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Interview with Vernelle Best (with Ethel Gerald),  November 7, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Vernelle Best (with Ethel Gerald),  November 7, 2002
November 7, 2002
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Vernelle Best (with Ethel Gerald) Interviewer:  Johnson, Joyce / Cody, Sue Date of Interview:  11/7/2002 Series:  Williston High School Length:  75 minutes


Johnson: The overall purpose of this interview is to capture the history of not only Williston, but the region. So we’re here today to talk to Mrs. Ethyl Gerald and Mrs. Vernelle Best. They are alumnus of Williston Industrial High School.

Interviewer – Joyce Johnson

Interviewer 2 – Sue Cody

Johnson: First I’d like to ask each of you about your early life starting with Mrs. Best.

Best: Well I was born in Wilmington. I went to Williston for the four years preceding my graduation in 1947. I went to college for two years and then got married and the rest is history.

Johnson: What about your parents’ occupations and your occupation?

Best: My father died early. My mother was a beautician. She owned a beauty shop on Nixon Street, she finished at Williston too in 1932.

Johnson: And Mrs. Gerald?

Gerald: Well, my name is Ethyl Thomas Gerald. I’m a graduate of 1956. I was born in Wilmington. I was raised in the north side of town and the area was between Bladen and Hyatt Street. There was a gentleman that owned a lot of houses in there. His last name was Schutt’s. Schutts, spelled S-C-H-U-T-T apostrophe S. We lived there until I graduated. When I graduated from high school, I went to New York for about a year. I returned home and I’ve been here ever since.

Cody: Good for you, we’re glad you came back (laughter).

Johnson: What were your best subjects in school, Mrs. Best?

Best: My best subject was mathematics, although now I can do only 2 and 2 but um…(laughter). Business, they had typing classes and I really enjoyed that. They had just started giving typing two or three years before I graduated. I really enjoyed it.

Johnson: Who was your typing teacher, do you remember?

Best: Anna Burnett. As a matter of fact I went on to West Virginia State and majored in business administration and I’ve done that for the balance of my life, some type of clerical office work.

Johnson: And Mrs. Gerald?

Gerald: When I was in New York, I worked at Mason Childs Cleaners. I was a counter clerk person to receive the laundry and the dry cleaning and that was what I did before I returned to Wilmington. And are you going to ask me what was my favorite subject?

Johnson: Yes I am (laughter).

Gerald: My favorite subject WAS history and I really tried to apply that well because I keep a lot of history and most of my history is about Williston.

Cody: And we’re glad you kept it (laughter).

Johnson: Now what other activities did you participate in, in high school?

Best: Well, I was a cheerleader and I couldn’t sing so I wasn’t in the Glee Club or anything like that, but um… I can’t think of anything else right now.

Johnson: What about any of the social clubs?

Best: They didn't have many social clubs during that time. They came afterward, but our socializing was done, all socializing was done at the school or at your church, so we didn't have anywhere else to go but the school.

Johnson: And Mrs. Gerald?

Gerald: Socializing, are you referring to?

Johnson: Well, what other activities were you involved in?

Gerald: Well, I had played a little tennis, not a lot, but I did play a little bit, but my main thing was to play softball across 10th Street in the field and I could really hit that ball and I could run too (laughter). That was my thing. Enjoyed it.

Johnson: Tell me about your favorite teachers?

Best: Well all a lot of them were my favorite ones, but Mrs. McKeithan, she taught French, and she was one and above of my favorites. Miss King, I really liked her, I loved her.

Cody: What did she teach?

Best: English, she taught English.

Johnson: Mrs. Gerald, who are your favorite teachers?

Gerald: My favorite teacher, I had more than one. I considered my first grade teacher very, very special and also Miss Ruthie Roundtree Davis and of course Ezell Johnson, which was my fourth grade teacher. They were all dear to us, but those were the ones that kind of stood out to me.

Best: I don’t mean to interrupt you, but Ruthie Roundtree Davis was my classmate (laughter).

Gerald: She taught over there after Mr. Munroe left.

Cody: So Miss Davis taught what grade?

