A first step: First black student in Wayne schools returns to visit
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 22, 2009 1:50 AM
Walking the halls inside Meadow Lane Elementary School did not take Steve Archer back to the days he spent roaming them as an 8-year-old.
The house on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's Kenly Lane where he lived for more than a year has since been bulldozed.
He has no recollection of Goldsboro at all.
"I don't remember anything," he said. "I mean, the last time I was here was 50 years ago."
So when he faced the crowd of 100-plus that turned out to meet him at the place he completed the first grade, it felt somewhat unnatural -- even though his name has been a part of local lore since the day his father, Fred, enrolled him as the first black student in an eastern North Carolina public school.
"It's definitely an honor, but I just don't remember a thing," Steve said. "Not a thing."
He might not remember breaking the color barrier at Meadow Lane in 1959, but he could tell you about the kind of man the person who enrolled him there was.
"I didn't know what kind of barrier I was about to cross, but my dad, he was sticking up for what he believed in," he said. "That's just the way he was."
History will remember Fred Archer as the first black member of the Air Force to achieve the rank of chief master sergeant -- one of the original members of the Tuskegee Airmen.
So those who know of his place in Civil Rights-era history might not be surprised that he forced the integration of an all-white school.
Steve, however, still can't quite wrap his brain around the concept.
The man he remembers had fortitude, but was also rather reserved, he said.
"He was really quiet," Steve said. "But he was the kind of person where the quieter he got, the more you listened to him."
It was March 1959 when the Wayne County School Board "cleared the way for a Negro child to enter the previously all-white school," by designating Meadow Lane for the exclusive use of children of Seymour Johnson airmen, an article in the March 2, 1959, edition of Southern School News said.
The military had already been integrated, thanks mostly to the World War II accomplishments of the elder Archer and his comrades in the Tuskegee Airmen.
So it "made sense" to allow Steve to attend the same school as the children he was growing up around, current Wayne County Public Schools public information officer Ken Derksen said Friday.
"The children were already living next to each other and playing with each other on base," he said.
Much like her son, Frances Archer does not remember many of the details surrounding her husband's attempt to enroll Steve at Meadow Lane. But her return to the city where it all unfolded did take her back to the tone of the time.
"The circumstances now are certainly much different and much better than they were 50 years ago," she said.
The Archers were not the only ones who had nearly forgotten their place in state history.
In fact, members of the Wayne school system only discovered that a historic anniversary was upon them a few months ago.
It started with a letter that came across Derksen's desk -- one that told the story of Fred Archer's push to enroll his 8-year-old at Meadow Lane.
After reading it, Derksen put it down with a sense of duty to honor him.
"A lot of people had heard about Fred Archer, but had no idea he was stationed at Seymour Johnson," Derksen said. "It took a lot of legwork and a lot of time outside of work, digging for information (to put all the facts together and track down the Archer family) ... but it was with a purpose. This piece of local history needs to be shared."
Months later, it was confirmed that Steve was indeed the first black student to attend an all-white public school east of Greensboro.
And while his father died in 1988, he and his mother said they would be more than willing to make a trip across the country -- from California and Arizona, respectively -- to the setting of the historic moment they were a part of.
"Fifty years later, holy cow, I'm somebody," Steve said. "I guess you never know when you're going to be the first at something."
Brooklyn Hamilton was one of dozens of fourth-grade students who joined city and county dignitaries for Friday's ceremony -- one meant to commemorate 50 years of integration at Meadow Lane.
The little girl escorted Steve and Frances to the school gymnasium, even if, like her classmates -- and the 8-year-old version of Steve -- she likely can't yet comprehend the full impact of what took place on those grounds decades ago.
"My dad never said, 'Hey you've got to remember this because one day you're going to want to tell your kids,'" Steve said. "I vaguely remember the fact that I was the first (minority) to go to that school but I had no idea it was the whole eastern half of the state. ... So I think that would have been a high point for him."