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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Cultural reflections: Art exhibit celebrates Black educators in Wilmington before and after desegregation

Some of the Black educators that artist Alexandria Clay replicated in charcoal portraits as part of ‘Lost In Transition’ include top to bottom, left to right: Lethia Hankins, William Grady Lowe, Bertha Boykin Todd, Dorothy B. Johnson, Fred J. Rogers, and LS. Williams. (Courtesy Black on Black)

[This piece is a 2023 N.C. Press Association award winner in the arts and entertainment reporting category.]

WILMINGTON — There’s a difference between integration and desegregation, Michael Williams explained during a phone conversation last week. He was speaking about an upcoming art exhibit, “Lost In Transition,” hosted by his Black on Black Project. The initiative produces exhibitions, short films and programs to inspire dialogue surrounding equity in Black communities. 

Sponsored by the N.C. Museum of Art, “Lost In Transition” displays portraits of 10 Black educators, illustrated in charcoal on paper by Raleigh artist Alexandria Clay. Most of the images are based on pictures of former teachers that have been published in the Willistonian — Williston High School’s yearbook from 1945 to 1966.

Throughout its 150 years, North Carolina’s first accredited Black high school has changed names, moved locations, endured a fire, was rebuilt, then closed and reopened. Today, it operates as Williston Middle School of Math, Science and Technology at 401 S. 10th Street.

It also has managed to churn out Black alumni of varying successful professions — athletes like basketball player Meadowlark Lemon (Harlem Globetrotters), Wimbledon champion Althea Gibson, and MLB player Sam Bowens, as well as jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath and architect Robert Robinson Taylor, who helped build Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Williston closed and desegregated in 1968 — 14 years after the Supreme Court found the Brown v. Board of Education’s separating schools by race was unconstitutional. Black students were moved to the white-populated Hoggard and New Hanover highs. Yet, the decision to shutter the school, made by the New Hanover County education board at the time, was one of financial interest more than social justice, Williams explained. 

It endured a lawsuit filed by Dr. Hubert Eaton, who wanted his daughter to have the same access to materials and quality facilities. Like many Black schools, Williston was disproportionately underfunded and utilized furniture and books passed down from white schools. The board didn’t want to disperse money to upgrade the facility.

In the fall of 1968, for the first time Black and white students began walking halls together; however, many Black educators the students had become accustomed to didn’t get transferred with them, Williams explained. In effect, it created a cultural disparity — something the curator maintains is just as important as academic curriculum.

“I’m always cognizant about using desegregation versus integration,” Williams said. “Desegregation, when you think about it, was more about, ‘Hey, we need access to resources.’ That’s the purpose of it — not to necessarily truly co-mingle with people who maybe don’t want to have anything to do with you.” 

Williams pointed to Jennifer Eberhardt’s book “Biased,” one of a dozen he read while preparing for “Lost In Transition.” The book features a story of a Mississippi student, Bernice Donald, who experienced teasing upon being transferred into a desegregated school. Eberhardt writes the teacher at that time didn’t do anything about it. 

“When you put students in an environment in which their humanity isn’t fully seen, there’s going to be a lot of stuff that is lost. I think that’s the part that maybe we don’t want to talk about,” Williams said. “Everything about these former institutions was supposed to affirm Black humanity, Black intelligence and Black achievement. ‘Lost In Transition’ aims to remember that.”

Williston Middle School of Math, Science and Technology at 401 S. 10th Street. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

‘These Black educators didn’t have full citizenship themselves’

Williams carefully researched who to feature in the art exhibit by listening to 80 hours of oral histories as documented at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library and UNCW’s Randall Library. He also watched interviews regarding Wilmington’s former Black educators through archived footage from Cape Fear Museum.

One is Herman Johnson — a native Wilmingtonian who graduated from Williston Senior High in 1961 and moved on to teach at Cape Fear Community College. 

“When the schools desegregated, he’d hear white faculty members talking about how Black students didn’t want to learn,” Williams explained. “And he’s telling them, ‘No, it’s not that they don’t want to learn — it’s just that this is probably the first time they’ve had a significant interaction with white people.”

Black institutions of the era were emboldened by community — at the root and educational foundation for African Americans dating back to slavery. 

Ninety-five percent of Black people were uneducated at the onset of Reconstruction. Those who could read and write — which was illegal to teach slaves in North Carolina during the Civil War — did so from being self-taught or learning from family members or others on plantations and in clandestine schools.

Once the war ended and slaves were freed, education became imperative in order to achieve financial independence and equality. Schools popped up in churches and were sponsored by philanthropic organizations, or were established by the U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau, which funded buildings and supplies for African American schools.

In 1866 — a year after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed — Williston opened on 7th Street. Founded by the abolitionist American Missionary Association, it was intended to serve free slaves — 450 pupils in multiple departments: primary, intermediate, advanced, normal and/or industrial education.

