By Lucie Shelly
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
“I don’t like that term,” said Frances. “I am not from Africa. I was born in the United States. And I am not African. I am an American who is black.”
These were the words of the late Frances Neal Hargraves who died at age 87 in 2002 as one of the most prolific community activists that the Carrboro and Chapel Hill area has ever known. As Black History month comes to a close, her legacy and her goals still resonate in the community to which she gave so much time, love and energy.
Frances’ dedication to the community started at its roots – with the children. As a teacher in North Side elementary school both before and after segregation, she was the first black teacher to teach a group of mixed race students
“The children from Carrboro were there too,” explains local historian and writer Valarie Schwartz, who became an intimate friend of Frances in her later years. “There was no other black school so they would have had to go to Northside, that was the only school for black children in town. There were some community schools out in the country, one-room school houses that would teach the children from first to 11th grade.”
The history of the black community in this area is, like most black histories, rooted in tension and struggle. The societal injustices as America made the transition out of the Jim Crow era permeated through all parts and people of the community.
The area as we identify it today did not have the same parameters and distinctions that have emerged in recent years, particularly for the black community, explains Keith Edwards, a cousin of Frances who is now 64 and lives on Cotton Street near the Hargraves Center. She says that this was largely because the black population was forced to live in a different way.
“For the minorities that lived in Carrboro, they did everything in Chapel Hill,” says Edwards. “The children went to school in Chapel Hill, most of the jobs were in Chapel Hill. That’s why we didn’t make any difference between the two; we lived in both towns.”
Edwards also says that the reason blacks were forced to work outside Carrboro was because it used to be a very different place for the black community.
“Carrboro was totally different then. Carrboro was a town where you didn’t want to be caught out after dark.”
Schwartz conveys a similar history. A conversation she had with Frances’ nephew, Edward Caldwell, who was also an activist in the community and became the first black to serve on the Chapel Hill – Carrboro School Board, revealed a dark history of violent tension between the black and white communities in Carrboro.
“He said to me one time, ‘Oh we knew not to walk in to Carrboro because if you go in to Carrboro you were going to get rocked,’” recalls Schwartz. “And I said, ‘Get rocked, what do you mean?’ and he said, ‘They throw rocks at you if you go to Carrboro.’ And I’ve repeated that to so many African-Americans who I’ve met over the years and they just nod their heads and say, ‘That’s right, that’s right.’”
This was the community that Frances had to bring together in education. When the schools were desegregated in 1966, Frances was not only the first black teacher to work with white children, but she was given a further challenge.
“They put her working with the children who had either learning or behavioral difficulty,” says Schwartz. “She was put with the children that the other teachers really didn’t know what to do with, which was frustrating to her, but as with anything with Frances she made the best out of.”
Frances adopted teaching methods that would help all children, regardless of their background.
“She used whatever she had to use to teach these children,” says Edwards, who as the younger cousin of Frances, attended the school in 1956 and left in sixth grade, part of the period during which Frances taught.
“She didn’t teach me but I wish she had. It was just the whole atmosphere, even as a small child, made us want to be in her classroom. We heard her voice, the way she spoke to her students. She talked with love – not tough love, just love,” says Edwards.
Edwards says this atmosphere came from the different approach that Frances brought to instructing. It was the daily organization of putting her students around each other in tables, as opposed the straight rows of desks that Edwards’ classes had. Edwards also speaks of particularly memorable events such as the science fair that Frances put on each year.
“We would go to her class to see her science fair inside her classroom – as opposed to having one big science fair where all the kids went, she always had one. I remember walking in, I was very young. I walked in her classroom, and she had the lights off. It was so dark in her classroom. She had – I don’t know if it was a black sheet, or if it was a black crepe paper or what – on the ceiling. But she had all the stars up. And she had the earth, she had all that up there and it was just like walking outside but you got to see these other planets.”
But Frances appreciated that there was a need for education beyond the classroom also. As desegregation progressed, one of the issues that her community work centered on was the achievement gap between black and white children.
Schwartz recalls her speaking on this issue long before the Bush administration’s introduction of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ program.
“Frances said, ‘It’s fine to do academics, but you need to throw in cultural exposure, language skills, social skills. When I taught special education students, I taught my children social skills, I took them to lunch at the swanky Carolina Inn and made them feel good about themselves.’ And then she’d take them to the swanky restaurant and they would know what to do and it made them feel good about themselves, that they knew how to act. She was instilling confidence in children,” remembers Schwartz.
The notion of taking real ideas from the outside world and translating them to the community that she loved so much is perhaps something that came from her own love of travel – something that not many people are as familiar with, but that her granddaughter, Veronita Hargraves, who works at the Exxon store on West Main Street in Carrboro, remembers well.
“My grandmother traveled so much around the world. She’d been to China, Hawaii, Egypt,” says Veronita.
Frances shared with her family and brought her ideas to her community.
“She did a lot of travels. We would go to her house and watch slide shows of her latest adventure, so that was cool. In the African-American community, many people have no desire or don’t have the means to get out and see the world. So that’s something that I’m glad she was able to do, that she wanted to do – and did,” says Veronita.
There are seemingly endless tales of Frances’ unfailing energy and work. Edwards, Veronita and Schwartz all remember her activity in the community after she retired from teaching. After retirement, Edwards says, she still had a part in the advancement of the black community.
“On election day she was there all day giving people rides. Seniors, getting them out there to vote. You know after election day, you’d just go home and collapse. But that wasn’t Frances. The next day she’d jump right back up and she’s in to something else,” says Edwards. Many of her activities were linked to Frances’ first love: education.
“Frances was always on the forefront – raising funds for pencils for paper, trying to get better books. She was always talking to school board to get this or get that.”
Veronita recalls Frances running as an athlete in the Senior Olympics – and as the torch carrier for the summer Olympics the year before she passed away. Frances was 87 when she died.
Frances’ efforts and energy did not preclude worry for the future of the black community, if anything they were bolstered by it. On a lazy, spontaneous afternoon that Schwartz spent with Frances, she remembers seeing Frances unusually frustrated.
“She was sitting at her kitchen table which was loaded down with all of her dishes, and just cleaning every single spot in her kitchen. While we sat and visited she was talking about the children and how concerned she was for the black children of the community and their future. You know I think she was really concerned about who was going to take her place. She was the biggest activist in the black community at that time. There really was no one else who was doing what Frances was doing. She could recognize that there needed to be African-American voices who were speaking out in this community.”
If Frances was leading by example, she was teaching by example.
“She left this world still a school teacher,” says Edwards. “Because even when she talked to you, she would teach you.”