Wineka column: In 1963, Strawder broke color barrier in Rowan County high schools

  • Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2013 12:57 a.m.
Calvin Strawder sits with his 3-year-old grandson, Ryan.
Calvin Strawder sits with his 3-year-old grandson, Ryan.

GRANITE QUARRY — In his freshman year at East Rowan High School as the lone African-American student in any of Rowan County’s white high schools, Calvin Strawder remembers one incident — and only one — he would call racially motivated.

About 30 days into the 1963-64 school year, it happened in a hallway between classes.


“One kid, prompted to do it by family or something, came up behind me and took a swing at me,” Strawder says.

It was just a glancing blow, and the attack surprised Strawder, because he had worked beside this same boy one summer on a farm worked by both of their relatives.

“I think the teachers were aware of what was happening,” Strawder says. “Teachers grabbed the kid, took him straight to the office, and the next thing I knew he went home.”

When Strawder looks back on his four years at East Rowan High, don’t expect to hear talk of himself as a crusader in the racially tense times of the 1960s.

“Some kids didn’t care for the fact I was there,” he says, “(but) I was just a student like anybody else.”

Strawder says he would never trade in his high school years, the good teachers he had, the sports teams on which he played or the friends he made.

He credits the makeup of people in the whole eastern Rowan community, black and white, for making his puncture of a color barrier possible.

Though he had plenty of reasons to be scared, Strawder says he never was.

He knows it sounds corny, but a voice told him to enroll at East Rowan High. More on that later.

• • •

Strawder grew up in Granite Quarry as one of four children. His father, George, worked for the railroad, and he also ran a small cafe and pool room across from the family’s home on Salisbury Avenue.

Calvin’s mother, Loraine, worked at the VA Medical Center in Salisbury and also operated a beauty shop.

Strawder’s older brother, George Jr., and older sister, Mary, attended Granite Quarry Colored School (which became Shuford Memorial School a bit later) through the eighth grade. Instead of attending Dunbar High School in East Spencer, George Jr. and Mary paid an extra tuition to enroll at the all-black Price High School in Salisbury.

Strawder was scheduled to go to Dunbar with his Granite Quarry friends, until he spoke up at a PTA meeting.

Maybe it was presented as a formality, but when someone asked whether any black students were wanting to be reassigned to East Rowan High School in the next school year, Strawder volunteered.

“I said I’d be glad to go,” he recalls. “It started from that.”

• • •

The Salisbury Post, maybe sensitive to how some readers would greet the news, reported matter-of-factly about Strawder’s decision, which was supported by his parents.

“Negro Applies for Admission to East Rowan High School,” the headline of the first story said.

But the application was given only six paragraphs, the last of which noted, “This is the first application received by the county board of education for the reassignment of a Negro student to a white school.”

Salisbury City Schools already were considering similar requests from four students. The year before, three African-American students had been admitted to the previously all-white Frank B. John Elementary School in Salisbury.

A month later — Aug. 5, 1963 — the next story reported Strawder’s receiving his transfer to East Rowan High. The Post described it as “the first integration in the county school system.”

“The decision to grant the transfer was made with little discussion,” the newspaper stated. “One member of the board, Page Graham, voted in opposition.”

• • •

The reaction was swift. Strawder says the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in his parents’ front lawn soon after the school board’s decision.

For several weeks afterward, other families took turns hanging out at the Strawders’ house as a security force of sorts.

Strawder didn’t know it, but on the first day of school, Rowan County Sheriff Arthur Shuping was in Principal Derwood Huneycutt’s office in case of any trouble.

Nothing happened. For the first several weeks, Strawder says, he rode to and from school in a Rowan deputy’s car.

Strawder described the process of his being accepted as a gradual one. At first, no one in the school cafeteria would sit at his lunch table.

“As time went on, a student might sit at the other end,” he says. “And it grew from one to two. The other seats started to fill in. By the end of the first reporting period, the table was full.”

In 1983, Strawder told then Salisbury Post Executive Editor Jason Lesley, who had been a classmate, that no one sat with him on the school bus at first. White kids would stand in the aisle instead.

“Finally a pretty blond cheerleader, Terry Dellinger, did what others were afraid to do,” Lesley wrote. “She walked up and asked, ‘Calvin, may I sit with you.’”

Lesley said sitting on the bus with Dellinger “was probably a fantasy of every boy at East Rowan.”

Strawder says after a while, “I was just another student going to school.”

• • •

A look at his senior yearbook, the 1967 “Eastonian,” shows Strawder played football his last three years, wrestled in every grade and ran track as a junior and senior.

As as freshman, he participated in the first-aid and garden clubs. And all four years, he enjoyed being a member of the audio-visual club.

He liked science and says a couple of teachers, Pat Barrow and Jerry Peck, especially supported his “thirst for knowledge.”

But Strawder acknowledges there usually comes a time for every student when he or she feels accepted. It happened with him during a football game against an Iredell County team — a squad being overly antagonistic toward the East Rowan Mustangs and Strawder, the only black player on the field.

Strawder played offensive guard, and on a running play for the halfback, he pulled to block and effectively crushed the defensive end.

The Iredell players prepared to descend on Strawder, but his Mustang teammates “erupted to support me,” Strawder says.

“At that moment, I knew I was part of the team,” he adds.

• • •

After Strawder’s freshman year, three other black students enrolled at East Rowan High. And the number of transfers kept increasing.

But in his 1967 graduating class of 198 students, the only African-American seniors were Strawder, Dolan Hubbard and Rayford Oglesby.

Strawder went on to major in biology and minor in chemistry and math at N.C. A&T University. But he built a career and family while working for IBM.

He met his wife, Jacqueline, in college, and the couple have three children and six grandchildren. Today Strawder operates a small landscaping business in Mableton, Ga.

• • •

Now about that voice.

Strawder says during a spring day, when he was an eighth-grader at Granite Quarry School, the classroom windows were open and his mind was wandering.

As a school bus from the all-white high school passed by the window, he heard all the normal hollering.

But he also heard a distinct inner voice, telling him he would be going to that school the next year. So when he volunteered to enroll at East Rowan High during that PTA meeting, he had no fear.

“I had confidence in the voice I had heard and the support I had from families and the community,” he says.

Strawder, 63, will be back in Rowan County at the end of March for a Granite Quarry/Shuford Memorial School Reunion.

He, more than most people, understands why racial tensions can still exist in today’s world, even when his sister Mary Ponds is now mayor of Granite Quarry and it’s almost 50 years removed from the day he told people, “I’d be glad to go.”

“A lot of it comes from just not knowing the person,” he says. “... I was just another student going to school.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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