Unks paints picture of Chapel Hill before Brown v. Board of
“The Town Before Brown” was both a scholarly and technical
collaboration between, from left, Gerald Unks, who wrote and produced the film;
Andrew Brawn, a technology support specialist with Information Technology
Services who served as the film editor; and Cary Gillenwater, a graduate
student who co-produced the film and served as the videographer. Still
photographs were provided by the Library of Congress, the North Carolina
Collection in Wilson Library, Chapel Hill High School and the Northside Senior
Gerald Unks is no moralist. He will say that he is no
historian, either, but merely a teacher who insists that students who enter his
class will understand history better when they leave it.
Or at least the part of history he covers in
Education 41, “The School in American
Society.” And that is a pretty big deal. Unks has taught the class to more than
23,000 students since he joined the faculty of the School of
Education 42 years ago.
It was in that course six or seven years ago, as he was
trying to explain de jure segregation, that the inspiration for the 35-minute
film, “The Town Before Brown” sprang to mind when several
students asked him if segregation enforced by law was everywhere in the South.
The students gave him incredulous stares. “You’re kidding
me,” they responded. They simply could not believe that such a system ever
Yes, he said, de jure segregation was uniformly enforced
across the states that comprised the old Confederacy and into parts of the
including southern Indiana and Illinois.
“It was everywhere, including Chapel Hill,” Unks told them,
then watched as their mouths dropped in disbelief. The thought that an
oppressive system could have been practiced in a place this progressive seemed
unfathomable to them.
It was at that moment that Unks, professor of the social
foundation of education and winner of three University teachings awards, knew
he had to do something.
Through his students, Unks came to realize
that the civil rights movement had been well documented, but that the time
immediately before it had not.
“The Town Before Brown” features interviews with
individuals, both black and white, who lived in Chapel Hill during the
segregation era. With their stories, Unks hoped to penetrate his students’
Through the stories, the film reveals how de jure
segregation was an omnipresent fact of life in Chapel Hill prior to the 1954
landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down the “separate
but equal” clause that had sanctioned segregated schools.
“That was the genesis of the project,” Unks said. “Quite
frankly, I was preparing a classroom aid was all it was. But over time, it
It grew in scope and quality, Unks said, because of the
partnership he forged with Cary Gillenwater, now a first-year doctoral student
in culture, curriculum and change, who ended up serving as co-producer and
videographer of the film.
As Unks said, “We clicked.”
He estimates that 95 percent of the work — the hours
of research in the library, coupled with the hours spent taping interviews
— took place in the past six months. But in the seven years that have
passed since that education class, the idea took root in his imagination and in
a folder that grew increasingly thick as he kept adding clippings for the
“It was always there,” Unks said, demanding his full
Segregation in Chapel Hill
The film is stylistically and thematically
organized with chapter heads that set up the
interviews, which are interspersed with still
photographs that reveal how segregation was imposed and enforced in Chapel Hill
and throughout the South.
As one chapter heading described it,
“Segregation in Chapel Hill survived because of tradition, law and fear.”
In 1953, segregation on the basis of race was the law in 21
states as well as the
District of Columbia, one page read. Segregation existed everywhere across the
South, including places presumed to be “liberal.”
Even in Chapel Hill. In 1953, the town had
nine restaurants, five barber shops, eight beauty parlors, four movie theaters,
two funeral parlors, two cemeteries, four schools and one university. All were
segregated on the basis of race.
As Reginald Smith, one of the African-Americans interviewed
for the film, expressed: “Chapel Hill had an image of being very liberal
outwardly. But underneath it, it was a little different sometimes. That image
was portrayed because of the University.”
Don Pollitt, professor
of law emeritus, is
interviewed in the film to explain how de jure segregation was sanctioned under
N.C. General Statute 115-2, which stated: “The children of the white race and
the children of the colored race shall be taught in separate public schools,
but there shall be no discrimination in favor of or to the prejudice of either
race. All white children shall be taught in the public schools provided for the
white race, and all colored children shall be taught in the public schools
provided for the colored race …”
On paper, separate but equal was the law. But in the
everyday lives of white and black families, the film portrays, it was a fiction
whites bought and blacks knew better than to believe.