Gerald: She taught, well, um, she was filling in for Mr. William Monroe who had left for the entire year and the next year she finished out for the school year also to replace him. She was there during my senior time and she has just always been an excellent person, very well thought of by all of the children, but she was just so nice to me. She would help me with my homework in the afternoons. She would buy things for me because my grandmother raised me and a lot of times things that I didn't have and would not have had, had it not been for her.

Cody: Yeah, the teachers were more than teachers at Williston.

Gerald: They were.

Johnson: Talk about classmates you remember, what other notable graduates would you think we should know about?

Best: Classmates, uh? There were 99 of us that graduated and several were teachers. Two were doctors, one lawyer and one worked with the Peace Corps and several other occupations. We’re real proud of them.

Gerald: We had quite a bit of people that graduated in ’56, Barbara Collins Bright sang opera and she is VERY well known all over.

Cody: Where does she live now?

Gerald: She lives in Atlanta, Georgia. We have Delores Grayton Brown, which does a lot of plays. She performs at Thalian quite a bit.

Johnson: Now is she still in Wilmington?

Gerald: She’s still in Wilmington.

Johnson: Were there any others you can think of?

Gerald: Well, it’s like you said, we have a lot of them, you know, that teach school. Althea Williams, which is my classmate, she taught, she was the principal. Excuse me, she was the principal at Williston and Adolph Green, which is now retired, but he also taught school here in Wilmington.

Best: Is he the director of the Boys Club? The Community Boys Club, for long, long years?

Gerald: Not Adolph, you’re thinking of Adolph Richards, I’m saying. Adolph Green my classmate, Richards is who you’re referring to.

Cody: You’re thinking of who?

Gerald: Adolph Richards.

Cody: What class was he in, do you know?


Cody: Look at that, you know (laughter). That’s great. Are you the official historian of the Williston?

Gerald: Well, I’m not the official one, but I’m kind of more or less the contact person. They say if I don’t have it, they don’t have it (laughter).

Johnson: It can’t be had (laughter).

Johnson: And I know that a lot of celebrities visited Williston. Tell me about some of those that visited while you were in high school.

Gerald: Roland Hayes, he was a singer. I have the playbill here. It cost a dollar, fifty cents for him. He was an opera singer. I remember Mary McLoud Bethune. She didn't come to Williston, but she came to a church, St. Stephen’s Church and spoke. It was just so exciting.

Cody: Yeah, great lady. So how old were you when she came to town approximately?

Gerald: About 14, 15 years old.

Best: The person that stands out in my mind is Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson came to Williston in 1955 and it cost $500 to get him here. I remember very well how we were doing a lot of fundraising and, uh, this $500 that was supposed to be paid in order to bring him here. The next person I can relate to is Meadow. He says Meadowlark, but when we all knew him, he was just Meadow. Someone said the other day, “Don’t forget to put the lark on there!” But I can remember when we just said, “Hey Meadow” (laughter).

Cody: And what class was he in?

Gerald: He was in the class of ’52.

Johnson: Who else do you think we should talk with?

Gerald: I suggest Miss Catherine Inden and Miss Hannah Nixon.

Cody: They were both, what classes were they in?

Gerald: Miss Nixon was in ’33 and Miss Inden was in ’34. Miss Carrie Ballard, I think she was in 1928.

Johnson: My goodness, yes. And they’re all still living in Wilmington?

Gerald: They’re all here. Those were the names that I gave to you, Mrs. Johnson.

Cody: We’ll get out to see them, that’s for sure.

Johnson: How did you feel about the closing of Williston, Ms. Best?

Best: Well, I felt bad about it and good about it. I knew that then my children were going to school and I felt good because I knew they would get what they needed to gain an education, but I felt bad about it because we would lose an institution. We would lose the teachers. That was the backbone of Williston, the teachers that really cared about the children and it was more an extension of the family. They learned at school, they learned at home. It was just a mixed feeling.

Cody: And if something happened at school, they were going to learn about it at home later on anyway.

Best: Yes, that’s right.

Johnson: And what about you Mrs. Gerald?

Gerald: Well, it was depressing to see our roots taken away from us. The doors were closed in 1968 and that was almost like losing a family member, but in order to gain a better education I realized that that had to take place, but in the event that it had taken place the way it did, that was bad for all of the people who attended Williston and for right on, it’s still devastating.

Cody: It still hurts.

