Williston, 50 Years Later

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been away the past week. During this time, I did several things I’ll write about, the first being a project I’ve been associated with for the past few years. The next day, I attended a friend’s book reveal, and then spent a few days paddling out to and camping on Cape Lookout. I’ll write about the other two things later.

Between the 7th and 8th Grade

Excitement filled the air as the 1970-71 school year ended. I had just finished the 8th Grade at Roland Grice Junior High. In an art class, I had drawn with color pencils a large portrait of Yogi Bear and had friends to sign it. Next year, we’d rule as 9th graders. But things were changing in ways we did not realize. While we had no way of knowing at the time, this was our last day at Roland Grice.

During our summer break, a court decision forced the complete integration of schools. Those students at Roland Grice who lived north of Oleander Drive would attend D. C. Virgo, which had been the former African American Junior High, which was one of the county’s two “9th Grade Centers.” Those of us who lived south of Oleander would attend Williston, the former black high school. Interestingly, D. C. Virgo was the principal at Williston that made it celebrated school during the time of segregation. In 1968, after the opening of Hoggard High School, Williston was converted to a Junior High. Now, it would be the county’s other 9th Grade Center.  The goal was to have all schools to reflect the county’s racial make-up which, in 1971, was roughly 70% white and 30% African American. 

9th Grade

It was late in the summer that we learned of the changes. That September, I took the bus to Roland Grice and from there transferred to another bus for the ride to Williston. This was a scary time. Since 1968 and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., Wilmington had its share of riots and racial unrest. New private schools such as Cape Fear Academy and Wilmington Christian Academy popped up in response to the forced integration. However, most of us continued in public school.

The 1971-72 school year would be one of the most memorable years in my life, not because of what I learned in the classroom, but what I learned about life and people. We were a part of great experiment, which while it contained personal disappointments, was necessary for the well-being our society. Sadly, I didn’t get to finish out my year at Roland Grice, but greater good is that the unequal segregated system of schools needed to be undone. Those of us who attended Williston, at least those willing to open our eyes, saw first-hand how unfair the old system had been.   

50th Anniversary Project

One of the panels with quotes from the 4 of us (from left: Cliff, Sadie, me, Wayne)

At a class reunion a few years ago, I found myself discussing our year at Williston with several students. As we were coming up on our 50th anniversary, it seemed that we should do something. As the first students to experience busing, at least for historical purposes, we should preserve some our memories and perhaps even take another step or two toward healing the racial divisions that have divided this country for too long.

Cliff, a classmate who was also the son of the school superintendent for the county in 1971-72, be talking. We reached out and talk to others, creating a group of students from across the racial spectrum. We started a Facebook page, which revealed how our experience, 50 years later, still contains extremes. There were those who thought the year was wonderful. One black woman recalled it was the first time in school she was given a new textbook. Before, her schools issued “hand-me-down” books from schools that was most white. And then there are the few who hated everything about Williston and still carry a grudge.

We searched for a way to memorialize our year at Williston. Thanks to another of our classmates, LuAnn, who had graduated with a master’s degree in public history from University of North Carolina at Wilmington, we were connected to this department. Three graduate students of the program began to collect oral histories and created a series of interpretive panels about the experience of integration in Wilmington. 

Last Friday, the UNCW students presented their work. The panels will be displayed at Williston, which today is a middle school. The oral histories will be available for future scholars through the UNCW library. At the presentation, I learned that busing was no longer being done in New Hanover County and that at present, Williston’s student population consists of 80% minority. I wondered if our sacrifices were in vain.

Presentation at UNCW (students: Conner, Jack, Heather.
Faculty: Dr. Jennifer LeZotte. & Dr. Tara White)

The students titled their project, “Not Done Yet: School Integration in Wilmington, NC, 1968-Beyond.” Click on the link to learn more.  

I am thankful for this project. Not only does it add to the historical body of material available on integration in America, it also allowed me to catch up with old friends and to make some new ones.

My Other Williston Writings:

Williston’s 1971 “Snowfall”

Ms. Gooden

Mark Brown

Mark Brown: Another Williston Memory

I still have Mark’s photo and my “Sugar Bear Ecology Club” card.

