‘This is a new day’: With 5th-graders, she retraces the steps from infamous photo

Dorothy Counts-Scoggins is all too familiar with the walk down North Irwin Avenue.

As the first black student to integrate Harding High School, she faced trash, spit and racial slurs from a hostile crowd of white classmates while approaching the school on her first day in 1957.

The scene, captured in an infamous Observer photograph now framed in her house, remains one of Charlotte’s most shameful instances of racism — and a potent, painful memory she said will always be a part of her life.

But on Friday, Counts-Scoggins retraced that walk to a very different response from the crowd: As two black fifth-graders escorted her to the building now home to Irwin Academic Center, hordes of elementary schoolers chanted her name. They carried banners that said, “You are welcome here now,” and “We love you.”

One poster added another meaning to their chants: “You Count.”

“That day was not a good day for me, but that day will always be a part of my life,” Counts-Scoggins said. “This is a new day... It says to me that everything I endured here at Harding has made a mark on two young women.”

Irwin students Maya McClain, 10, and Morgan Winston, 11, had organized the walk as part of a Girl Scouts project to honor Counts-Scoggins right beside the building where she had once faced so much hate.

“We wanted her to walk away knowing that we all love her, not hate her,” Morgan said, “that we welcome her, not wish she belonged somewhere else.”

Don Sturkey photographed Dorothy Counts for The Charlotte Observer on the day she integrated Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 1957. She faced insults along the way from angry whites. DON STURKEY Charlotte

A bench and a back story

Maya had first heard about Counts-Scoggins three years ago, from a friend and coworker of her mother’s who had also attended Irwin.

Curious and inspired by the story, she grew even more excited when she saw Counts-Scoggins — and a piece of Charlotte history — featured in an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

But Maya was surprised to see that not much had been done to commemorate that legacy at her school, where Counts-Scoggins had walked the halls for four days before the insults and attacks led to her transferring to an integrated school in Pennsylvania.

“We want her to feel celebrated for what she did,” Maya told the Observer. “We don’t want her to think of Irwin as a bad place.”

Since that infamous photograph was taken, Harding High School moved to a new campus in west Charlotte, with a library named in honor of Counts-Scoggins.

At the site where it all took place, though, there were few signs honoring Counts-Scoggins’ legacy — even as she made periodic, impromptu visits to the steps where she had been pelted with verbal and physical attacks.

So as the core part of the project, Maya and Morgan secured a donation from Lowe’s for a bench besides the steps, in a shady patch of soil where Counts-Scoggins could come back for those visits.

“Her bravery in the face of brutal racism helped bring down racial barriers,” Maya said during the dedication ceremony, “so now I can climb these same steps.”

When she heard about their plan, Counts-Scoggins said she burst into tears.

“It says to me that all the work that I have done through the years is paying off,” she said. “This is a generation that has chosen to do this, and to do it on their own.”

Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, center, is escorted to Irwin Academic Center by students and Girl Scout Troop 569 members Morgan Winston, left and Maya McClain, right in Charlotte, NC on Friday, May 31, 2019. On September 4, 1957, the scene was much different when Counts-Scoggins was one of four black students enrolled at various all-white schools in the Charlotte district. Irwin Academic Center was then Harding High School. Counts-Scoggins was harassed, taunted and spit on in 1957 but on Friday, May 31, 2019 she walked back down the hill to the school to chants of Dorothy....Dorothy...Dorothy. A bench was presented to Counts-Scoggins outside the school with a name plate honoring her role in the Civil Rights movement. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Reliving history

The school’s principal, Vanessa Ashford, said she was not familiar with Counts-Scoggins’ story until Maya and Morgan came to her with their idea.

Growing up in rural Wilson County in eastern North Carolina, Ashford also helped integrate her high school around 1970. But unlike Counts-Scoggins, Ashford was one of several African-Americans to enter what had been an only white school.

“I felt a kinship,” Ashford said, but “I felt for her in coming here alone. I don’t think I could have done that. I would have been too scared.”

Counts-Scoggins, who later went on to work as an advocate for young children in nonprofit childcare services, said she was disappointed to have to leave Harding after just four days there.

After the superintendent and the police refused to provide protection, her parents took her out of Harding. They wanted to send her to an integrated school — one where she wouldn’t face the same kind of harassment.

“For me, I feel as if I failed,” she said.

Decades after that incident, Charlotte was praised as a national example for school integration. But Counts-Scoggins warned that racial breakdowns in schools have become too similar to the segregated schools of her day.

School boundary changes in more recent years, and comments from some parents at school board meetings, she said, have left her feeling as if her work isn’t done.

“In 2019, I’m reliving something in this city the same way it was in 1957,” she said.

This year, though, May 31 was proclaimed as Dorothy Counts-Scoggins Day.

At Irwin, elementary students spent the day watching videos about the incident and decorating posters for her arrival. They had broken off into circles to discuss the best strategies for correcting that piece of Charlotte’s history.

Their first big opportunity came as Maya and Morgan, in Girl Scout uniforms, walked hand-in-hand with their hero. Counts-Scoggins’ red blouse was the same color as the handmade plaid dress that had been spat on 62 years ago.

But all she heard were cheers.

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