Crossing the Tracks: Ronnie Bynum talks about his childhood in Carrboro

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Ronnie Bynum remembers what it was like to be one of the first black students at Carrboro Elementary. At an evening event in late November, Ronnie told an audience of students, teachers, and parents in the Carrboro Elementary school auditorium the stories he remembers from those days. In the mid-1960s, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school district had just begun the desegregation process, and some Klansmen from Carrboro decided to direct their anger against elementary school students. Whenever he left his house on Street and got on the school bus, Ronnie feared the worst. Instead of stopping in front of the school, the bus driver would stop a distance away from the entrance where a group of local Klansmen would be waiting. “They would chase me into the school every day; and they would be waiting when we got out.” They taunted and threatened him. At this time, Klan members were burning crosses on lawns and holding very public rallies, terrorizing residents and threatening people who challenged segregation and Jim Crow laws.

His best friend, he said, was a white boy, the son of a Klan member, who defied his parents and played with Ronnie at school and at the Bynum home even though they could not acknowledge each other in public. As Ronnie explained it, “If his father had known about our friendship, he would have beat his son.”

Fellow students often were allies when teachers overlooked him. Ronnie told the audience how a teacher refused to call on him in class when he had his hand raised, even after other students noticed and tried to point out Ronnie. When he told his grandmother stories about what was happening in the classroom, she asked him where he was sitting. When he said he liked to sit in the back, she had some advice for him that he has never forgotten: “My grandmother taught me if I ever wanted to be recognized, be in the front. Be the best you can be.”

After a lively question and answer session, current elementary school students were asked to design freedom signs reflecting messages they would have liked the young Ronnie to see. Among the messages were “Everyone is welcome here.”  “The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” The evening concluded when they carried their signs, chanting, around the school.

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