The Christmas break from school was just beginning. My church youth group celebrated with a progressive dinner. We travelled around to different homes, one for appetizers, another for a salad, another for the main dish, then the last home for dessert. If we were adults, there might have been a stop for drinks, but being a 10th grader, I knew little of such a world. 

We were at the manse, where the preacher and his family lived, for dinner. In the kitchen, the television aired the local news. Although we could hear it, we pay no attention, as Mrs. Jennings, the pastor’s wife prepared the main dish. Suddenly she came into the room. She was quite upset and shaking as she asked if any of us knew a Mark Brown, a student at Hoggard High School, where most of us attended. Everyone turned to me as she told us he’d been killed that afternoon. While Mark and I no longer shared classes and had gone in different directions at Hoggard, everyone knew we had hung out a lot at Williston, the year before.

Mark reminded me of John Lennon with his long stringy brown hair. He wore tinted wire glasses and often an army fatigue jacket upon which he’d drawn pictures in ink. He looked like a hippie. Mark was a year older than me, having lost a year in elementary school. A car had hit him one day, leaving him with weeks in the hospital and even more time in recovery. By the time he returned to school, he was so far behind that he had to repeat the grade. 

Although Mark was old enough to drive, I don’t remember Mark doing so. Instead, he rode his ten-speed everywhere. Once he received a warning ticket on his bike. If I recall, he was riding on Arlie Road. With no other cars in sight, Mark wove in and out of the dotted center lane. A police officer, sitting in a parked car in a driveway, observed this. He pulled Mark, in his bike, over and issued the ticket. Mark didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it was funny to hear him tell the story.

Mark was quiet and mostly a loner. We’d become good friends the year before at Williston’s Ninth Grade Center. Every day before school, Mark could be found at the top of the north stairwell. He would squat between the two bars of the railing, his feet on the bottom bar and his thighs pressed up against the top. He’d then lean forward and hug his knees, perched over the stairs like a gargoyle. Sometimes he’d read; mostly he’d stare. He was often alone. The north stairwell, along with the adjacent boy’s bathroom and breezeway was the domain of those of us who had attended Roland Grice the year before. Although Mark had recently moved to Wilmington from up north (New Jersey, I think) and never really ran around with the pack, his presence in the stairwell provided me the opportunity to get to know him.

Mark’s philosophy was to bother no one. If someone taunted him, he’d ignore them and walk away. He was the gentlest guy I knew, and I respected him for it. At a time when everyone was running around in gangs and the school and city were in turmoil, Mark refused to join in. Instead, he began his own little counter-cultural gang, inviting folks to join his Sugar Bear Ecology Club. Those accepting his offer received membership cards harvested from cereal boxes. We had to pledge to the “Clean Code.”

Clean up our world
Liter hurts everyone
Each member must do his share
Animals are our friends
Nature belongs to all of us

(©1971 by General Foods Corp)

As far as I know, there were only three members of the club: Mark, a guy named Joe, and me.

Later in our ninth-grade year, after watching a man climb and hang in slings on the flagpole while painting it, Mark had an idea. His lunch was 4th period, the same time I was in Ms. Gooden’s class. He told me to keep an eye on the flag that day when he was at lunch. I did. Looking out the window wasn’t anything unusual for me, although probably less so in Ms. Gooden’s class as I, along with most of the other boys in the class, had a crush on her. Our class was on the second floor, over the offices with the flagpole right out in front.

Sure enough, Mark climbed the pole that day. On the top, he was eye level with me. He held onto the top like a monkey and swung around the pole, the flag flapping around him. Students flocked to the windows and to the front of the school to witness the spectacle. Mr. Howie and Mr. Barrett, the principal and one of the assistants, ran to the scene. They demanded him to come down immediately.  I thought for sure he’d be suspended, but they let him off with a stern warning. At a time of turmoil, climbing a flagpole seemed to be a relatively minor offense.

My dad took me to Mark’s funeral. It was a day or two before Christmas 1972 and held at the Catholic Church on Wrightsville Beach. It was stormy and the tide high. When we crossed the causeway, the waves lapped at the few boats still in the water that late in December. This was my first time in a Catholic Church. Much of what happened seemed strange, except for the crying. Everyone cried. Even my father, who’d only met Mark once or maybe twice, seemed visibly moved.