It wasn’t until 30 years later the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that public schools would be separate but equal for Black and white students, essentially legalizing segregation.

Williston’s principal from 1875 to the 1890s was Mary Washington Howe, the inspiration for Williams’ pursuit of “Lost In Transition.” Her portrait was shown last year as part of Black on Black’s “Continuum of Change” exhibit in downtown Wilmington. It centered on business people, politicians, doctors and educators thriving in Wilmington pre-1898, before the Wilmington Massacre thwarted progress. 

READ MORE: Portrait project highlights Wilmington’s Black-centric world, pre-1898

Williams said he began thinking about how hard it must have been for educators post Reconstruction, in the Jim Crow era and during civil rights to rise above the fray of political and racial turmoil to continue to teach and influence students.

“These Black educators didn’t have full citizenship themselves,” Williams said. “Yet they’re educating students and encouraging students to go after full citizenship, which meant you had to have an education to do that. It is interesting how they were able to navigate the world around them while also teaching future generations to do the same thing.”

B. Constance O’Dell, 1953, was the choral instructor at Williston High School from 1949 to 1968. (Art by Alexandria Clay)

‘Loco parentis’

William Grady Lowe is one of the portraits that stands out to Rhode Island School of Design graduate and “Lost In Transition” featured artist Clay. Lowe graduated from Williston in 1942 and returned to teach social studies at the school in 1951. One of his students, Joseph McNeil, became a prominent North Carolina activist of the Greensboro Four. 

In 1960, the group was a catalyst inspiring sit-ins nationwide after nonviolently protesting equal rights for Black people to eat at the counter at F. W. Woolworth department stores. The movement led to the incremental change in the company, which eventually removed its segregated policy in the South. 

“[Lowe] inspired his students to take action, fighting for what they deserve, even demanding it,” Clay said. “The impact that he had on Joseph McNeil was clear.”

“There’s so many anecdotes in these oral histories about how William Grady Lowe helped students understand their rights and encouraged them to understand how government worked,” Williams added.

Clay spent several months sketching all 10 figures. Normally, the artist works with subject matter she knows well, such as family and friends. But after immersing into each educator’s story for “Lost In Transition,” she said she could feel firsthand their indelible imprint. 

That feeling is evident on the 24-inch-by-30-inch page.

“Alex uses charcoal to create memories that seep into your soul,” Williams praised. “She uses the heavy contrast of the pigmented black on the white paper to make us feel this lasting impact — something that lives in our collective memory.” 

Clay said one story that resonated with her in particular was of Ernest Swain. He worked in Brunswick and New Hanover County schools and always spoke to his students about dressing for confidence, she described — as the role model they wanted to become. 

“Always looking your best, no matter where you’re going, is something that my mother preached often,” Clay said. “Also, I saw a slight resemblance in Swain’s picture to my father. I can count on one hand how many Black teachers I’ve had in my 16 years of education. It’s interesting to think of what it might’ve been like to have a plethora of teachers that look like you, or your cousin, or your dad.”

Representation is one of the many disparities Williams said was lost during desegregation and continues. Currently, in North Carolina, state data indicates 54% of students are nonwhite, while only 22% of educators are.

Williams said he looked at data from ProPublica and Cape Fear Collective, as well as report card information published by the Department of Public Instruction, to help inform and shape conversations he wants “Lost In Transition” to impart upon others. He found the modern-day numbers between white and Black third graders in reading proficiency and school suspensions particularly alarming.

“White third graders are at a proficient reading level 2.3 times higher than Black third graders,” he said. “Out of 115 school districts in North Carolina, 97 reported a Black third-grade reading proficiency. And then New Hanover County ranks low in Black reading proficiency at 70% out of 97 districts. So that, in and of itself, is a problem. And a lot of the time we want to blame the kids.”

Williams said his mother, also an educator, always frowned upon leaders condemning students. Many times it’s the adults who aren’t properly equipped to communicate or relate.

“It’s not on the children, she would say,” Williams recalled. “It’s about how we are transmitting information — and, because of a confluence of circumstances, a lot of kids may not have the greatest support system at home.”

Williams added it’s not uncommon for families to often work two or three jobs just to maintain shelter and food for their children. Even in 2022, there is an imbalance of wage disparity for Black communities in the labor market. According to the Economic Policy Institute, today Black employees earn 24.4% less per hour than the typical white worker — a number that has risen from 1979’s 16.4%. 

Black education during the first 100 years after slavery thrived on a “three-point system,” a phrase Williams said he heard coined by former student Linda Pearce, while listening to Williston’s oral histories. Essentially, people within the Black community looked out for one another in church, home and school. The teachers went to the church with the families — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — who in turn always had a watchful eye on the kids.  

