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Macon County’s First Black Principal Talks Integration, Racism And COVID-19

Courtesy of Shirley Parks
Shirley Parks shared this photo from her days teaching in Macon County Schools.

Students started back to school last month amidst the uncertain world of COVID-19 and a racial justice movement across America. Franklin resident Shirley Parks remembers her own uncertain days as a student during integration in Macon County and much later in 2011 as the first Black principal in the county since integration. 

Parks worked in the Macon County School System for 33 years. She says its hard to watch children and parents struggling with the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

“No one is winning right now either way, so we just have to do what we can with what we have, with the training that the teachers are doing, and they are out there for the students. And I know that the parents are struggling to – especially the ones that have to go back to work so that you aren’t there to help your little one… I was just thinking last night I’m so glad that I don’t have to go through this, but you know overall, if I was I would be working just as hard as the rest of them. I’m just glad to be here.”   

Parks grew up in Franklin and remembers what it was like to leave the Chape School during integration when she was in the third grade:   

“The transition to the integration school, and it was East Franklin Elementary, which was ironic because I ended up principal at East Franklin. That’s the school that I was integrated to, which when I look back was horrible.  As a young child, and a Black child and being the only person of color. The other kids, they didn’t know anything they just knew what their parents say. They would call you the N-word, and I think that’s where I first learned the N-word.”

Parks remembers realizing that she wanted to be a teacher while studying at St. Augustine’s College.

Credit Lilly Knoepp
Shirley Parks spoke with BPR from her front porch via Zoom. At times you can hear the birds chirping during our interview.

“When I first started out I majored in business, but once I got there I realized that wasn’t really what I wanted to do so I changed it over to education. And that’s when I found my passion. Growing up I did a lot of baby sitting… there’s just something about the joy that I felt working with students. Just the little light – I know everyone says that there is a little lightbulb that goes off but it’s just a passion that I have to help children, to work with children.”

When asked about the current racial justice movement in America, Parks remembers racism in Macon County growing up before this divisive political moment.

“Some people refuse to see that. They think that there weren’t a lot of problems because they didn’t walk in our shoes. I remember racism. It was still in high school when my daughter was in high school, when my son was in school. It’s still around now. A lot of people want to close their eyes but they would have to deaf and blind. A lot of people just don’t want to own that. Or they want to look at it that we didn’t have any problems – yeah as long as we stayed in ‘our place’ you know what I mean when I say ‘place.’ Then everything was fine. But if you stepped out, then you had some problems.

I remember in the movie theater that we couldn’t sit with the white people. We had to sit in the balcony, which were the best seats, they didn’t realize that. That was separated. In town there were “colored” water fountains and “white” water fountains so I don’t see how they can say that there was no racism.”  

Parks is now 63 years old. She has this advice to deal with COVID-19 and racism.

“With the pandemic, I think that we need to be patient and we need to be safe. We need to follow the guidelines out there for us to be safe. As far as racist stuff, we need to speak out. If you see something that is wrong, speak up, stand out, don’t just stand back. If you don’t say something it is going to continue.”    

You can hear the full episode of The Porch on the BPR mobile app or here.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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