From Observer archives (2007): Dorothy Counts at Harding High, a story of pride, prejudice

Editor’s note: This story by former Charlotte Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson was first published on Sept. 2, 2007.

Look at this picture.

What do you see?

Maybe it depends on who you are.

This picture was taken the morning of Sept. 4, 1957 - almost exactly 50 years ago. That week four black students integrated the Charlotte schools. Three of the four made it to class peacefully. The fourth was Dorothy Counts at Harding High.

That’s Dorothy in the middle, headed for Harding’s front door. She’s 15 years old. Her grandmother made that red-and-yellow dress. Dorothy’s grandmother always made her a new dress for the first day of school.

The dress has spit on it.

The crowd has followed her all the way down the block. Every so often, something flies toward her: a stick, a chunk of ice, a balled-up milk carton. The students scream at her to go back home.

This picture is famous. It ran on the front page of the Observer and was published all over the world. You can read so much in the eyes, the faces, even the clothes - look at that bow on Dorothy’s dress, pointing up at her face like an arrow.

Still, in this frozen moment you can’t quite tell who’s doing what. Stare as long as you want but you can’t see all the way inside, can’t tell who’s leading the charge and who’s just watching.

But some people know.

And some of them still live scattered around Charlotte. Ronnie Hall. Marty Wilson. Woody Cooper. Dorothy Counts herself. (These days she goes by Dot Counts-Scoggins.)

They’re all retired or closing in on it, chasing grandkids and nursing creaky knees, yet they have sharp-focused memories of a single day from 50 years ago.

They see something in this picture that nobody else does.

They see themselves.

Hundreds of students waiting

Ronnie Hall holds the picture in his hands and says: “Oh, God, what a mess that was.”

See that telephone pole, square in the middle of the picture? That’s Ronnie directly in front of it, a dark-haired eighth-grader looking down and away.

Now he’s 64. For years he owned Austin Canvas & Awning Co., and he still keeps an office there. He’s a deacon in his church, teaches Sunday school. But back then he was - his words - a punk. In the picture it looks as if Ronnie is trying to get out of the crowd. But he’ll be in the middle of it, all morning long.

On a typical day there wouldn’t have been a dozen kids out front. But now there were hundreds. Harding had 1,400 students, down to the seventh grade, and it seemed like half the school was out there.

Ronnie and his buddies knew how the world worked. They saw the water fountains marked COLORED, the black men sent around back at restaurants, the black families barred from Freedom Park.

To him, at the time, it made sense. Black people belonged somewhere different. Not at Harding High.

Later that morning he and his friends got in a rock fight with a group of black people who had come to watch. Then they found the car Dorothy had gotten out of. They circled it, rocked it, tried to tip it over.

“We were mean, “ he says now. “Just mean boys. No other way to say it.”

It’s as clear in his mind as the day it happened, that day he’s so ashamed of, and he remembers above all else the voice in the crowd at the beginning of it all, the words that let him know Dorothy Counts had arrived:

Here comes that nigger.

‘We didn’t want her there’

The truth is, at first they weren’t sure.

Nobody seemed to know her name, much less what she looked like. Then somebody pointed out the girl looking down from the top of the hill. Light-skinned enough that you couldn’t tell from a distance if she was black. Tall, straight-backed, wearing that new dress.

Marty Wilson looked up the hill and thought: That’s an attractive lady.

Marty looked fairly sharp himself that day. Go back to the picture and look to the left. See the guy in the button-down shirt, khaki pants, right arm raised to his chest? That’s Marty.

These days he’s newly retired from his job at a company that makes grinding wheels. He’s also spent 20-some years with the Red Fez Shrine Club; he and his wife have a house in town and a little place at the club on Lake Wylie.

In ‘57 he spent most of the summer cutting tobacco at an uncle’s farm in the mountains. When he got home he stopped by Condor’s Soda Shop, a few blocks from the Harding campus. The kids were buzzing with rumors about a black student coming to school.

Harding was hard on any new kid. It had a jeans-and-boots reputation, bumping and shoving in the hallways, fights in the dust under the oak trees.

As Sept. 4 approached, most students figured a black kid would never show up.

One might, though. And Marty and his buddies couldn’t stand it.

Now, 50 years later, he tries to explain. He takes a long look over the lake before he comes up with the words.

“The peer pressure was just unbelievable, “ he says. “I can understand why teenagers do what they do, because I felt it back then. You do things that, looking back, you can’t believe you did. All we knew was that she was different from us and we didn’t want her there.”

