Unsung hero emerges in story of McDowell County integration
by Rob Neufeld
When five Old Fort black children—Richard and Norma Greenlee; Thomas Lowder; Audrey Logan; and Teresa Murphy—went to integrate Old Fort Elementary School, August 24, 1955, they stood alone. Their three adult escorts had backed out, apparently, but Albert Joyner was watching from his window.
“I wasn’t involved,” Joyner said. “I came here from the eastern part of the state. And if you weren’t born here, you were an outsider." He had come in 1952 to work at the Oteen VA Hospital.
But he says, “The Lord took my hand” that morning. Joyner looked out his window and saw that the black adults who were supposed to escort the children weren’t there with them. Joyner put on his best suit and went out to lead the children to the schoolhouse doors.
“There wasn’t nothing but white,” Joyner recalled in an August 2009 interview with Kim Clark of the McDowell County Oral History Project. Hundreds of white police officers and citizens thronged the approach. The county school superintendent, Melvin Taylor, met Joyner on the steps.
“Integration would not be begun this year,” Taylor said. Yes, the Supreme Court had ruled that schools must be integrated “with all deliberate speed,” but the state legislature had directed schools to stay racially separate until issues could be worked out in court.
In the meantime, young black children, whose school had been controversially demolished in 1950, were being transported to Marion.
Black people had great reason to live in fear of white people, Joyner elaborated. Two men who had intended to escort the children, but didn’t, were fired from their factory jobs. Black men who, in the past, had bought new cars, had been fired for what was considered a transgression..
“You get what they have,” Joyner said, referring to white folks, your employers told you, “‘We don’t need you.’”
“You had to be under them,” Joyner added. “Yeah, that’s how it was,” he said in a refrain.
Whereas Joyner had a bank account in Pendleton, he couldn’t get one in McDowell County. Black folks used the post office for banking, Joyner said.
If a black person stepped out of line, Joyner related, “they’d have shot you in the foot, or something. Nobody would have said anything, and if they had, they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”
Joyner learned from a man whose grass he cut that some black folks had offered to take care of Joyner for being a trouble-maker at the school. “No, no need of doing that,” an official had responded.
“That’s the way it was then,” Joyner intoned.
When the black students’ case went to court, Joyner was the one who represented them, standing with their lawyer appeal after appeal. It would take several years for McDowell County schools to be fully integrated.
Not long after his initial stand, Joyner was taking his sister to the bus stop in Old Fort when, the oral history project reports, a “white railroad worker, W.W. Arney, said some harsh words to Mr. Joyner and knocked him into the fountain.”
“I got beat up bad,” Joyner said. “The police came out there and asked, what did I try to start…I called the sheriff, and he said he’d be up there in the morning. I said I might not need him then. I might be dead…That’s what that place was. They (African Americans) were scared.”
The coda to this story inspired people at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast last month, when Buncombe County Commission Chair David Gantt related what he’d learned from his assistant, Ellen Pfirrmann, Oral History Project partner of Kim Clark.
“In a touching postscript, years later,” Gantt said, “Mr. Arney was a patient at the VA Hospital. And…his nurse was Albert Joyner.
“I didn’t get mad at nobody,” Joyner recalled.
Arney had lost his leg in a car accident, and “I treated him nice,” Joyner said. One time, he asked Arney who it was who had tried to take those kids into the school—for Arney didn’t recognize him—and Arney said, “It’s nothing really important now.”
The policeman who had been at the scene of the assault on Joyner also became a patient at the hospital. Joyner took care of him on a number of occasions, often involving the messiest jobs.
Dying, the policeman wanted to give Joyner money, but Joyner declined. “I want you to have it,” the sick man insisted. “And I took it,” Joyner confessed. “I didn’t know what he was thinking.”
After the policeman’s death, Joyner went into a filling station, where he discovered that the policeman’s wife wanted to give him free gas.
“His wife came out and said, ‘We’ll take no money from him,’” Joyner related. “So I wouldn’t go there anymore. It (the offering) wasn’t obligated to me. The Lord took him,” meaning it was all in His hands.
To learn more about The McDowell County History Project go to mcdowellhistory.com. The project is looking to use the Joyner material to create an exhibit and archive that could be housed in the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro. David Gantt will be make a presentation about Albert Joyner at Hill St. Baptist Church, Asheville, 10 a.m., Feb. 13, 2011.
“Look” magazine published the documentary photo (above) of Joyner with Richard Greenlee and Thomas Lowder, two of the five African American children trying to enter Old Fort Elementary School, Aug. 24, 1955. The man with the cane is Col. Daniel Adams, a local inventor who supported the black community and sought redress for the destruction of its school.