Elliott “E.B.” and Juanita Palmer
Building a new museum from the ground up demands an extraordinary commitment to education and an even greater commitment to preserving history and understanding the people who made it.
While not a typical second career or retirement project, it is exactly what Elliott and Juanita Palmer did in 1984 in founding the African-American Cultural Complex (AACC) in Raleigh.
Elliott B. Palmer grew up in Durham, the youngest of nine children. After high school, Palmer attended North Carolina Central University (NCCU), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in social studies, with a minor in economics, and a master’s degree in administrative education. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from St. Augustine’s University in 1975.
He went on to work as a history and civics teacher at Little River High School and later became principal at Lakeview Elementary School, both in Durham County, NC.
In 1964, Palmer was hired as the executive director of the North Carolina Teachers Association (NCTA), the African-American teacher’s organization. In 1970, he led the merger between the NCTA and the North Carolina Education Association (NCEA), the predominantly white teachers’ organization. He became the associate executive director of the resulting integrated North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), a position he held until his retirement in 1982.
At the NCTA, and later at the NCAE, Palmer became a leader in the fight to protect the rights and jobs of African-American teachers as public schools in the south were desegregated. Working with civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, a Heritage Calendar honoree in 2016, Palmer gained a national reputation for fearlessness in initiating legal actions to defend and protect educators.
In 1971, Palmer and the NCAE successfully advocated for passage of the state’s first “Career Status” law, giving public school teachers tenure protections that included notice of decisions, standards for dismissal or demotion and opportunity for a hearing by elected boards of education.
During his tenure at the NCAE, he also served in various capacities with the National Education Association (NEA), where he chaired the National Council of State Teachers Associations and the National Council of Educators for Human Rights.
Juanita Palmer also embraced an education career. Born on a South Carolina plantation that produced rice, tobacco, and cotton, she attended Morris College, in Sumter, SC, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Later, she would earn her master’s degree in elementary education at N.C. Central University.
She spent 36 years as an elementary school teacher, teaching grades K-6, and was the first African-American classroom teacher to integrate the Chapel Hill School System.
Education was not simply the Palmers’ careers – it brought them together as a couple when they met at a teachers’ conference. And it continued to be a central focus of their lives in retirement.
Originally called the Black Heritage Park, the AACC evolved from the Palmers’ hobby of collecting artifacts and documents highlighting outstanding contributions made by African-Americans, which they used to supplement their classroom teaching when curriculum materials did not include such diversity. Incorporating both a museum and educational center, the AACC was designed to offer structured educational programs on African American history and culture.
The AACC took a grassroots approach to its museum, collecting memorabilia from the local state and national communities. For example, the law enforcement exhibit highlights the country’s first African-American commander of a highway patrol, along with sheriffs from across North Carolina.
Currently, the AACC is seeking a new home after suffering storm-water damage at its previous site. But once in a new home, it will offer new and expanded programs, while continuing to showcase artifacts, documents and panels of African Americans from all walks of life.
The Palmers have received numerous awards during their careers. These include, in 1999, North Carolina’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine, and in 2007, the Old North State Award for Outstanding Contributions in Education, in recognition of their work at the AACC, along with Elliott Palmer’s history of helping to integrate North Carolina schools while preserving the jobs of black school teachers. In 2000, the AACC received the “Local Legacy of North Carolina” award from the Library of Congress.
Elliott Palmer, who served on various committees or commissions during the administrations of three U.S. presidents and seven N.C. governors, also received recognition from the United Nations-Education Committee, and the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Museum Field by the National Association of African American Museums. Ebony magazine also listed him among their “100 Most Influential Blacks in America.”
All the awards hold a special place in the Palmers’ hearts but each say they are proudest of their work during the civil rights movement.
The Palmers have four children: Elliot Jr, Douglas, Ruth, and Tonya.
By Tristian Reid