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Historical Overview of Second Ward High School

            Second Ward High School was a product of “the Golden Period of Negro Education in North Carolina. “In 1921, the state legislature created a Division of Negro Education to be part of the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.  Its purpose was providing better supervision of the Negro Schools.”[1]  From 1921 - 1927, this Division placed much importance on the need for creation of more “standardized four-year high schools”[2] and training of black teachers for them.

            The Charlotte Board of School Commissioners appointed a three-man committee in 1921 to consider a black high School in Charlotte and, “to canvas the situation looking toward the construction of a school building for Negroes in Second Ward.”[3]  A faculty member from the Tuskegee Institute was invited to Charlotte to determine what kind of school building would be needed.  “Early in 1922, one hundred fifty thousand dollars was appropriated for acquisition of land and building construction.  In seeming preparation, the city school Board added the tenth and eleventh grades to the local colored schools on May 25, 1922 and June 15, 1923, respectively.”[4]

            Second Ward was built and readied for students before the fall of 1923.  On the corner of 1st Street and Alexander Street now stood the first black public high school in the Charlotte area.  “No longer would blacks have to attend church schools or travel out of town to obtain a high school diploma.”[5]  The new school was a three-story building comprising “classrooms, laboratories, a library, Domestic Science and Domestic Art departments, a well equipped Manual Training shop and an auditorium.”[6]  The school was almost to capacity in its first year as a combination junior/senior high school that accepted six through eighth grade students from Myers Street School.

            “Leadership of the new ‘Second Ward School’ was placed into the capable hands of William H. Stinson, until that time Principal of Myers Street School, and prior to that, a faculty member of Johnson C. Smith University.  His was the monumental task of building a program from the ground up, despite restricted funds, limited resources, and reluctant support from the school board.”[7]  The primary curriculum offered during the schools early years consisted of English, Mathematics, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Foreign Languages.  Vocational courses were taught in the Domestic Arts and Sciences, primarily cooking and sewing, as well as in Manual Arts such as masonry.

            The Second Ward Herald, begun during the tenure of Mr. Stinson offers insight into the way students at Second Ward High School viewed their first principal.  The following statements come from the Second Ward Herald:

“Prof. Stinson seems more like a father . . .”[8]

 

“The attractiveness of his personality is indicated by the wholehearted support that is given him in all his undertakings, by the successful execution of his plans, and by the congenial relationship that exists between him and the student body and the public.”[9]

 

“Mr. Stinson has gained the confidence of all the students he has come in contact with and all know that he has worked for their good.  He loves Second Ward and the principles for which it stands.  If it were not for Me Stinson there are many successful young men and women who would not have their present station in life.”[10]

 

            Jefferson E. Grigsby, a graduate of Winston–Salem Teachers College, replaced Principal Stinson in the fall of 1931.  “Early in his administration, J.E. Grigsby emphasized the direction that he and all of Second Ward were headed – curriculum development and expansion.”[11]  This proved to be the hallmark of his twenty-six year administration at the school.

            Grigsby equated Second Ward students as travelers who were on a “journey” as they took their courses.  The ultimate destination was, of course, the high school diploma.  “Like the traveler,” he wrote to them, “they had to carefully plan their route and keep their goals firmly in mind, lest unexpected detours cause them to become lost or lose sight of their destination.”[12]

The school also grew significantly under his administration.  “The size of both the faculty and the student body more than doubled.  Attendance figures soared into the mid-90 percentile (one year, in fact, black school attendance figures in Charlotte exceeded those of whites.”[13]

Teachers at Second Ward were becoming better qualified as well under Grigsby’s administration, many possessing “A” level teaching certificates which were the highest level of competency for teachers.  “The school obtained accreditation in September of 1938.  During that same year came the announcement that the twelfth grade was to be added to Second Ward.”[14] Evening vocational courses came to Second Ward and taught a variety of classes in “clothing, catering & waiting, masonry, and practical nursing.”[15]  The school also instituted a work-study program during the 1940-1941 school year.  In May of 1941, the first class of twelfth grade seniors graduated from Second Ward.  “In November of 1944, a night school was opened on the Second Ward campus for returning World War II veterans.  Five years later, the veterans school would evolve into Carver College, a black counterpart to the two-year Charlotte College.  Also, in 1949, Second Ward’s first real gymnasium was completed in time for graduation ceremonies in May.”[16]  The school expanded even further during the 1955-1956 school year when a new wing was added to the main building, “housing the library, business education department, cafeteria, and band room.”[17]

