Education

50 years later, black alumni reunite to recall their beloved, bulldozed high school

Second Ward High alumni remembers 50th anniversary of closing

Theodore Kennedy, Chair of the Second Ward High School 50th Commemoration Planning Committee, shares his thoughts on what made the school special and some of its history.
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Theodore Kennedy, Chair of the Second Ward High School 50th Commemoration Planning Committee, shares his thoughts on what made the school special and some of its history.

The gym seemed newer than it did when she had danced there at pep rallies, riling up her classmates before the annual football showdown. The cheerleaders next to her, in matching blue T-shirts and white pants, looked much older. So did the crowd in the bleachers.

But as 71-year-old Minnie Thompson twirled her pom-pom and shuffled across the stage, she tried — if only for a moment — to rebuild what had been torn down when Second Ward High School was shuttered half a century ago.

“Gimme that old Second Ward spirit,” she chanted with the other cheerleaders. “It’s good enough for me.”

For a while on Saturday, that spirit seemed good enough for everyone else — hundreds of 60- and 70-somethings, who had returned to keep the memory of their school alive — long after the building had been demolished.

The day, they said, was their attempt to preserve parts of Charlotte’s black history that would otherwise have long been forgotten.

The first public school to serve blacks in segregated Charlotte, Second Ward High emerged as an anchor for the African American neighborhood of Brooklyn. When that area succumbed to urban renewal, so did the school.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Thompson, whose parents and seven siblings had all graduated from Second Ward. She had wanted her own children to follow in her footsteps.

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Minnie Thompson, Second Ward High School Class of 1966, center, helps to lead alumni cheerleaders during the 50th anniversary of the closing of the school at the Second Ward High School Gymnasium and Museum on Saturday, June 1, 2019. After the school closed its doors in 1969, it was bulldozed as part of urban renewal and the destruction of the Brooklyn neighborhood. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

“We were born and raised here. We settled here, and then we had to move on,” she said. “My friends and I, we were all separated when the bulldozer came through.”

Little was left besides the gym where she reunited with them on Saturday.

Remembering ‘a family’

Before Second Ward opened in 1923, African Americans in Charlotte had to head outside the city or attend church-run schools. So the inauguration of a neighborhood public school in Brooklyn — then considered the city’s center of black life — brought a tight-knit community even closer.

“It was a family more than a school,” said Ted Kennedy, who graduated in 1969 and led efforts to organize the anniversary event. “If anything went wrong around the school, you believe your parents would know.”

Kennedy said that because teachers lived in the neighborhood, sometimes right next door to students, they were able to create a supportive atmosphere where everyone could learn.

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Second Ward High School alumni listen to NC Senator Joyce Davis Waddell, District 40, lower left, during the 50th anniversary of the closing of the school at the Second Ward High School Gymnasium and Museum on Saturday, June 1, 2019. After the school closed its doors in 1969, it was bulldozed as part of urban renewal and the destruction of the Brooklyn neighborhood. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Against the backdrop of segregation and deep inequality, they emphasized education as a means to success.

Teachers like Mattie Hall set high standards for students to excel. Offerings included vocational training classes that ranged from brick masonry and carpentry to auto mechanics. At one point, the school was also home to a college for African American G.I.s.

“As they say now, no kid was left behind,” Kennedy said.

Those high standards extended to the school’s longstanding rivalry with West Charlotte High School. Each year, students would look forward to rooting on the Tigers in the “Queen City Classic” football game against the city’s only other black high school.

“When we got on the field, we were champions,” said Louis Holmes, “regardless if the uniform was raggedy, if the pads looked like they were other kids’ stuff. You were more than just a team.”

That’s where Thompson, the cheerleader, shined too.

Though she was a shy girl, a self-proclaimed “ugly duckling,” coach Mary Longhorn selected her for the cheer-leading team — forcing a young Thompson to communicate, to become a talker, to come out of her shell.

It was a decision that changed her life, putting her on a path to work in early childhood education.

And on Saturday, she got to thank Longhorn in person.

Broken promises

Given its proximity to Charlotte’s downtown district, the Brooklyn neighborhood became a prime target for urban renewal in the 1950s.

Over a thousand families and hundreds of businesses were displaced, part of a federally-funded, nationwide effort to raze majority-black neighborhoods that were supposedly “blighted.”

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Second Ward High School alumni dance and cheer during the 50th anniversary of the closing of the school at the Second Ward High School Gymnasium and Museum on Saturday, June 1, 2019. After the school closed its doors in 1969, it was bulldozed as part of urban renewal and the destruction of the Brooklyn neighborhood. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

In 1967, the school board announced its plans to rebuild Second Ward as an integrated Metropolitan High. Kennedy and his classmates were the last to graduate in 1969, while younger classes were bused off to schools in other parts of Charlotte.

Following a school bond referendum, said 1966 graduate Arthur Griffin, students and neighborhood residents said they were told their school would be replaced with a newer structure — one they would help name and design.

That never happened. Two years later, the board voted to shut down Second Ward entirely.

Much of the campus was eventually replaced by the Metro School, which serves cognitively disabled students of all ages as part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system. But no school ever succeeded Second Ward, producing a deep sense of loss for its alumni.

“For so many years, they promised to rebuild the school,” Griffin said, but “they lied.”

In 2008, the former gym was designated as a historic landmark. The county’s Park and Recreation Department, which took up ownership from the school board, led a multimillion dollar renovation. Meanwhile, an alumni foundation has worked to preserve the school’s history, including the creation of a museum and archive on Beatties Ford Road.

Still, on Saturday afternoon, Griffin warned the crowd they have to keep fighting to preserve their school’s legacy.

“We’re going to have to continue to be vigilant,” he said, “because otherwise, this is going to be a hotel.”

50 years later

As a band played and elected officials spoke before reunion, they read out proclamations coming from all levels of government: The city of Charlotte declared June a month for remembering the high school. The school board said the Second Ward spirit was “still alive.” Even the North Carolina General Assembly issued a statement from Raleigh, commending the school’s alumni association.

But there was just as much to mourn on Saturday as there was to celebrate.

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Music is placed on a stand during the 50th anniversary of the closing of Second Ward High School at the Second Ward High School Gymnasium and Museum on Saturday, June 1, 2019. After the school closed its doors in 1969, it was bulldozed as part of urban renewal and the destruction of the Brooklyn neighborhood. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

County commissioner Vilma Leake suggested than even 50 years after the school’s closure, inequity and segregation has continued to exist within Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Preserving the story of what happened to their beloved high school, she said, is a way to highlight the troubling history that the system has gone through.

“A lot of people don’t want us to talk about it,” county commissioner Vilma Leake told the crowd. “But if we don’t talk about it, we’ll forget about it, and we’ll get the same results as before.”

Towards the end of the ceremony, the crowd stood to recite their alma mater: Dear Second Ward, Our Alma Mater, we pledge ourselves to thee. We’ll love you e’er as onward we go, if thou our guide will be.

As Thompson made her way through those oh-so familiar words, right hand raised in the air, her eyes welled with tears.

“We’ll never get it back,” she cried, turning to hug her cousin, a fellow graduate.

For a few hours, though — even just a few minutes of cheerleading — that old Second Ward spirit was good enough for her, too.

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Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University and a native Spanish speaker.
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