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“Mama, I’m gonna be a Martin Luther King. All the other children are afraid to go to Shallotte High School, but I’m gonna go, Mama. I’m gonna go to that school.”
Barbara Hewett remembers these historic words her son Reginald spoke more than 40 years ago when he decided to be one of the first black students in the county to integrate at Shallotte High School.
After graduating from Cedar Grove Elementary School, students went to Union High School, the historically black school. But in 1965, black students were given the option of attending Shallotte High School, a school that had been historically white until that year.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954 following the Brown v. Board of Education. Public schools were then ordered to proceed to integrate “with all deliberate speed.”
Black students first integrated public schools in North Carolina on Sept. 4, 1957, in Greensboro, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. It wasn’t until 1970 that schools statewide were completely integrated.
Reginald Hewett, Adell Bernard, Levi Grissett, Cerita Johnson, Reecie Rogers, Sandra-Galloway Robinson, Jelta Bryant, Ellis Bryant and Margaret Simmons were among the first black students to integrate in Brunswick County, Hewett said.
Reginald did not encounter hardly any racism, but Hewett recalls one incident where he was picked on simply because he was black.
“One day he was out playing football, and one of the little boys said something ugly to him. He said, ‘I’m gonna make you swim that puddle.’ But another white boy stuck up for him and said, ‘If you make him swim that puddle, I’m gonna swim that puddle, too.’ And no one really bothered him after that,” Hewett said.
Integration was easier for Reginald, as Hewett brought up her children to be accepting of people of all colors.
“We never held hate, that was one thing,” she said. “We were taught that the people who are existing now haven’t had anything to do with slavery. If those people who were slave masters were here now, there might be a problem.”
Hewett experienced integration for herself as she began teaching at Bolivia High School in 1970 and was the first black teacher at the school.
“There was another teacher, and she saw that I didn’t get killed, so she thought it was safe to come,” Hewett recalled with a chuckle.
Although her son never experienced physical violence, Hewett saw it happen once inside school walls.
“I didn’t know about any fighting until I became a teacher, but those children would fight, black against white,” she said. “The principal would have to roll up his sleeves and fight right along with the other children.”
Hewett was even the victim of racism behind the closed doors of the teachers’ lounge, but it was only the brush-off, never negative words. Despite trying times, Hewett said she kept a positive attitude and knew acceptance would come with time.
“It didn’t get me down,” she said. “I brought love to the table, and it wasn’t long before love had done its perfect work.”
Over the years, teachers and administration were instrumental in helping students accept one another.
“We were proactive,” she said. “I do believe it was because of the teachers that it didn’t get any worse than it did. In my opinion, race relations have just grown so much. I’m just so glad as to how the races have learned to tolerate each other.”
Life before integration
Long before the days of integration, Cora Greene remembers starting school in 1941 at Brunswick County Training School in Southport, the only black school in the county at that time. Greene said there was also a black school in Whiteville. Students who did not live close enough to walk to either school stayed with a nearby family during the week and went home to their own families on weekends.
Brunswick County Training School served students in grades 1 through 12. Students learned regular subjects in addition to participating in extracurricular activities like choir and sports. Devotion was held every Friday, and the principal made sure every student knew the important Bible verses.
“Ecclesiastes [3:1], ‘There’s a time and a place for everything.’ That sticks with me,” Greene said.
Attending a segregated school was just “what you did,” Greene said, as students had no other choice.
“We had hurt feelings, but we worked on it,” she said. “My grandfather would walk down there to the town meetings, school board meetings [lobbying for integrations]. He was fighting, and we all kept fighting,” Greene said.
Greene graduated in 1954 with integration nowhere in sight for Brunswick County Schools. She went on to attend Community Hospital School of Nursing, where she found herself in another segregated class.
It was 1966 when Greene experienced integration when she began work at Dosher Memorial Hospital in Southport as a nurse in labor and delivery. Despite having medical certification, Greene had more to prove than some of the other nurses.
“There was a man who told me he didn’t want a black nurse in the room with his wife. I said, ‘Sir, do you know what you’re saying to me? You don’t understand, one of these days, you’re going to apologize for the way you’re looking at it. We are all human,’” she said.
“I just prayed and asked the Lord to forgive that fool who didn’t know what he was talking about,” she said. “We got a lot of people who don’t understand.”
Greene said she recently saw the man at a local meeting, and he apologized for his racist behavior decades earlier.
“I have to go on my knees to ask for forgiveness for some of the things I say, just like we all do,” Greene said.
Overcoming racism, promoting integration and continuing education in Brunswick County proved to be a lifelong mission for Greene, as she was one of the original steering committee members who helped to bring Brunswick Technical Institute, now Brunswick Community College, to the county.
“I wanted to get a college over here. I said, ‘Why are we sending money to the other counties? We need the money over here in Brunswick for our people. People can do some teaching and it could help our people. We keep passing it onto others, and that’s how things get going.’”