Pioneer black student honored
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 20, 2009 1:46 PM
The man who broke the color barrier in Wayne County Public Schools more than 50 years ago as a child returned to Goldsboro today for several events being held in his honor.
Steve Archer was 8 years old in 1959 when his father, Master Sgt. Fred Archer, who was stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, applied to enroll him at the all-white Meadow Lane Elementary School.
The application was initially rejected on a technicality, for not having been properly filed, according to the March 1959 edition of Southern School News.
At the time, segregation was still the norm in most areas, but not in the military.
Celia James is currently principal at Meadow Lane, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
"Our school has such a unique history and a lasting relationship with Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. The school was originally built in 1958 with a federal grant to help the district accommodate students living on the base. At the time, the base was already integrated. A few short months after our doors opened, our classrooms were also integrated."
On March 2, 1959, Southern School News said, the Wayne County School Board "cleared the way for a Negro child to enter the previously all-white Meadow Lane School by designating the school for the exclusive use of children of personnel at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base."
The report said the board also established a new school zone consisting only of the Air Force base and the site of the federally-built school. It allowed Air Force personnel with children in any county school to enroll them in Meadow Lane.
Meadow Lane became the first integrated public school in eastern North Carolina, and Archer holds the distinction of being the first minority student to attend an all-white public school east of Greensboro, said Ken Derksen, the public information officer for the Wayne school system. Derksen helped in tracking down Archer, who now lives in Paradise, Calif.
"I vaguely remember the fact that I was the first (black student) to go to that school, but I had no idea I was the first in the eastern half of the state. I'm not even sure my dad knew that," Archer said Wednesday before boarding a plane bound for North Carolina. "I know he would be immensely proud and I'm glad I can be there for him."
Several black students soon followed Archer, but it was a slow process.
When the April edition of Southern School News came out, it reported that "presumably several other Negro children will be able to enter Meadow Lane School next year because some 15-20 children from the military base now attend East End School in Goldsboro." In July, a report referred to a black girl who was enrolled at Meadow Lane in April 1958.
Given a chance to commemorate the milestone, district officials set out to locate Archer, which was made more challenging because his family had since been transferred to various parts of the globe.
Derksen said it took nearly three months of searching to locate Archer and his mother, Frances, who lives in Tucson, Ariz. Fred Archer, who went on to become the first black chief master sergeant in the Air Force, died in 1988.
"We were very fortunate," said Derksen, who searched through old school board minutes, records and resolutions as well as online to track down the family.
"It took a lot of legwork and a lot of time outside of work, digging for information and tidbits of information. But it was with purpose -- this piece of local history needs to be shared.
"A lot of people had heard of Fred Archer but had no idea he was stationed at Seymour Johnson. So this is base history that's being shared and local history, too."
Being a military child, Archer traveled all around the globe, graduating from high school outside Tokyo. After a brief stint in the Air Force himself, he worked for years in the entertainment industry, being a chief carpenter building sets for such performers as Neil Diamond, Madonna and Pink Floyd. Now he is fleet manager for a large foster care agency.
Several local organizations provided financial support to bring the Archers to Goldsboro, including the local members of the Wilson V. Eagleson Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen and the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce and its Military Affairs Committee.
"We are very grateful for the financial support from local groups to help bring Steve and his mother to North Carolina," Mrs. James said. "Having them here will make this event even more meaningful for our school, the district, the base and the entire community."
Throughout the day today, the Archers are being honored at a variety of events, including a tour of Seymour Johnson and a "50 Years of Integration" event at Meadow Lane.
-- Reporter Ken Fine also contributed to this story.