Williston’s Legacy Graduation: Righting a wrong from 1968 (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)

Williston’s Legacy Graduation: Righting a wrong from 1968 (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
Updated: Jun. 16, 2023 at 5:30 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The vote by members of the New Hanover County Board of Education was unanimous.

On the night of June 26, 1968, more than 14 years after the United States Supreme Court ruled state-sanctioned segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional, and facing the possibility of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding by lacking a federally-approved plan to desegregate county schools, the school board voted to close Williston Senior High, the county’s all-Black high school. The decision would send Williston’s nearly 900 rising juniors and seniors to two predominantly-White high schools, New Hanover and Hoggard.

“Williston was part of the cultural community,” said Ulysses Slade, who would have been a senior in the 1968-69 academic year and is the President of the Williston High School Class of 1969. “You had home. You had church, and you had Williston. This is where our parents went to school, where our grandparents went to school.”

The WHS classes of 1969 and 1970 will soon get the opportunity they missed more than a half-century ago. New Hanover County Schools, along with the county and city governments, have organized a Legacy Graduation for the alumni of those two classes, the rising seniors and juniors of 1968-69, to help heal some of the pain from the board’s sudden 1968 decision. It will take place at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 1, in the current Williston Middle School gymnasium.

“All of my classmates thought it was a very good idea and time for healing,” said William Boykin, the President of the WHS Class of 1970. “The question that has come up over and over again, is why did it take so long?”

Williston’s history dates back to 1866 when missionaries built the school on South 7th Street in Wilmington to educate newly freed slaves. Records show Williston School moved to South 10th Street in 1915, and became North Carolina’s first accredited high school for Black students in 1923. A new high school that was built on the site in 1953 currently houses Williston Middle School.

Following the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 1954, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which specified in Title VI that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”, the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare notified the New Hanover County Board of Education on May 28, 1968, that “your plans for desegregation of the New Hanover County Schools, as currently implemented, do not appear to be adequate to accomplish the purposes of Title VI”.

Documents show that within weeks, the school board considered three potential options presented by then-Assistant Superintendent Haywood Bellamy. First would be to divide the three high schools (Williston, New Hanover and Hoggard) by district without regard to race. The second option would be to send Williston’s eighth through 12th graders to the Lake Forest school for the 1968-69 school year and re-draw the district lines for three high schools. Option #3 would be to send the Williston Senior High students to New Hanover and Hoggard, using the Williston Senior High building to house the junior high school students, and move Gregory School students into the Williston Junior High building.

At what reports called a “tumultuous, hectic” meeting of the school board on June 26, following a chorus of objections from members of the audience, the board unanimously voted to go with the option of closing Williston Senior High.

“It sent a shockwave through the community,” Slade said. “Nobody suspected it. Nobody understood why, until this very day, nobody has ever explained to any of us why Williston high school was closed.”

Bertha Boykin Todd worked as the librarian at Williston Senior High for 14 years, and she recalled the transition to working at Hoggard High School in her book My Restless Journey. She remembers the impact the board’s sudden decision had on the school’s community, especially the students who were being sent into situations where they may not have been welcomed.

“If some person from the (school) board, central office or even from the community had taken those students up at the last minute and tried to reassure them that ‘everything is going to be alright’, it would have helped so much,” she said.

Life on the new school campuses was not easy for the Williston students. They’ve recalled incidents of confederate flag-waving and fights in the school hallways that led to incidents in the streets. Boykin thought back to one particular day when he feared for his life.

“When I got to my locker, I was surrounded by white students saying, ‘Y’all think you’re so damned smart,’” he said. “I was fortunate enough that right there was the assistant principal’s office, who had seen the gathering, and rescued me, carried me to where they had all the Black students, in the gymnasium, to see what could be done to prevent outrage.”

Efforts to organize the legacy graduation for the Williston classes of 1969 and 1970 have been successful. According to Linda Thompson, NHC’s Chief Diversity and Equity Officer, more than 150 alumni from the two classes have registered to attend the event. The effort has received enough financial donations to provide graduation caps and gowns for former students. Thompson said donations are still being accepted to help offset costs for the graduation event, and tickets for the general public will likely be made available sometime in June. For William Boykin and Ulysses Slade, being able to finally graduate from their beloved high school will help heal some of the hurt from the school board’s decision in 1968.

“It’s going to feel like I wish my parents were here to see it,” Slade said while fighting back tears. “It’s going to be an awesome feeling to walk across the stage of Williston Senior High School and get a diploma. It’s going to be awesome.”

We detail the events that led up to the closing of Williston Senior High School, and the legacy graduation happening to right the wrong from that 1968 decision.

WECT will live stream the Williston Legacy Graduation for those who are unable to attend in person. Coverage begins on wect.com and on the WECT News page on Facebook at 1:45 p.m. on July 1.

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