Gerald: It still hurts, but I would really like to say they closed the doors, but not that feeling that we have for Williston because as is stated, ‘Down deep in our heart lies a love so strong and true’ and that is really what it is for Williston, all of the people that had not graduated from there or had never gone there.

Johnson: Now do you think it would have been better if Williston had kept open as an integrated school or do you think it could have been done?

Best: I think it could have been done to a certain degree if they had equal equipment, equal everything they had at New Hanover High. There were but two schools then. But we got books that were obviously used by students at New Hanover and in science class; we had to go in a ditch from the 10th street to 13th Street. It was a ditch, it wasn’t a street then. We had to go out there and catch our own frogs and crayfish to learn biology.

Cody: To dissect?

Best: Yes, if we had had the other, what do you call it, the canned frogs and so forth; we would have not spent so much time outside. We could have been learning other things. But we learned. I still have mixed feelings about them merging the schools.

Johnson: Mrs. Gerald?

Gerald: It would have been better had it remained an all black school. That was the plus when we were able to integrate because we were able to get new books and better supplies. The minus is just that we would have rather stayed where we were, even though it was supposed to have been better for us. I don’t know about keeping…well, could it have been kept open.

Possibly so, but it may have been quite a struggle in order to do that because I’m sure you probably had to have a lot of petitions and marching and so forth and I don’t know while we were marching if we should have been in the classroom trying to learn rather than be marching. It was something we just looked on as it had to happen.

Best: What about our culture? At Williston and Peabody and other schools, we were taught our culture by the teachers. They were not in the books. They taught us what they knew about George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington and all that. We lost that. My children did not learn that because they weren’t taught that.

Cody: They skipped that part entirely.

Best: Yes.

Cody: That’s a good point, that heritage was lost.

Best: Yes, it’s so important.

Cody: You said too, you know, that when you were growing up that really the places that you socialized were through the school and the church so what about after the closing and social events? Was it just the church then or were there other…

Gerald: At each other’s houses and at centers. They had one or two recreation centers.

Cody: I guess that’s part of the reason the Alumni Association was founded too, right?

Gerald: Yes, but it was founded in the early 70’s and by that time, I had moved away, I stayed away a few years … because of the schools. I wanted my children to get more than they got and I moved to New Jersey, put my children in school there when the last one was about ready to finish.

Cody: So they finished up there?

Gerald: One finished here and the rest of them, four … three finished up there and the baby girl, she came here last year in high school.

Johnson: Tell us about the founding of the alumni association.

Gerald: The founding of the alumni was a dream that three people had, Ezell Johnson, Melvin Johnson. Um, Melvin Thompson, excuse me, and Tom Jervay. They decided that they would form this committee in order to get organized and they held a meeting on April the 28 of 1974 and on June 30 of 1974, they selected a slate of officers. The gentleman’s name was Lawrence Wiggins that was the first president of the Williston Alumni. He’s now deceased. That is the dream that they had, organizing the alumni.

Cody: Now where did they meet to talk about this?

Best: The first meeting was held at 7th and Castle at 521, it was known as the Blue Ribbon. That’s where the meetings were held. Later on they were able to get help from the Deltas and we met at 7th and Walnut in the Delta’s home for quite sometimes and we had a reason to have to leave there, then we met at the Boys and Girls Club over on 14th, no, 15th and Castle. After we were not meeting there anymore, we went to the building on 9th and Castle, which used to be Senator Jordan’s buildings. We held meetings there also and we are now presently in the old Jordan Funeral Home which is our last home.

Johnson: Tell me about some of the functions of the alumni association.

Best: The functions, we have reunions, we have dances to onset the costs of helping to raise money for the scholarship recipients and the mix is held every year in July and that gives anybody that attended Williston, graduated from Williston, to come out and just take part in whatever is going on.

Cody: How many people do you get to come to those events nowadays?

Best: It kind of varies.

Gerald: Yes, over 100 or 200. The mix is from 11 until 2:00 so they’re there at various times. Sometimes some of them stay the whole time. Various times.

Johnson: And you have different classes?

Gerald: Yes.

Best: They also …whenever they have the mix, if you are interested in wanting to sell your items that you have that have a Williston logo on them, you may set up a table and some of them have umbrellas. Some of them have tags to sell, and caps. My class did have umbrellas at one time to sell.

