August 2014

The Joseph Holt Family

Joe Holt Jr. didn’t realize that a summer trip to visit country relatives in 1957 was intended to save his life.

After filing applications for the youngster to attend a junior high school in Raleigh, the family had begun receiving threats and his parents wanted to keep him safe. Joe Holt Sr. and Elwyna Holt believed strongly in the value of education and self-respect and they wanted their studious son to see himself as a first-class citizen in the wake of court orders mandating desegregation. So, in 1956, the Holts became the first African-American family to apply to all-white Josephus Daniels Junior High.

“Brown v. the Board of Education … was an opportunity to cast off the shackles of exclusion and second-class citizenship so we stepped forward,” Holt Jr. said. “Other families were inclined to take this step also, but they didn’t because of the potential for a great deal of backlash, which we in fact subsequently experienced.”

He said most people in the African-American community supported their action, but fear of reprisals from the white community caused friends and neighbors to distance themselves following their application and the ensuing uproar. “My dad got fired, we started getting threats and the black community became terrified,” Holt said. The initial application was denied and Holt Jr. subsequently enrolled at Ligon High, the “black” school. The Holts requested a transfer to Broughton High, the nearby “white” school, but were turned down, a decision Holt recalls the Raleigh City School  Board saying was “in the interest of the public and in the interest of the boy.”    Years later, a documentary on the family’s saga reported that education leaders had wanted integration to begin at the elementary level rather than at a high school, ostensibly due to concerns about violence. A federal lawsuit against the Board was unsuccessful, with the U.S. Supreme Court declining to hear the case a few months before Holt Jr. graduated second in Ligon High’s class of 1960, never having attended a “white” school.

That fall, a second-grader officially integrated the Raleigh public school system. The Holts’ story is often overlooked in the history books; the first children whose applications were accepted drew the attention. Holt Jr. earned a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from St. Augustine’s College in 1964, before accepting a commission in the U.S. Air Force. A global navigator, he served 26 years in the military before retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

Along the way, he earned a Master’s Degree in personnel management from Troy State University in 1982. Later he taught at Fayetteville State University and worked as an instructor, tutor, and mentor at both Saint Augustine’s College and Shaw University. Elwyna Holt died in 1966 and Holt Sr. in 1995. Holt Jr. now lives in Durham. The father of three, and grandfather of four, he remains keenly interested in civil rights issues. He frequently talks with school groups, sharing lessons he gleaned from his experiences, and helping the students understand why he and his family needed to take a stand for integration.

“Segregation was more than separation; it was exclusion,” Holt said. “Segregation stigmatized you by relegating you to separate and inferior facilities, but at every turn it also excluded you from participating in and enjoying American life on a first-class basis.”