He doesn’t remember what he yelled at her. He could barely hear his own voice.

News reports ran quotes. A woman identified as Mrs. John Z. Warlick - an officer in the White Citizens’ Council - ran down the street yelling: “Spit on her, girls! Spit on her!”

Somebody else screamed: “Go back to Africa, burrhead!”

Look at the picture and now add the soundtrack. And crank it up: Marty remembers how God-awful loud it was, all that fear and rage coming from deep in those teenage lungs.

But do you notice how many people are smiling?

Look again at that cluster of kids. Listen to the roar. It’s a pep rally.

It’s a picture of a twisted pep rally, right before the Big Game, all those high school kids sending a message to this lonely member of the opposing team:

Go home.

Recruiting families, children

She went by Dot, even back then. Nobody but her father called her Dorothy.

But look at the picture. Her name is Dot but she grew up all straight lines, already 5-101/2, as tall as she would ever get. The year before, at Northwest Junior High, she played basketball, sang in the chorus, made lots of friends.

But she also kept noticing her schoolbooks. They were torn and tattered. Scribbled inside were the names of kids she’d never heard of at other schools. The white schools. When the white kids had worn out the books, Dot and her friends got the hand-me-downs.

The Supreme Court had outlawed segregated schools three years before, in 1954, but Southern states were fighting it hard. On Sept. 3, four boys and a girl integrated the schools in Greensboro. That night - the night before Dot went to Harding - Gov. Luther Hodges said in a speech that any substantial mixing of the races would destroy the public school system.

In Charlotte, the NAACP had recruited black families to volunteer their children. Dozens accepted. But the Charlotte school board rejected nearly all the applications. Just four black children went to white schools in Charlotte that year. There was Gus Roberts at Central High. His sister Girvaud at Piedmont Junior High. Delois Huntley at Alexander Graham Junior High.

And Dot.

Her father, Herman, taught theology at Johnson C. Smith University. She lived with her parents and three brothers on Beatties Ford Road, across from the Smith campus.

The Counts house was just half a mile from Harding. It was Dot’s neighborhood school. That’s why she was chosen and other kids, farther away, were not.

Sometimes what puts you in the picture is fate.

A father’s message

Dot had spent part of the summer at a Presbyterian church camp in Iowa. Her roommate was a white girl from Illinois. Neither had ever spent time up close with someone from another race. But right away they were friends.

Dot came home two weeks before the start of school and found out she’d been accepted at Harding. She figured it would be like church camp. No big deal once the other kids got to know her.

So maybe now you’re looking at the picture and wondering: How could she have been so naive? How could her family have put her out there? How could they have not sensed all that anger in the South, all that fear ready to blow?

Dot’s parents later told her they thought there might be protests, although they didn’t imagine anything like what happened at Harding.

But they believed the only way to get the best out of America was to step into the picture.

“We always thought we were as good as anybody, “ Dot says now. “My dad used to tell us, when you walk out of the house, you might not have a dime in your pocket, but nobody knows it but you. You don’t slump your shoulders.”

The night before school started, the family had supper at 5, just like always, said a prayer at the table, just like always. Her father asked the Lord to look out for Dot. But to her it sounded no different from any other prayer at the start of a new school year.

Only later on did she find out about the threats over the phone, the people driving by the house and yelling while she slept.

A family friend, Edwin Thompkins, came by that morning. He rode in the car as Dot’s father took her to Harding, off West Fifth Street at the edge of downtown. (The old campus is now Irwin Avenue Elementary. Harding High moved farther west to a new campus in the ‘60s.)

Normally parents could drive down to the circle in front of the school and drop their kids off. But when Dot’s father got there, the police had barricaded the street. So Thompkins offered to walk Dot the rest of the way while her father found a place to park.

Herman Counts turned to his daughter. He told her to remember what he always told his family:

Hold your head high.

She got out and looked down the hill to the school. Saw all those kids waiting there.

She was halfway down the street before she realized they were waiting for her.

Kids yelled, screamed, spit

Now look at the picture and think about what you don’t see.


Except for photographers, there’s only one grown-up you can see clearly - Edwin Thompkins, the family friend. He’s just over her right shoulder in a white collared shirt.

No teachers. No principal. No police.

The Charlotte police officers assigned to the school stayed at the other end of the street. Police Chief Frank Littlejohn said the next day that he had told his men to handle whatever problems came up. He said his instructions “were kind of muffed.”

J.R. Hawkins stayed inside. He had been principal at Harding since the day it opened in 1935 and would stay until 1967. His former students loved him so much that more than 300 wrote him letters for his 99th birthday. He died three months later, in 2001.

