Watch number 81, Carl Eller, from Winston-Salem, NC, building his path to the NFL Hall of Fame.

A couple of days ago I saw a post on Facebook that listed a few black citizens of the Twin City who have become famous…mostly TV stuff…so I realized that there were many others of more substance who most people know nothing about.

I’m working on individual posts on people like Simon Green Atkins, the founder of what is now Winston-Salem State University, and Clarence Gaines, a fairly well known basketball coach, so they won’t be featured in this post. Here are a few that you may not know about or maybe have forgotten.

Carl Eller was born in Winston-Salem and grew much faster than most. By the time he arrived at Atkins High School, he was well over six feet tall and weighed around 250 pounds, which might explain why he became an All-State football player. From Atkins, he moved on to the University of Minnesota, where he played in the defensive line and made All-American, and later was inducted in the the College Football Hall of Fame.

He then joined the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, where right from the start he was the anchor of the fearsome front four that became known as the “Purple People Eaters”…three of those, including Carl, ended up in the NFL Hall of Fame.


Minnesota Vikings “Purple People Eaters”, l-r Alan Page, Jim Marshall, Gary Larsen, Carl Eller…Larsen is the only one not inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame


In 2013, Carl Eller returned to his hometown to participate in the “Hometowner Hall of Fame” event at Atkins High School

After retirement, Carl remained a force on the national sports scene by founding the Retired NFL Players Association. But one thing that very few know about Carl is that he also became a master craftsman.


See Carl Eller Studio

Anyone who has driven the stretch of Northwest Boulevard between Reynolda Road and the Cherry-Marshall Freeway has seen a bunch of strange looking sculptures, mostly of animals, covered with polka dot like patterns. That is the work of Sam McMillan, a nationally known nontraditional artist.


Sam McMillan at his studio

About thirty years ago, Dewitt Chatham Hanes, one of our city’s great art doyens, hired Sam to do some painting for her. Sam’s idea of painting was not quite what most people would have expected. Next time you’re driving by, stop and have a chat and buy something.


Art should be fun, and in Sam’s case it always is…all time favorite Sam work


Sam is so famous that one of the top bed and breakfasts in the nation, Bywater in New Orleans, features the Sam McMillan Room, showcasing his furniture.

Togo West’s parents were both teachers. He was valedictorian of the 1959 class of Atkins High School. His career involved many twists and turns, culminating with his appointment by Bill Clinton as Secretary of the Army, 1993-97. In 1998, Clinton asked him to become the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, a role he remained in through the end of the Clinton administration.


Togo West

In the 1950s, legendary Winston-Salem Teachers College track coach Wilbur Ross recruited a young man named Elias Gilbert. In 1958, Gilbert set the world record in the hurdles and led the WSTC team to a second place finish in the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) track and field championship. The next year they won that event outright. Coach Ross left at the end of the 1959 season, so Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines took over as coach and won a second straight title in 1960. Gilbert was for many years thereafter a teacher in the local school system.


Elias Gilbert shows how to run the hurdles


World record holder Elias Gilbert with his coach, Wilbur Ross, Winston-Salem Teachers College

Larry León Hamlin was born in Reidsville, NC, but spent most of his adult life in Winston-Salem. He was an extraordinary actor, mime, mimic, what have you. Wherever you were in the city, if Larry Leon was nearby, you knew it, because he tended to dress in outrageous outfits which were visible from blocks away. He also had a knack for making people love him, which led to his founding two truly significant organizations, the NC Black Repertory Company and the National Black Theatre Festival.


Larry Leon Hamlin…miss you my man

Dr. Kenneth Williams graduated from the Columbian Heights High School in the Twin City. His career spanned many areas. At Winston-Salem Teachers College, he served as a professor of history and religion, dean of men and, eventually, president/chancellor of Winston-Salem State University from 1962-1977. He also served as pastor of the West End Baptist Church from 1949-1960.


Dr. Kenneth Williams

But his greatest fame was reached when, in 1947, he was elected a Winston-Salem city alderman, becoming the first black man to defeat a white candidate for office in the South in the 20th century.

Stemming, separating the leaf from the stem, was one of the dirtiest jobs in a tobacco factory. In the 1940s, Velma Hopkins was one of many stemmers at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. She and many of her colleagues had a couple of problems with their jobs, the main one being that male stemmers were paid 60₵ per hour, while female stemmers were paid 50₵ per hour, despite the fact that it was well known that women had better manual dexterity than men and were thus better stemmers.


Local 22 on strike against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company…in the immediate background is the RJR Bailey Power Plant, now being redeveloped

At some point, Velma and her female colleagues decided to do something about that. When their plea for monetary equality was ignored, they walked out. What ensued was an ugly struggle between the white establishment of the city and these few brave women. Eventually, the workers won and the pay for both men and women was increased to 75₵ an hour. In the end, Reynolds, through race and red baiting, was able to get their union decertified, but Velma Hopkins never looked back.


