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What is the history of Williston High School?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

 New Hanover County’s historic African-American high school during the segregation era traced its origins to a freedmen’s school that opened in 1866 on Seventh Street between Nun and Church streets, operated for newly freed slaves by the American Missionary Society.

It was named for Samuel Williston (1795-1874), described as “a Massachusetts gentleman of philanthropic tendencies.” Williston, who had made his fortune as a manufacturer of buttons and suspenders, supported a range of religious and educational causes.By 1868, the school had 127 students in its grammar class and 100 in its primary class. The teacher, Laura Noble, had six assistants, according to contemporary sources.

In 1873, the American Missionary Society sold the school to the Wilmiington Board of Education for $3,000. The previous all-white faculty were replaced by black teachers. In 1874, Mary Washington Howe joined the faculty of Williston Graded School. She became principal in 1880, a post she would hold until her death in 1900 at the age of 46. Praised for her ability, efficiency and faithfulness, she expanded the curriculum to eight grades. Mary Washington Howe School, now the Howe Pre-K Center, was named in her honor.

In 1914, the Board of Education awarded a $15,000 contract to Robert Henderson Brady to build a new Williston school at Tenth and Church streets. Opened on Feb. 1, 1915, it was renamed Williston Primary and Industrial School — a reflection of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy that black youth needed to be trained in useful manual trades.

D.C. Virgo, who had studied at A&M College in Greensboro and Tuskegee Institute, was appointed the first principal. A specialist in horticulture and agricultural education,  Virgo gradually added grades to the curriculum, including a 12th grade in 1923; in that year, Williston was accredited as a high school. (D.C. Virgo Middle School would later be named for the hardworking principal.) Annexes were added in 1922 and 1925 and courses in the building trades, including carpentry, bricklaying and plastering, were added in 1925.

By 1929, enrollment had reached 963 students, and Williston was found to be grossly overcrowded by state standards. Accordingly, the Board of Education awarded a ontract for a new, three-story school building on June 5, 1930. This new Williston Industrial High School was occupied on Jan. 16, 1933.

On May 6, 1936, however, a fire originating in a trash chute totally destroyed the new, $165,000 building; a newspaper account at the time noted that “All of the 1,200 students in the building at the time of the (fire) alarm marched in an orderly manner from the building and stood at attention until they were dismissed. None was injured.” A replacement building, designed by Leslie N. Boney (who also designed much of New Hanover High School) and reported to be closely identical to the previous building, was completed on Sept. 13, 1937. Auto mechanics classes were added the following year.

Williston functioned as a major social center for Wilmington’s black community; as William M. Reaves noted in “Strength Through Struggle,” it was the site of many public concerts, lectures and other programs. Its mascot was the Tiger and its football, basketball and baseball teams won numerous state titles among African-American schools — notably, a hard-fought state football championship in the 1955-56 season. The school band drew statewide attention, performing at the Fayetteville State homecoming in 1939.

A school tradition was the “Williston bun,” a cinnamon pastry developed by teacher Irene Mack and sold during lunch period as a fundraiser.

By all accounts, academic standards at Williston were high for the period; alumni praised it regularly as “the greatest school under the sun.” Facilities clearly lagged, however, and in 1951, two African-American physicians, Dr. Hubert A. Eaton and Dr. Daniel C. Roane filed a lawsuit against the county on behalf of their children. Intriguingly, three years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Eaton and Roane based their arguments on Plessy vs. Ferguson, using side-by-side photographs and statistics to demonstrate that Williston and other black-only schools in New Hanover County were unequal to those of their white counterparts.

Accordingly, the Board of Education authorized a new, extensively improved Williston Senior High School, which opened at 410 S. Tenth St., Wilmington [Map this], in 1954. (The old Williston building became Gregory Elementary School.) High standards prevailed, and the school chorus, under instructor Constance O’Dell, regularly embarked on multi-state tours and appeared on a nationwide Christmas telecast.

In 1968, however, after a federal judge overturned New Hanover County’s “freedom of choice” desegregation plan, the Board of Education, with relatively little debate, voted to close Williston (which became a middle school). Being just a few blocks apart, Williston and New Hanover were too close to be justifiable (John T. Hoggard, the county’s third high school, had opened in 1967.) White, authorities, however, never seriously considered closing New Hanover High School, even though its aging building dated from the 1920s.

The closing, and the loss of proud school traditions, caused controversy in the black community. Although some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Eaton regarded the loss of Williston as a painful necessity on the path to equality, Golden Frinks of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would denounce the move as “an act of destruction against the black community.” Ill will over the closure would simmer for the next three years, boiling over into race riots in early 1971 which led to the “Wilmington 10″ case.

Williston alumni remained intensely loyal, organzing annual reunions and other events. A Williston Alumni Choral Ensemble, directed by Constance O’Dell, performed frequently for many years, including a December 1994 recital at the White House in Washington. As New York Times writer Peter Applebome remarked in his 1996 book “Dixie Rising,” “For a school that closed in 1968, Williston … seems amazingly alive today.”

Among notable Williston alumni:

*  jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath (class of 1943);

* Althea Gibson, a tennis star who became the first African-American woman to win the Grand Slam (1949);

*  basketball star Meadow “Meadowlark” Lemon, a longtime star of the Harlem Globetrotters (1952);

* Joseph A. McNeil, one of the organizers of the historic Greensboro “sit-in” demonstrations of 1960, later a major general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and a ranking official in the Federal Aviation Administration (1959);

*  Katherine B. Moore, a former Wilmington City Council member and mayor pro tempore (1959);

* singer Phil Terrell of the Manhattans (1961);

* Superior Court Judge Ernest Fullwood (1962);

* lawyer and civic leader Peter Grear (1962);

*  Phillip L. Clay, professor of city planning and chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1964); 

* Joseph McQueen Jr., New Hanover County sheriff 1982-2000 (1965).

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2 Responses to “ What is the history of Williston High School?”

  1. On June 6, 2010 at 11:44 am Sonja B. Green wrote:

    Please add:
    Dr. Phillip L. Clay, the Chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Professor of City Planning, Williston Class of 1964.



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