At a high school that’s 85 percent African-American, it’s a given that you celebrate Black History Month in a big way.
But when Whitney Brown, a new English teacher at West Charlotte High, started planning, her vision escalated to a schoolwide project exploring the school’s starring role in the history of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
After weeks of student research and interviews, Brown brought seven alumni to school Tuesday to talk about the school’s history and future.
The teens know that the school board is talking about student assignment changes. They’ve heard people arguing about how to fix schools like theirs. They know all the labels: high poverty, resegregated, low performing.
But as Principal Timisha Barnes-Jones has been telling them all year – and as the parade of accomplished graduates emphasized – the school has plenty to be proud of.
“We said this year that we were going to rewrite the headlines, that we were going to bring back the pride in West Charlotte High School,” Barnes-Jones said as the students cheered.
Here’s a bit of what they heard:
The early years
Mable Latimer, class of 1952, said West Charlotte opened in 1938 at the building that now houses Northwest School of the Arts, about a mile down Beatties Ford Road from the current high school.
It was Charlotte’s second all-black high school – “we were called Negroes then” – and had the same principal for 28 years, she said. There were no buses, so everyone walked to school.
Latimer, who is 81 and volunteers at West Charlotte, talked about the pride that students, teachers and the westside community took in the Lions.
“The community was so involved,” she said. “West Charlotte was so popular.”
The Rev. Elliot Hipp, a Presbyterian minister and lawyer, recalled being one of the first white students bused to West Charlotte in 1973, after a judge had ruled that the district’s slow steps toward desegregation weren’t enough.
Whites suddenly became the majority – the court-ordered goal was 60 percent, reflecting the district average – but the school remained deeply rooted in black culture, from the cheers to the way the band performed, Hipp said.
“As you can imagine, it was a very strange experience to be taken out of one place and sent to another,” he said. “What we had to figure out was how are we going to be together as a mixture of folks who weren’t used to being together.”
Timothy Gibbs, who graduated in 1978, said the change was jarring to black students as well. Like Hipp, Gibbs said the races remained separate at first, but finally made friends. Both men said that experience prepared them for college and adult life.
As students worked things out in the classrooms and hallways, national media zeroed in on West Charlotte High as an example of successful desegregation in the South, while cities such as Boston were still battling over the issue.
“We were part of a social experiment,” said Gibbs, a transportation planner for the city of Charlotte. “We didn’t see immediately the benefit to our community, but years after, we could see it was a good thing.”
Back to black
Tori Scarborough, class of 1997, remembers watching “Lean on Me,” a 1989 movie about a failing urban school abandoned by white families.
“I remember thinking that will never happen here,” she said, “because Charlotte got it right.”
But by the time she attended West Charlotte, white flight had begun, fueled partly by racial tension on the faculty over whether black students were being denied access to high-level classes. It accelerated soon after her graduation, when white parents sued to end race-based assignment.
Scarborough, a lawyer who has worked for the federal government and President Barack Obama’s campaign, blames the change on newcomers who didn’t understand Charlotte’s history.
“We lost who we are at our core, at our foundation,” she said. “We need to be intentional again in 2016 as we reintegrate.”
In the past 15 years the number of mostly black and high-poverty schools has soared. This year, CMS has 45 schools where white students make up no more than 5 percent of the student body. At West Charlotte, 99 percent of students are nonwhite, and most come from low-income homes.
The school board is trying to decide whether that’s acceptable, and if not, how to change it.
Katie Holman Hughes, a PhD chemist and entrepreneur who graduated in 1999, told the students it’s important to get to know people from different backgrounds.
“Push yourself,” urged Hughes, who is white, “because in the next couple of years it’s going to be a bit of a struggle.”
Justin Perry, a therapist who graduated in 1999, co-chairs the advocacy group OneMeck, which is pushing for greater school diversity. But when he was asked about the future, he didn’t talk about school board decisions.
He recalled how he and his classmates had worked to “reclaim the pride” in the face of negative reports that were buffeting the school even then.
“It’s not about anybody out there, what anybody writes,” Perry said. “It’s about what happens in here. Rally around each other.”