Dr. Spencer E. Durante was Second Ward High School’s third principal who took over for J.E. Grigsby when he retired after the 1955-1956 school year.  “A true educator” is how Ernest Stanback, Assistant Principal at Second Ward High School from 1963 to 1966 remembers Durante.[18]  Like Grigsby, Durante continued to emphasize curriculum expansion and development.  “During his six years, he continued to upgrade the school by adding guidance counselors to the permanent staff, made additional improvements to the school campus, and placed great emphasis on classroom attendance and on student achievement.”[19]

The last principal of Second Ward High School was Elbert E. Waddell.  “During his six year term, Second Ward High School witnessed its first two white faculty members (1965).  During the next year, Second Ward became a full senior high school (grades ten through twelve).”[20] The year 1968 brought one more distinction to Second Ward:  The first and only white student in attendance, Elaine Hope Trew, “the daughter of a missionary to Brazil.”[21]

  

Campus Life and Student Teacher Relationships

            “On the surface, student life for the Tigers of Second Ward High School seemed fairly typical.  There was the school newspaper, The Second Ward Herald, and the yearbook, the Tiger; there was the Student Council and the National Honor Society; there was the marching band, the school plays, and the myriad other clubs and organizations that, over a period of forty-six years, one could have joined.[22]  Of course, there were also sporting events and pep rallies. After 1938 and the opening of West Charlotte High School, the second high school for blacks, a fierce rivalry emerged between them and Second Ward High School.  This cross-town rivalry culminated in the annual Queen City Classic football game. 

On the surface, Second Ward High School looked like any other typical high school.  However, “underneath this superficial sameness existed a markedly different reality.”[23]  A reality of segregation and “separate and unequal.”

Being black in the south during the era of Jim Crow automatically placed black students at a disadvantage with white students.  Segregation was enforced not only through social means (separate bathrooms, waiting rooms, seating at movies, redlining, etc.), but also through economic measures by denying blacks the opportunity to advance in white society.  In the same city, blacks and whites led very different lives.

“The opening of Second Ward High School in 1923, however, offered new opportunities and hope for the area’s black youngsters.  But equally as opportune were the new challenges waiting for the new Principal and his faculty.  Provided with a new building that was incompletely furnished, and inadequately stocked with second-hand textbooks and equipment, using teaching aids often built or paid for by the teachers themselves, the teachers at Second Ward were, by definition, true educators.”[24]  As Vermelle Diamond Ely, a graduate of the class of 1949, stated, these teachers “worked miracles on those kids.”[25]  Alumnus Cecilia Jackson Wilson (1926) remarked, “There was so little for black people to do.  If we didn’t teach or preach there was nothing else for us to do.”[26]  The teachers of Second Ward would go out of their way to instill self esteem and pride into their students, a fact not lost on Second Ward Alumni.  “They ‘molded our lives,’ recalled Joseph C. Champion (Class of 1934 who returned as a teacher in 1956.)”[27]

The teachers did not confine themselves to guiding young minds in the classroom; they also strove to guide the students in the community as well.  “Teachers often knew the parents of their students, and were intimately in touch with their home life.”[28]  Teachers could also be the only parents or disciplinarians that some students had.  Generally, parents, the community, and the students showed respect and confidence in their teachers.  “In the early years at Second Ward, many teachers even carried the title of Professor.”[29]  As Vermelle Diamond Ely recalled, the teachers “were looked up to” and parents wanted their children to emulate them.[30]  Most of the teachers lived in the same communities with their students, “Making their presence felt on a daily basis.  And the community shared the ‘high expectations’ of the teachers for the students, not only for their own children but for all children.”[31]

School activities at Second Ward High School supplemented academics and gave students practical application to their studies.  One of the most visible activities that reflected the hopes of the faculty for their students was seen in The Second Ward Herald, the school newspaper.