Gerald: And the Christmas dance, it’s usually given around Christmas day. That’s a chance for everybody that comes home from away to meet and greet others, the rest of them from Williston at the dance.

Cody: People come from far and wide?

Best: Yeah, they do and they keep up with us, we get letters from various ones. They come here and they know Ethyl. They call her and ask Ethyl where is this and where is that, what’s going on.

Johnson: I’d like to go back. You were talking about Williston and how it has touched your heart. You mentioned part of the Williston song. Who wrote that song?

Gerald: Ann Worthy wrote that song and she’s also a classmate of mine graduating in 1956. She lives in Bowling Green, Virginia now, but she always comes home for the dances and for the class reunion.

Best: I don’t know when that song was made the official school song, what year?

Gerald: I can’t right now.

Best: Well, we had a different song and a different color.

Gerald: This is yours, right here.

Best: Our colors were different in ‘47. I think they changed in 1948, but we were blue and white.

Cody: Then they switched to?

Best: Maroon and gold. I guess you call it maroon and gold. The year after, we did. We kind of insisted on having our own song.

Gerald: What they normally do whenever they have a dance or anything because ’47, ’46 and all of the classes attend, we stress that they sing the old school song and the new one.

Cody: Right, right. Everybody’s memories get taken care of. You brought some memorabilia with you. Why don’t we talk about that.

Best: I did bring some of the memorabilia. This happens really be, I don’t know if we

can see this, but this is the senior high band.

Johnson: I’ll have to get that afterward. I’ll do a shot of that afterward.

Best: That’s the senior high band and we usually would participate in the Christmas parade. It was just so pretty when you would see Williston band coming down Front Street and when they would get in front of the post office, that’s when they played “I Saw Mama Kissing Santa” (laughter). It was beautiful.

Gerald: The band used to march in the Azalea parade and everybody went to see the Williston band. They would really cut up.

Cody: Now you mentioned the Glee Club, Miss Ethyl were you in the Glee Club?

Gerald: I was not in the Glee Club.

Cody: But it was special, right? I mean I keep hearing about it.

Gerald: I was like Vernelle, I did not sing. But, uh, I remember when the Glee Club received new robes and that was another thing that they did, a fundraiser to help offset the price of those. When Mr. Washington made the announcement for the Glee Club members to come to the auditorium, Mrs. Odell was there passing out new robes.

Cody: Now Mr. Washington was the principal?

Gerald: Mr. Washington was the 12th principal and he was the principal at the senior high school when I graduated. Also they rang the bell after they got situated in the auditorium for us to come to the auditorium. When they pulled that curtain back and Williston was standing there, you’re talking about a beautiful thing. Indeed it was.

Cody: Everybody cried. Now there’s still a chorale group, right, with the alumni association?

Gerald: They sing whenever, you know, sometimes they don’t always get to practice as much as they would like to because they have different things that they normally do, but if they have a function and they want the alumni to sing, they normally get together and practice it, some of them, so they can be ready to sing.

Cody: I thought I read something about a White House performance.

Gerald: You did. You read about the White House performance and they did.

Cody: And when was that?

Gerald: They did, they went to Washington to sing at the White House. I didn't go with them, but it was another beautiful thing.

Cody: So who was president then?

Best: They weren’t paying any attention to who was president.

Johnson: That was not what was important?

Gerald: That’s one thing. We missed that.

Johnson: Now the alumni association also gives scholarships to the present?

Best: Yes, that’s one of the main things of the alumni to give scholarships to some deserving young lady or young man upon graduating from high school to further their education. That’s the alumni’s main goal.

Cody: Now does that need to be a family member of an alumnus?

Gerald: Well, they had once a time … at one time. They were asking if you would be a graduate or either attended Williston or some of your family members, but here lately …

Johnson: You’re trying to find good candidates?

Gerald: Yes.

Best: That’s the reason I joined the alumni association. They gave my daughter a scholarship when she graduated high school in 1980.

Cody: Where did she go from there?

Best: She went to North Carolina Central, but she ended up at UNCW. Now she’s a teacher. I joined at that time. They made me president for a few years. I enjoyed it. They not only give scholarships, but they help children in the community and help them with little things. They help them.

