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Alabama school sacks 'racist' head: Classrooms destroyed by fire after principal banned mixed-race couples from attending dance

WASHINGTON - The headmaster who reawakened racial tensions in the small Alabama town of Wedowee after threatening to cancel a school dance if any students planned to attend with a partner of another race has been suspended, writes David Usborne.

The decision to reassign Hulond Humphries, 55, came two days after the town's high school, where he had been principal for a quarter of a century, was destroyed by a fire. Though there has been no official finding on the cause of the blaze, a link with the controversy is widely assumed. Until this week, the local school board, with only one black member, had been resisting pressure from civil rights and church groups to suspend Mr Humphries. The Justice Department in Washington also filed a complaint of racial discrimination and asked for his dismissal.

The act which destroyed any racial harmony there may have been in Wedowee, a town of just 800 people in the east of the state, came during a school assembly on 24 February. Mr Humphries asked any students who were contemplating coming to the spring dance with someone from another race to raise their hands. When a number of hands went up, he said the event would be cancelled. When, at the same meeting, a student of mixed parentage, Revonda Bowen, stood up to ask who she should bring to the dance, Mr Hulond said her parents had made a 'mistake' in bearing her. She has since been awarded a dollars 25,000 ( pounds 16,300) settlement by the school board.

The ensuing battle over Mr Humphries' future polarised the town. While the black community demanded his dismissal, most whites closed ranks around him. The main street became the scene of regular marches, by church organisations protesting at racism and by the Klu Klux Klan. Rallies had been planned for the weekend but were cancelled after the fire.

Protecting Mr Humphries further became untenable after video film was released of the principal running at a black cameraman from a local television station sent to record the fire. Mr Humphries was seen charging the newsman, shouting: 'Why don't you just get out of here?' A hand covered the lens and a voice of another man said: 'You black sons of bitches burned this school.' The cameraman was knocked to the ground and his camera destroyed.

Mr Humphries has not been sacked, but rather reassigned to oversee the rebuilding of the school. Even after the incident with the cameraman, he still has his supporters. 'I know why he did it, he was frustrated at the media circus,' an unidentified man commented. 'I still think he's the best principal in the world, but everybody wants his head. And now they've got it.'

(Photograph omitted)