School race row divides Deep South community: An Alabama headmaster has provoked outrage by describing the birth of his mixed-race pupil as 'a mistake'

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The Independent Online
IN KEEPING with the military traditions of the old South, an elderly artillery piece stands guard outside Randolph County High School, the chief adornment of Wedowee, a small community in north-east Alabama. Such, though, are the embattled circumstances of Hulond Humphries, the school's headmaster, that it would not be surprising if he had just put it there himself.

Six weeks ago, he described one of his students, the 16-year old daughter of a mixed marriage, as a 'mistake'. His comment provoked national uproar.

Not since its foundation in 1832 has Wedowee attained such celebrity. The name is that of the chief of the Creek Indian village which formerly stood on the site. Modern Wedowee is a community of 809 souls, the seat of Randolph County. It boasts one traffic light, a supermarket which backs on to the jail ('Positively Do Not Speak To Inmates', warns a notice on its wire-fence compound), a courthouse and the high school over which Mr Humphries ruled unchallenged for a quarter century - until what happened last 24 February.

That day, Mr Humphries called an assembly to discuss the school's annual 'prom' in April, the formal dance that is the social occasion of the high-school year, the length and breadth of America. He asked if any mixed couples were planning to attend. A few hands went up. In that case, he warned, the prom would be cancelled. 'But what about me?' asked Revonda Bowen, president of the prom's organising committee, whose father is white and mother black. 'That's the problem,' she said Mr Humphries replied to her. 'Your mom and dad shouldn't have had you. You were a mistake.'

Three or four decades ago the very remark would have been superfluous, the notion of an inter-racial couple in a Deep South state such as Alabama virtually inconceivable. But times, though perhaps not the views of the 55-year-old Mr Humphries, have changed.

Within 24 hours the headmaster attempted to make amends by announcing that the prom, for which Revonda had raised more than dollars 7,000 (pounds 4,700), would go ahead after all. The damage, though, was done. Civil rights groups clamoured for Mr Humphries' dismissal. As word spread, satellite vans from local and network television channels arrived, to witness what were surely the first demonstrations in Wedowee's history, both for and against the headmaster.

Initially, the county school board played Solomon by suspending Mr Humphries on full pay. But on 31 March the board reinstated him by a vote of four to two. The dissenters - one black, one white - resigned, in disgust, and when the school's summer term began 10 days ago, 100 black students boycotted the school to attend 'freedom schools' set up in two local churches and run by volunteers.

Outwardly, tensions have abated. For one thing it is spring, the loveliest season in this part of the world, when the newly green hillsides are ablaze with pink and white dogwood. Anxious to soothe passions, the school board has recognised the new establishments. By midweek, the number of boycotters had dwindled to 60. But old racist demons of the South have been summoned forth, and they may not be quickly laid to rest.

Henry Sterling, of the black-run Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which is helping run the 'freedom schools', said he had received telephoned death threats. Someone sprayed the words 'Nigger' and 'KKK' at the entrance to one church last week.

And then there is Mr Humphries himself, cause and emblem of the dispute, which has turned Wedow ee against itself. For his white supporters, he is the pillar of the local community: a disciplinarian, but a well-intentioned one whose priority was order at his school, whose only sin has been to speak the truth aloud. For his detractors, he is an unabashed racist.

Nor are his critics exclusively black. Within days of the incident, the white-owned local paper, the Randolph Leader, demanded Mr Humphries be replaced: 'Just what are we teaching here - racial intolerance?' Unless he were speedily replaced, there would just be 'more tensions, more problems and embarrassments'.

Those words might have been a prophecy. The school affairs of little Randolph County are now under scrutiny at the Departments of Justice and Education in Washington. Civil rights groups such as the SCLC and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are deeply involved. Mr Humphries is incommunicado behind a wall of attorneys. Revonda is suing him and the school board.

In a sense, what has happened is the measure of how far Alabama has changed. The state witnessed some of the nastiest engagements of the war for civil rights. Now though, in little old Wedowee, a mixed-race girl can be popular enough to be chosen to head the prom committee, and whites and blacks reckon that Mr Humphries has no right to be guardian of moral values.

But for some, these thoughts are scant consolation. As April Smith, a black student attending one of the community schools put it: 'Everyone is on separate sides. I see my white friends at the store but I don't speak because they might be mad because of what I'm doing.'

(Photographs omitted)