WILMINGTON – The New Hanover County Board of Education announced the closure of Williston Senior High School on the evening of June 26, 1968. It was the sole African-American school in the county, where upperclassmen did not receive proper send-off from their alma mater.
Fifty-five years later, a legacy graduation has been finalized.
Discussions among former Williston students and New Hanover County staff sparked an opportunity to capitalize on what the classes of 1969 and 1970 were missing for more than five decades: a diploma from the school they attended the majority of their educational careers.
In the years it was operational as Williston Senior High School, 1954-1968, it graduated 15 classes. While the classes of ‘69 and ‘70 went on to don their caps and gowns from New Hanover and Hoggard highs, not receiving the recognition from Williston felt like a slight to the African-American community.
“If you were a member of the Aristocrats, you were somebody,” former Williston student William Boykin said, indicating how important the school’s social clubs were.
For instance, the Williston Glee Club, led by Beryl Constance O’Dell, traveled around the state to perform. Even after retirement, O’Dell oversaw a Williston alumni group to sing at the White House.
Boykin would have graduated from Williston in 1970 but was transferred to New Hanover when Williston closed.
“Overall, I missed the uniqueness, fellowship, and being able to enjoy each other,” Boykin said of Williston.
Williston has been described by former students as “the greatest school under the sun.” Boykin emphasized how the impact went beyond academics but provided a space for students and staff to learn respect for one another.
“When you left Williston, you were ready for life,” he said.
In the UNCW Digital Collection archives, a board of education notice of a meeting and public hearing from the 1968 and 1969 school year indicated the future of Williston and New Hanover County schools:
“Effective with the beginning of the school year, discontinue Williston Senior School and assign those students who have already chosen Williston Senior High School to either New Hanover High School or the Hoggard High School-Roland-Grise Complex.”
Students and teachers were forced to abandon the school, without an announcement ahead of summer break; many presumed they’d be returning to those familiar halls come fall. Roughly 900 students were to be integrated into majority white schools for the new school year, with about 75 African-American teachers sent from Williston.
It was 14 years after Brown v. Board of Education passed in May of 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation in schools “unconstitutional.”
However, New Hanover County did not desegregate. The General Assembly enacted the “Pupil Assignment Act” in 1955, which gave the county school boards the power to decide how to integrate. The act, with an intent to deter a statewide lawsuit from the NAACP, hindered Black students’ transfers to white schools through deceptive criteria that did not explicitly mention race.
The federal Housing, Education and Welfare (HEW) and courts continued to pressure the school board to come up with a more clear plan to desegregate; the district faced losing federal funding if it didn’t comply. New Hanover County Schools were tied up in courts until 1971 to prove it was effectively integrating.
Denoted the first accredited North Carolina high school for Black students in 1923, Williston’s history dates back to 1866. It was built on South 7th Street in downtown Wilmington and moved to South 10th in 1915 as “Williston Industrial School,” offering teachings through seventh grade.
An accidental fire destroyed the school in 1935, and it was rebuilt as Williston Industrial in 1937. A year before Brown v. Board passed in 1953, Williston Senior High School opened next door and the industrial school became a junior high.
Linda Thompson — New Hanover County’s chief diversity and equity officer — recounts “not fully understanding” the details of the high school’s closure in 1968. It wasn’t until the last decade she began grasping the impact.
“I began to hear the stories of individuals who attended Williston at that time,” said Thompson, who grew up in Goldsboro in the ‘70s and attended an all-Black school. “ I started to understand trauma and the hurt that came from shutting the school down, the way it was done.”
Lack of resources
Williston wasn’t allotted the financial resources of other schools, often receiving desks, books and other needed materials as hand-me-downs from the white schools.
“The county couldn’t provide Williston enough in terms of facilities and others to keep up with Hoggard and New Hanover,” Bertha Todd, Williston’s former librarian from 1954 to 1968, told Port City Daily.
Not all the high schools had the same amenities; New Hanover and the newly opened Hoggard were equipped with a cafeteria, whereas Williston students walked to the junior high school building to eat lunch.
“They could have built a new cafeteria for Williston, but they didn’t,” Thompson said.
A 1968 NHCS bond proposal for capital improvements shows $591,000 toward renovating “existing” structures; it allocated Williston $130,000 to put toward a cafeteria.
Yet, there was never a renovation or new construction underway.
“They did not want to invest the money to build a cafeteria but wanted to move the students into more modern schools,” Thompson said.
Despite not having the resources as other schools, Williston graduated students that went on to succeed in varying 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.
Todd recalled a time in the ‘60s when Williston students received pushback on their SAT scores because H.M. Roland, then New Hanover County Schools superintendent, did not believe they were capable of achieving such high scores.
“He made them retake the test,” she said. “They scored high again.”