“So there was this way that students were educated in a holistic kind of manner,” Williams said. “And when you look at Alex’s portraits of these educators, when they’re in their prime, dealing with the Jim Crow world, but also helping students navigate it, it’s like this conversation in real-time about, ‘What do we do? How do we show you what the Constitution says so you understand your rights now, but also make sure you learn the Middle English of ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ so when you get to the Ivy League school, you can handle that too?’”

Williston became the first accredited Black high school in the state and remained that way in New Hanover County for more than 40 years. Despite having deprived resources, it was considered the best performing Black school in North Carolina as well.

In one of the oral histories about Lucille Simon Williams — also a featured portrait — a student, Bertha Boykin Todd, called the disciplinarian one of the most intimidating teachers but most respected among students. She taught English, Latin and sociology and to pass her class, reading aloud a passage from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” in Middle English was required. 

“When the school desegregated she was close to retirement,” Todd recalled in a film on the “Lost In Transition” website, also featuring backstories about every educator sketched. “She taught at Hoggard one year before she retired. And the students, white and Black, loved her. She was such a fascinating character.”

When looking back at the former Black educators, Williams said Todd used one word to describe them: “dedicated.” 

“She also loved to say ‘loco parentis,’” he noted, translating to “in place of the parent.”

The sentiment is teachers went further than merely providing an education or teaching for statewide mandates and test scores. Sure, they would go by the curriculum handed to them to receive municipal funding, but Williams said they also would bring in texts that resonated with Black communities yet perhaps were not recognized by state-level academics. 

“They’d have a curriculum on the desk, and if a principal or a superintendent walked in, it would be what was on the desk and what students were engaged in,” Williams described — something he learned by reading Jarvis Gibbons’ “Fugitive Pedagogy.” 

“But when that administrative figure left, the teacher would have Carter G. Woodson books in their lap, teaching from that so the students can understand, ‘OK — this is how this country got to be this way. And this was our Black culture, our contribution to things being this way.’ And I think that’s very important.”

In 2022, this idea is being debated between the political divide as critical race theory, in essence. Yet, showing the successes of the Black educators via an art show, Williams said, felt like a more palatable approach to talking about situations that were and are still very real among Black Americans. There was a fundamental understanding and at-ease communication and comfort Black educators established, which, in and of itself, created trust and a sense of belonging among their students.

“I’m not saying desegregation was better,” Williams clarified. “This art show isn’t to debate that. But in a Black school setting, there was a familiarity with people who looked like you; educators reflected you and that is important for students. It’s not always about race either — but students need to see themselves in their teachers.”

Clay said her first Black teacher wasn’t present until fourth grade — a community leader of a local youth group.

“Even though my siblings and I didn’t attend elementary school at the same time, her impact, care and involvement was felt in the lives of my whole family,” Clay said. “She was a leader and role model for all of us in the different chapters of our lives.”

Part of the joy she experienced in creating the portraits came with listening to the students speak so highly of their mentors. Stories would inevitably overlap.

“I loved to hear how each individual received their education and then turned around to inspire more and give back in their communities,” Clay said.

Many students often spoke of Williston’s sweet cinnamon buns and the Glee Club as high points ingrained in their memories. Beryl Constance O’Dell, Todd recounted, was Williston’s choir director, who led the club around the state to perform. She went on to work as the head of counselors at Hoggard, after receiving her masters. And even after retirement, she oversaw a Williston alumni group to sing at the White House. 

“What’s great about Wilmington is we have the great Bertha Boykin Todd and Angela Hankins Metts, whose mother was Lethia Sherman Hankins, to hear from firsthand,” Williams said.

He sat down with both women at Cape Fear Museum to recount memories of the climate of Black education 60-plus years ago. He said Hankins described her mother — also featured in the art exhibit — as a “bridge.”

She graduated from Williston High School in 1951 and returned by the end of the decade to teach English and drama. Hankins was an educator for 36 years, served on Wilmington City Council from 2003 to 2007; she also co-chaired the 1898 Foundation in 2008.

“We should ask ourselves today, ‘Who are the members in the community that serve as bridges?’” Williams asked. “There are definitely some and we need to wrap our arms around them in support.” 

“Lost In Transition” is a jumping-off point to inspire those deeper conversations and make connections to improve, to understand how culture impacts education and how to work toward better relationships in the teacher-student dynamic. 

“The myth is that the past was always better,” Williams said. “It’s a myth. What is true, though, I believe, is that we can pull from the past to the present, and figure out the recipe to go forward. And I think that’s kind of what I’m interested in doing in this project.”

Black on Black presents “Lost In Transition,” which opens Thursday night at 210 Princess Street in the former Art in Bloom Gallery space. The opening exhibition, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on July 21, will include a video featuring theatrical performances by UNCW students who will be re-enacting some of the oral histories of students and educators.

The show is open on Thursdays and Fridays, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m., through Sept. 25.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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