Remembering experiences at segregated Second Ward High School
Griffin's memory takes him in a number of different directions in this long excerpt. He loved going to Second Ward High School. He remembers his walk to school, eating penny candy, participating in band and clubs, and some teachers who made an impression on him. But he confesses he and his friends walked to school, sometimes in the rain, because the city did not provide school buses for black students. And he remembers violence and drop-outs and the wholly inadequate resources in his classrooms.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Arthur Griffin, May 7, 1999. Interview K-0168. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
PG: What was so special about Second Ward that made you want–?
AG: I grew up wanting to go to Second Ward. And just watching the older kids in the neighborhood, in terms of going to Second Ward, being in the band, cheerleaders. It was just–it was like, that’s where I wanted to go. I mean, I just couldn’t fathom going anywhere else. And at a certain point in my life, and particularly because of the upheaval in the community, you know, that was like roots. Not only did I have to move to a different community and go into a different school, that was like roots for me. You forced me to move to Fairview Homes, but if I have a choice, at least I’ll retain my friends at Second Ward. So I just stayed at Second Ward, and then–I think it was the best decision I could have made.
PG: What was it like to go to Second Ward High School?
AG: What was it like to go to Second Ward High School? It was great. It was a big school. Going from elementary school to a high school, from grades 7 through 12, I mean, you know, we have grades 9 through 12 here in public schools. But, you know, all your friends were there. You go, you go early in the morning, you’d walk to school–they wouldn’t–black kids in the city didn’t have school buses. White kids did, though. Some of them. And we walked to school every day. You’d walk to school with the same crowd, you had your little stores you’d stop by and buy your candy for two or three cents. They had penny Tootsie rolls back then. You can’t buy a penny Tootsie roll at this point. I mean a big one, not just a little midget piece. And you’d stop on corners, you’d talk to the store owners, they’d get to know you. And you’d just walk. And it would rain, you’d all laugh about how you’re all wet, because there were no school buses and you had to walk and your parents didn’t have any car to drive you. And when you get to school, you’d play before the first period, you’d goof off, you’d see your friends. And you’d cry together when there were problems, because we lost a lot of friends. They were lost through some violent acts. You lost friends through dropout. You lost friends through pregnancy, teen pregnancies. Probably almost fifty percent, not quite fifty percent, almost fifty percent of the kids I grew up with, in terms of first grade, second grade, third grade, by the time we graduated, they were gone. For one reason or another. And I always tell people, “Notwithstanding what you say now, there has been progress since segregation, in terms of, now, desegregation.” A lot of people who are new in this say that the gap’s too wide, or we haven’t made a lot of progress. But from my perspective, we have made progress. There’s a lot of progress to be made.
But I got involved. I mean, I was in the band, when I was in the seventh grade or the eighth grade. There was a white guy who runs a musical instrument company, and he’s like the son or grandson of Mr. Howren [spells it out]–it was Howren Music Company, on East 6th Street. Right across from the old public library, [ ] you’d go up these old crickety steps. And my dad was buying me a cornet, which is sort of like a trumpet. And he paid so much a week, two dollars a week, three dollars a week or something like that. I bought that in seventh grade. And I played in the band at Second Ward, from seventh grade until about the eleventh grade. I don’t know what happened. We had a new band director, for one thing. L. Augustus Paige was the band director for a hundred years, and then Mr. Cooper came over, and I guess I didn’t–we didn’t get along too well or something. So after all those years in the band, I think I left the band in eleventh grade. But being in a band, you know, you had your band members that you were friends with, you’d hang out with, you’d go around with. I was in several clubs and organizations. The High Y, the Science Club, you know, just a number of clubs and organizations. It was like a family.
Parents didn’t participate that much in PTA. You know, when I reflect now, and people tell me about parent participation, hell, we had neighborhood schools, black neighborhood schools, but the parents didn’t participate in PTA. But there was a real sense of achievement, and a sense to get a quality education. And the teachers had that. Just they’d look at you and it was almost as if they wanted to wield a good education into your head. And you knew that people cared about you. But in terms of parent participation, it wasn’t that great. I was a single-parent guy. My father raised me, actually. My mom was an alcoholic, and she left the home, probably when I was like five or six years old. And he could not read or write. But he had a strong sense of going to school. Certainly not going to college; it was just, graduating from high school was his horizon at that particular time.
But it was families. I mean, things that you would do during the summer months. People you’d associate with, you’d play with, you’d go to parties with, you’d hang out with, didn’t have cars like kids have today, but you’d walk or catch a bus. Every now and then there was a kid that had an automobile that you could get a ride with. But it was like family. Little projects. You’d go, for example, to Ovens Auditorium when Ovens Auditorium was absolutely brand new. You’d get on a bus, you’d go over there and hear the symphony, it’s like, “Mm, OK.” Then you’d come back and you’d hear your own rock and roll music, some other stuff, and, “OK, let me stay at home, I don’t know if I want to go back to Ovens Auditorium.” But it was just a family. The teachers–my seventh grade language arts teacher, for example, lived about 3 blocks from my house in First Ward before it was completely bulldozed. So it was just like a community. I mean, you’d get in trouble at school, ultimately, you know, my dad would find out about it, because the teacher was there to say, “Arthur was cutting up.” So it was like Heckel and Jeckel. Just a different personality. I was a rabble-rouser at home, and I’d just try to toe the line and give this false image to the teachers, I was such a good guy.
