Gwendolyn Matthews’ first bus ride to Cary High School was quiet. And then she saw the protesters.
“I wasn’t nervous until the school bus drove up to the campus and saw this crowd of people saying, ‘Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate,’” recalled Matthews, now 65.
She stepped off the bus and made her way through the mob, ready to begin her junior year as one of the first six African-American students at Cary High School in 1963.
Half a century ago, Raleigh had its own school system and had already begun to enroll some black students in white schools. But in the more-rural Wake County system, Cary High led the charge, becoming the first high school to mix races.
It all started with cigar-smoke-clouded conversations on the back porch of Henry Adams’ house on Academy Street.
That’s where Adams, who served on the Wake County school board, convinced Paul Cooper, Cary’s district principal, it was time to allow black students into the school.
They knew it wasn’t going to be easy, said Adams’ son, Charlie Adams. People would be angry. It could split the town in two.
“I think he was truly a visionary because he looked down the road and realized what was going on wasn’t working,” said Charlie Adams, 76, who now lives in Chapel Hill.
Henry Adams and Cooper hatched a plan: They would enroll a few African-American girls the first year in hopes of easing the transition. The girls would be bright, outgoing.
They would be strong-willed enough to take what was inevitably coming to them.
A new start
Growing up in the Method community of western Raleigh, Matthews didn’t think much about black and white.
The oldest of five children, Matthews lived with her homemaker mother and her dad, who made blueprints for a home-building company.
Their home sat next to Matthews’ grandparents’ farm, where the family raised chicken and hogs and grew vegetables.
Neighbors helped each other out on the farms, no matter the color of their skin, Matthews said. She used to play with a white girl who lived across the street.
But Matthews knew things were different outside her neighborhood. She saw the “colored” water fountains during shopping trips to downtown Raleigh.
She thrived at the black Berry O’Kelly High, where she joined the cheerleading squad, acted in plays and sang in the choir.
Her father, Alton Matthews, who was active in the NAACP, came to her one day with news: She was chosen to attend the white Cary High School.
Matthews, 16 at the time, didn’t want to leave her friends behind.
“So when I found out, I was not a happy camper,” she said. “But you were not going to say, ‘No.’”
Matthews’ cousin, Brenda Hill, was also among the original six girls. They rode together on the bus that first day.
A gradual shift
Cary High already had a rich history. Built in 1870, it began as a private boarding school for boys and girls all over North Carolina.
Then it became the state’s first publicly funded high school in the early 20th century.
And in 1963, the newly built school on Walnut Street became a sign of troubled times. Some white families even sued the school board in a case that made it all the way to the state Supreme Court before it was thrown out, said local historian Peggy Van Scoyoc.
Henry Adams’ friends turned on him, his son said. The family got nasty phone calls and letters.
Fifty years might have a way of clouding history, and Van Scoyoc said two versions have emerged about the school’s desegregation.
“When you talk to the white folks, they say, ‘Oh it went so smoothly,’ ” she said.
As for the blacks? “It was hell on earth – not easy.”
Matthews said she didn’t have to fend off physical attacks that first day, or any day after. But the racial slurs hurt just as bad.
Her father had tried to warn her about the name-calling, Matthews said, but she wasn’t “prepared for the intensity.” Her father also told her not to retaliate – to just keep quiet.
Mostly, she said, white students and even some teachers ignored her and the five others.
“They would not sit (near) me, so they’d move their desks,” Matthews said. “I’d be a little island sitting there by myself.”
Matthews remained an island for the last two years of her high school career. Gone were the days of cheerleading and acting in plays.
She wasn’t sure if extra-curricular groups would shun her, but she didn’t want to risk rejection.
And then, slowly, Matthews noticed a shift, if only a small one. A white boy offered to help with the math problems she struggled with. She befriended two white girls who later became the namesakes for Matthews’ younger sisters.
“If they saw me in the hall they’d say hi,” Matthews said.
Sharing her story
Matthews graduated from Cary High in 1965, as the school began enrolling more and more black students. She went on to become the first African-American to graduate from Meredith College in Raleigh.
Once again, she found herself among mostly white people. But it was a different experience, she said.
“One young lady said, ‘I’ve never met a black person besides my maid,’ ” Matthews recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not your maid.’ She laughed, and I laughed.”
After she earned a master’s degree, Matthews spent her career as an English teacher, mostly at Wake Tech Community College.
For a long time, she didn’t want to talk about her experience in Cary. Some things are better left in the past, she figured.
She was bitter for a while, but not so much anymore. Now she doesn’t mind sharing her experiences.
Matthews didn’t return to Cary High, except for one class reunion. She didn’t see any reason to go back.
Recently, though, she visited the campus where the bus dropped her off that first September day 50 years ago. Being there didn’t evoke many strong emotions, she said.
“I don’t have anything in my that says, ‘This brings back fear.’ ”