Mark’s death didn’t seem fair. Mark had been riding on the back of his brother’s motorcycle. Someone ran a red light at the intersection of Oleander Drive and Independence Boulevard, hitting the bike. His brother was able to hold onto the bike and ride it down. Mark was thrown off the back and across two lanes of traffic. He’d beat death once before, but not this time.

Williston’s 1971 Snowfall

I have been reviewing some old writings about my days at Williston 9th Grade Center. Click here to read an earlier story about Ms. Gooden.

I always dreaded going back to school after a long break, but the morning of January 2, 1972 was the worst. Heading to the bus stop, I shuffled my feet like a man going to the gallows. A pall had hung over the entire break. I boarded bus #23 and sat silently in the back as we traveled up South College Road to Roland Grice. Everyone got off. The seventh and eighth graders headed out to play while those of us who were ninth graders climbed into another bus for the shuttle downtown to Williston. This was the first year of cross-town (actually cross-county) busing, which for me meant that the first hour and a half of each school day was devoted to riding in or waiting on buses. The same was true for the afternoon, another hour and a half of waiting and riding. This was the price we paid to be a part of a court-ordered social experience. On January 2nd, the ride took even longer.

I don’t remember who made the first dare. Right before the fourth period bell, standing in the back of Ms. Gooden’s room, Abraham, Mike and I dared and doubled-dared each other to toss out the window some of the old outdated books stored in the shelves along the back wall. As it was with the first bite into Eve’s apple, after the first book flew out the window, the rest became easier. We each tossed a couple out into the bushes below by the time the bell rang. Ms. Gooden came in from the hall and began to teach. It was the last day of school before the Christmas break.

Our indiscretions should have ended then. But it didn’t. As fate would have it, Ms. Gooden left the room for a few minutes during the class. We came up with another dare. In the back of the room was a filing cabinet where the former teacher, now an assistant principal, had stored years of test papers. I don’t remember which one of us was the natural litterer, but soon a file folder of papers sailed across the front yard. Someone joked about snow. We all got into the act. Wilmington hadn’t had a white Christmas in a hundred years and we were out to change that. A brief snow flurry ensued, blanketing Williston’s front lawn. The flurries died down as soon as we heard Ms. Gooden’s high-heels clicking down the hall. We jumped in our seats, covered our smirks with our hands, and tried to act like nothing had happened. A few moments later, the principal, Mr. Howie, stormed into the room. He didn’t bother to knock or ask permission. I’d never seen a black man so red.

“Who threw those papers out the windows?” he shouted.

Our smirks retreated in the face of his anger. The three of us, an unholy trinity, sat there praying that no one would rat us out.

“You’d better have their names in my office by the end of the period,” he warned his young teacher before stomping out the door.

Ms. Gooden walked back to our corner, her heels clicking with each step. Then she just stood there. There’s nothing worst than having a gorgeous woman look at you with big, sad, disappointed eyes. We immediately forgot that she was on the other side, a teacher, and confessed to our misdemeanors. After class we headed to lunch while Ms. Gooden went down to the principal’s office.

Our final two classes of the day were dreadfully long. The three of us walked around, looking rejected, kind of like the Pakistani soldiers who’d just been defeated in by the Indians in what is now Bangladesh. We kept waiting for that dreaded speaker above the chalkboard to call out our names and tell us to report to the office. Our prayers must have been effective or, more likely, Mr. Howie and company were looking forward to their holiday every bit as much as us. The summons never came.

Having safely made it through the last day of school, I assumed our actions would catch up with us the first day back after the holidays. I headed back to school, fully expecting to be sent back home, suspended for at least a week. But to my surprise, nothing more was said about the strange snowfall that December day. I often wondered what kind of conversation had gone on between Ms. Gooden and Mr. Howie, but I never inquired. It was best to let that sleeping dog lie.

