Today is the last day of Black History Month. There have been many programs all around the city commemorating many aspects of black history. I participated in a discussion of a book about Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas a couple of weeks ago at the Walkertown branch library. But my real interest is in our own hometown heroes. There are hundreds of local stories, enough for a blog post a day. But I am going to present just two. Each is important enough to have its own entry. Here is the first one.

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Gwen Bailey, class of ’63, Winston-Salem Teachers College

In the spring of 1957, students at the R.J. Reynolds High School attended a very important assembly in the Reynolds auditorium. Principal Claude R. “Pop” Joyner took the stage and informed the assemblage that in the fall a single black girl would be joining the 2,000 or so white student body.

He said that there would be no problems…if folks wanted to befriend her, that would be good…if they didn’t, they should stay away and leave her alone…that we would not want to know what would happen to us if there were any “incidents”…when “Pop” said you didn’t want to know something, you really didn’t want to know.

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Gwen Bailey, left, on her first day at R.J. Reynolds High School, accompanied by Velma Hopkins, one of the leaders of the strike against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that in the 1940s transformed our local black community. From the Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection

On the first day of school in September, early arrivals found that someone had come onto the campus the night before and painted ugly words on the drive that circles the auditorium. Vice principal John Tandy was scurrying about corralling male students and handing out turpentine and white paint in an attempt to either eradicate or cover up the obscenities.

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An RJRHS Senior Service Club member attempts to eliminate the hate talk. From Winston-Salem: A Pictorial History

A substantial crowd had gathered along Hawthorne Road, but there was a heavy police presence, and they had told the people to stay on the far side of the street from the school. There had already been some nastiness in Greensboro and Charlotte…that was not going to happen here.

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A group of freshman boys heads down to Hawthorne Road to gawk at the gawkers. The one near the center in the dark pants with the registration card in his hip pocket is me. The man near the car wearing a light colored suit is vice principal John Tandy. John earned his whole year’s salary that hectic day. From Winston-Salem: A Pictorial History

Meanwhile, down on Northwest Boulevard, the Reverend E. E. Bailey was dropping off the object of all this attention, his 16 year old daughter Gwendolyn. She walked through the tunnel and up the hill past the cafeteria and was inside the auditorium before any of the onlookers knew she was there.

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Life magazine

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Black & Gold, 1959

Over the next 21 months, Gwen attended class, made good grades and participated in the award winning school bands and orchestra. On June 5, 1959, she became the first black student to graduate from R.J. Reynolds High School.

The editors of the Winston-Salem Journal made a very good decision to commemorate that event. They had Roy Thompson write a story about it. And Roy “got it”. Read…

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Life magazine covered the token integration in all three North Carolina cities. Incoming students in Charlotte and Greensboro were subjected to up close and personal verbal abuse. All pix below are from Life magazine.

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It is difficult to understand how a principal could allow such behavior on their campus.

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16 year old Dorothy Counts was heckled by students at Charlotte’s Harding High School. Gustavus Roberts also suffered verbal abuse at Charlotte Central that day. Two years later he would become the first black student to graduate from a previously white high school in North Carolina.

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After the students had been grouped by home rooms, Dorothy found a few civilized people to chat with.

See also: https://northcarolinaroom.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/black-is-back/

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