‘Man of the hour’

First Posted: 7/26/2014

It’s been said that if you put two infants in a crib that they will get along fine. Add a third, however, and chaos is assured.

That was the challenge in Robeson County in the last 1960s and early 1970s when word came from Washington, D.C., that the nation’s public schools must be desegregated, which could only be achieved by massive busing as this nation’s homes were clustered by color.

It was an explosive time across the country, especially in the Jim Crow South, where people took to the streets and violence followed between blacks and whites with cops in the middle. In Robeson County, however, the fuse was even shorter as ours was a tri-racial community, with a mix of American Indians, whites and blacks.

It’s little remembered, but integration in Robeson County was achieved largely without pain. There was not effective resistance, nor was there rioting in the streets.

Perhaps we benefited from the fact that American Indians, whites and blacks were in such closed quarters, already working and playing together, and that huddling our children in the same classrooms was a logical next step.

But leadership was required — and Young Allen, the superintendent of the county school system from 1965 to 1977, was there to provide it. Certainly there were other large figures who smoothed the road to integration locally, but to mention a few would be to omit some as well, so today’s Our View is a nod to Allen, who died recently at the age of 89.

Allen led a system that was majority minority — mostly American Indians and blacks — and whose students would be swapped mostly for whites in the local city systems, including Lumberton’s.

Time is a great eraser and almost a half century has passed, so the news staff at The Robesonian was not intimate with Allen’s contributions during this potentially turbulent time. But in putting together a story on his death, we spoke with people who did have first-hand knowledge.

Purnell Swett, an assistant to Allen and later the superintendent of the merged county system, remembers.

“He had a rather awesome challenge to face, but he was the man of the hour,” Swett told this newspaper. “He was told that he would have to integrate the schools countywide evenly, and he convinced them that it was not a practical thing to do because you’d be transferring students from one side of the county to the other side because at the time the county itself was not integrated equally. He made sure that it was a peaceful transition … Then they said you have to integrate your faculty, and that went much smoother. He was able to work things out so that everything went smoothly.”

When Allen died on July 16, it ended for him a long battle with Alzheimer’s that robbed him of the ability to recall even his own accomplishments, including his assignment during integration. But it’s appropriate at the time of his death that the rest of us remember, and give a final thanks for his role in peacefully guiding this county into the future.