The new interactive exhibit, Rooted in Race: A Community’s Journey to School Integration, offers a historical look at the region’s painful journey out of desegregation and gives a voice to the black students and faculty members who paved the way.
“All I knew was that I was alone,” Norma Corley reflected in one of several oral histories included in the exhibit. Corley was one of three black children who abolished Easton Elementary School in 1958. She was also the first and only black student at what was then Hill Junior High.
“I always felt like I had something to prove, that whatever stereotypes they have about black people wouldn’t apply to me,” said Corley, who later learned that some of her classmates’ parents at Hill were Ku Klux Klan.
Rooted in Race, a project of the Winston-Salem Foundation and Triad Cultural Arts, began as a virtual exhibit and then expanded into an in-person exhibit at Union Station, 300 S. Martin Luther King Jr., Drive. It opened last week and will conclude on Saturday with a forum on educational equity.
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It is also open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays from 10am to 1pm
The exhibit includes a timeline of key national, state, and local dates to tell the story of desegregation, beginning with the landmark case of Brown v. the Board of Education, heard in the US Supreme Court in 1952. The decade-spanned timeline ends in the 2010s, pointing to milestones such as the selection of Angela Hairston as the first black superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and Malishai Woodbury as the first black school board chairwoman.
Along the way, it touches on voter referenda, lawsuits, protests, and all manner of roadblocks designed to keep black students out of white schools, and the imperfect desegregation plans, including bus service and school choice, which most would agree are not have led to a full integration of schools.
Anita Justice, a retired teacher at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, conducted the research and gathered facts for the timeline.
What struck her was the consistent and coordinated effort by legislators, voters, and community leaders to make desegregation as difficult as possible.
“This has been an exciting opportunity to compile research so people can have a clear understanding of what happened and understand the issues surrounding justice today,” Justice said.
While Justice’s research provides context, the memories of people like Corley, who, as a brave little girl, found the courage to walk down the aisles where blacks hadn’t gone, make the fight more humane.
Joyce Mack spoke about the closeness between the faculty and student body at Atkins High School, one of the “Big Four” historically black high schools, along with Carver, Anderson and Paisley. Of the four, only Carver remains a high school.
Recalling the spirit of the school, Mack said that Atkins students are aware that its facilities and resources did not match those of predominantly white schools.
“They had the new stuff. We had the old pass-me-downs,” Mack said.
The integration of the faculty was also fraught with racism. Some white faculty members prefer to quit rather than transfer to predominantly black schools.
Marion Simpson Wimbush, a counselor, spoke about how the white principal of the high school she was sent to routinely snubbed her until she made a point of going into his office and introducing herself.
“He fought against that,” Wimbush said of her principal’s resistance to integrating the counseling staff. “But he didn’t win.”
Several local leaders share their stories, including Woodbury, former school administrator Ken Simington, and Winston-Salem City Councilman Annette Scippio and DD Adams.
“I used to think I could put everything behind me,” Adams said as he was taken by bus from a Boston-Thurmond-area neighborhood to East Forsyth High School in Kernersville. “It was as if someone had pulled the rug out from under me and others.”
Adams said being evicted from her neighborhood by bus was so traumatic that she tries not to get past East Forsyth. Her co-workers experience similar post-traumatic stress from bus rides, she said.
“At some point I was broken,” Adams said.
Cheryl Harry, director of Triad Cultural Arts, said the exhibition gave those who have suffered from desegregation a chance to be heard.
“We hope that those most affected by desegregation will come knowing that their stories will be told and some of the trauma they carry will be resolved,” Harry said.
Woodbury, who has campaigned for justice during her upcoming school board tenure, said the exhibit gave her a glimpse of the county’s integration struggle.
“Rooted in Race lets us know we still have a long way to go,” she said.
For Superintendent Tricia McManus, the exhibition underscored the complexities involved in integration.
“The right thing for me is to make sure that each of our children is taken care of, that they have the best resources, that the facilities are top notch wherever they go,” she said. “It ensures we take an equitable and equitable approach so students get what they need.”