Taking them back: Alumni cherish photo project, Salisbury High assembly

Published 12:10 am Thursday, March 2, 2023

Everyone probably remembers what they looked like in high school, but on Tuesday, alums from Price and Dunbar high schools got a glimpse of those memories framed in a whole new way.

Students at Salisbury High School performed an assembly in the school’s auditorium for the student body, but several special guests were in the front row. Alums from the two Black high schools in the area watched as the Hornets celebrated their Black heritage.

The assembly featured performances from the band, dance students and majorettes and a brief speech by Rev. Dr. Derrick Anderson about what segregation was like and how much pressure there was when schools finally did start integrating.

Brenda Stout Venning, who graduated from Dunbar High School in 1961, was a majorette in her day.

“I remember that we could not wear the outfits they are wearing now as majorettes,” Venning said. “We didn’t have dancers at the time either.”

A lot has changed in that time, but a unique project helped bridge the gap between yesteryear and Tuesday. Before the assembly concluded, the students showed their guests an Integration-era photo project compiled by Salisbury High dance instructor Krystal Stukes and her students from SHS and Triple Threat Dance Academy.

The project recreated moments captured in time from the schools using era-appropriate attire. Between the on-site photography and the fashion, the alums couldn’t decide what transported them back the most.

“The little girls had on little lace socks,” said Sandra Witherspoon Corpening, Dunbar Class of 1965. “I happened to be one of the kids who dressed that way.”

Seeing those images brought back a lot of memories.

“Some of the experiences we had back then took us back,” said Sadie Hawkins Rice, Price High School Class of 1961. “We have grown, and we have learned. It just took us back, and I am glad to see that.”

However, the assembly also served as a reminder of the opportunities they were not afforded as attendees of Black high schools.

“When we were in school, we didn’t have the opportunity to have those types of extracurricular activities,” Corpening said. “We didn’t get to do any of that. I would have loved to have done so.”

Like other American communities during segregation, much of the learning materials the Black schools had access to were second-hand. While their textbooks may have been second-class, the alums indicated they were never taught to see themselves that way.

“We were always made to embrace what we were and our color,” Venning said. “We were made to feel good about ourselves.”

Still, the disparities were hard to swallow at times.

“I remember Dunbar talking about (forming a) swim team,” said Edna Davis Thomas, Dunbar Class of 1961. “We couldn’t swim in the white school’s pools. I thought they were going to dig a hole, but they never got around to it. That was one thing that I really wanted to do.”

The memories that remain from their formative years are primarily positive and centered around the communities that raised them. Even though they were leaving school at the end of the day back then, many stayed close to one another as friends and fellow congregants at church.

“Each neighborhood was really close-knit,” Corpening said. “Everybody went to the same school and church, so we all knew one another.”

Dedicated educators also weaved the community’s fabric into a gown worthy of remembrance.

“I thank God we had Black teachers who cared about us,” Thomas said. “Most of the teachers there lived in the community, and they knew us. That meant you couldn’t act a fool. You had to be on your best behavior.”

When Stukes took her dance students out to Dunbar and Price and other locations around town that were featured prominently in the local push for civil rights, she wanted to use her platform to demonstrate what it was like for school children in the days before integration.

“I asked the students, is this separate but equal, and they said no, this isn’t fair at all,” Stukes said.

The dance instructor indicated that many of her students did not even realize that Price was ever even a school.

“They drive past it, but they didn’t know what it was,” Stukes said. “They thought it was Hall’s Gym. They called it the building behind Hall’s. They had no idea it was even a school.

“We had a chance to look at the Boyden yearbooks (Boyden High became Salisbury High after desegregation) because they are stored here, so we could compare and contrast a lot of things.”

She might not be a history teacher, but Stukes recognized the magnitude of the message and wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to reach her students. If the students looked good doing it, all the better.

“When they put on the (’60s era) clothes, they fussed at me,” Stukes said. “But when they put them on, they were in the mirror for hours.”

Stukes’ colleague, Margaret Ingram Jones, is an organizer of the Dunbar mass school reunions and an educator at Salisbury High.

“I am so overwhelmed by Stukes,” Jones said. “When I found out she was doing this and taking her time to have these kids impersonate us during our day, I was speechless.”

Jones indicated that Stukes has a way of connecting with students while sharing their combined cultural heritage.

“I have never heard of anyone who wanted to share our history like this, to take them out into the community, dress them the way we dressed, with shoes like we wore,” Jones said.

Dunbar alum Romus Jefferies agreed with Jones on the unique presentation and format of the assembly and photo project.

“I was impressed,” Jefferies said. “This is the first time in all these years that I have seen a program like this. I think it was well put together.”

Jefferies’ wife, Delphia Henderson Jefferies, was also in attendance. The two were childhood sweethearts and have been together for more than 50 years.

Given their trials as children, Romus Jefferies indicated that he was happy to know that today’s youth was getting the whole story.

“The youths need to understand what we went through and the paths we set for them,” Jefferies said. “We experienced what the minister was talking about. I had to go to the back door to order a sandwich. It was crazy. You could be walking down the street, and somebody would drive by and call you names. It was rough.”

Conveying that message to his students is a mission of Salisbury Principal Marvin Moore because of how ingrained the Black story is with the American story.

“Black History is American History,” Moore said. “We must be intentional about telling the stories of struggle, pain, slavery and oppression because they are true. They set up the appreciation and beauty of the triumphant journey that we have been trailblazing both because of it and in spite of it. The city of Salisbury is a very diverse community, and our students reflect its diversity very well. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and after watching the integration program that our staff and students created, our future is very bright.”