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A Life in Education

Working to give children of all races quality schools.

By Vilma Leake

When I was a child, teaching and preaching were pretty much the only professions Black people could be trained in. But those were two great professions.

Vilma Leake with some of the students she mentored.

My parents and many of my relatives were educators. And when I was six years old, I would put together the chairs at home and talk to them as if they were my students. I would tell them about reading and writing and obeying the teacher, and making sure they did their homework—whatever my teacher had said that day, I would tell the chairs.

When I grew up, I married a man studying to be a preacher and put him through seminary with the money I made teaching. I remember walking down the street with my first paycheck in my pocket—$160, which was a lot of money.

My husband, Rev. (later Bishop) George J. Leake, was a Freedom Rider, and Martin Luther King Jr. visited our home.

We believed that school desegregation was the key to improving education for Black children. When I started teaching high school sociology and psychology in Charlotte, North Carolina, the lawyer who represented the parents fighting school segregation, Julius Chambers, was a good friend of ours. I was teaching high school when the landmark Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education school desegregation order was handed down in 1971.

Leake as a young teacher during the turbulent 1970s.

Desegregation was not easy. In 1972, on my first day back in school after surgery, a riot broke out. I remember White auto mechanics students running down the hall waving chains. Some of the Black kids were hiding in classrooms, some were fighting, some were out in the schoolyard waiting to fight. The teachers were trying to calm everybody down. We were not afraid to confront the kids—it was our job to keep all students safe.

The police came out and arrested a lot of students and the principal dismissed school. But we didn’t give up and eventually we made it work. The faith community embraced desegregation. So did many high-level business people, who put their children in the public schools. The community came together, although some were still against it.

Why did we want Black children to go to school with White children? I never thought sitting next to a White child was going to make you learn, but resources follow White children, not poor Black children.

Under the ruling, the faculty was integrated and so were the sports teams. Some classes were still mostly White or mostly Black, but before, Black high schools didn’t have high-level science at all, so at least now the Black students had some exposure.

In those days, we were full of hope that Black and White children would go to school together and together build a better, stronger future.

But in 2002, a new and very different Supreme Court ended our desegregation plan. I was involved again—I was no longer teaching, but I had been elected to the school board. This time, the majority of the board was for keeping desegregation, but the Court said no.

Today, our schools in Charlotte are becoming more segregated, and most of the high-level business people have their children in private schools. On the school board, we’re trying to keep things as equitable as we can—for example, trying to get more experienced teachers to work in the high-poverty schools.

We can’t give up on public schools. Their doors are open. They give everybody a chance to get an education. And because of that, they are the salvation of democracy, the lifeblood of America.

Vilma Leake, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, is former president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.

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