Arts & Culture

This Wake County school wasn't going to open on time. But the community stepped up.

Garner Senior High School opened in 1968. When construction wasn't complete, community members stepped in to get the school ready.
Garner Senior High School opened in 1968. When construction wasn't complete, community members stepped in to get the school ready.

On Aug. 28, 1968, Wake County schools superintendent Aaron Fussell was authorized to decide if the new Garner Senior High, the pride and hope of the community, would open on time.

Fussell told the school board he would announce his decision in three days, about 72 hours before the scheduled Sept. 3 opening.

The interesting start of Garner Senior High School is the subject of my latest play, “68: Our Finest Hour.”

I was a sports writer for The News & Observer for almost 50 years, and I’ve always enjoyed telling stories. I also enjoy the theater. Since sports was my work, theater became my recreation.

Three years ago, I started what I hope will be a 12-year project to tell the history of my hometown, Garner. “’65: War At Your Door” was about the events of April 12, 1965, in southern Wake County. “’45: More Than A Name” was about World War II and the community. Last year’s “87: One Town, One School, One Team, One Community” was about Garner Senior High’s 1987 state 4A football championship.

This year’s show, presented March 22, 23 and 24 at the Garner Performing Arts Center, is about a lot more than whether the doors of a new building would swing open.

There really was no decision, practically speaking, about whether the school would open in place and on time.

The supervising architect told the school board on Aug. 28 that year that the building would be completed some time after Christmas. A few classrooms and some offices would be ready by the scheduled opening date, but there would be no library, no auditorium, no gymnasium. No cafeteria. No parking. No front entrance. No heat. No air conditioning.

Some rooms lacked ceiling tile and flooring tile. Some rooms lacked floors all altogether. Doors still leaned against walls, waiting to be hung. There were great open spaces awaiting panes of glass. The whole place was filthy from building debris, boxes of school materials and dirt tracked in during the construction process.

Fussell said, if need be, the juniors and seniors who were to integrate the senior high school would open the school year at Garner Consolidated School. Consolidated had been a union school for black children with grades one through 12. The school, which now houses East Garner Middle, was to house the community’s seventh graders under the school system's desegregation plan.

But the Garner Consolidated facility was far too small to hold the juniors and seniors from Garner High, which was the community’s school for white children, and the Garner Consolidated students.

H. Wayne Bare, the former principal at Garner High and the newly named Garner Senior principal, recently said moving to Garner Consolidated was never a real option, especially trying to move an entire school on 72 hours’ notice.

“Realistically, there was no option. There was no plan B. We were going to open at the new school,” said Margie Hall, who taught health occupations at the new school.

A plea went out to the community, and people descended on the new school during the extended Labor Day weekend to get to work, voiding all sorts of warranties, but allowing the school to open on time.

But “68” is no more a play about the opening of a building than “87” was about a football game. “’87” was about community, and so is “’68”.

1968 was a turbulent year. The Vietnam conflict spawned protests. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. There were demonstrations for civil rights and women’s rights. Television satellites helped bring worldwide events into our homes in real time. The Cold War was getting hot and civilization was forever changed as humanity ventured into outer space.

1968 was a year of change. Time magazine said it was “like a knife blade, the year severed past from future.”

And in that atmosphere, a small suburban Southern town with deep rural roots undertook integrating its schools.

That was one of the reasons that Bare said Garner Senior had to open on time and on the campus. The promise of a new integrated school in a new building had been made to the community. Any deviation from that promise would be a betrayal.

Bare told the faculty and staff that Garner Senior would be a school with no tradition. A new beginning. He said there was little the community could do about world events, but that the community could provide a haven for all its children. Garner Senior, he said, must be a place where each child felt valued and safe.

Bare, who would begin his second year as a principal at the new school, believed the community would uphold its part of the bargain if the school system did.

“Garner was so successful in integrating its schools because the community believed integration was too important to fail,” said J. Michael McElreath, who contributed an article about integration in North Carolina to "With All Deliberate Speed."

That is the real story of “68.”

Tim Stevens is a correspondent for The News & Observer. Email him at timstevens710@gmail.com.

If you go

What: "68: Our Finest Hour" is about the opening of Garner Senior High in 1968 and the challenges it faced the first year.

When: 7:30 p.m. March 22 and 23; 2 p.m. March 24

Where: Garner Performing Arts Center

Tickets: $15 and $20. They are available at the Garner Chamber of Commerce, the Garner Performing Arts Cente and online at garnerperformingartscenter.com.

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