R.J. Reynolds High School auditorium, 1957, Gwendolyn Yvonne Bailey (l) became the first black student to attend a previously white high school in Winston-Salem. Velma Hopkins (center) came along for the ride just to make sure that nobody gave Gwynn any grief. A great lady.

She became a tireless worker for civil rights in the community. Kenneth Willams’ victory in the 1947 city election was one of the outcomes of that effort. Others who played a major role in this revolution were Viola Brown, Willie Grier, Etta Hobson, Ruby Jones,Robert Lathan, Clark Sheppard, Theodosia Simpson and Moranda Smith.

On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina A & T College sat down at the all white lunch counter in Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC and asked to be served. They were refused.

A week later, at noon on February 8, Carl Matthews, a graduate of Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte and the Winston-Salem Teacher’s College arrived alone at the lunch counter at the Kress Store on Fourth Street in Winston-Salem. He too was refused service, so he sat there all afternoon.

The next day, the Winston-Salem Journal published a brief editorial urging the citizens of the Twin City to engage in a discussion of what to do about this issue. Mayor Marshall Kurfees appointed a committee of ten black and ten white citizens to attempt to find a solution. Deliberations began.

But college students in those days were an impatient lot. On February 23, students from several local institutions held a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. 21 of them were arrested, jailed and charged with trespassing. They were, from Winston-Salem Teacher’s, Royal Joe Abbit, Everette L. Dudley, Deloris M. Reeves, Victor Johnson, Jr., William Andrew Bright, Bruce Gaither, Jefferson Davis Diggs, Jr., Algemenia Giles, Donald C. Bradley, Lafayette A. Cook, Jr., and Ulysses Grant Green. From Wake Forest College, Linda G. Cohen, Linda Guy, Margaret Ann Dutton, Bill Stevens, Joe Chandler, Don F. Bailey, Paul Watson, Anthony Wayland Johnson, George Williamson and Jerry Wilson. Last, but very far from least, one Atkins High School student, Patricia Tillman.

Mayor Kurfees urged that the charges against these students be dropped, and they were. On May 25, Carl Matthews became the first black person to be served sitting down at a formerly all white lunch counter in North Carolina.


Carl Matthews, center, at the Kress lunch counter, February 8, 1960

On November 8, 1965, a unit of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division walked into an ambush set by the Viet Cong in South Viet Nam. Outnumbered 6-1, they began taking a large number of casualties. One of the first was the unit’s medic, Lawrence Joel, who was hit in the thigh, then in the calf. His commanding officer ordered him to take cover for the duration of the battle, but Joel ignored that order. He dressed his own wounds, then began crawling around to treat his comrades. When his medical supplies were exhausted, he improvised a crutch and hobbled around looking for more.


March 7, 1967, President Johnson presents Lawrence Joel with the Medal of Honor

During the course of the firefight he treated at least thirteen other wounded warriors under withering enemy fire, saving several lives in the process. When the fight was over, he was evacuated to a military hospital in Japan, where he was immediately awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest honor for bravery.

On March 7, 1967, on the White House lawn, President Lyndon Johnson draped the ribbon of the Medal of Honor around Lawrence Joel’s neck. Four weeks later, the city of Winston-Salem put on its first and only parade for a single local citizen to honor him.

Lawrence Joel was born in Winston-Salem in 1928, graduated from Atkins High School and became a career Army man, serving as a medic in Korea and Viet Nam. He died of cancer in 1984.

Harold “Happy” Hairston was born in Winston-Salem in 1942. He grew up in the city tall and muscular and talented in basketball. But in the segregated late 1950s, there was little future for a black athlete anywhere in the South.

Happy’s parents sent him to the famous high school, Erasmus Hall, in Brooklyn, a melting pot of excellence, which included among its alumni Joe Barbera, creator of the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons…actress Shirley Booth…Shepard Broad, the most influential American in the establishment of the state of Israel…Bobby Fischer, world chess champion…actor John Forsythe…the artist Elaine M. Fried de Kooning…travel guru Arthur Frommer…actress Susan Hayward…baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt…Moses Hurwitz, “Moe” of the Three Stooges…Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman…opera singer Beverly Sills…crime writer Mickey Spillane, who lived for many years in Murrel’s Inlet, SC…Barbra Streisand…silent screen star Norma Talmadge…actor and producer Eli Wallach..and a couple of other basketball players who would soon become All-Americans at UNC…Billy Cunningham and Doug Moe.


Happy Hairston does what he did best, go to the basket

Happy was a high school All-American at Erasmus and a college All-American at NYU. He was a great rebounder, and in the NBA he averaged a double double in scoring and rebounding for eight consecutive years. In 1972, with he and Wilt Chamberlain dominating the boards, and two other future NBA Hall of Famers, Gail Goodrich and Jerry West driving opponents crazy in the backcourt, Happy played a major role in winning the NBA championship for the Los Angeles Lakers.

After retirement, he established the Happy Hairston Foundation, which specialized in finding bright children from broken homes and paying their way through college. Happy Hairston died a happy man in 2001.