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Celebrating Williston School Luminaries: Joseph McNeil

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Joseph McNeil

Williston Middle School in Wilmington marks its 100th anniversary this year.  When it was a segregated high school, Williston produced alumni who are known throughout the country for their achievements.  Joseph McNeil graduated from Williston in 1959 and went on to start the civil rights sit-in movement in Greensboro.  

Isabelle Shepherd: You attended Williston Senior High School. Can you tell me about your time there?

Joseph McNeil: A positive time. A chance to grow academically, to mature as a young male. Good time to, uh, take what was provided to us and try to use it as best we could.

IS: And what did the school provide to you?

JM: I’ll start with the faculty. Extremely strong faculty, not only in academics and what it taught but also the fact that they cared about the students, and if students needed additional help, the faculty and staff at Williston was more than willing to provide that help.

The community of black teachers at Williston was a powerful one. Those teachers knew your parents and their parents. So it was an extended family, a concept that was working very well.

IS: You say “was working.” Did anything change after the school was desegregated?

JM: I was in college when the school was desegregated, but it’s my understanding that the students who attended the other schools within the area felt that they were treated differently and that segregation was, initially there was some turmoil.

IS: So, when you were in school, Williston was segregated. What was that experience like?

JM: We were always very suspicious of the quality of textbooks. I don’t think we had the same textbooks or, if they were, Williston was the recipient of the older versions. But I think we managed to make the most of what we had available because of the quality of the teachers. I think that was the critical factor at Williston.

IS: How did Williston prepare you for college? For the world?

JM: I think when I went to A&T, I was reading a standardized test at the 14th grade or the equivalent of a sophomore or junior in college, and my math skills were equally as sharp. I’ll take some credit for that, but some credit I’ll also put at the feet of the teachers at Williston who insisted that we perform to a measure of excellence.

IS: What do you think is the most important thing that you learned at Williston?

JM: It helped me develop a character, one that I was confident and capable of competing. Williston taught me that I needed to be a servant within my community and to do things for goodness’ sake, not just because you expect a reward of some type.

IS: Thank you so much for speaking with me, Joseph.

JM: Okay, you take care, Isabelle. 

This is part of our series on Williston Luminaries – Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Williston in Wilmington.