            “Begun in 1926, the Herald, besides carrying the usual stories of football victories and homeroom activities, was itself, an educational tool.  Its pages provided continual reminders of success and achievement, and the practical steps one needed to take to attain personal goals.  It spoke directly to each student’s Negro heritage and kept them current on Negro affairs across the country.”[32]  The Herald would sometimes print the names and occupations of Second Ward Alumni, “all to encourage and motivate.”[33]

            What did all this involvement student teacher involvement accomplish?  Mildred Alridge, a member of the class of 1924 remarked, “Enthusiastic students.”[34]  Vermelle Diamond Ely stated that the effort of the faculty for the students created, “a positive outlook” but “not a false outlook.  Optimism was high.”[35]  1969 graduate Celesta Shropshire McCullough, graduate of the last Second Ward High School class of 1969 concluded, “I was able to learn because there was an atmosphere to learn in.”[36]

 

Desegregation and the End of Second Ward High School

            The people who lived there knew the Second Ward area of Charlotte-Mecklenburg as “Brooklyn”.  However, the white leaders of the city viewed Brooklyn as nothing more than “a breeding ground for crime, devalued property, a diminished source of tax revenue, and a deterrent to attracting new business to the city.”[37]  In May of 1967, urban renewal plans were drafted to “revitalize” Second Ward but ultimately would eradicate the entire community. 

            “Originally, Second Ward School was to be modernized into a two million dollar, model secondary school, and re-open in the fall of 1970 as Metropolitan High School.”[38]  However, as courts began ordering desegregation, the plans to renovate the high school were halted.  “Despite eloquent protests from local black leaders of ‘broken promises’ and ‘putting the burden of desegregation on blacks,’ on July 31, 1969, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board voted to close Second Ward High School (and six other black schools) The school board also decided that black students would be bused to white schools in order to achieve integration.  Metropolitan High School was never built.”[39]

            Second Ward High School met its end by the wrecking ball.  “Joseph Champion, who watched Second Ward being built as a five-year old boy at Myers Street School only a block away, was on hand that final day to retrieve a souvenir brick or two and to look at his alma mater for the last time.”[40]  He remarked that how tough the old school was, as it resisted the first blows of the wrecking ball.  “The light bulbs didn’t even break.”[41]  Eventually though, the 12 inch thick walls of the building crumbled taking with it the memories and experiences of an entire community in Charlotte, all in the name of progress.

            “Today, all that remains of the Second Ward High School campus is the gymnasium and a former classroom building, both of which are now part of the Metro Center, a special educational facility for the mentally and physically handicapped students.”[42]  A historical marker, placed along Second Street, reminds the passerby of Second Ward High School and the history of blacks in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.  “But to former students and teachers, and even former Brooklyn residents, it is charged with fond memories of days gone by.  To them, it is a proud symbol of the sprit of Second Ward High School that is still alive today in the hearts of its alumni.”[43]

       


[1] Christopher M. Polzer, A Brief History of Second Ward High School, (Charlotte, N.C.:  Charlotte Mecklenburg Coalition of African American Research Associates, 1993) p. 3.

[2] Dennis Hargrove Cooke, The White Superintendent and the Nrgro Schools in North Carolina, (Nashville, T.N.:  George Peabody School for Teachers, 1930), p. 20.

[3] Minutes of the Regular Meeting of the Board of School Commissioners, City of Charlotte, 8 February 1921.

[4] Polzer, p. 4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Harry P. Harding, The Charlotte City Schools, (Charlotte, N.C.:  Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1966), p. 71.

[7] Polzer, p. 5.

[8] Second Ward Herald, May 1929.

[9] Second Ward Herald, January 1931.

[10] Second Ward Herald, May 1931.

[11] Polzer, p. 6.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Second Ward Herald, May 1940.

[16] Polzer, p. 6.

[17] The Tiger, (1966), p. 7.

[18] Interview with Ernest H. Stanback, Second Ward High School Principal from 1963 to 1966, by Christopher M. Polzer, November 12, 1991.

[19] Polzer, p. 7.

[20] Polzer, p. 7.

[21] The Tiger, (1968), p. 29.

[22] Polzer, p. 7.

[23] Polzer, p. 8.

[24] Polzer, p. 8.

[25] Interview with Vermelle Diamond Ely, Second Ward High School Class of 1949, by Christopher M. Polzer, November 7, 1991.

[26] Janice Smith, “They Tell the Love Story of Black School,” Charlotte News, December 9, 1976, p. 1-D.

[27] Polzer, p. 9.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Interview, Ely, November 6, 1991.

[31] Polzer, p. 10.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Interview with Mildred P. Alridge, Second Ward High School Class of 1924, by Christopher M. Polzer, November 4, 1991.

 

[35] Interview, Ely, November 6, 1991.

[36] Polzer, p. 11.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Polzer, p. 12.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Interview with Joseph C. Champion, Second Ward High School Class of 1934 by Christopher M. Polzer, November 13, 1991.

[42] Polzer, p. 12.

[43] Ibid.