In her time, Elizabeth “Libby” Randolph was well known throughout Charlotte.
As an African-American principal during segregation, she welcomed white teachers and students when the courts demanded integration and Charlotte entered the national spotlight.
As the first black woman promoted to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ central offices, she created the district’s kindergarten program. Later she was part of a four-person team that ran the district for a year in the 1970s.
“When people talk about CMS reputation, statewide and nationally, she was one of the architects,” said Arthur Griffin, a former school board chairman who credits Randolph with introducing him to the complexities of education policy.
But now, 35 years after her retirement, the name brings puzzled looks from newcomers and younger generations.
That’s about to change. This week the school board approved naming the CMS administrative campus on Stuart Andrew Boulevard for Randolph and Chris Folk, another longtime administrator who was part of the leadership team with Randolph.
“Ms. Randolph was a black woman and Dr. Folk a white man. Yet these two represented the linchpin of living out the CMS mission and vision to be the best school district anywhere,” said board member Ruby Jones, a retired teacher. “They helped make Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rightfully become premiere while the world was watching. They helped shape my generation on what excellence in education is.”
Superintendent Ann Clark, who will retire in June after 34 years, came to CMS as a teacher the year after Randolph retired. She remembers principals talking about Randolph with admiration. “As I’m preparing to step away, I feel like part of our history is stepping away,” Clark said.
The recognition lands during Black History Month, at a time when the movie “Hidden Figures” is getting acclaim for telling the story of African-American women whose role in the American space program was nearly forgotten.
“I stand on her shoulders and have been inspired by her courageous leadership,” Clark said of Randolph.
Folk: CMS historian
Folk, who worked for CMS from 1955 to 1992, is better remembered than Randolph. He spent decades in charge of communications, standing front and center as CMS desegregated schools in the 1970s.
Folk was featured in former Observer education reporter Frye Gaillard’s book “The Dream Long Deferred,” a history of desegregation in CMS. Decades later, Gaillard remembered Folk as “a rock” who “gave the system credibility at a time when it was badly needed.”
In 1976, the turmoil of desegregation was just starting to fade when the school board fired Superintendent Rolland Jones at a televised meeting. They created a four-person team – Folk, Randolph, John Phillips and Jo Foster – to run the district while they sought a successor.
When he retired, Folk took his personal collection of district historical files with him. Until shortly before his death at age 80 in 2010, he enthusiastically shared his knowledge with CMS staff and journalists interested in the school system’s history.
Clark noted that Folk was a Charlotte native, so his entire life was entwined with CMS, from his student days to his early work as an English teacher to his higher-profile work. His wife was also a teacher, and one of his sons is now a CMS principal.
Randolph: A different time
Randolph retired and died earlier than Folk, and her role has faded from many people’s memory.
Randolph came to CMS in 1944 as an English teacher at the all-black West Charlotte High School. According to an oral history recorded by Jennifer Greeson for UNC Charlotte, Randolph had taught in Rutherford County, Wake Forest and Burlington schools before being enticed to Charlotte by higher pay.
Randolph recalled telling her fellow teachers in Rutherford County that she was eager to vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt for a second term. They told her black people weren’t allowed to vote, but she could try if she didn’t believe them.
“They would not allow me to register and told me that I could not vote, that they could not allow black people to vote. I could not believe it but it was true,” Randolph said in the recorded interview. “So I decided that that was not any place that I wanted to live.”
Even in CMS, she said, black schools got hand-me-down supplies from white ones. Teachers had to hold fundraisers for band uniforms and other extras.
After 15 years at West Charlotte, Randolph was recruited to open University Park Elementary School. Then-Superintendent Elmer Garinger told her a delegation of parents who had once been her students at West Charlotte had urged him to choose her.
CMS was inching toward integration, and Randolph told the interviewer she was assigned three white teachers, among the first to work for a black principal. When the Swann family filed the lawsuit that would eventually force CMS to take its landmark steps toward serious desegregation, Randolph knew all the civil rights leaders, students and families who were involved.
Larger role in leadership
When Randolph was promoted to central offices, in charge of using federal money to organize a kindergarten program, there were only two other African-Americans at that level, both men, she recalled in the oral history.
“My secretary was white, on purpose,” she told the interviewer. “I said, ‘Well, my, my office is going to be desegregated.’ So I looked for and got a white secretary.”
She continued to advance through CMS administration, including her yearlong stint on the interim leadership team. Until that time CMS had only been run by white men. Randolph and Foster were the first women to take the helm, even on an interim basis, and Randolph was the first African-American.
“It made a difference,” Randolph said. “Being where the decisions were made and being part of the decision-making structure.”
The interim team dissolved in summer of 1977, when the board hired Jay M. Robinson, who would become CMS’ longest-serving superintendent. It would take 25 more years before a black person was named permanent superintendent (James Pughsley, in 2002) and 13 more years after that before a woman got the post (Clark, in 2015). Randolph remains the only African-American woman to hold the job, even as part of an interim team.
Randolph retired in 1982 as an associate superintendent. Her influence wasn’t limited to CMS. She edited a history of Charlotte’s black community for the public library, served on numerous boards and was named WBT Woman of the Year in 1978.
Ricky Woods, senior pastor at First Baptist Church West, got to know Randolph in her retirement. She was witty, supportive and enthusiastically engaged with education policy, he said.
“She just believed that education was the pathway to a middle-class life,” Woods said.
Randolph died in 2004, at 87. Her husband, John, had died in 1963, and the couple didn’t have children. The only living relative CMS could find was nephew Kurt Schmoke, president of the University of Baltimore and former mayor of that city.
The buildings that will bear her name and Folk’s are on the former Atrium campus, where CMS moved its headquarters after leaving the uptown education center. A dedication ceremony will take place in April.
Tuesday, Clark let the last word go to Folk, reading a letter he had written Randolph when she retired.
“I really don’t know how we’re going to get along without you,” Folk wrote. “We have come a long way together ... and we can take pride in the school system as it is today.”