Phyliss Craig-Taylor was part of the first wave of black students to integrate public schools in Alabama. She started attending an integrated school in third grade, and it was a challenging and formative experience. White children taunted her and threw projectiles at her, and she collected each item in a cigar box. These objects later served as evidence in a lawsuit to push for stronger integration of public schools.
Craig-Taylor is now the dean of law at North Carolina Central University and advocates for accessible and high-quality education for students of color. Host Frank Stasio speaks with Phyliss Craig-Taylor about her life in education and law. Craig-Taylor also discusses being tapped by former President Barack Obama to be on an advisory board for historically black colleges and universities.
On her father becoming a landowner under Jim Crow:
My father had a unique way of putting people at ease and appearing not to be a threat, even though just the sheer desire to accumulate that type of land during Jim Crow in South Alabama had to be threatening to some people. But that was just his way. He was a charmer; he was a person who was quick with a joke, and he usually accomplished his goal. He was smart in the ways we now call emotional intelligence even though he only had a third grade education.
On her mother’s fight for civil rights:
It did put her in danger and clearly the rest of us were in danger. We had cross burnings in front of our home and even on one occasion someone shot into our home. But we weren’t taught that that meant that you stopped what you were doing. It just meant that it was more important for you to persist in what you were doing, and that someone had to take the risk if there is going to be real change.
On the inefficacy of the freedom of choice school integration plan:
Even though [Brown v. Board of Education] had said with “all deliberate speed,” in Choctaw County “all deliberate speed” turned out to mean as slow as possible. So there just wasn’t much progress there. Initially what they did is put in place a freedom of choice plan. That’s where families could opt to attend what had been historically the other race’s majority school. Well, no white parents opted for their children to attend the historically black elementary or high school, and only a few of us in the end ended up attending the white school.
On being a black student entering a historically white public school:
I was a very young child at the time. I don’t think I quite understood it until I was there and was met with some of the sneers and the glass shards and rocks that were thrown.
It starts right away. You show up on the first day and no one says hello to you … It wasn’t just the children, but I will say that the adults were not throwing things. And they were not participating in some of the little side games and jokes that the children would play. But I think that it was quite jarring as a small child because before this I had lived in the bliss of my happy tribe.
On asking her school guidance counselor for information about colleges:
She wouldn’t give me any information. She told me that I was not college material and that I needed to consider some options that would be more appropriate for my people. That was a real punch in the gut, because I had watched all of my other siblings go off to college, and I was looking forward to that moment.
On being selected by President Obama to be an adviser on Historically Black Colleges and Universities:
Never thinking in my lifetime that I would see an African-American elected president in this country, it meant more than words could ever express just to be asked.