A new audio archive: Exploring voices of the Williston community, gathered by local high schoolers
The 4th of July weekend holds special significance for the Williston community — a time for class reunions and gatherings of alumni of the all-Black Wilmington high school. To help recognize the occasion, WHQR presents stories from a newly created archive, featuring the voices of Williston alumni interviewed by local high school students.
Williston officially closed its doors in 1968, but former students remember the school as a place where you knew caring teachers and staff were there to challenge you academically.
While long-term residents of the Cape Fear region likely know some of these stories, they can now be heard in a new way, thanks to the work of Christine McDow.
McDow is a native of Wilmington, who attended New Hanover County Schools from kindergarten to 10th grade. She recently graduated from Middlebury College and wrote her thesis entitled, “Listen Witness Amplify: On the Ongoing Legacy of School Segregation by Law in Eastern North Carolina.”
One of the main components of her thesis was creating a two-week summer social justice program in 2019. McDow received grants from both the Davis Foundation's Projects for Peace and the Kellogg Endowment for the Humanities, which allowed eight local high school students to participate.
Part of this program was to have them interview 20 Black elders in the community who attended segregated schools.
She said through the youth’s interactions and stories with the Williston elders, she'd hoped they'd “reclaim their history”, and that through this history, they’d be able to contextualize the struggles that the Black community continues to face in education.
Here are excerpts from the students’ interviews with some of the Williston elders:
Being Part of the Williston Community
“Well, I think a lot of it is what happens in the home prior to your schooling. By the time you get to high school, you're just so excited about being there. Most of us had parents who also attended that school. My mother, Catherine B. Ennett graduated in the class of 1935. My father was a student there as well. And they instilled in us a desire to learn, the desire to persevere. And so they explained that we had to have respect for our teachers -- and that started in kindergarten. So it was just an environment where you wanted to be every day. You never wanted to miss a day, if you didn't feel well, you would just feel so bad because you couldn't go to school -- that was the impetus. It was just a wonderful place to be.”
“The climate was fantastic because you were somebody; you had to perform to be somebody -- it didn't matter where you came from - some people segregated [sic] against you and some didn’t. You had the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to be who you wanted to be.”
“The biggest thing in the neighborhood was the kids waiting to get to Williston, to graduate from Williston, once graduated from Williston, you were big time. And all the little kids wanted to play football, be in the band and graduate from it, so it’s something we looked forward to.”
“It was the actual best time of my life. Anybody who doesn’t enjoy school and doesn’t know that it’s the best days of their lives, they have serious problems. When I look back, I would go to school right now. The best days of my life because we got to socialize with everyone we knew. We got to know everyone at school. We got to know everyone in the community. Williston was like a family.”
“They let you know who was in charge, but they seemed to really care for you as a person and try to make sure that you learn that you would move further in life.”
“Our teachers really cared about the students. Our teachers dressed in suits. They didn’t look like the students. They dressed in suits; they were well-respected in the community. And if they had a problem with you or your homework wasn’t done, the teacher would come to your house. They went to your house. You respected the teachers; you didn’t talk back to the teachers.”
“Every Thanksgiving there was a ‘Turkey Bowl’, I don’t know when it stopped, even after Williston closed, and I don’t know the reason why it stopped. I think it’s because Willistonians got too old to play. So it was a football game between the lower side and the south side, at some point they had cheerleaders and everything.”
On Lack of Resources between the white & Black schools
“Even though we were given the hand-me-down books or whatever, it was the educators that we had there that made sure that you were not only prepared to just graduate but prepared for life, whether you went into the military, the workforce, or onto higher education, it prepared you to go out to whatever the real world had out there for you.
So you learned to adapt, so you learned how to deal with challenges and how to cope with them. They inspired in you self-confidence. There were things that were required of us, coming out of Williston that wasn’t required at other schools. For example, everyone had to understand the Canterbury Tales -- and you could tell whether they were from Williston.”
“New Hanover High was the high school for them and Williston was the high school for us. We didn’t play them in sports at all. We were just like a separate entity. We got their leftover books. We never got the new books.”
“Well, back then, things were done overtly, now they’re done covertly.”
The Closure of Williston, Lost History, & Moving Forward...
“For many years, I harbored bitterness toward a lot of people in the Black community. For them to do what they did, we had Black principals or whatever, they just stuck them aside in leadership in the new schools, so they had to allow that to happen to them, so I guess it was a different time.”
SM: “We were too young, our parents should have done something. We were just children. Our parents should have done something. I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, I can say as a parent, if it had happened to my children, they would have seen me at the board of education.”
Student, Sam Garrett: “So do you know what happened to the children that did not get to finish high school? Where did they go in terms of finishing their education?”
SM: “What are you talking about when Williston closed? They went to New Hanover and Hoggard. There were only two high schools. Laney came later.”
Program Director, Christine McDow: “So if I'm not mistaken, the building for Williston was actually a newer building than the building for Hanover?”
SM: “Yes, ma'am, it was going to have to be redistricted and a whole lot of people who were in the Wilmington city limits -- a whole lot of white people were going to have to go to Williston - that’s why.”
CM: “What’s the problem with that?”
SM: “The problem was that they mommy and daddy didn't want them to go to Williston.”
EP: “Did you know about it?”
Student: “I didn’t until we came to this program.”
EP: “Because you don’t see a thing anywhere. You grew up here, right?”
Student: “Yes, M’am.”
EP: “Ok, did you know about it? Did they tell you about it in school?”
Student: “No, M’am.”
EP: “I think that should have been something that was told to us. But I had to look like a dummy sitting in front of my professor, but I got a bunch of books after that. But my grandmother was right in the stuff that she said. I did see in the paper, I want to say a few years ago, that they said 60 Blacks were killed. My grandmother said that ‘young boys were walking down the street and they just killed them.’ The paper said, 60 people got killed, my grandmother said, ‘the Cape Fear River was called the blood river because more than 60 people got killed.’ But that’s not on the record, on the record it says 60. And I remember that I was like, ‘Oh.’”
Student: “It’s like home away from home [Williston], when you leave your house, you still feel like you’re respected and you still feel like you’re cared about.”
WE: “I can say in preparation for life, it was the same thing when I went away to school. It was people there that came through the same type of environment, so it was just a continuum.”
Student: “I definitely wish I could have attended Williston during that time to experience that because we do not experience that now in school.”
WE: “No, it was a totally different set-up then.”
Frederick Douglass’ speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth”; NPR’s Coverage of Douglass’ descendants reading his speech