WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The year was 1962. All black kids went to all-black schools. All white kids went to all-white ones. Segregation was a way of life. But a lawsuit filed against the New Hanover County Board of Education would change the complexion of local schools.
The Rev. Aaron McCrae, Sr. a prominent black minister in Wilmington, wanted his children to have the same educational opportunities as white students. One if his daughters recalls the family meeting he called to announce his son, Aaron, Jr. would be changing history.
"He sat us down and he said your brother will be the first black to enter in an all-white school,” Jacqui McCrae recalls.
The civil rights movement was underway but had not even reached its peak. Racism was alive and well.
Beverly Jacobs, a white student at Chestnut Street Junior High School—now Snipes Academy of Art and Design, remembers sitting next to Aaron on his first day.
"He was very nice. He was an addition to our class-- sort of like a novelty,” Jacobs said during an interview in 2015.
In later years, McCrae would tell his sons that things did not go smoothly.
“My dad told me that he went to school and suffered discrimination on a day-to-day basis and he hated having to get up and go to school,” Adrian McCrae said.
Aaron McCrae III believes it made his father a better man.
“My favorite quote from him was, ‘discipline is inevitable--either you impose it on yourself or others will impose it on you,’” Trey McCrae said.
Retired educator Bertha Todd, who was the head librarian at Williston, Wilmington’s all-black school at the start of integration says Aaron showed a lot of courage.
“Oh, they called him all sorts of names, I’m sure,” Todd said. “He expected that but Aaron was born in a religious and courageous family, so he knew he had security at home.”
Aaron McCrae died in 2015. His sister says she not only wants people to remember him as the first black student to integrate local schools, but to remember him as one who never caved into adversity.
“He never gave up,” she says. He always inspired others to never give up. That’s how I want to remember my brother Aaron.”