But for generations, both whites and blacks accepted it as a
way of life that would not be changed.
As Rebecca Clark, an African-American woman interviewed for
the film put it, “We was born into segregation. “We didn’t know no different.”
Churches, even hospitals, were also
segregated, as were the schools.
The U.S. Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of
Education of Topeka, Kansas
on May 17, 1954, striking down the legality of “separate but equal.” But that
way of life took longer to change because of the white resistance that
continued for more than a decade afterward.
In Chapel Hill, no consequential effort was made to
desegregate public schools until 1961.
After the Civil Rights Act
In 1964, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, making it a
federal crime to segregate public accommodations on the basis of race. Chapel
Hill High School was not desegregated until 1966.
The University was completely segregated, too, and the
administration made little effort to change things, largely because it lacked
political power or the legal jurisdiction to do so.
Wayne Bowers, a white man interviewed for the film, said the
University’s administration in the 1940s and 1950s was caught between the state
legislature, which fought desegregation as much as possible, and members of its
faculty who pushed for integration.
As Bowers said, “They were always worried about the money
from Raleigh and Raleigh was not very keen on the idea.”
In the film, there is a clip of a 1962 interview
of Frank Porter Graham provided by the UNC Center for Public Television.
a former president of the Consolidated University,
explained that he did not have the power to
admit Negroes during his tenure.
“I couldn’t as president lawfully admit
Negroes to the University, but as president I could say we don’t have to send
them up to the (movie) gallery,” Graham said.
The effect of that law, Pollitt said, was to
create a kind of “serfdom” by race. There were no black students or faculty
members at Carolina, Pollitt said, and, “Every black who was employed by the
University had a broom or a shovel.”
As bad as that was, it could have been worse, the film
suggested. The level of intellect and
sophistication among the University faculty mollified the full impact of
Erle Peacock, a white man who grew up in segregated Chapel
Hill, said faculty were
recruited from all over the country, including Ivy League schools such as
Harvard and Yale, and many of them wrote and talked in support of integration.
A white woman, Phyllis Barrett, said there was no tension
between the races in those days and that relations were often friendly. “It
really was a paternal society in that we looked after black people,” Barrett
But the friendship, and the respect that black people
accorded whites and whites accorded blacks, were predicated on an unspoken but
strictly enforced code that made everything
between the two races separate as well as unequal.
Dorothy Stone, a black woman who grew up in the period,
recalled that black people were always called by their first names, for
instance, yet were required to call the white people they spoke with “Mr.” or
“Mrs.” even if the white person was 30 years younger.
As the film pinpointed, if you were white you understood
your sense of control, and if you were black you understood what your place
was, where you could go and where you could not, what you could say and how you
should say it. And in the end, it limited the kind of person you could be.
As Joel Williamson, professor of history emeritus,
described, segregation was “an
assault on the black person’s self-concept and sense of self worth.”
Unks’ biggest surprise
Unks made the film as a teaching tool, but through the
course of his interviews found that he was surprised at how contented the
blacks were during that time.
“There is not one of those people who is angry,” Unks said.
“That was a surprise. As one of the black men I spoke to put it, ‘You are born,
you realize the situation and if you’ve got any intelligence you deal with the
Unks said he planned to show the film to the Northside
community in Chapel Hill and perhaps at his church, the Chapel of the Cross,
where he was also surprised to learn that several of his interviewees attend.
Unks said anyone wishing to view the film or use it in class
can contact him at 962-9378 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone who wants a copy to
keep can purchase it for $15.
And there may be another project soon to come.
Encouraged by the success of this first project, Unks and
Gillenwater are already planning another. The first integrated class at Chapel
Hill High School graduated in 1967 — the same year that Unks arrived in
Chapel Hill to teach. Unks wants to talk to those students to find out if their
expectations of going to an integrated school, both good and bad, matched their
He remains a teacher, after all, with more
students to surprise.