J.C. Price alumni try to keep memories of the school alive

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 22, 2012

SALISBURY — For most of us, high school reunions come every five or 10 years, and the planning duties usually fall to the graduates who have stayed put to build their careers and families.
Not many high schools have created a national alumni association with chapters in several states.
Not many reunions take in all the past graduating classes of the school.
Few reunions are held every summer, or better yet, add in winter regional alumni meetings.
And how often do alumni groups welcome people who never attended the high school?
Today and Saturday, members of the J.C. Price High School National Alumni Association are gathering again in Salisbury to reminisce about their school, whose last graduating class was in 1969.
In recent years, they have been meeting every June, conducting general business at the Holiday Inn, naming winners of their college scholarships, having barbecue or fish-fry socials, dancing at Saturday night balls and setting time aside to reminisce at the school building, located at 1300 W. Bank St.
“That’s not a bad idea,” 1960 graduate Eleanor Qadirah says of meeting each summer, “because eight to 10 people pass on every year.”
The Price Alumni Association has reason to be proud of its historically significant school — and reason to preserve the heritage, even if it means including children and grandchildren who didn’t live in a time when blacks went to one high school and whites attended another.
Qadirah says some day it will be up to descendants of Price High graduates to save the school’s important legacy.
At last year’s reunion weekend, alumni unveiled the marker in front of the school building to signify its place on the National Register of Historic Places.
The marker includes this line — “A school of great heritage and academic success in times of repression.”
Price High students didn’t dwell on the segregation of their days, though they relied on used textbooks and second-hand band and football uniforms.
Talk to the alumni and you hear how they considered the school an extension of home and church.
Scripture lessons often were built into the school day. They considered their teachers as mentors — strong community leaders.
“We were just like family,” says Virginia Pharr Wilson, who was editor for the school newspaper and member of the Class of 1948. “And the teachers were like our parents. We always remembered that wherever we went.”
Students received a well-rounded education in academics, vocational instruction, the arts and athletics.
They cherished their excellent glee club and sports teams — the Red Devils. They sang proudly of the red and black, the school colors. They held their proms in the wide central hall of the school building and their assemblies in the 586-seat auditorium.
Wilson was living in Michigan in 1986 when Joe Duncan called her from Salisbury and said, “You’ve got to come home. We’ve got to start an alumni association. We’ve got to get busy.”
The urgency in Duncan’s voice resulted from a Price High graduate’s trying to get his high school transcript and realizing it didn’t exist.
With Wilson in attendance, the J.C. Price National Alumni Association officially organized June 28, 1986, with a meeting of 126 Price alumni on the campus of Livingstone College.
And its main purpose, even 25 years later, is to preserve Price High’s heritage and award college scholarships through its alumni foundation.
It was Wilson’s idea to have chapters (and chapter presidents). Today Price High alumni chapters exist in Salisbury, Charlotte, Cleveland (Ohio), Atlanta and Washington, D.C..
“I stole that from my sorority,” Wilson says.
Wilson returned to Salisbury to live in 1990, and one of her old teachers, Mrs. Spencer Lancaster, persuaded her to become the organization’s historian.
Alumni have kept in touch through the years by newsletters and, of course, the reunions.
Wilson was part of a special event in 1998 in which the 1948 classes of Price High and Boyden High — even though they were segregated in their day — joined together for a 50th reunion.
The city owns the high school building, which today serves as home for the Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Agency. Hall Gym on the campus is run by the city recreation department.
From 1932 to 1969, Price was Salisbury’s only public high school for African Americans. When it opened to students in February 1932, Price finally answered the desperate need for a black high school because of overcrowding at the Dixonville and Monroe schools.
Price High included grades 7 to 12, and the original building had 14 rooms.
The gymnasium and shop building were added in 1951, and a senior high wing and cafeteria came in 1956-57.
The great thing about Price is that the alumni can return every year, walk the halls and see many of the original chalkboards, lockers, bookcases, wood paneling, wainscoting, ceramic tile, oak flooring — and the amazingly intact auditorium.
Over its 37 years, Price High School became integral to the city’s education, social, ethnic and architectural history.
Price High’s first Principal, L.H. Hall, was a true pioneer in public education for black students.
The school also produced nationally known educators such as Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, U.S. Ambassador Rudolph Aggrey, missionary Janie Speaks, Federal Judge Donald Graham and a list of professional football players, doctors, lawyers, educators, pastors, artists, mayors, high-ranking military officers — men and women who broke color barriers in education, business, civic organizations and government.
This weekend will draw 75 to 100 alumni.
At 1 p.m. Saturday at Salisbury High, alumni will make a special presentation to recently retired Principal Windsor Eagle, who during his 31 years at Salisbury High refused to overlook the legacy of Price High School after integration.
Price alumni will then head for their old school on West Bank Street, where Qadirah has organized a “Wall of Fame” in the hallways. The wall will honor graduates, teachers, parents, spouses, relatives and friends of the school with things such as photographs, old school programs and writings, Qadirah says.
There is a 6 p.m fish fry and social today, with a DJ, and a scholarship awards banquet and dance from 6 to midnight Saturday.
Saturday morning also includes a prayer breakfast, guest speaker Doris Jones and a general alumni meeting.
It’s a full weekend for the red and black — a weekend for keeping an important part of the city’s history alive.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.