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The Rev. Darius Swann, who sued a North Carolina school system in 1965 for failing to fully integrate its schools after his young son was prohibited from enrolling at an integrated school, died on March 8. Swann died in Centreville, Virginia of pneumonia, his wife, Vera Swann, told the press. He was 95 years old.
Darius Leander Swann was born in rural Amelia County, Virginia on November 26, 1924. The youngest of 10 children, Swann was the son of poor farmers, according to the Presbyterian Church (USA). He attended the seminary at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina and graduated in 1948. He also earned a master of sacred theology from Union Theological Seminary in 1959.
Upon graduating, Swann became the first African American missionary to be sent to a non-African country when the Presbyterian Church sent him to China. Two years later, he was forced to leave China when the Korean War began. Back in North Carolina, he met Vera Poe, who he would marry in 1952.
The couple traveled as missionaries to India, where Swann taught English and served as a chaplain and his wife taught Bible classes. When the Swanns returned to the United States in the mid-1960s, he took up a teaching position at his alma mater, according to The New York Times.
In 1964, the Swanns found themselves face-to-face with the reality of segregation in education when they attempted to enroll their 6-year-old son, James, at a school just two blocks away. Officials at Seversville School told the Swanns that their son would be sent to the all-Black Biddleville School that was located further away, prompting Swann to appeal the decision in person and in a letter.
In his letter to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg board of education, Swann noted that his son had never known the meaning of racial segregation because he had lived nearly his entire life in India.
“We have been happy to watch him grow and develop with an unaffected openness to people of all races and backgrounds, and we feel it our duty as parents to ensure that this healthy development continues,” he wrote, according to The Washington Post.
His appeal was denied and he was told to enroll James at the all-Black school and then request a transfer to the integrated school, The New York Times reported. A report in Slate revealed that only 2 percent of the district’s Black students attended integrated schools by 1965.
Though the closer school was integrated, placements for Black students were decided on a case-by-case basis, he would later note.
“We figured that the system was really protecting segregation,” Swann told The Associated Press (AP) in 2000. “What they wanted to do was decide things on a case-by-case basis, when what they needed to do was change the whole system; there was a systemic problem.”
In January 1965, the Swanns and nine other Black families sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. The plaintiffs were represented by prominent civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers. The lawsuit would continue despite the Swanns moving their children to New York, Hawaii and eventually back to India, where Swann was finishing research for his doctorate in Asian theater.
“Sure he got tired of it,” Chambers told the AP. “He had difficulty understanding all the opposition and how mean people could be, but he never to my knowledge ever thought about bailing out.”
Four years after the legal odyssey began, a federal judge ruled that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system had two “dual systems” for Black and white students. The judge ordered busing to integrate the school system. In 1971, the Supreme Court upheld the judge’s court-ordered busing in the school district. The decision opened the use of busing to desegregate schools nationwide.
At the time of the decision, Swann said he had no regrets about the long legal battle he took on for his children and other children across the U.S.
“I felt that schools were a means of our becoming one society,” he told the AP. “Perhaps I was overly optimistic, but I still think it’s a significant factor. …We have to have an integrated society in order to be one, and if we don’t have an integrated society, we will continue to be two people, separate, unequal.”
Swann retired from teaching during the 1990s and lived with his wife and daughter, Edith Swann, The Washington Post reported. He is survived by his wife, two children, two grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
About the Author
Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.