A change of schools led to a change in attitude

BY DWAYNE WALLS JR., Guest Columnist
Posted 3/2/21

I received a letter a couple of weeks ago announcing the death of author and educator R.C. Smith at age 93. His widow, Kathryn, wrote to tell me he died peacefully, with family by his side; a virtual …

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A change of schools led to a change in attitude

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I received a letter a couple of weeks ago announcing the death of author and educator R.C. Smith at age 93. His widow, Kathryn, wrote to tell me he died peacefully, with family by his side; a virtual servce was held last Sunday.

R.C. authored two books of note during his career. In 1996 he published “A Case About Amy,” which told the story of one family’s fight for the rights of their disabled child. This story struck a chord with me since my sister is handicapped, but it’s also book I recommend for anyone who has a child in the public school system.

Back when he was known as Bob Smith, he published “They Closed Their Schools” (1965, UNC Press; reprinted to benefit the R.R. Moton Museum, 1996). The book chronicled the history of Prince Edward County, Virginia, after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision called for the desegregation of public schools. That county made the decision to defund its public school system rather than integrate, and R.C. reported on the consequences of that decision for both its Black and its white populations.

I was 8 years old when my family relocated to Chatham County from Charlotte. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where I had completed 1st and 2nd grades, were still segregated, but Chatham County Schools had been integrated for several years; I will never forget my 3rd grade class at Pittsboro Elementary because it was the first time I came face to face with Black children my age. To me they were nothing short of astonishing.

Mrs. Harwood was my 3rd grade teacher. She had gray hair pulled back in a bun so tight that her wrinkled, well-scrubbed white skin seemed stretched along with it. She wore dresses like my grandmother’s and she let us know right away that good boys and girls sure as fire did NOT come from monkeys. She taught us that God made the Earth for us and that we were responsible for mastering it. She started her Master Class by making us memorize all the books of the Bible, Old Testament and New. I can still rattle them off in order like a good boy.

She taught us there were 12 inches in a foot, and three feet in a yard. We learned this by counting out loud the numbers stamped on her wooden rulers. If we did not know our lessons, she rapped our knuckles. Mrs. Harwood also taught us how to square dance. I learned how to bow to my partner, allemande left, do si do, promenade, pass through, separate, and go home — all to the sound of old-timey barn dance music blaring from one of the school’s blue plastic record players. I reeled along with the rest of my 3rd grade class while the record went round and round.

Our rows of desks were split down the middle with girls nearer the windows and boys nearer the door. After a few weeks my young mind was satisfied that Black boys were the same as me, only darker, but I had no way to cross the aisle to talk to the Black girls. My crafty solution was to always ask one of the Black girls to be my partner for square dances, but no matter which girl I picked, Mrs. Harwood would have none of it: I had to pick a white girl. Not that I disliked white girls, but I was used to them. Black girls were a mystery to be solved, so when it came time to partner up, I always ended up with sore knuckles.

After Pittsboro Primary came Horton Middle, where young soul brothers-to-be wore their hair in afros — the taller the better. White guys like me wanted to be cool like Fonzie on TV. We had our plastic combs, but every Black guy’s back pocket had an afro pick with a clenched Black Power fist for a handle. After Horton I spent a couple of miserable years in a boarding school before returning home to graduate from Northwood High.

I made many friends in my decades away from peachy little Pittsboro, friends of all colors, and when I see them in my mind, I just see everyday people. I believe attending an integrated public school taught me this easy attitude toward race relations. I like to think R.C. Smith would have smiled and nodded at my theory of racial harmony.

I also like to think Mrs. Harwood would not have rapped my knuckles.

Dwayne Walls Jr. has previously written a story about his late father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and a first-person recollection of 9/11 for the newspaper. Walls is the author of the book “Backstage at the Lost Colony.” He and his wife Elizabeth live in Pittsboro.


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