On the first day of school in 1957, a 15-year-old Charlotte girl wearing a dress made by her grandmother walked toward Harding High School with her new classmates.
The famous photographs from that day, 60 years ago Monday, show Dorothy Counts’ eyes resolutely fixed straight ahead. The eyes of most of her white classmates stared at Dorothy.
They screamed at the first black student to attend Harding, former Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson recounted a decade ago. They threw a stick, a chunk of ice, a balled-up milk carton her way. They spat on her red-and-yellow dress.
The Harding experiment didn’t last long. Teachers ignored Dorothy, students spit on her lunch and someone broke a window in her brother’s car when he came to take her home. Within a few days, her parents withdrew her from the school.
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Dorothy Counts-Scoggins is now 75, retired from Child Care Resources Inc., a nonprofit child care resource and referral agency. She’s still active in her community, Biddleville-Smallwood near Johnson C. Smith University, and speaks often to school groups.
She would endure it all again, Counts-Scoggins told the Observer this week. She laments that many black students in Charlotte attend schools with few whites, but said the Harding episode turned her into an advocate for children and started conversations about race. It also, she said, offered a lesson in forgiveness.
The conversation, edited for clarity and brevity:
Q: What do you most remember about that day?
A: When my father let me out of the car and the crowds of people that were there, and that I would have to walk almost two blocks to the auditorium rather than him dropping me off at the front door. Also the way I was received. It was just hard for me to realize at my age that people would treat me the way they did.
Q: Did you have any inkling what would happen?
A: None whatsoever. My parents knew that prior to that day they had gotten (threatening) calls, but I don’t think they anticipated upon my arriving at Harding that it would be that kind of reception.
Q: You had a look of utter serenity, but what was going through your head?
A: All I wanted to do was to focus on the door and to be able to get inside. My thought was that once I got on the inside, that what was happening on the outside would not continue, I’d be safe. I didn’t think my life was in jeopardy, and the physical harm that was caused didn’t hurt me as much as the taunts and the name-calling and the non-acceptance. It was hard for me to realize that anyone could do that to a child.
(My parents brought me up with) not only a sense of self-worth but they also brought us up to accept others. So I went into this knowing that there would be some challenges, but I never thought that the challenges would be that people would not accept me because I was different from them.
Q: How did the Harding experience affect your life?
A: Once I left Harding, I decided this was going to change my life. At 15 I decided that whatever I did in life, I was going to make sure this didn’t happen to any other child, and that’s the kind of work that I have done over the last 60 years.
Q: Would you go through it again?
A: I sure would. Somebody has to do it, and I’ve always felt that I was the one destined to do that. Because of the way I was raised, not only my parents but my grandparents played a leadership role and (taught that) if you want to see change happen you have to be part of the process. To me, it was a part of the process that needed to change, because morally segregation was wrong.
Q: Did the episode make you think of Charlotte differently?
A: No, because I came back to Charlotte after high school and made the choice to go to Johnson C. Smith. It was a time when things were beginning to change in Charlotte, not only around education, but people in 1960 to 1965 were beginning to come together and talking. I think what happened to me was an embarrassment to the people of Charlotte. People began coming together and having conversations about what needs to happen in Charlotte to make it a better place.
Q: What’s it like to be a civil rights icon?
A: I don’t see it as a burden, I see it as a way that goes back to who I am. It helps me to be able to help others, and that’s my goal. I consider myself an advocate, especially for those who don’t have an advocate. Whether it be a child, an adult, a family living in poverty, I call myself being a voice for them.
Q: How would you compare Charlotte’s racial climate now to 1957?
A: We’ve come a long way, if you look at the growth of Charlotte. Basically every day 40 new people arrive. I live in a neighborhood that is undergoing gentrification and 60 years ago we were separated – Biddleville was an African-American community and Smallwood was a white community. Now the two communities have combined. There are still a lot of issues we need to work on, but part of that has come because Charlotte has become so global. People are moving in from all over the world and they’re coming in not knowing the history of Charlotte in 1957, not only as it relates to education but as we move forward in terms of race relations and those kinds of things. So I still think we need to continue to come to the table and talk.
Q: How did the riots last year, after the police shooting of a black man, strike you?
A: People say, I can’t believe this happened in Charlotte. Well, I wasn’t surprised that it happened in Charlotte. I think probably what happened was that people didn’t realize the unrest that’s going on around a lot of different topics, and people have not been having those conversations that they had 20 and 30 years ago. (After the protests) I was part of an organization called Women’s Inter-Cultural Exchange and we did a five-week series in partnership with Covenant Presbyterian Church, Charlotte’s Wake-Up Call, and we averaged over five weeks probably 300 to 400 people coming together. That made me feel good, that people would come together and listen to each other about where we’re going next.
Q: How would you describe the state of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools?
A: Sixty years ago I attempted to walk into a school to change the system, and 60 years later it looks almost, in some ways, in some schools, the same way it did then. They’re not only segregated but some schools are under-resourced as well. I think I began to see this happen 10 years ago when they made some drastic changes. It started prior to that with the busing situation and school choice. It gradually grew because some of the schools were closed and a lot of changes were made that affected black children and the black community.
It makes me feel frustrated, but at the same time it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t at least try to continue to make a change. I speak out when I can and at least try to be able to be in conversations with people in terms of this is not right for Charlotte. Our schools really don’t look like our Charlotte communities in some ways.
Q: What do you tell children about your experience as a child?
A: I always say, when a person comes in this world, they’re not born with prejudice. My hope is that by going in and having those conversations with young people, they will understand that. I also talk about the importance of education. A lot of them are shocked because they don’t know history, they have no idea that these kinds of things happened. It’s hard for kids to understand how could you go through something like that and not strike back, so I talk to them about forgiveness. I say to them, just because they did it to me doesn’t make me any better a person by doing it back to them.
Q: What would 75-year-old Dot tell 15-year-old Dot?
A: I do a lot of mentoring. Basically I say to young people, it’s important that you accept who you are and believe in yourself. Anything you want to do, you can do, but it’s got to be something that you want and something you have to work at every day.