In a UNCW archives and special collection interview in June 2003, Todd described her role at Williston as more than a librarian, but an educator who was involved with race relations and community service.
“Staff were concerned about the students — the staff was bold, courageous, they were truly the epitome of ‘loco parentis,’” Todd said, a Latin phrase meaning “in place of the parent.”
She indicated in the interview, work didn’t stop when the school bell rang; rather teachers and personnel would visit students’ homes, counsel and inspire them beyond class hours.
Todd said from a staff perspective — with little funds put toward the school and especially with Hoggard having opened in 1967 — she saw the writing on the wall of Williston’s closure.
Boykin also indicated the ruling came with little surprise, when looking at the big picture.
“We all knew the fate, we just accepted the fact,” Boykin said. “You might not have liked it, but we accepted what we were given.”
Todd and Boykin are among more than 800 people expected to attend Williston’s legacy graduation on July 1 for the classes of 1969 and 1970.
The idea to hold a graduation was born from a book signing hosted at Cape Fear Museum last fall. Todd released, “Reflections on a Massacre and a Coup,” which discusses the history of the 1898 white supremacist riots that killed numerous Black residents and ran others out of the city; she hosted a signing at the museum. Thompson attended with Jon Conway, chief, equity and inclusion officer for the City of Wilmington, and Amy Schlag, the city’s equity and inclusion specialist.
“This is the first time I had sat down with students from Williston, who detailed their experiences after their transfer to New Hanover or Hoggard high schools. I listened to these students explain how badly they were treated and unfilled promises that were made to them,” Thompson said.
She recalled Schlag asking if anyone considered hosting a graduation for those affected by the sudden closure.
“All of us kind of stood there,” Thompson recalled.
She turned and told Schlag: “‘I don’t mind stealing ideas, but I need to let you know I think I want to try.’”
Schlag agreed and offered to help.
The event is put on as a collaborative effort from the city, county, and school district.
“Our team and the officers of former students have been meeting multiple times a month, making sure the details and logistics happen so that July 1 will mark the conversion to Williston Middle School,” Thompson said.
The graduation is expected to welcome 156 former students, 67 from the class of ‘69 and 89 from the class of ‘70. Williston received more than $9,000 in donations to help fund caps, gowns, diploma covers and other accessories.
Phillip L. Clay, former Williston graduate and the first African-American chancellor of MIT, will be the commencement speaker.
“It will be a remarkable day,” Thompson said.
“I am excited, but wonder if the graduation serves as a Band-Aid or a life-changing experience,” Boykin told Port City Daily.
The county commissioners signed a resolution Monday in support of the legacy graduation. Its language states the county acknowledges “the decision to close Williston exacerbated tensions within the county.”
The school district failing to integrate during Brown vs. Board, the lack of funding to Williston and the greater civil rights movement underway all added to heightened pressure.
“There were riots everyday, or many times,” Todd said, referring to the integration at Hoggard. She was appointed by the board in 1971 as an assistant principal — “as a double agent or the new head of accountability,” she described.
New Hanover County Schools system wasn’t fully integrated, according to Eaton vs. New Hanover County, by the beginning of the 1970-1971 school year. Of the school system’s 19,537 students across 30 schools, 27% were black and 73% white.
“Two of the schools were all-white, and an additional ten were over 90% white, including two integrated schools having only one black pupil each,” it states. “Three schools were over 90% black. Obviously, these 15 schools at least are racially identifiable under the existing plan.”
Also that year, a brawl in New Hanover High had spilled over into the community wherein a grocery store in Wilmington, Mike’s, was firebombed; nine Black men and one white woman were wrongfully convicted of arson and conspiracy and convicted to a combined 200-plus-year prison sentence.
They became known as the Wilmington Ten.
By 1980, federal court overturned the convictions and in 2012 former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue issued pardons for all 10.
Ulysses Slade, the last president of the junior class of Williston in 1968, spoke to commissioners Monday at the county meeting in support of the resolution put forth.
“As you commissioners leave here today, I want you to go home, take out your key, and place your key in the lock,” Slade said. “The key doesn’t work, and someone from across the street shouts that you don’t live here anymore, it’s closed.”
“That is what happened to us at Williston, no warning, no consultation,” he added.
“I can only imagine the sense of heartbreak,” Commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. said Monday at the meeting.
Barfield Jr. is the son of Williston alumni Jonathan Barfield, class of 1964.
On Friday, he told Port City Daily: “I hope it provides a sense of healing and closure for those that graduated.”
The legacy graduation will not be a public event; tickets are currently at capacity. However, WECT will livestream it at 1:45 p.m. on its website and Facebook page. More information about donations or to get involved with the ceremony can be found here.
Tips or comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.