Dorothy Counts (1942- ) was the first Black person to go Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina in the southern US. That was on September 4th 1957. Pictures of her first day made the news worldwide, calling James Baldwin back from Paris:
“I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.”
On that morning she put on a blue dress her grandmother had made her, prayed and remembered her father’s words:
“Hold your head up high. You’re not less than anyone else.”
Streets near the school were blocked. She had to walk the last two blocks. Whites were spitting on her, calling her names, throwing sticks and stones and milk cartons, telling her to go back to Africa. She was not afraid. She did not get angry. She just kept walking. By the time she got to the front door, spit was dripping off the bottom of her dress.
Once in school it got no better. People pushed her, jeered her, threw things at her when she was not looking. Teachers acted like she was not there, even when she raised her hand, even when boys were spitting in her food.
Two White girls befriended her – but then unfriended her when they started getting harassed too.
On the fourth day someone hit her in the back of the head with a sharp object. Now they were trying to actually hurt her. When she got to the car to go home she saw the back window smashed – with her brother inside. Now she was afraid.
“I did not feel I was being protected in any way within the confines of the school because there were adults there and they did nothing.”
Neither the school nor the police were willing to protect her. And, unlike Elizabeth Eckford and others of the Little Rock Nine, she had no army protection. So her father sent her north, to suburban Philadelphia, to live with relatives and go to an already integrated school.
The experience made her not bitter but better, determined “to make sure that bad things don’t happen to other children.” She went to university and became a preschool teacher and social worker. She still lives near the high school.
Two Whites asked for her forgiveness in later years. She told them she had forgiven them long ago.
Desegregation: The county schools would go on to fight school desegregation all the way to the Supreme Court, which forced it on them in 1971 in Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. But then in 1999 the courts overturned it.
By 2010 Counts was saying of her granddaughter’s high school:
“At the beginning of the school year, they would go for weeks without books, for weeks without enough chairs for everyone in the classroom. When I heard about that I thought, Lord, this brings back memories.”
Now in her 70s, she is still fighting for desegregation, frustrated but determined.
– Abagond, 2017
- Elizabeth Eckford – walked to school in Little Rock on the same day. The governor’s soldiers blocked her, but later the president’s soldiers protected her.
- That Norman Rockwell painting
- school resegregation
- James Baldwin
- Charlotte, North Carolina