A Community Fractured

August 14, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

WEDOWEE, Ala. -- Mayor Terry Graham, who is white, looks at the fire-scorched rubble that is Randolph County High School and declares that there is no racial problem in his town.

"This town is the same as it was," he says. "The people are the same."

Janice Pinkard, the first black elected as the school's senior class president, in 1978, looks at the same charred building and sees this: a smashed symbol of a fractured community where whites rule and blacks keep their place.

"The whites would have you believe it's in harmony here," she says. "But you ask some of these white people, 'How many of you have invited us to dinner at your homes? How many of you have ever had dinner at our homes?' "

Something dreadful happened here.

In the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 6, a high school that had been at the center of a civil rights controversy was burned, a town's memory robbed and its heart broken. No one has yet been arrested for what federal investigators labeled an act of arson.

But how did it come to this?

The question hangs in the air like the hot, humid temperature of an Alabama summer day.

For six months, this tiny town of about 900 on the eastern edge of Alabama had been portrayed as a place caught in a time warp, where white and black lived under rules of an old racial order symbolized by the school's gruff, white, middle-aged principal.

The order finally cracked when Hulond Humphries, the principal, threatened on Feb. 24 to cancel the prom because of interracial dating. When he allegedly told a student that she was "a mistake," because her father was white and her mother black, Mr. Humphries unwittingly ripped the veil off the town's racial relations.

Now, Randolph County High School lies a charred ruin.

Now, there is a new school principal, Wayne Wortham, who is white; a new assistant principal, Lucille Burns, who is black; and a new school year approaching Aug. 22.

And there is also a committee formed to rebuild the school. It is headed by Mr. Humphries, given his reassignment Monday by the local school board.

"We need to just get together, now," Mr. Wortham said Friday as he pulled out a drill and began repairing a desk in an office space that connects the now charred high school with a #F still-standing kindergarten through third-grade building. "If we can get together, then things are going to get better."

But there are still festering resentments beneath the surface of what many here believed was a placid little Southern town, two-thirds white, one-third black, the races apparently mixing peacefully for years.

To understand what happened here, though, you have to understand the grip one principal had on this town and its children. Wedowee (pronounced wee-DOW-ee) is comfortable and friendly, a bass fisherman's paradise with a four-lane main street and homes that dot the rolling countryside.

Atlanta is two hours to the east, Birmingham is 90 minutes to the west and the nearest interstate is a half-hour away.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s nearly passed Wedowee by.

Since 1968, Mr. Humphries had been the principal and unquestioned ruler of the high school, overseeing two generations of the town's children, supervising the court-ordered integration of the system. He hired and fired the school's teachers -- there are now five blacks on the staff of 35. He set all the rules. He maintained student discipline, not just with a penetrating stare over his bifocals, but with a paddle.

In Alabama, corporal punishment isn't just accepted -- it's legal.

Mr. Humphries, 55, is beloved by many whites who see him as a wise disciplinarian. Yet he is apparently loathed by many blacks who say they bore the brunt of his punishment.

"Mr. Humphries is an institution here," said Jim Wilson, a City Council member. "There is no doubt about it -- he is a pretty tough disciplinarian. But I'd find it hard to believe he'd be extreme or prejudiced."

Folks tell stories about how Mr. Humphries gave poor children -- black and white -- lunch money. How he helped rebuild a local black-owned barbecue stand that had burned down. How he was racially tolerant, allowing a school production of "Bye Bye Birdie" to be staged in 1993 with a white female and black male in the lead romantic roles.

He may be a stern man, but he shows flashes of good humor and good cheer while holding court with his friends at the Hub, the local restaurant where farmers, gas station attendants, factory workers and lawyers mix daily.

Mr. Humphries is also emotional, weeping Wednesday when he spoke publicly for the first time about the controversy at the school. He declined to comment for this article.

"This has been a devastating fire and a trying time," he told the crowd of more than 300 residents who attended the news conference in front of the charred school.

Mrs. Pinkard and her father, Lawrence O'Neal, say that for years the black community resented Mr. Humphries.

"He helped black kids out, all right; he helped them right out of school," Mr. O'Neal said.

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