The Greatest Generation
In Winston-Salem, like in countless cities across the South during the Jim Crow era, black students fought against the odds to get a sound education.
Educators of the 1960s and earlier were forced to use creativity and pure determination to teach in environments that often lacked many of the most basic resources and, in spite of it all, many of their students exceeded all expectations.
Despite the challenges that segregation presented, city native Peyton Hairston, a retired Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools educator and administrator, says all-black schools in the day had a unique blend of attributes.
“We had very few options for careers, so we had the best folks for teachers,” recalled the Winston-Salem University alumnus. “…In my day, teachers felt that there was an obligation to ensure that every child learned.”
What the schools lacked in resources they made up for with the personal attention of teachers and administrators, who often lived in the same neighborhoods as their pupils and had a common commitment to overcoming the stereotypes that were attached to African Americans, Hairston said.
“‘We must be good for the good of the race’ – that permeated everything we did in the schools,” he remarked.
When integration came to Winston-Salem in the early 1970’s, black students – and their teachers – were forced to leave their close-knit school environments and venture into a stark new world. The transition was anything but easy,
City native Irma Gadson, who retired from the school system in 1981, remembers the growing pains that accompanied the court-ordered integration process well. That’s because Gadson, a city native, was deployed to accompany system officials whenever a racial skirmish or related incident occurred.
“I had a lot to do with racial things,” related Gadson, an alumna of Winston-Salem Teachers College (now Winston-Salem State University). “If there was an eruption over at Atkins, they’d send me over there. They wouldn’t go all white leadership. I guess they saw I could deal with human relations. They’d say, ‘C’mon, Irma, we’re going to Atkins because a black face needs to show up.’”
In the early days, racial incidents were plentiful at all the schools, and African American administration and teachers faced many of the same obstacles their students did. Hairston, who served as an administrator for 20 of his 30 years with WS/FCS, said the African Americans were often assigned to the most volatile schools.
“The idea was that we were going to get our butts kicked and they’d run us out,” Hairston said, noting that he and many other black leaders surprised their adversaries by thriving despite the hostile conditions. “…We had black kids not really wanting to be there and white kids not wanting them there, so we had a lot of disruptions, a lot of unrest.”
For those who endured the first integration process, watching local schools become increasingly racially homogenous as a result of the system’s “School Choice Plan” has been particularly painful.
“We had gotten to the place where they at least respected each other,” said Mecklenburg County native James Brandon, who joined the school system as a teacher and coach right around the time of integration. “I told (Superintendent) Don Martin it was a step backwards.”
Brandon, who retired from his post as principal of Parkland IB Magnet High School in 1998, said that the diversity of schools in the decades leading up to the implementation of the choice plan forced students to get to know one another across racial lines. Students who grew up in racial integration displayed a markedly different attitude towards race and racism than previous generations.
“By the time I retired, those (racial) problems were minor. The majority of the kids, they accepted each other,” he reported. “Kids had learned to fight each other, and everything they did was not a racial problem. It was just a problem.”
Students who don’t experience racially diverse environments miss out on some of the most fundamental lessons Gadson said she and others worked so hard to ingrain in students decades before. The message was simple, she said, and it still rings true today.
“We are more alike than we are unalike,” she related. “If you took the skin off of us, you wouldn’t know the difference.”