Williston Ninth Grade Center: Ms. Gooden


2021 marks fifty years since cross-town busing began in Wilmington, NC. That spring, those of us in the eighth grade at Roland Grice Junior High, left school thinking about the fall. Having paid our dues as seventh and eighth graders, were ready to be “king of the hill” as ninth graders. However, due to court rulings that few of us understood, things changed that summer. Instead of staying at Roland Grice, we were bused across town to the former African American high school, Williston. Each school, instead of drawing on the neighborhood makeup, was to be 70% white, 30% black, which was the county make-up at the time. Racial tensions were high that fall as 9th graders from three formerly Junior High Schools (Williston—which had become a Jr. High after it stopped being a High School, along with Sunset Park and Roland Grice) were merged into one school. While I am not sure I learned much in class that year, I learned a lot about life. This is one of my stories (which I wrote many years ago and have edited it for this blog post). 

Photo take in 2010 (the blinds in the 2nd story classes look in better shape than they were in 1971).

4th Period

Walking into my fourth period class at Williston Ninth Grade Center, I couldn’t believe my eyes. A new girl sat in a desk to right of me, in the back corner by the window. A blonde, nicely dressed as if trying to impress her classmates on her first day at school, she smiled. Stumbling for words, I introduced myself and welcomed her to my corner. I attempted to impress her by telling a few things that went on in the back of the class. Then Mike, who also sat in the corner, took his place, and joined the conversation. We were in competition, each vying for the new girl’s attention. We tried to outdo the other with our stories. She smiled, even blushed a bit. So intent we were to impress, we didn’t give her time to say anything. The bell rang, the teacher stepped up to the front, class began, and reality sat in.

Our latest test was returned. I quickly took mine and put it under some other papers, shielding it from the new girl. “She looks smart and wouldn’t be impressed with my grade,” I thought. We reviewed the test, and I saw where I’d made my mistakes in calculations. Then she handed out our report cards. Again, I snatched the card quickly and stuck it in a book. The new girl was the one person other than my parents that I didn’t want to see my grades. I promised myself I’d study harder and do all my homework this next term. She deserved such sacrifices.

As the class wound down, I tried to think of a good line to use after the bell, as we herded down the hall to the cafeteria. But a few minutes before the bell, the principal, Mr. Howie, stepped in. He’d never been in this class, and I thought this was strange as we’d been well behaved that day. Politely, our teacher yielded to the floor to Mr. Howie. He informed us that our teacher was being promoted to an assistant principal. At his clue, we clapped. None of us were sure what this meant. By this point in my academic career, assistant principals weren’t on my radar. I was the type of kid who bypassed the assistant’s office and head straight to the big guy’s door. After only six weeks at Williston, Howie and I were on a first name bases.

A new teacher

After giving accolades to our teacher, the principal, as if he was introducing a political candidate, said it gave him great pleasure to introduce our new teacher. Then turning to the back corner, he said, “Ms. Gooden, will you stand.” 

The new girl in the class stood and stepped forward. Mike and I slid under our respective desks. I swear, as she introduced herself to the class, she smirked every time she looked over our way. This was going to be a long year.

Like most schoolboys, there had been a few teachers who, because of their looks or kindness, had encouraged my fantasies. Miss Freeman, my fourth-grade teacher once brought me a Coke. I was a cheap date and impressed. And then there was a seventh-grade math teacher who had ten dresses and I could tell the day of the week by her dress. Of course, two of these dresses were quite short and showed lots of leg. Yet, fantasies about these teachers remained where they belonged, deep in my psyche. I never said anything inappropriate. But now I found myself with a new teacher who was beautiful, and I’d already played my cards to impress her to be mine. 

Ms. Gooden was fresh from college. She was probably twenty-two but could have easily passed for fifteen. I’m sure if she went out for a drink, the waitress would have carded her. And now she knew who, in her class, to keep an eye on. 

Her fiancé

Perhaps to make the point that she was no “Mrs. Robinson,” Ms Gooden fiancé drop by one day. A Marine officer, he stood at attention in the front of the class, decked out in his dress uniform. On his side was an engraved sword that said to me, “hands off my girl.” As he greeted us, he kept looking over at my corner. I’m sure he knew all about us. 

More to come…

I should say that nothing ever happened, but that wouldn’t be quite true. Certainly nothing romantically happened, but there were adventures to come in this fourth period class. I’m sure nothing in Ms. Gooden’s teacher training prepared her to have a class like ours at such a time in history.