James R. Farris was the golf coach at the new Garner Senior High in 1968, but there was a problem: He was black, and blacks weren't allowed on some golf courses.
So Farris had to stay on the team bus sometimes, sending a white coach in his place. He recently recalled the humiliation he felt, and the insults and racial slurs he heard.
Farris, who also coached boys basketball at Garner, died May 3 at an assisted-living facility in Gainesville, Ga. A memorial service will begin at 1 p.m. Saturday at Springfield Baptist Church in Raleigh.
Farris had the privilege of knowing his legacy before he died. He helped open the integrated Garner Senior High 50 years ago, welcoming students from the all-black Garner Consolidated School and the nearly all-white Garner High. The building's construction was behind schedule, and it had no cafeteria, library, heat or conditioning when it opened.
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The story of the school's beginning was the focus of a play I wrote and produced, "68: Our Finest Hour." It was presented this spring at the Garner Performing Arts Center.
The former coach was portrayed in the show, but Farris was unable to attend because of his failing health. So his family recorded a video of him relating part of his story, and the clips became part of the play.
Farris, still slim and with a steady voice, spoke of those early days when he was forbidden from stepping onto the grounds of some golf courses.
Farris believed there were plenty of heroes when it came to the integration of Wake County schools. Most notable to him was H. Wayne Bare, a young, second-year principal who vowed there would be no black or white children at Garner Senior High. There would simply be children.
“Mr. Bare was the best principal I ever had,” Farris said weeks before his death. “Lots of people can say the words about our children, but Mr. Bare meant them. He was always Mr. Bare to me. It was a way to show my respect. He was then and always will be Mr. Bare.”
Farris turned to Bare for help when the indignities he endured as a golf coach took a toll. When one of the other coaches informed him that blacks were not allowed on the course for the following week's match, Farris had had enough.
He proclaimed that the Garner golf team would not show up for the match if the coach couldn't coach. He admitted later that he used some profanity when he talked to Bare about it.
Farris also said he unloaded on a local college assistant coach when the assistant asked Farris why he wanted to be that way.
“Want to be this way? Want to be this way?" Farris' character says in the play, echoing the coach's recollection. "I don’t want to be this way. I want things to change."
Bare made some phone calls that evening, and the restrictions on black coaches were lifted the next day.
Some teachers, students and community members reached out to Farris for the 50th anniversary of Garner Senior High this year. Wes Whitt, who now lives in Carteret County, wrote Farris a letter and visited him in Georgia.
“When I heard about the play it brought back some memories. I couldn’t get out of my mind how much Coach Farris had meant to me,” Whitt said. “But I had never told him. I had to let him know. “
Farris had something that he wanted to tell the community, too. He had a secret that he had kept from everyone, even his family. It was a secret that he said still haunted his sleep 50 years later.
He had decided before the 1968 season started that since three-fourths of the students at the school were white, he would start three white players in every basketball game. The recollection pained him. He said he believed it was the right thing to do at the time even though it went against everything he believed as a coach.
His sixth man that year, he said, should have been a starter. The sixth man was black, and that's why he didn't start.
In a way, Farris said, he had been guilty of the same thing as those golf courses that kept him on the bus so many years ago. In the closing minutes of the play, Farris, in a film clip, asked for forgiveness.
In his last days, his body failing him but his mind still sharp, Farris knew he was forgiven and that he was loved. He also knew his life had made a difference to the students he had taught and the athletes he had coached.
“They’ve given up on me,” Farris said after revealing hospice had been called to help him through his last days. “But that’s all right.”