Biography of Grey Culbreth

  • Grey Culbreth Built Schools and Demolished Segregation

    This year is the 110th anniversary of the birth of Grey Culbreth, namesake of this school and a leader of desegregation during sixteen years of service on the school board. “He piloted the schools of the area through a voluntary integration of all grades,” according to the testimonial from the Meridian and Tar Heel Sertoma Club in awarding Culbreth its 1976 Service to Mankind Award. “He helped to build the new Chapel Hill Senior High School, both of the junior high schools – one of which bears his name – and two of the elementary schools.

    “He took a lead,” the testimonial continued, “in helping to solve many of the problems that arose as a result of the total integration of the schools and the huge capital expenditure program which was begun in the late 1950s.” Sertoma is an association of community service clubs across the U.S. and Canada.

    Culbreth “was on the board at a time the integration of the schools was occurring,” Carolyn A. Horn, a member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board, was quoted in Culbreth’s obituary. “It was a time of hard decisions. I admire his integrity in making the difficult decisions he had to make” to promote the integration of the schools.

    Grey Culbreth was born on March 5, 1913 near Greensboro and grew up in Steadman. He was graduated from Louisburg Junior College in 1934, and then earned a degree in electrical engineering from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1938. The year before Culbreth married Chrystine Horton of Kinston. They had a son, Michael, and two daughters, Pat and Susan.

    As an undergraduate, he worked as a “self-help” student in the university’s utilities division, roughly equivalent to work-study today. After earning his diploma Culbreth worked full time at the university as electrical-power distribution engineer. In 1946, at the tender age of 33, he was made director of utilities. In 1951 Culbreth was elected to the Chapel Hill School Board. Re-elected several times, he served until 1967. During that time he served as chairman 1955-59 and 1963-67. In his last two years he also served as president of District VII of the state School Boards Association.

    Three years after his retirement from the board, Chapel Hill named its newest school after Culbreth. Woody W. Edmonds, principal of what was then a junior high school and friend of the man, said Culbreth visited his eponymous school at least once a year from its opening until the year before his death. At the time of the dedication of the new school he was president of the Chapel Hill Mental Health Association, and had been a past president of the local Kiwanis Club.

    Culbreth also took a hand in what would today be called affordable housing. He helped form the UNC Employees Corporation, which acquired and developed land around Oakwood Drive in Chapel Hill, where he lived. “The land was then subdivided and sold to UNC employees at a bargain price,” said the Sertoma Club testimonial. It does not seem that Culbreth would have much free time, but contemporaneous newspaper articles note that he had a lighted badminton court so he could play at night. He was also an active woodworker and carpenter, helping to build cabins; he also played golf.

    Grey Culbreth died at age 73 at the Carol Woods Retirement Community. His memorial service was held at University United Methodist Church where he had been chairman of the Board of Stewards, a trustee, and a member of the choir.

    The Culbreth PTSA thanks Grey Culbreth’s daughter, Susan Blackburn, for her tireless archival research in providing material for this brief biographical sketch.


    Written by Gregory Morris