In the ’50s: Individuals made a difference
WILCOE — He was 10 years old. “White people were in front of the school door, yelling they didn’t want their kids going to school with us,” Ron Wilkerson recalled.
White and black parents shoved each other. A fight broke out. The sheriff arrested a white woman with a gun. “Our parents didn’t back down,” he said.
It was the first day of the 1954-55 school year in Thorpe, McDowell County. Four months earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered the schools to desegregate.
Those minutes are burned into Wilkerson’s memory. “I remember their faces exactly.”
Three miles downriver, nobody tried to block the door when cousins Robert Wade and Milford Johnson enrolled at Wilcoe Elementary, the white school. They don’t remember any problems, then or later.
“We already knew the white kids,” Wade said. “We played with them in the summer and after school — baseball, kick the can, you know.
“Near as I can remember, they were glad to see us,” Johnson said. Right away, they were playing ball together at recess.
Johnson and Wade are retired miners now. Both say they loved Wilcoe Colored Elementary. “But our parents said we were going to the white school, so we did,” Wade said, “and it was OK. They just took us in.”
Unlike Wade and Johnson, Wilkerson didn’t know any of the white kids at Thorpe Grade School. His teacher made the eight black fourth-graders sit in a designated area, he said. “If you touched some white kids, they’d pull away.”
Those three boys were among relatively few black students whose parents transferred them to McDowell County white schools in the 1950s. McDowell County — and many other counties — did not really desegregate for another 10 years.
At Thorpe, teachers didn’t help black kids, Wilkerson said. “They didn’t want me there, so I didn’t want to be there.” He sat in the back row and drew pictures. “I almost flunked sixth grade.”
Downriver, at Wilcoe Elementary, Johnson maintained his straight A average, he said. “We got the same kind of help the white kids did,” Wade said.
“And that’s how it went ... up until high school.”
Why the difference?
The teachers at Wilcoe Elementary deserve credit, said Rita Wicks-Nelson, a retired West Virginia Institute of Technology psychology professor. Young children follow teachers’ leads.
In 2003, Wicks-Nelson and Ancella Bickley, retired West Virginia State professor, interviewed 25 black teachers, statewide, who went through desegregation.
“There was often an assumption [by many white teachers] that if black students were not doing well, they could just sit in the back of the room,” Wicks-Nelson said. “Whereas a black teacher would go have gone up to them and said, “What’s going on here? We’re going to talk to your parents.”
Libby Scobell, retired West Virginia State University librarian, said the housing and geography may also have played a role. “The Thorpe children for the most part lived in two areas that were all black. In Wilcoe, people’s houses were more mixed in.”
The steep Thorpe hillsides also isolated people more, she said. Wilcoe is in a wider valley with more community area. “Those kids naturally got to know each other and played together.”
The history of the two towns probably came into play, too. The Ku Klux Klan was stronger around Thorpe as she grew up, she said. “They didn’t march or anything, but we were very aware and were cautioned about driving through there at night.”
A guy spit on me
In 1959, Johnson and Wade graduated from Wilcoe Elementary and went on to the white high school, Gary High School. There, they encountered many white students who had never been around black kids before, who came equipped with considerable prejudice.
“Some of their parents had told them we had tails like monkeys,” Johnson said. “Can you believe that?”
After their positive experience at the white grade school, they were shocked. “I had never been in a fight with a white person before I went there,” Johnson said. “But I was fighting all the time after I got there.”
Kids called them names all over the school, he said. “In the hall, in class, didn’t matter where. And the principal and teachers didn’t do anything to stop it.”
“A guy spit on me in the hall,” Wade said. “I told the principal, but he didn’t do anything.” It wasn’t the kids from Wilcoe, he said. “It was the ones we didn’t know.”
Wade remembers a girl who dropped her pencil in class. He bent over and picked it up for her. “I held it out to her, and she wouldn’t take it back from me,” he said. “Things like that hurt.”
Johnson believes that white teachers in that school were discouraged from helping black students in those years. “I believe some would have liked to help us, but they knew what was expected: Black students were to receive no attention.”
A white teacher gave Wade passing grades on all his papers, he said, then gave him a D on his report card.
Wade transferred to the black high school. Wilkerson was already there. His parents had let him go there after he finished at Thorpe. “I was studying and talking again,” Wilkerson said.
“We probably did what they hoped we’d do,” he said. “Then they could say, ‘We offered to let them go to our schools, but they don’t want to.’”
Student after student transferred back to the black high school. But Johnson’s dad made him stay. “He told me, ‘You started there, and you’re going to finish there.’”
He paid for it. “If the teachers and the principal weren’t going to do anything about what was happening to me, then it was up to me.” At first, his dad punished him for fighting at school. “But after he understood why I needed to fight, he stopped whipping me.”
“After awhile, it let up a little,” he said, “especially after I got on the football team.”
“Robert Wade and I took the easy way out,” Wilkerson said. “We had fun [at the black school] and had all our teachers helping us, while Milford was over there fighting our battles for us. He was a pioneer. He wouldn’t let them get by with that stuff.”
It was rough and lonesome, Johnson recalls. But the national Civil Rights movement had started. On the news, he heard about black people in the South who faced police dogs, beatings, and worse. It made him feel like he was part of something bigger.
“What I went through was nothing, compared to what they did,” he said “But I felt like maybe I was taking some first steps here.”
When he graduated in 1965, his straight A average was long gone. He went to Virginia to work in the shipyards and eventually went into the McDowell County coal mines.
Was it worth it? Johnson hesitated. “For my kids,” he said. “They get a lot more intellectual respect than we did. They can go where they want.”
Ron Wilkerson has given dozens of minority youth a leg up through his construction company and taught martial arts to hundreds of people, white and black.
Robert Wade, retired from the mines, repairs houses of older people in Gary Hollow and organizes for the United Mine Workers.
Milford Johnson is laid off from the mines now, enjoying his grandchildren. He worries about news reports that the mine health and safety funds are in jeopardy.
The 2002 reunion of Gary District High School attracted over 1,000 people: doctors, coal miners, engineers, computer techs, architects, housewives, ministers, a judge, an Army general. This summer’s reunion will be in Winston-Salem, N.C., during the July 4 weekend.
To contact staff writer Kate Long, use e-mail or call 348-1798.