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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.

August 12, 1994|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEDOWEE, Ala. — 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.

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.

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.

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.

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