I had no idea as a sixth-grader how much history - my history - is cloaked in the school known then as Washington Sixth-Grade Center. Had I known, I might’ve puffed my chest with pride - or grown a head too big for my barrettes.
Last Friday, students at Washington G.T. Magnet Elementary School took a trip down Legacy Lane with visits from their schools alumni as part of the schools week-long 90th Year Celebration.
I went with them, thrilled to be alongside my aunt Sydney J. Roberts who was among several people invited back to help students connect the past and present. For me, memories of other Washington High School alumni buttress the oral histories I waited until college to actually hear coming from my own family.
“What did Washington look like when you came to Washington?” Timmy Liu asked Harry Payne, who attended the school until it closed.
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“You all have beautiful colors,” said Payne, 77. “The school wasnt really well-maintained. Schools were segregated. We never had new books or anything; we only got hand-me-downs from other schools, but our teachers were determined we were going to make it, and we did.”
Back then, black students across North Carolina had nowhere to learn after grade school. After the collapse of a short-lived deal that welcomed black high school students at Shaw and St. Augustines universities, black folks rallied. A bond referendum led to the construction of Washington High School, which opened in 1923 as the first black public high school.
And so began my family and community legacy with Washington, a school that transformed its purpose over its years, yet retained enough of its original Jacobean Revival-style architecture to earn a listing in 2005 on the National Register of Historic Places.
Like many before and after him, my granddaddy, Sidney W. Roberts, born in 1911 and raised in Pittsboro, left home to attend Washington High School. His sweetheart, my gran-gran, Elizabeth Moore Roberts, moved to Greensboro to attend Dudley High School.
My aunt Sydney, my daddy, the late Frank Roberts; and their two brothers, also deceased, attended Washington in the 40s and early 50s. Three of them became alumni. Daddy graduated in Ligon High Schools first Class of 1954. Years later, he became Ligon’s head football coach.
Following college and grad school, Aunt Sydney became an elementary school teacher at Washington, leading to my early memories of morning drop-offs at nursery school around the bend from the school.
In 1977, I graced the halls at Washington Sixth-Grade Center. Granddaddy died that year, too.
I spent some of my time last week on the very third-floor hallway I walked as a sixth-grader. Years might haze my memory, but I’m pretty sure I visited the same classroom, Room 320.
There, my aunt was joined by Oscar Hinton and Rosebud Reubel, classmates who’d attended Washington but finished at Ligon in 1955. They’d spent part of that morning sharing oral histories at Ligon’s 60-year celebration.
“The students were very surprised and very interested to hear what we said about the hardships as well as joys we experienced as we traveled — by foot — from our various communities to that single school because it was the only place we could go,” Reubel said. “They were fascinated. Something of this nature should go on more often.”
Hinton, 77, who also is a Shaw University alumnus who spent most of his teaching career in Washington, D.C., was surprised the history of blacks, even of blacks in Raleigh, is not being actively taught.
“I’m glad it was held,” he said Hinton noting well-behaved students with impressive questions that showed me a sign our younger generation, at least in that age bracket, is on the right track.
"We just have to keep them from getting polluted by the ideas that were around when we were their age," he said.
It was a sight to behold: Students in awe of the oral histories of their school and community, and alumni tickled to share with them and marvel at a school display case of class pictures, text books, letterman’s jackets and other priceless memorabilia from their school days.
A picture of Washington’s 80th year includes Legacy Lane’s youngest returning alumni, Emmanuel “Poobie” Chapman, a North Carolina Central University senior point
guard who helped the Eagles win the 2014 MEAC Championship and harness the schools first-ever dance in the NCAA Championship Tournament.
“Going back helped me become a cornerstone, a role model of alumni of Washington, and it helped me celebrate those who came before me,” said Chapman, 22. He attended third through fifth grades at Washington.
“For me, actually coming back and celebrating what I have accomplished since I left, shows a move forward progress. Hopefully, the generation after me will strive to accomplish even more.”