The School Board

portrait of Cheraw School Board member Leon Crump

Southern Exposure

Magazine cover with "Elections" in blue text against white background, and "grassroots strategies for change" in black text

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

They were having fights on the bus and nobody wanted to know why. Parents called me and said, "Well, we elected you to find out why buses aren't coming into our area." The girl who was driving the bus was a white girl and she was stopping every tenth of a mile and picking up the white kids, and then after she picked up all the white kids who were up near the heat, she'd come back and pick up the blacks. They'd be sitting in the back of the bus and they'd be cold and they'd say we're not going to take this. If we have to fight every day, we're going to fight. These are just the things that happen in a small, rural town.


Leon Crump, a young black man who grew up in Patrick, South Carolina, now lives in nearby Cheraw, where he has served on the school board since 1980. The population in Cheraw and the surrounding county is about 40 percent black. It is a rural county; J. P. Stevens, Burlington, Stanley Tools, and Pepsi are the major employers.

Cheraw is a pretty town. There are five schools — three elementary schools, a junior high school, and a high school. I got involved on the school board when a retired social worker started referring to me the children that were having problems in the school and I would go out and talk with the parents. I have kids of my own and I want them to have a quality education. Education is the key; if you don't have that, then you're in trouble, you're headed for a life of misery.

It was Crump's efforts to help a child who had been expelled that brought him to the attention of the social worker, who then encouraged him to run for a seat on the school board.

A whole lot of issues were raised in school board meetings that some of them refused to listen to. It doesn't appear to be sensitive to the people, to the regular everyday people's lives. One of the problems, I think, is the detention hall, kids being kept after the buses leave with no way to get home and some of them have to walk long distances and be out at dark. And expulsion of kids from school.

I don't think you can put kids out of school for a whole year and expect them to come back a grade below and not have some alternative education for them. They need some things to do or they're going to get in trouble. It's mostly black kids that are getting expelled, but I don't care about that, about whether they're white or black. I want everything for all kids, white or black. That's the reason I'm on the school board, and what you do for one you do for all.

In addition to serving on the Cheraw school board, Crump is a rural educator on the staff of the Rural Advancement Fund, a non-profit organization based in Charlotte, North Carolina, that works to protect the interests of family farmers. He is married and has two children.

My father was a sharecropper. He left home when I was five and we couldn't stay on the farm, so what my ma had to do was move in town and take a domestic job in someone's house, and for 10 dollars a week she used to try to feed seven kids. So I know what struggle is about. I know how important it is to get something to move on.

I spent two years in the Marine Corps, 13 months in Vietnam. I got wounded twice, two Purple Hearts. I almost lost my eye, shot in the leg, so when I came back to the States, it was hard for me to realize that I was supposed to take a seat in the back of the bus, you know, because I feel nobody knows the price of freedom except those who fought for it, and I felt that I had fought for it. I'm not going to stand for anything that's not equal and just. That's one reason that I think I fight so hard for things I do believe in.

I am not satisfied with government. Blacks don't have a 40 percent presence in town decisions and employment. There are five paid firemen and none of the firemen are black.

And in the schools, there are 477 teachers and only 71 are black — 45 percent of the students are black. There are no black male images in the school system.

Crump ran for school board with six other candidates for three available spots. He had never run for public office before.

I wanted to make the announcement that I was going to run [for school board]. I went to the paper and asked if they would take a picture of me [to run in the paper] and they said, "well, we don't take pictures." I said, "okay, fine," and I went out and had a picture made of me and my wife and my two children. I turned it in to the paper the following day and when the paper comes out, my picture is on the front page and everybody says, "Wow, what's Leon doing on the front page of the paper — a black person!" Well, what happened, it was like a gift of God. They would usually run six candidates on the front page, but that night the pictures they had taken of the other candidates burned up in the darkroom, and the only picture they had was mine because I had brought mine in.

We had posters made, we passed out leaflets. The Cheraw school area encompasses other towns, and we felt that if we could consolidate the black vote and get some of the white vote, we could win. We would go to churches on Sunday mornings and talk to church groups and Sunday schools. We started one month before the election and we would go to three or four churches a morning.

We had a fundraiser. A friend allowed us to use his very nice supper club to put on a disco. The campaign cost 300 dollars. My father-in-law gave 100 dollars and we raised 100 dollars from the disco and the rest came from my pockets.

Crump won by three votes.

The school board was very conservative, wanted to rubber stamp everything. Anything the associate superintendent [who represented the superintendent at most school board meetings] wanted, they went along with. I sat there for a while and I couldn't take it so I started voicing my opinion.

I tried several things to bring about changes, but I wasn't getting anywhere by myself, and I realized I needed a coalition. We formed this [education] committee through the NAACP.

Crump was instrumental in setting up the Education Committee, a group of six men who volunteered from the local NAACP chapter. The committee monitors what is happening in the Cheraw schools, and hopes to establish a similar committee to address education issues county-wide.

I felt that blacks in the community had to make the superintendent aware that he is a paid employee. Part of our taxpayer money is paid to him and he is responsible for our needs as well as everybody else's.

When I got the complaint about the fighting on the bus, I got in my car and I drove the route, and I talked to the kids and I knew the mileage and where she stopped. I plotted that on a county map and when I got to the meeting I was going to give all the board members a copy of the map and let them know what was going on.

They refused to even take the map. I had to have a meeting with the school superintendent and the guy who was in charge of the buses. We went up there with the NAACP committee. I told them that we just were not going to tolerate this, something had to be done. Now the driver stops every two-tenths of a mile and picks up people and goes on. So that was resolved and we felt good.

I think the school board members possess a lot of power, but they fail to utilize it because they don't realize their potential. In the coming year, two new black principals will be replacing two black principals who are retiring. What's usually been happening is that a black retires and they replace him with a white, so this time we were able to get two black principals to replace two blacks and we had a few black teachers hired, more than I feel would have been hired without this committee.

I think the newer [candidates for school board] are coming on because they want to try to upgrade education. I think this board is more activist [than the board before Crump was elected]. I think it can really be effective.

I don't particularly care for politics. I was young, I didn't realize what I was getting into when I got on the school board. I was lucky enough to become elected and while I was there I did the best job I could possibly do. I could run for another term, but I think I've done what I can do, and I have a contact now and could probably do as much from the outside as I could sitting on the board.

Politics is a dirty business because people make selfish deals, just for their own interests and not for their constituents. That's why I really feel that if you're going to be in politics, you really should be a one-term man and then let somebody else continue. It might not be so dirty.

The Education Committee has been discussing one or two possibilities to replace me in the next election, just throwing names around. But it definitely won't be Leon Crump.