At other Charlotte schools that were integrating, principals made detailed plans to ease the way for the new black students.

At Harding, Dot came down the hill and there was no one to hold back the crowd.

It’s not far from the top of the street to the front doors of the school. Maybe 300 steps. Maybe three minutes.

To her it seemed a lot longer.

But she kept walking.

She stared at the front doors of the school, a little closer with every step.

She kept walking.

Marty Wilson remembers the white students forming a wall in front of her. This is it, he remembers thinking. Something bad. Right now.

She kept walking.

Right toward the wall.

The white kids yelled and they screamed and they spit.

But at the last second the crowd parted.

Now she was in front. They turned to follow her.

She doesn’t even remember all the photographers. But now they had a clear view of her.

And she walked into the center of the picture.

Finding the right frame

Look again, and admire the picture as a work of art. You are looking at the work of Don Sturkey. He took pictures at the Observer for 34 years before retiring in 1990. He was the first Southerner to be named National Newspaper Photographer of the Year. He’s in the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame.

That day, another Observer photographer took pictures of Dot at the top of the hill. Sturkey picked up the crowd halfway down. At first he stuck close to her. Then he saw the size of the crowd. He wanted to get it all in the frame. He ran out ahead of her, to the front steps of the school, and turned back.

Nine pictures from that morning are preserved in the collection Sturkey donated to UNC Chapel Hill. The other eight show completely different scenes. He got one chance at this photo and he took it.

“She had such great poise, “ he says. “She was like kind of a lioness, surrounded by a swarm of bees, and absolutely above it all.”

Shot seen around the world

She got sick.

At home that night Dot’s throat ached and her forehead was on fire. It was so bad that she stayed home the next two school days - Thursday and Friday.

But she had some hope for the next week. She had hit it off with a couple of girls that first day, one in particular. They joked and shared family pictures. Dot expected things would get better.

This is how the week turned out.

On Monday, when Dot walked up, the girl told her they couldn’t be friends anymore. Other white students had thrown eggs at the girl’s car and shoved her in the hallways.

On Tuesday, a group of boys surrounded Dot at lunch and spit in her food.

On Wednesday, she decided to go home for lunch, which students were allowed to do. Her brother drove up to take her home. Somebody threw something at his car and shattered the back window.

She came out and saw it and that was the first moment in all those days that she was afraid.

They went home. Her parents talked to her and thought about it. On Thursday the family announced that they were pulling Dot out of Harding.

Her father issued a statement:

In enrolling Dorothy in Harding High School, we sought for her the highest in educational experience that this tax-supported school had to offer a young American.

Needless to say that we regret the necessity which makes the withdrawal expedient. This step, taken for security and happiness, records in our history a page which no true American can read with pride.

She spent just four days in class at Harding.

But the pictures of those days - Don Sturkey’s picture, and others - had traveled the world.

In Paris, writer James Baldwin - who had left the United States, heartsick at how his people were treated - walked by a newsstand and saw Dot’s picture. He decided he had to go back.

At home, Dot got a stack of mail every day. Charlotte’s own Billy Graham wrote her a letter: Those cowardly whites against you will never prosper because they are un-American and unfit to lead.

The one Dot remembers best was a letter of encouragement from comedian Steve Allen. It came with a check for $100.

But she was gone by the time most of the letters came. Her parents sent her to live with an aunt and uncle in Philadelphia, where she went to an integrated school.

Life magazine’s Sept. 16 issue came out with an eight-page spread on integration in Southern schools. The package included two photos of Dot.

A few weeks later, the magazine published a letter to the editor from Michigan:

My deepest admiration goes to Dorothy Counts for her quiet dignity and courage in the face of the indecency committed upon her by those tragic boys.

Forever part of the crowd

You’ll have to look hard for Woody Cooper. He’s two back from Marty Wilson, over Marty’s left shoulder, half-hidden by the boy in front of him. All you can see is part of his face and a little bit of striped shirt.

If you knew Woody you’d be surprised he was in the crowd at all. He hung out with the high-GPA kids. He had already been accepted to The Citadel.

Woody’s dad was a Charlotte policeman who patrolled black neighborhoods. When they found out a black kid was coming to Harding, he told Woody: Don’t get involved.

So Woody didn’t.

He says he stood and watched her come down the hill, watched her walk right past him, watched his classmates cuss her and call her names.

But you can’t tell from looking. That’s the danger when you step into the picture. The shutter fires and time stops and if you’re in the crowd you’re in there forever.

