When Dorothy Counts-Scoggins walked into Harding High School in 1957, she was looking for a better education.
Instead, she said, she was pushed, spat on, called racial slurs and relegated to the back of the classroom, where teachers and administrators ignored her.
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Counts-Scoggins, now 72, was one of four African-American students who were part of the integration of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 1957. On Sunday, she talked about her experiences to a congregation of about 50 people at Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church during a sermon titled “A Journey in My Life to Change America.”
“As a 15-year-old, starting a new journey in my life to be one of four students in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools System to change the course of education in this country was a daunting experience,” Counts-Scoggins said Sunday.
She said her family prayed for her in the days leading up to her first day at Harding. “I remember the words of my father that morning: ‘You can do anything you want to do, and no one can stand in your way,’ ” she said.
She found the determination to walk to school that first day from her father’s words, the support of her loved ones and her own inner strength, Counts-Scoggins said.
“I continued to walk with dignity, remembering that I was not alone,” she said. “I carried the love and support of my family and the African-American community. I truly believed that I was doing what was right, and I was inferior to no one.”
But she recalled how a crowd of hundreds of people followed her on the first day of school, throwing ice, rocks, sticks and even milk cartons at her back. Many spat on her as well, she said.
“I was in awe that I would be denied the opportunity to pursue the education that I so desired but also was entitled to as an American citizen,” she said.
Inside the school was not much different, she said, noting that many students continued to taunt her, and staff ignored her. Some students spat in her food at lunch.
Perhaps what stung even more, Counts-Scoggins said, was when another new student at the school befriended her, only to ignore her the next day.
“As quickly as the flame of hope was ignited, it was extinguished,” she said. “The very next day, as we passed in the hallway, my newfound friend ignored me. Our eyes met and she looked away. Guilt and discomfort were displayed all over her face.“
Counts-Scoggins said she understood the other girl’s behavior “deep down,” noting the social pressures to keep the races separate at that time.
After lunch on the fourth day of school, her family withdrew Counts-Scoggins from Harding after threats of violence to her family increased.
She finished the year at an integrated public school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where she lived with an aunt and uncle, she said. Then she attended a private boarding school for girls in Asheville and graduated from there in 1960.
Though she left school on her fourth day, she does not believe her time at Harding was in vain, she said, but she saw that “I was ahead of my time.”
Counts-Scoggins, who has dedicated her life to enriching the lives of others through social work and early child development, encouraged attendees to “join me as I continue this journey to ensure that we all live in a world of love, tolerance and acceptance of others.”
Some of those who heard Counts-Scoggins’ talk said it was eye-opening. “I grew up in New England, so the civil rights movement seemed far away and distant,” Steve Cooke said. “It was America, but it was not the America I knew.”
He noted that the most poignant part of her story was when she described “being 15 and having other students spitting on her and vilifying her for just being who she was. That’s such a tender age.”
Ilene McFarland said Americans can still learn from Counts-Scoggins’ story. “You should have courage in the face of conflict if someone does not agree with your ideas,” she said. “Have courage and stand tall.”
Cooke said he believes there is still a lot of work left to do.
Pointing to recent racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City, he said, “we’ve still got a long way to go, and it still takes courage.”