William C. Chance

Photo: A Black man (not Mr. Chance) waits outside a segregated bus station in Durham, NC-circa 1940. Image from the Library of Congress.

William C. Chance Protested Segregated Rail Cars, 1948

On June 25, 1948, Parmele, NC native William Claudius Chance (23 Nov. 1880–7 May 1970), was made to get off an Atlantic Coast Line Railroad passenger train car in Emporia, Virginia, for refusing to move to a car for black passengers.

Chance was a well-respected educator in Martin County, having established and operated the Parmalee Industrial Institute. He was returning home to Parmele from the Republican National Convention, held in Philadelphia that year, when he was instructed to leave a “white car” at the stop in Emporia. When he refused, Chance was placed under arrest for disorderly conduct.

After the incident, Chance sued the Atlantic Coast Line and conductor Alva S. Lambeth for $25,000. A jury in Richmond initially determined the railroad had committed no crime in ejecting Chance from the train, but awarded him a sum of $50 for wrongful arrest.

With the support of the NAACP, Chance appealed the case to the Fourth U. S. Circuit Court where the initial decision was overturned in January 1951. The court determined that the Atlantic Coast Line’s enforcement of Jim Crow laws on their passenger lines was an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce.

Chance’s case served as a foundation for later cases of desegregated interstate travel.
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William Claudius Chance, Sr. is the grandfather of Carol Wilson Caldwell and was the spark behind her social consciousness and sense of mission. One of Mr. Chance's greatest desires before his death was to have one of his descendants carry on his work in Eastern North Carolina as a lawyer, preferably in the Martin County area, which had very little legal and social services for Blacks and other minorities at that time. He had wanted to become a lawyer himself, but the conditions of black education and livelihood were so dreadful in Eastern North Carolina around 1909 that he left law school to establish a private school for black children in Parmele. So, since none of his children answered his call to carry on his mission, Carol, as his oldest grandchild and a recent graduate of Valparaiso University Law School, answered the call and moved to Parmele with her husband and one-year old daughter in August of 1973.

W.C. Chance was born in Parmele on November 23, 1880 to W. V. Chance and Alice Chance, who were former slaves, along with his grandparents. He was actually raised by his grandparents, Bryant and Penethia Chance. He was reared on a small farm in poverty-stricken Martin County, which, perhaps provided the negative motivation to fuel his burning desire to improve his living conditions. He attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro and graduated with honors with an A. B. degree in agriculture. Subsequently, he entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he spent four years of which the last year was devoted to the study of law.

After leaving Howard's law school prematurely he raised the funding through the contributions of the community, churches, and wealthy benefactors to establish a private school for the under-served black children in the Parmele area in 1909. This school was very successful, so much so that in 1911 the black public school and his private school merged to become the Parmele Industrial Institute, a public school, of which Mr. Chance was chosen principal. With the help of prominent educators and politicians of such distinguished people Mr. Chance was able to attract enough funds to erect the first brick school building in Martin County in 1914. This school was so successful that the community changed the name of the school to W. C. Chance High School. By 1948 the school had the highest percentage of graduating seniors entering college (70 percent) of any school in Martin County (the average was 50 percent). Many of his former students went on to become attorneys, doctors, college presidents, college deans, businessmen, ministers, school principals, and teachers.

Mr. Chance's school was the first in Martin County to initiate a longer school term, eight months yearly. Later, in 1911, the black public school and his private school merged to become Parmele Industrial Institute, a public school, of which Chance was chosen principal. With the aid of such distinguished people as U.S. Representative John H. Small and Dr. Anson Phelps Stokes, secretary of Yale University, Mr. Chance was able to attract enough funds to erect the first brick school building in Martin County in 1914.

Because of Mr. Chance's devotion to his school throughout the years, the community changed the name of the school to W. C. Chance High School. Under his leadership, the school in 1948 had the highest percentage of graduating seniors entering college (70 percent) of any school in Martin County (the average was 50 percent). Many of his former students rose to become attorneys, doctors, college presidents, college deans, businessmen, ministers, school principals, and teachers.

Having achieved many successes in the education of black children and adults, Mr. Chance retired in 1951. After retirement, he by no means was destined for inactivity. Realizing the inequities in the white and black schools in Martin County, he was instrumental in organizing black parents in filing a petition with the board of education in 1951 to fight these inequities. Although no immediate remedies resulted from this lawsuit the petition did serve notice that Mr. Chance and other blacks were ready for some drastic social changes.

On another front, W.C. Chance became more widely known for his successful challenge of the Jim Crow policy on the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. He filed suit to recover damages from the railroad on the grounds that because of his race, he was wrongfully ejected from a railroad car on 25 June 1948 in Emporia, Va., and subsequently subjected to unlawful arrest and imprisonment in connection with this ejection. At the time of the incident he was returning from a business trip in Philadelphia, Pa. Between July 1948 and November 1952, four court actions were heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which ruled in favor of Chance and outlawed the Jim Crow policy in interstate travel. After having won such a significant victory at the age of 72, W.C. Chance still remained active in community and civic affairs, both locally and regionally, through the NAACP and his Presbyterian church.

W.C. Chance was married twice: in 1917 to Evelyn Payton, who died in 1927; and in 1929 to Julia Johnson, who died on 8 Mar. 1972. He had seven children, who are now all deceased; William C., Jr., former attorney in New York City; Warren C., from teacher in New York City; Anson G., former employee of the Seaboard Coastline Railway; Harold P., former teacher in upstate New York; Mrs. Anice C. Wilson, executive director of Hopkins House Association in Alexandria, Va. And mother of Carol Wilson Caldwell; Wilbur J., former school principal in Caroline County, Va.; and Edward A. Chance, former psychiatric social worker and director of social services at Spring Grove State Hospital in Baltimore, Md.

W.C. Chance died on May 7, 1970 in Lynchburg, Va. and was laid to rest in a cemetery in Bethel, NC about four miles from his birthplace in Parmele.