But they were good people. Marjorie Belton was a guidance counselor there; she’s retired now. Her son, David Belton, is one of the vice presidents for the Chamber of Commerce, and I always ask how his mom is. And occasionally I get to see her. But she was always trying to keep the high road for us rabble-rousers from the rowdy school. They had a big fence around it. People always used to joke, “What’s that fence for, to keep you criminals in, or what?” But it was just a family atmosphere. We did the very best could, we took all the courses that were offered. I was on a college prep track where you took biology, chemistry, physics, trigonometry, those types of things. And I didn’t know, until probably my senior year, just what the lack of resources were, because we’d skip around. We’d have a physics laboratory book, and we couldn’t follow the book, because if we didn’t have the equipment to do the labs, Dr. Levi would kind of just skip over. It was sort of disjointed, but he would go to something where we had the equipment to do the labs. And I thought, I’m just doing what Dr. Levi wants us to do. But it’s just a family piece. We would go off to represent the school on different occasions. We only played black schools; they didn’t allow us to play white schools at that time. So we’d play West Charlotte, we played York Road. We played Plato Price when I was in the seventh grade, and [ ] were high schools, but they closed probably by the time I got to ninth grade. The county’s black schools. So we’d go out of town to Stephens Lee, up in Asheville, or we’d go to Atkins, up in Winston-Salem, or to Dudley in Greensboro. We’d go to the black schools to play sports. And that was exciting, because, you know, you got out of Charlotte. I’d never traveled anywhere in my life, other than going to Macon, Georgia, where my mom was from. So it was just a family experience. Teachers really cared about you, in terms of just being a person. Because they’d talk to you about your life. You know, what are you doing, why are you doing this, why did you do that? It wasn’t just academics. And Shirley Johnson, Marge Belton, a lot of teachers are people I still try to communicate with every now and then to let them know I’m still kicking.
But it was just simply, Pam, a sense of family back there with Second Ward. And you knew that you didn’t have all the resources that West Charlotte had, so it was like, you know, we’re a family over here. And when we would travel, believe it or not, the two schools would come together. If we were at a state tournament or something in Winston-Salem, or up in Asheville, West Charlotte would join Second Ward and we’d be the boys from Charlotte. It was that crowd. So I mean, even though I went to Second Ward, a great experience, right now when I see my colleagues from West Charlotte that graduated at the same time I did, it’s like we all went to the same school back then. It wasn’t Second Ward versus West Charlotte during those particular moments. But certainly during the Queen City Classic, it was like a war. I mean, you hated West Charlotte. You wanted to kill them. You wanted to beat them up. But it was certainly a sense of pride, and people talk about it even to this day. And as you talk about West Charlotte, I’m sure one of the big pieces you’ll see is the pride and the joy that people refer to when they talk about the Queen City Classic. It was just a great experience. But yeah. My senior year, I was editor of the yearbook, so I got to roam around campus with the photographer taking pictures. But I mean, it was just family. I was all over the place. I wasn’t as shy then as I am now.
PG: It’s interesting to me. I’ve interviewed a number of West Charlotte people, and they do talk, all the time, about Second Ward. And it seems like it’s almost impossible to think of the two schools separately.
AG: Wherever you go, it’s like Second Ward and West Charlotte. We would compete–we would compete not only in terms of the Queen City Classic, sportswise, but we would try to compete in terms of kids who were on academic teams. And it’s almost like you would kind of know the kids who were doing well academically at West Charlotte, you would kind of know the kids who were doing kind of academically well at Second Ward. And we would go over to visit periodically. I would go over to visit some of the young ladies on the campus, but also, you know, I would know some of the teachers. Kelly Alexander also grew up in Brooklyn, and so we knew each other as young kids, but then when his dad moved over to Senior Drive, right across the street from West Charlotte, when we’d go over to visit West Charlotte, we’d always go over to Kelly’s house or something. So we had friends that lived in the community right around West Charlotte, and we’d go over to West Charlotte and go on West Charlotte’s campus. That’s where I met Pop Miller, who was an assistant principal at West Charlotte years ago, and Pop used to always run me off campus. “Griffin, get off, you dummy!” And he would, he’d call back, and by the time I would get back to Second Ward, Miss Belton would say, “Where’ve you been?” “Oh, nowhere, just down to Hardee’s.” See, Hardee’s was brand new on Kings Drive and Independence. Independence Boulevard was brand new, back in the old days, and it ran right beside Second Ward. And we would, you know, skip campus to go to the Hardee’s to buy french fries. I mean, that was really new. A hamburger for twenty-five cents. That was a big deal back then. And we’d always kind of tell a little small story, like, “Yeah, we went to Hardee’s,” and actually we went all the way across town to West Charlotte. So there were a lot of people that we knew as different cliques, sort of social cliques, and that’s why you would see us even today kind of look at one another as being one of the same, in terms of coming from Charlotte’s public schools. One went to West Charlotte, one went to Second Ward, but during that same era, we were like family. So that was real important for us. And I think that’s what you sort of pick up on when people talk about West Charlotte and Second Ward. You kind of talk as if it’s one family, because of the things that we went through at the time, that we reflect upon now, that we had no idea had certain levels of value to the relationships and socializations.