Woody looked at the picture a lot over the years. And the more he tried to sort out the doers from the watchers, the more he decided there wasn’t much difference.

He didn’t hurt Dot that day. But he failed to help her. And in his mind, that might as well have been the same thing.

Every so often, over the years, the Observer wrote stories about Dot. Woody devoured them. He was a happy man with a career in computers and a second go-round at marriage with Judy Shankle, a girl he had dated back at Harding all those years ago. But every time he read about Dot, the memory stung.

He was in the picture. And the picture was always in him.

Last year Woody showed up for his regular Sunday school class at Assurance United Methodist Church. Sam Smith, who taught the class, graduated from Harding the spring before Dot arrived. He spent much of the ‘70s bringing civic leaders together after Charlotte integrated the schools through busing.

On this particular morning his Sunday school lesson was on sins of omission - not the sin of doing wrong, but the sin of failing to do right.

At the end, Smith asked the class if anyone had sins of omission to talk about.

Woody Cooper raised his hand and said:

Dorothy Counts.

Smith happened to have a book with him - Frye Gaillard’s “The Dream Long Deferred, “ a history of school integration in Charlotte. Smith’s copy had Don Sturkey’s famous photo on the cover.

Woody walked up and put his finger on the boy half-hidden in the crowd.

And said: “That’s me.”

The next day - the very next day - the Observer ran its regular Monday feature where it catches up with somebody who was once in the news.

The story was on Dorothy Counts.

Woody e-mailed the reporter, who forwarded it to Dot. She opened the e-mail and read Woody’s words:

God does move in mysterious ways.

It was the first time anyone in the picture had contacted her.

Remembering that day

Wouldn’t it be great if lives transformed with the speed of a snapshot? But most times the biggest changes develop like an old Polaroid. It seems like forever until the image comes clear.

But one moment in time can start something. And one picture can stick in your mind for a lifetime.

Ronnie Hall remembered Dot when he started to hire black employees at his business. Pretty soon he noticed how hard they worked, how their faith in God made him want to deepen his.

Woody Cooper remembered Dot when he drove through West Virginia in the ‘70s with a black co-worker. The guy didn’t want Woody to stop for a bathroom break because he was afraid what would happen if white men saw them together. Woody talked him through it and told him about Dot on the way back home.

And Dot? She has so much to remember.

She finished high school in Asheville, came back home and went to Johnson C. Smith, moved to New York, got married, came back to Charlotte, adopted two kids, got divorced, worked her way into a vice president’s chair at Child Care Resources. They help child care centers get better, work with families to find care, provide financial help when parents need it.

When Dot was young she wanted to be a nurse. But after Harding, she decided she wanted to help children get past tough times.

She has forgotten some of that day and forgiven most of the rest. But she has spent half a century thinking about it.

She looks at the picture.

What does she see?

“People say, ‘How did you let somebody spit on you? How did you let all those people say those things?’ I always say, if you look at this picture in the right way, you see what I see. What I see is that all of these people are behind me. They did not have the courage to get up in my face.”

A lifetime impact

We arrange a very small reunion.

Over the past few months, folks who were around back then have identified nearly a dozen students in the picture. Some never returned calls. A few didn’t want to talk. Others didn’t want to be named.

And on this hot August morning, Ronnie Hall’s grandson has a baseball game. So we end up with three - Marty, Woody and Dot.

They talk about how the front entrance looks the same, except for the Irwin Avenue Elementary sign where the Harding sign used to be.

They talk about the old neighborhood and the old Charlotte.

They talk about regret and forgiveness.

Half a century ago, a 15-year-old girl named Dorothy Counts gave an interview after that day in the picture.

She said the students who hounded her that day “didn’t hurt me, they only hurt themselves. I don’t hate them. I feel sorry for them. I think they learned a lesson.”

And now, looking at the picture, you wonder who got the most out of that moment.

Dot - and the other black children who took those first brave steps - opened the doors for millions of black students to have access to better schools, better education, better lives.

They helped our country make good on its promise to all.

But surely Dot, and all those others, opened the eyes of white people, too - the ones who saw the pictures, and read the stories, and maybe, over time, were able to see a different image of the world around them.

One last thing about pictures. You know how, when you take a picture of a group of people, somebody’s always got their eyes closed?

Go back to the picture one more time. See if you don’t find every pair of eyes open. And nearly all of them locked in on Dorothy Counts.

This was the gift she gave to the world, and especially to the kids in the picture, the kids at Harding High on the first day of school 50 years ago.

She made them look.