AUTHOR’S NOTE: I wrote this column in June of 2015 upon the death of J.A. Freeman, the longtime educator, first principal at integrated Cummings High School and a political leader. It reminded me of a similar figure from my youth growing up in Stokes County — John L. Hairston.
When I heard last Sunday about the death of John A. Freeman, my thoughts went back to my days as a sports reporter here at the Times-News. A lot of nights in the mid-1980s were spent at Cummings High School, where Mr. Freeman — and even a disrespectful, goateed young reporter like myself called him “Mr. Freeman” — was a fixture. He was always at the gym or stadium or baseball field. Often I would catch him at halftime where he stood quietly amid the swarms of people around him. He always acknowledged me with a smile — sometimes a friendly nod if the area was especially crowded — and we would go about our business.
I don’t recall going to Cummings even one time and not seeing Mr. Freeman, even if I stopped by on an afternoon to talk to Jerry Woodside or Dave Gutshall, who were the basketball and football coaches back then. It was such a warm place, a welcoming place. I felt at home there.
The principal is usually the architect of stuff like that; this I understood. I also knew, for example, that Mr. Freeman was the only principal in Cummings history at that time. And I was keenly aware of when he took the job and what kind of circumstances were at hand. It occurred when schools integrated, a period that truly defines the phrase coined by English writer Charles Dickens: It was the best of times and the worst of times.
And then I thought about John L. Hairston — an unfamiliar name to folks around here. But in Stokes County, he’s a towering figure. He took on a similarly daunting task because he was the only man in the town of Walnut Cove at the time who could. He gave up a lot to do so, and at no small amount of peril.
And he helped bring peace to a troubled community.
IN THE FALL of 1969, I was entering the fifth grade. By any standard that’s a strange time to be a kid. I was leaving elementary school behind for the new challenges sure to be presented by middle school. Even at age 10, I recognized a rite of passage when it presented itself.
Ordinarily that would be angst-inducing enough. In the late summer of 1969, though, it was a subplot. Schools were integrating. It’s all the adults talked about — but they did so in whispers using words spelled out so children wouldn’t get the full meaning. On the other hand, kids didn’t speak of it at all. Looking back, I’m not sure we understood what it was about.
In many ways, I still don’t.
All I knew is that I would be attending school in “London.” This was confusing. I was pretty sure no buses could get to the place I recognized as London, which was somewhere across the ocean.
My mom and dad explained that there was a “London” in Walnut Cove, too. It was where black families lived. The community I had never seen — even though it was less than a mile from my grandfather’s house — also had its own school. That was something else I didn’t know. What was called the London School would become known as Walnut Cove Grammar School in 1969. Instead of housing all black students from grades one to 12, black and white students would attend together in grades 5 to 8. Black students would join white students at the formerly all-white South Stokes High School and Walnut Cove Primary School.
It all sounded fine to me. I just had one wish — that grownups would stop acting like it was something scarier than “Shock Theater” on TV.
JOHN L. HAIRSTON was the principal of the London School and by all accounts a successful one. According to “The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White” written by Henry Wiencek, he joined the school as a teacher in the 1950s, even though he had an engineering degree from North Carolina A&T State University. A few years into his teaching career, he was offered a much higher paying engineering job in the North, but ultimately turned it down because he felt more could be accomplished by educating Stokes County’s black children.
Wiencek, in fact, likened John L. to the movie character George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He had many chances to leave home for greener and less perilous pastures, but each time made the tough decision. His goal? To groom students to “take on the world.”
John L., whom many of us called “Mr. John L.,” built a formidable school in the London community, which was a source of pride. As federal pressure to integrate schools grew, so did worries in London that their school would be closed and “John L.” would be out of a job. Those fears became more real after a speech by John L. before the Board of Education, a call for conciliation and cooperation but also a plea for equal opportunities for black students and teachers.
The result? In 1968, black students from the London School led a peaceful protest on Main Street in Walnut Cove, a day that turned a tide in the small town. They wanted their school to remain open and for their principal, John L. Hairston, to remain. They also integrated a café in town where black customers were previously served from the back door, as well as the movie theater. Wiencek calls it “The Liberation of Walnut Cove.”
In the end, protesting students got their wish, too. On that late August day in 1969, I arrived by bus at the very foreign Walnut Cove Grammar School, in a neighborhood I had never seen before, and every single student from every grade was ushered into the gym, where John L. Hairston stood and addressed us all. I have no recollection of what he said that day. I only knew that everything was going to be OK.
It felt like home.