May 17, 2024 - Education

A timeline of school segregation in Charlotte

integration in charlotte mecklenburg schools

Black and white students ride inside a school bus on their way from the suburbs to an inner city school in Charlotte on Feb. 21, 1973. Photo by Leffler/Library of Congress/Interim Archives/Getty Images

School segregation has a long and complicated history in Charlotte.

Why it matters: Charlotte was once a model for successful school integration after a landmark 1970s U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled busing could be used to desegregate schools. But the area's schools have become far more segregated over the last quarter-century.

Here's a timeline to explain how we got to where we are today.

May 17, 1954 — Brown v. Board of Education ruling declares the "separate but equal" doctrine unconstitutional in public schools and facilities.

Sept. 4, 1957 — Four Black Charlotte students walk into formerly all-white schools for the first time — Delois Huntley at Alexander Graham Junior High, Gus Roberts at Central High, Girvaud Roberts at Piedmont Junior High, and Dorothy Counts at Harding High.

1960 — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools becomes the first city-county merger in the state, which helped facilitate integration. "County-wide school districts often proved to be more diverse and counteracted white families' resistance to integration by attending proximate public schools," according to a recent report from The UCLA Civil Rights Project.

Fall 1964 — Charlotte still has more than 80 segregated schools when parents Darius and Vera Swann try to send their son James to an integrated school. They are denied, and they file a lawsuit, using legendary civil rights attorney Julius Chambers.

Julius Chambers statue on Little Sugar Creek Greenway. Photo: Ashley Mahoney/Axios
Julius Chambers statue on Little Sugar Creek Greenway. Photo: Ashley Mahoney/Axios

Fall 1965 — Football star Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick transfers from all-Black Second Ward High to Myers Park High, garners All-American honors, and leads the Mustangs to an undefeated season. But the annual Shrine Bowl between North Carolina and South Carolina all-stars declines to select him because of his skin color.

Nov. 19, 1965 —A judge rules that Kirkpatrick would still be banned from the Shrine Bowl, but officials are required to desegregate the contest in future years.

Nov. 22, 1965 — White supremacists, angry over the Shrine Bowl ruling, firebomb four houses owned by prominent civil rights leaders, including Chambers' home.

April 23, 1969 — Federal Judge James McMillan sides with the Swann family and orders Charlotte-Mecklenburg's schools to integrate by any means necessary. The system would file several appeals and the case would make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

April 20, 1971 — The Supreme Court upholds McMillan's ruling and says that busing is a necessary means to "dismantle the dual school systems" in the South.

Oct. 8, 1984 — President Ronald Reagan visits Charlotte and says that busing is a "social experiment that nobody wants." The crowd goes silent, and the Charlotte Observer pens an editorial titled, "You were wrong, Mr. President."

1980s-90s — Charlotte's school system has about 100,000 students and is nearly 60% white and 40% Black overall, and most individual schools have a similar breakdown.

1990s — CMS shifts away from mandatory busing in favor of expanding specialized magnet programs in select locations.

Sept. 11, 1999 — Federal District Court Judge Robert Potter rules that forced integration is no longer necessary, ending busing.

2010s — CMS is again the most segregated school system in North Carolina, according to a report from the North Carolina Justice Center.

2017 — CMS embarks on a controversial school reassignment plan in hopes of achieving integration. Ultimately, it chooses to only significantly alter four schools — Dilworth Elementary would be paired with Sedgefield Elementary, and Cotswold with Billingsville.

Go deeper: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools struggle with segregation 70 years after Brown v. Board ruling


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