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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James Atwater, February 28, 2001. Interview K-0201. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Segregation promoted sense of community among black residents of Chapel Hill

All of the black youth in Chapel Hill attended Lincoln School for every grade. This contributed to a strong sense of community among students and teachers, as they were brought into regular contact. Since Lincoln did not offer a kindergarten, a college graduate started one in her home. One coach helped prepare Lincoln students to attend a black college.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James Atwater, February 28, 2001. Interview K-0201. 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

JENNIFER NARDONE:
So when you first started going to school, elementary school and junior high, prior to Lincoln, you went to the-.
JAMES ATWATER:
Well, that's just it. You see, everything was done in that one building.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Oh really? Oh, okay.
JAMES ATWATER:
Well, I say everything-
JENNIFER NARDONE:
I thought there was a county school as well, that may have been later.
JAMES ATWATER:
Well, there may have been a county school, but for those of us In Chapel Hill, that was our school, from first grade. Now kindergarten, I went to kindergarten, which was a private kindergarten, across the street from my house, and it was operated by, say a friend of the family, or someone that we knew, we had known, by the daughter who had – she had been to college, came back from college and she opened a kindergarten in her parents home. And I don't know what the enrollment was, but I think it was probably ten or twenty kids who were in that kindergarten. But after that we went to what we called Orange County Training School, first grade, and I was there for first grade through twelfth grade. As a matter of fact, they added the twelfth grade while I was there, because for several years it went only to the eleventh grade.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Really? So did you graduate after eleventh grade?
JAMES ATWATER:
Well people, those people who were there before, and I'm not sure when that ended, but that was one of the-.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
That's interesting. I hadn't heard that before.
JAMES ATWATER:
Oh really? That's one of the-
JENNIFER NARDONE:
So what are your earlier memories then, of going to Lincoln, when you were young? When you first started going.
JAMES ATWATER:
Well, I remember one or two things from the first grade. I remember going to first grade. And I remember some of the things from kindergarten, not much but some. But, going to first grade, the name of my first grade teacher-
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Who was it?
JAMES ATWATER:
Her name was Humphries.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Oh, so Mrs. Humphries?
JAMES ATWATER:
Ms. Humphries. Ms. Humphries. But the other thing about going to Lincoln was from those earliest days, we often knew the teachers because they may have lived in our neighborhood and we at least could recognize them. We knew them, we saw them after school. We saw them before school and so on. And for me, Lincoln was a five minute, ten minute walk from home, so it was a matter of walking to school, walking very close by, even occasionally being able to come home for lunch and go back to school. I don't think I did that in first grade, but eventually that was. The other memory is that there was a progression physically a progression from a standpoint that the room that we went to in the first grade was, obviously, next door to second grade. Then the third grade, and the classrooms on that end of the building, the elementary school end of the building, were built around our gymnasium, such as it was it was, auditorium or gymnasium, so we made the progression around-.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Around the gymnasium.
JAMES ATWATER:
Around the circle, until we got there, till we got to the end, and then went on to high school. I think the other part of it was, that way, because we were all in that same building, we at least saw the other teachers at the upper levels, and we knew that eventually, once we went into those classrooms, they were not complete strangers to us because we had seen them around the building, we'd seen them around town. And one year, I don't know how many times this happened, but I remember one year, the teacher who was teaching the third grade, moved up to the fourth grade with the students.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Oh no.
JAMES ATWATER:
Students were in the third grade with her, and when they came back in the fall, they were still with her.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Still had the same teacher.
JAMES ATWATER:
So, maybe for some of them that was a wonderful experience. For others it was [unclear] . I think maybe Ed Caldwell has mentioned that himself, you know, when we talk to one another. But, I think it's the familiarity of teachers whom we've seen before, who were in that same building. Of course, this went on even onto high school because not all the teachers stayed that long teaching in Chapel Hill teaching at that school, but many of them did. So by the time we went to high school, there were teachers there that we had known about, even when we were at elementary school.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
Even when you were really young. So, we had heard in the research we've done and the people we've spoken to so far in the class, that Lincoln High really was a very tight knit community, and that there was a sense of family. Can you give idea of or maybe some examples of how you remember that atmosphere?
JAMES ATWATER:
Well, I think it's, again it comes back to the physical, because one of the coaches for example, [unclear] coaching football and basketball team, lived almost directly across the street from us. Within a block, what we'd call a city block, on Church Street. And we were with him in school, we were with him on the basketball court, or on the football field, but we would also go to his home. And I think the fact that he was available at those times was one part of it. The other part of it was that we knew that he knew our parents, he knew that we knew our parents-that he knew our parents. So there was a, I think, the kind of relationship that one wouldn't normally have with a teacher if the teacher had been living in another town, or been living in another part of town, so that was one reason. And I think that the other thing was that again, this is probably, I'm sure at the high school level, another coach took several of us, on the football or basketball team, or whatever, he took us on a trip in his personal vehicle to a couple of black universities. And he did that I think so we could see what those universities looked like, what a black university looked like. But I think he also did it because exposing us to that was one thing, just from the standpoint of doing it as athletes, but it was also an exposure from the standpoint of students-academics and so on that this is what might be available to you if you work hard. And I think that the kind of, kinds of encouragement that we did get from the teachers was often related to that-to what we'd do after high school. And what we could do on an academic basis, rather than necessarily otherwise.
JENNIFER NARDONE:
So, you felt like your professors, or your teachers at Lincoln really encouraged the students to pursue college.
JAMES ATWATER:
Oh yes. Yes.