Second Ward High School
In a segregated Charlotte, signs proclaiming "Whites Only" or "Colored" hung over drinking fountains and on restrooms doors. African Americans could live only in certain areas, work only in certain jobs, and in fact visit only certain parks and libraries.
In this landscape of oppression, Second Ward High School was, in the words of one student, "an oasis in the desert."
For if the world outside was hostile, the world at school was accepting and nurturing, a place where teachers tended not just to your education, but to your body and soul as well. "Second Ward was the second best thing to going to heaven," says Price Davis, who graduated in the 1930s.
Second Ward High School, the first Charlotte high school for blacks, opened in 1923. Early graduates received diplomas embossed with "Charlotte's Colored High School." Before this, African-American students had to travel out of town to private schools or black colleges to receive a high school diploma.
Mildred Alridge, now in her nineties, remembers watching Second Ward being built. She was in grammar school at the nearby Myers Street School.
"I was excited that my friends and I could walk across the street over to First and Alexander Streets to this new school," says Alridge, a graduate of the class of 1924. At Second Ward, former teacher Alene McCorkle says, "There was love all over the place. And respect."
Second Ward High School was located where the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center now stands, across from the Adam's Mark hotel on the southern edge of downtown Charlotte. The school was the heart of the Second Ward neighborhood, which bridged downtown and Dilworth. In its heyday, "Brooklyn," as it was called it, was home to more than a thousand families.
The teachers at Second Ward were known for their deep dedication. Many had degrees from northern colleges like Columbia University, Boston University, and the University of Rochester, but returned home to this small, segregated school to share what they had learned with the community. Teachers made sure students understood more than just the words on the page.
"We felt that those students were our children," says Alene McCorkle who graduated from the school in 1931 and returned as a teacher. She taught math at the school for 31 years, and says she spent "a large part of my life in that building." Second Ward was the focus of the community at a time there was no television and few radios.
It wasn't until McCorkle moved to a formerly all-white school that she became aware of the inequities between the two separate school systems, one for whites and one for blacks. "I realized then that everything we had at Second Ward was old and used, the books, the band instruments, and the uniforms. We did all kinds of things to raise money for the materials we needed just to teach."
Teachers and staff lived in the neighborhood or nearby and would often come in contact with students' parents. Miriam Bates, daughter of longtime principal Jefferson Grigsby, remembers, "My father would have conferences with parents wherever — the grocery store, a shop, at church. Second Ward was my dad's life and he was dedicated to the students. He would often make house calls into a student's home."
Teachers often took report cards directly to parents. "We would make sure the students had what they needed; sometimes they needed food or clothes. We just loved them," says Alene McCorkle.
Former county commissioner Jim Richardson, a Second Ward graduate, recalls, "It is hard to explain the family feeling of Second Ward but it was an all-pervasive attitude. The school was a very important part of our lives and inspired you to be the best."
Second Ward closed in 1969 and was torn down when the surrounding neighborhood was leveled by the city in an attempt at urban renewal. But alumni established the Second Ward High School National Alumni Foundation, Inc., with a permanent home and museum on Beatties Ford Road in west Charlotte, to preserve the history of the area's black community. Only a memorial sign stands on the site of Second Ward High School, which was a refuge for Charlotte's African-American students from 1923 to 1969.
Vermelle Diamond Ely, the foundation archivist, is the daughter of Kenneth Diamond Sr., who taught French at Second Ward. Her father's personal archive of historic community photos are an important part of the collection.
"The school and neighborhood and this part of Charlotte history are gone," she says, "but through our foundation and this collection, we are still alive."
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