Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Final chapter for pioneer principal

Ed Sanders played seminal role in Charlotte school desegregation; Rocky River's library named for him.

By Ann Doss Helms

Posted: Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010

As principal of Central High, Sanders enforced peace when the school enrolled its first black student in 1955. Across town at Harding High, desegregation brought dramatic conflict that stuck in the public mind, overshadowing Sanders's success.

But Sanders died knowing his place in history had been recognized.

Almost every day, he would look at a 2007 Observer article that chronicled his courage. Less than two months ago, he attended the dedication of Rocky River High's Ed Sanders Media Center.

Dementia took its toll on Sanders. But his son says he never lost the quiet moral authority that made him a reluctant hero.

Doug Sanders says his father continued to dispense nuggets of wisdom, such as "Every now and then, we need to be inconvenienced; we just get too comfortable."

Ed Sanders was never a civil-rights crusader, his son says. He was the youngest of eight children who grew up in segregated Simpsonville, S.C. They didn't know black people and didn't much question the way things were.

Doug Sanders believes Ed's compassion was forged when his own father, a railway depot agent, died just as Ed was starting college.

To support his mother, Ed worked as a sweeper, then a weaver, in a nearby textile mill. He developed a deep respect for his hardworking co-workers, who didn't have the education or the means that the Sanders family did. When he wasn't working or taking classes at Furman University, he taught mill workers to read, Doug Sanders says.

Jarred into history

Ed Sanders emerged believing that everyone deserves respect and a good education, the vision that guided him when history jarred his comfortable role as a principal.

Until 1957, he was the kind of quiet leader who got respect but not much attention, recalls David McKinnon, a 1955 graduate of the now-defunct Central High.

A Supreme Court ruling that year forced Charlotte's white schools to admit black students.

"I'd rather not have been there; I'm not fooling," Ed Sanders told Observer columnist Mary Curtis in 2007. But he also believed integration was the right thing to do, and he set out to do it right.

He used the respect he'd earned from his students, including the troublemakers and athletes, to make it clear he wouldn't tolerate harassment when the black student arrived.

When white students tried to block 11th-grader Gus Roberts at the front door, Sanders walked him in. The trouble died down, and Roberts graduated from Central two years later.

Moving on

Meanwhile, photos of Dorothy Counts being jeered and spit on at Harding became the iconic image of Charlotte's slow trudge toward racial justice.

In 1959, Sanders became principal of the new Garinger High. He was charged with introducing the first black faculty member. Again, he made it clear that abuse would not be tolerated.

Sanders eventually became a central-office administrator in the merged Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. A Supreme Court order demanding busing for full desegregation "gave him some heartburn," his son recalls. He wasn't sure it made sense to shuffle so many students.

But Ed Sanders swallowed his doubts and helped craft the 1970 busing plan. Again, his son said, he fell back on his belief in the right to a good education and his determination to do his job well.

Ed Sanders ended his career as an educator as superintendent of Darlington County schools in South Carolina, then returned to Charlotte.

To Doug and his sister, Sandy, Ed Sanders was also the dad who loved fishing, frog gigging and the comic strip "Snuffy Smith."

And he was devoted to his wife, Jane, nursing her through a long decline with Alzheimer's disease. She died in 2007 after 62 years of marriage.


In 2005, McKinnon and his Central High classmates held their 50th reunion. They invited Sanders - and to their surprise, he came. When they started meeting monthly in Mint Hill, he was an honorary member of the gang.

They thought of him as a great guy, a man of honor. But they didn't grasp his place in history until the Observer did a 50th-anniversary piece on the desegregation pioneers of 1957.

By that time, Sanders was recently widowed. His own memory was slipping. His son helped him with the interview.

Ed Sanders, who lived at Southminster retirement center, marveled when the article came out.

"His comment was, 'Did I really do that?'" Doug Sanders says.

Central High's Class of 1955 began lobbying to get a statue built or a school named for Sanders. They fell short - the statue would have been expensive, and CMS policy forbids naming schools for living people.

But Mark Nixon, principal of the new Rocky River High that opened in August, made the crusade his own. The library was named for Sanders, with a memorabilia room to help younger generations understand what the name means.

"If people don't acknowledge you publicly, the next generation won't know who you are," McKinnon says. "Heroes are overlooked because of things like this."

Sanders' funeral is set for 11 a.m. Jan. 4 at Covenant Presbyterian Church.

The delay, says Doug Sanders, is so the word can get out and people can get back from holiday trips. Because Ed Sanders no longer belongs to just his family. He belongs to Charlotte.