight’s Best Friend: How a day of clearing tornado debris led to the front porch of Raleigh’s integration history

by johndavis, April 21, 2011

[audio:|titles=April 21 Marc Basnight’s Best Friend] “If you see him, tell him I said to ‘take it easy.’ But he doesn’t know how to do that.” Hubert Poole, former NC Senate Sergeant at Arms, speaking about Sen. Marc Basnight Note:  In light of the tornado disaster, with flags flying at half-mast in honor of those

[audio:|titles=April 21 Marc Basnight’s Best Friend]

“If you see him, tell him I said to ‘take it easy.’ But he doesn’t know how to do that.”

Hubert Poole, former NC Senate Sergeant at Arms, speaking about Sen. Marc Basnight

Note:  In light of the tornado disaster, with flags flying at half-mast in honor of those who lost their lives in North Carolina, I thought it more appropriate to write about something other than politics.  This is about a happenstance talk with Marc Basnight’s best friend yesterday while cleaning up storm debris.

Early Response Team

A couple months back, my wife and I decided to sign up for an Early Response Team training program sponsored through our church by the Office of Emergency Services of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.  Little did we know how soon our training would be needed.

When the devastating news began to be reported about the extent of destruction and loss of life caused by tornadoes here in North Carolina last Saturday, we knew that the phone call or e-mail would be coming soon.  After all, five thousand homes were damaged here in Wake County.

Early Response Team training focuses on mitigating the damage to homes caused by natural disasters.  One of the most common tasks is getting trees off houses and covering gaping holes in roofs with tarps to keep the rain from causing further damage.

On Monday, the expected email arrived. The Early Response Team at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church was needed on Wednesday to help get trees off the houses of elderly homeowners … including the home of the parents of Bettye Poole, a member of our Sunday School class.

The center on Shaw University’s 1947 CIAA Championship team

On Wednesday morning, I joined the group of 10 volunteers in front of the church.  We were briefed about the tree removal work that we would be doing in the Madonna Acres neighborhood near St. Augustine’s College.  We were assigned 8 homes, and would begin with Bettye Poole’s parents.

It was surreal to drive through Raleigh’s beautifully groomed neighborhoods and then turn right on Delany Drive and see total destruction.  Trees were down everywhere.  Not a house was spared.  The utility crews were already there replacing downed power lines.

Within minutes the roar of chainsaws signaled that the work had begun.  No one had to be assigned a task.  Everyone just began to cut and drag limbs to the street.

After several hours of removing debris, I decided to take a break.  I noticed that Betty Poole’s 85-year-old father was sitting on the porch watching us work.  I went over and introduced myself.  Thus began one of those memorable conversations that life treats us to once in a blue moon.

Turns out that Hubert Poole, a Marine during WWII, had been the center on Shaw University’s 1947 CIAA Championship basketball team.  He had also been a teacher and coach at Ligon High School here in Raleigh when it was an all-black school during segregation.  I told him about my first job as a seventh grade English teacher at an all-black school in Marion County, Mississippi … two years prior to integration.

We traded stories about the awkward and sometimes hostile experiences of public school integration.

In Mississippi, public schools were integrated in January 1970.  It had been 16 years since the US Supreme Court rendered segregated schools unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision.  Since that time, the priority of the white only administrators in Marion County had been avoiding integration.  No attempt had been made to develop an orderly process for matters like assigning teachers to schools … and classes to teachers.

Assigning teachers to schools by drawing names out of a box

In December before integration was to begin, teachers were notified by the administration to assemble in a gymnasium for the purpose of assigning teachers to schools.  Upon arrival, we were shocked to learn that our assigned schools would be chosen by drawing names out of a box.  Each principal would draw names of teachers until the number of teachers to be assigned to that school was reached.  No consideration was given to matters like the subject we were trained to teach.

We were assured that the assignment would be temporary, only from January until the end of the school year in May.  That would give the county school officials time to come up with a more suitable means of assigning teachers to schools.  We all sat silently.  No one dared say anything.  That’s how awkward the racial atmosphere was during the early days of integration.

I will never forget the introduction of the principals by the white Marion County School Superintendent at the meeting in the gymnasium.  He introduced the white principals as “Mr. Smith” or “Mr. Jones,” and introduced the black principals by their first names only … “James,” or “William.”  Looking back, I shake my head at the thought that he didn’t realize the extent of his disrespect.  Little had changed since the days when slave owners listed their slaves by first name only along with other inventory when their estates were settled: “1 Negro boy, James, age 45”  “1 Negro boy, William, age 53.”

My name was drawn by “Mr.” Mabry, principal at the all white Bunker Hill School on the all white side of the county.  Bunker Hill School was a long, ranch style wooden building, with two wings of classrooms, four on each wing, separated by the library, lunch room and the principal’s office.  Bunker Hill School was first grade through eighth grade.  There was no kindergarten.

The black and white teachers “assigned” to Bunker Hill met with Mr. Mabry a couple of days before school was to begin to discuss class assignments.  He began by saying that under the circumstances, the only way he knew to make class assignments fairly was for teachers to select their classes in the order of seniority.  He had written the names of the subjects to be taught on the blackboard.  The older teachers went first, getting to chose subjects and the grade level with which they had training and experience.

I was the youngest teacher, and the last to choose.  There was nothing left to choose.  I was stuck with 7th grade Science, 8th grade American History, 6th grade Boys Physical Education, and two Study Halls.  Remember, I had been a 7th grade English teacher.  Irrelevant.

As I entered the building on the first day of school, I had to run the gauntlet of angry white parents loitering on both sides of the hallway.  “He’s one of the nigger teachers,” I heard someone say.

Marc Basnight’s best friend

All of these experiences came back as I sat on the front porch with Hubert Poole yesterday listening to him talk about integration here in Raleigh; about pickup trucks with gun racks and hostile students.

After retiring from a life-long teaching career, Hubert Poole became Sergeant at Arms in the North Carolina Senate.  Over two decades, he became a respected and beloved member of the Senate family.

“I started in the Senate at about the same time as Marc Basnight,” he told me, adding, “I’m Marc Basnight’s best friend.”

Poole went on to tell me about the kindnesses extended to him by Senators over the years, Democrats and Republicans, and how he knew what they were going to say on the floor before they said it.  I could have talked with Mr. Poole all afternoon, but it was time to get back to work.

As I was walked down the porch steps he said, “If you see Marc Basnight, tell him I said to take it easy.”  I knew just how well he knew Basnight when he added, “But he doesn’t know how to do that.”

Out of the devastation of a tornado, a conversation by happenstance took place yesterday with someone who had lived through the devastation of Jim Crow laws.  I am so pleased that as a member of the Early Response Team at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church I had the opportunity to help Hubert Poole mitigate the tornado damage to his property.  After all, he devoted his life to mitigating the damage of a segregated school system here in Wake County.

Hubert Poole was a member of segregation’s Early Response Team.

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