In 1951, Mildred Barrington Poole (Class of 1921), made a bold decision. Mrs. Poole became the first chief administrator and principal of the Fort Bragg school system in 1948. When she arrived, black and white servicemen’s children attended different schools, following the standard of “separate, but equal” established by the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson. White children had attended the post’s eight room school, while black children attended a school off post in Cumberland County. Mrs. Poole decided to end this practice by desegregating Fort Bragg’s schools and for the first time anywhere in the South, black and white children attended school together.
|Mildred Barrington in her Senior year, from the 1921 Pine Needles (p. 30) |
(North Carolina College for Women (now UNCG) yearbook)
Mrs. Poole’s decision was based on a few factors. Executive Order 9981, signed July 26, 1948 by President Harry Truman, mandated that, “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” That Executive Order provided the legal standing to desegregate post schools, but of course, no one had done that yet at any of the other bases in the South, even though non-segregated schools were standard practice in overseas post schools at that time. The conversion to desegregated post schools in the South was slow and mired by political considerations and hurdles. Indeed, as late as April 1953, 21 segregated post schools continued to operate in the southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia.1
The second factor for Mrs. Poole’s decision to desegregate may have come from one of the post’s officers. As Mrs. Poole recalled in 1992, an African-American Army lieutenant had asked her why his daughter could not attend Fort Bragg schools. Mrs. Poole said that she had no real answer for that other than to tell him, “it’s because of the color of her skin.” Recognizing the pointlessness of that reasoning, she worked to desegregate the post’s school, by establishing the Fort Bragg school system independent of Cumberland County Schools, which in turn allowed for the Executive Order to cover the change over from segregated to integrated schools.2
The third factor, of course, was Mrs. Poole’s own feelings on the subject. “I just did what my spirit told me was right and what I knew I had to do.” Having grown up in a segregated world, it had taken her a few years to come around to this point of view. As Mrs. Poole said in an article in 1954, “It took me two or three years to prepare myself for this view…There’s nothing to fear about it. There is no trouble among the children – none whatsoever. It becomes a natural thing.”
There were however, some concerns and threats along the way to desegregation. At the start of that first integrated school year, an officer’s wife told Mrs. Poole that her husband had forbidden her to send their daughter to “school with Negroes,” and that he was going to send her back home with the child. Mrs. Poole told the woman, “I hope the child won’t look back 25 years from now and be ashamed to say that you wouldn’t let her go to school with these children.” The child remained in school.2 There was also a box full of death threats and hate mail that Mrs. Poole received and had kept in her basement. Despite the hate mail and death threats, Mrs. Poole never relented or wavered in her conviction to desegregate Ft. Bragg’s schools.
In addition to desegregating the Ft. Bragg schools, Mrs. Poole, without fanfare or drama, quietly hired the first African American teacher at the school. Not a single parent was aware of this fact until late in the school year, during parent-teacher conferences. Mrs. Poole’s attitude concerning the race of her teachers matched her attitude concerning the race of the students: “I can’t tell you how many Negro children we have. I don’t know. No one needs to know, and no newspaper needs to know. They are not Negro and white. They are children to us, and we treat them that way.”3 Mrs. Poole also shrewdly understood that there were also advantages to be found in desegregating first. This African American teacher had been hired away from a “one of the big city systems” in South Carolina, mainly because the South Carolina Governor was a very strong proponent of segregated schools. The opportunity to teach at an integrated school was very attractive.4
Mrs. Poole also had thoughts on how to go about integrating the public schools in North Carolina. “If I were giving advice to the public school people of our own county, I would tell them to announce that the schools would open on a non-segregated basis–that otherwise things would be as before. The buses would run the same routes, and the schools would be manned in the same way. I believe that voluntary segregation would remove most of the problem–but I believe firmly that today we must face our problem. We must, I believe, invite the children of all races to attend the schools of the family choice, and be prepared for the result.” Mrs. Poole believed that, “If we have any trouble (desegregating) it will come from the adults, and not from children,” but in the end, Mrs. Poole believed that “North Carolina is ready for the end of segregation. I think we’ve got plenty of sense to handle it, and not let things remain a reflection on our good sense and our religion.”5
Unfortunately, Mrs. Poole was eventually pushed out of her Fort Bragg school job in 1956, but not before she had successfully integrated the schools and hired its first African American teacher. Mrs. Poole would go on to teach in North Carolina public schools for the rest of her career. She always maintained that integration was the right choice to make, “Integration was what, in the sight of God, we should have done. I’ve never, ever had the feeling what we did at Fort Bragg was wrong.”6
In 2016, Mrs. Poole was honored posthumously with an announcement of the opening of a new school at Ft Bragg. The Mildred B. Poole Elementary School opened in 2018, the first school on the base named after someone who was not a soldier.7
*Callie Coward of the Cataloging Department first found and directed the author toward Mrs. Poole and her accomplishments. Thanks Callie!
By Scott Hinshaw
1- Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965, Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C., 2001
2- “Unsegregated Grade School is Operated at Fort Bragg” The News & Courier, 10/13/1951
3- “Non-Segregated School Ends 3rd Year” Greensboro Daily News, 6/6/1954
6- “School named after a woman ‘ahead of her time’” Paraglide, 10/6/2016
7- “Fort Bragg to dedicate school to Mildred Poole” Fayetteville Observer 4/15/2018