Dating Changes, Discord Rock a Tiny Alabama Town : South: A principal is removed. A school is burned. But at heart of the tension is growing issue of race-mixing.
Tiny Wedowee, Ala., is an unlikely setting for a battle over the soul of the South.
The formerly placid town of 900 sits amid forests and postcard-perfect lakes, a rifle shot away from the Georgia border. It has become home in recent years to retirees from Atlanta and Birmingham, folks tired of city traffic, crime and bustle who just want to get back to basics, back to the way things used to be.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Sept. 1, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 1, 1994 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 2 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Alabama discord--In an Aug. 12 story about racial discord and interracial relations in Wedowee, Ala., The Times reported that the son of the man at the center of the controversy, white high school principal Hulond Humphries, was friendly with African Americans and had visited the home of a black girl. Humphries’ son had not been available for comment before publication of the story. He since has said he has never dated a black girl.
But as the last several tension-racked months have shown, the way things used to be is vanishing.
To see how drastically things have changed one needs only note the FBI agents guarding the home of a local mixed-race girl because of threats on her family. Or hear the state fire marshal declare that arsonists set the fire that gutted the local high school last Saturday. Or the former principal deny that he participated in the weekend beating of a black television news cameraman.
Less sensational but possibly more profound is the hint of deeper, societal change. At the heart of the controversy that has rocked Wedowee (pronounced we-DOW-wee) for the last six months is that quintessential Southern bugaboo, race-mixing, and one man’s alleged obsession with suppressing it.
From talking to current and former students, interracial dating appears to have become almost commonplace in the high school, where blacks and whites have been attending school together for 25 years. Randolph County High School has a student body of 680 (62% of it is white).
“It’s not like 20 years ago in the days when an interracial couple walking down the street would make everybody stop, turn around and look at it,” said Mayor Terry Graham. “We’re way beyond that now.”
Indeed, the popular junior-class president is of mixed parentage, her older sister had been homecoming queen and her parents had been married here for 18 years almost without incident. They were equally accepted by both blacks and whites.
But a number of students say the former principal, Hulond Humphries, and some of his teachers, were opposed to interracial dating, almost to the point of obsession. Humphries precipitated the crisis here last February when he tried to cancel the school prom because of interracial dating.
“He would sometimes bring the white kids into the office and threaten to tell their parents about them dating interracially,” said ReVonda Bowen, 17, whose father is white and mother is black. “Sometimes he would tell white girls that no white boy would have them after they’d been with a black boy.”
Mark Chappell, a black 1990 graduate of the high school, said Humphries had always treated him fairly. He remembers, though, that the principal did call him aside one day to tell him he’d received a telephone call from the parents of the white girl he was dating. “He just wanted to tell me they knew about it,” Chappell said.
Humphries didn’t tell him to stop seeing the girl, but Chappell said: “I knew deep in his heart he didn’t like it--just like I knew my family didn’t believe in it either.”
Morris Dees, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery-based civil rights organization, noted how commonplace the practice is in Wedowee. “We were absolutely shocked at the amount of interracial dating going on in that community,” he said, adding “that was Humphries’ biggest complaint.”
Although Humphries had long been a controversial presence--the U.S. Education Department admonished him in 1989 for operating segregated school buses and for disciplining black students more often and more harshly than whites--it was his decision to cancel the school prom rather than allow interracial dating that brought a firestorm of protest.
At the assembly where he made the announcement last February, he also allegedly told Bowen her parents made a “mistake” by giving birth to her.
He changed his mind the next day about the prom and the school board settled with Bowen by agreeing to pay $25,000 toward her college education, but the controversy over whether Humphries was fit to be principal split the county in half.
The board, which previously had backed Humphries, on Monday replaced him as principal, moving him to a job in the administration building overseeing construction of a new high school.
Dorothy Parker, a retired teacher who, like most whites here, maintains that Humphries’ words were misconstrued, that he was only concerned about interracial dating leading to fighting. “The little girl (Bowen) just went overboard,” in her reaction, Parker says.
Bowen says it was the first time in her life that anyone had ever made a negative reference to her parentage. Her father, Wayne Bowen, said that, until recently, when the family started receiving death threats, there had only been one racial incident. Twelve years ago, someone burned down a nightclub he owned just across the border in Bowden, Ga. He suspects the fire was started by members of the Ku Klux Klan, he said, but he has no proof.
Since the new troubles started in February, he said, someone had rammed a truck repeatedly through the doors of a new club he had built. No arrest was ever made.
While incidents such as these were tip-offs that tensions were escalating to the point of violence, no one expected that it would lead to the burning of the high school.
“I really don’t think anybody from around here did it,” said Marcus Glenn, a 1988 graduate of the school, echoing the general sentiment.
All week, mourning town residents have paid visits to the burned-out building. Many left wreaths, almost as if a member of the family had died. Some cards were addressed to the school, others to Humphries. One read: “In loving memory. You will never be forgotten. We love what you have stood for in our community.”
While Humphries has refused all requests for interviews, many here wonder if the dating habits of his own children fueled his opposition to interracial dating. While most black people here are not shy about branding Humphries a racist, some say his son had no problem relating to African Americans.
One black woman, who asked that she not be named, said that, although her daughter and Humphries son never dated publicly, he used to come by the house to visit the girl. “I’m sure Humphries didn’t know about it,” she said.
A black former student who was friends with Humphries’ son referred to his relationship with the girl and other blacks when he said, “I know he wasn’t prejudiced.” Humphries’ son could not be reached for comment.
Indeed, one peculiar aspect of the controversy is the interlocking relationships, typical of small-town life, between the principles. Humphries’ son roomed in college with Bowen’s cousin, according to the cousin’s uncle and a family friend. And Nathan Thomaston, a KKK leader from nearby Centralhatchee, Ga., is the brother-in-law of Bowen’s white aunt.
Thomaston has been scarce in recent days, after initially showing up Saturday saying he was there to monitor the situation. Earlier this year he praised Humphries for taking a stand against interracial dating. “If (Humphries) said it I think he was sticking up for the Bible,” Thomaston said. “The Bible teaches against things like that, from Genesis all the way through.”
Tensions have been exceedingly high since the school was set on fire early Saturday morning. Some whites blame blacks for the fire, on the theory that it was set in a protest against Humphries. Some blacks, worried about rumors of klan retaliation for the fire, say they stay indoors at night.
Among the fallouts of the controversy was last June’s local elections, in which Sheriff Larry Colley lost, meaning he must step down in January. He had been running unopposed until the controversy started. Since the fire, Colley has taken to railing against meddlesome “outsiders” and threatening to throw media representatives in jail for the smallest infractions.
Graham, the mayor, acknowledged that the town is on edge--local police have been supplemented by state troopers and federal agents to investigate the school fire and keep the peace--but he said things are not as bad as the media are portraying them.
“There’s a strong wind blowing, but there’s not much debris in it, so to speak,” he said. Noting the small turnout for protest rallies since the controversy began, he added, “Forty-five or 50 people is not a big crowd, even in Wedowee, Alabama.”
Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.