Lenoir's MLK Center seeks to bring black history home

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 12:15 PM

Linda Hood remembers a time when she couldn’t eat a sandwich at a restaurant in Lenoir until every white customer first had been served. She can still picture the hand-lettered signs at downtown shops: “Coloreds, stand back to be served.”

She also recalls victories, like the integration of Lenoir High School in 1964, and the crowning of the school’s first black homecoming queen six years later.

She wants kids in Caldwell County to know about those, too.

Hood, a volunteer at the Martin Luther King Center in Lenoir, serves on the center’s black history month committee. Each year, the committee tries to center its black history month celebrations on a simple theme. This year, they focused on local black history.

Around the center this month, and in a Black History Quiz Bowl Feb. 28, kids will learn about the struggles and triumphs of African-Americans in Lenoir and Caldwell County.

“We wanted to give our children something to hold onto, so they could see their family’s history from slavery to now,” Hood said. “We wanted our children to really take hold and grasp our roots.”

The idea came from a simple observation: Many children are educated about black history only at the broadest level. They know about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and the sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, but they don’t know what happened in their own backyards.

That’s what the people at the MLK Center want them to know.

“If you don’t know where you come from, how do you know where you’re going?” said Lester Whittington, the center’s director. “That’s what I tell these black kids today. Do you know anything about your black history, your Caldwell County black history?”

Since 2011, volunteers at the MLK Center have been gathering information on black history in the county. Some of it -- letters, county records and the like -- resides in a thick, white binder in Whittington’s office. There’s also a display case in the center, full of trophies, photos and newspaper clippings. It’s there that many kids get their first glimpse of Caldwell County’s rich black history.

“A lot of them I have taken over there myself,” Whittington said. “I say, ‘Read. And learn. And ask questions.’”

When kids ask those questions, some of the answers will be about harder, harsher times.

They’ll hear about the downtown movie theater where blacks could sit only in the balcony. About the whites-only water fountains and bathrooms. About segregation and about Freedman

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High School, where the books and band instruments were always hand-me-downs from the white Lenoir High.

“It was humiliating,” Hood said. “It was hurtful. And it made you very mad.”

But kids will also hear about the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when the tide began to turn.

They’ll hear about Tom Scott, the first student to integrate Lenoir High School in 1964. About Otis Mitchell, Lenoir’s first black police officer, and Warren Harper, its first black firefighter.

When they hear about Petrenella Harper, Lenoir High’s first black homecoming queen, they may get the story from someone close to the source. Harper, who was crowned in 1970, died in Charlotte in 2011. But her aunt, Peggy Scott, comes to the MLK Center every day.

Scott still remembers the day Petrenella came home from school and told her family she’d won.

“Yes, oh yes, it was surprising,” she said. “It was really surprising. We didn’t think anything like that would’ve happened. You know, they had just desegregated the schools.”

It’s moments like that Hood and others want kids to know about. And they don’t want that knowledge to be learned in February and forgotten by March. That’s why they’ve compiled the information so carefully and made sure to present it on a day-to-day basis, not just through special events.

“We want to keep it ongoing,” Hood said. “We don’t want it to die. We want them to grasp this.”