Cody: It makes the kids in the community feel that support that you all used to get from the school. A little bit of it anyway.

Johnson: Now what does Williston represent for you?

Best: Well, it represents an era gone by. It’s the culture I think mostly that it represents because going to Williston was an experience that is unexplainable. You can’t describe it. You felt that you were a part of something and you had something to fall back on and something to help push you forward. It was just an experience.

Cody: Mrs. Gerald?

Gerald: What it represents for me is the greatest school under the sun. That turned out some of the brightest students that the world could have. I just can’t think of anything else that I would rather be a part of.

Johnson: Now are you planning an alumni event for this 4th of July?

Gerald: Yes we are planning an alumni event for the 4th of July. So we’ll be having the dance the 27th of December. It will be held at the Coastline Center.

Cody: And where will your July event be?

Gerald: The July event will be 4th of July weekend as it is always. It’s always held over at the Williston facilities on S. 7th Street, the ‘Tiger Inn’ is what it’s known as now.

Best: Before then it was held on the Williston campus.

Cody: When was the last time you were in the Williston, it’s middle school now, but when was the last time you were in there? Do you recall?

Best: I was in there last year; I’m there all the time, well, not all the time, but periodically. But they’ve done all the work on it, I haven’t been there. But since when I went to Williston, Gregory was the school, Williston school.

Cody: That building that’s now Gregory.

Best: That was the building.

Cody: And Ms. Ethyl, where was the building we know as Williston Middle School?

Gerald: Okay, the building that we knew as Williston Middle School, it was finished in 1953. I went in that building in ’54. I was the third class to graduate from Williston.

Cody: So it was all spanking new?

Gerald: All spanking new. We were the third class that graduated from there.

Johnson: Now looking in your book I saw pictures of Mr. Lowe (?) and this. Bertha Todd. Was Mrs. Todd the librarian then?

Best: Mrs. Todd was the librarian then when I went to the senior high. She was a carryover from Williston Industrial, which Miss Fannie P. White was the librarian at that time. Mr. Moore was the government teacher. He graduated from Williston in 1942. Mrs. Todd when she first came to Williston, she wasn’t Mrs. Todd, she was Miss Boykins. She married Mr. Todd after she came to Wilmington.

Johnson: Mr. Todd was at the school too?

Best: Mr. Todd was at the junior high school. But he taught PE.

Cody: And she was the librarian. She did a lot for people too.

Best: She did.

Gerald: Still doing.

Johnson: Still doing, huh? She’s on our list.

Best: I remember her first telling me about this book Information Please that they have in the library. Whenever we would have a special assignment or anything, we would have to go to her to get the instructions as to where to find whatever you needed. She was always very helpful.

Cody: Now do you all remember when you first met?

Best: I met her when I joined the alumni in the early 80s.

Gerald: I joined the alumni in 1985. Vernelle was there when I went there.

Cody: And what caused you to join it?

Gerald: Well, the thing that caused me to join, I had one classmate that was already affiliated with it and she kept asking me to come and take part so I thought, well, I’d probably do it next time. We had a class meeting at her home that same Sunday. After the meeting adjourned in her home, she said you’re not going to get out of this today. So I went and found Birdie Neal, which is my classmate and I joined that same Sunday. They used to have alumni meetings held on Sunday. Now we have them on a Friday or Saturday whichever day is available for the president, of course our president now is Marge Warren.

Johnson: How many active classes do you have and do you know?

Best: It’s hard to tell. Sometimes they’ll be active this year and not active next year.

Cody: It’s hard to keep the energy up every year, isn’t it?

Best: Most classes are organized and they have regular meetings. I say most.

Gerald: But [inaudible] regular meetings. We do too.

Johnson: Now is there anything that I have not asked that you’d like to talk about.

Gerald: I don’t know if Vernelle has anything that she wanted to say.

Johnson: You brought some memorabilia.

Gerald: I wanted to also tell about Tom Jervey, which is in the class of 1932. He was the editor and publishers of the Wilmington Journal.

Johnson: I want to hear that story. Tell us about it.

Gerald: Well Tom was also affiliated with the alumni and he was really one of the founders of the Williston alumni, very supportive before he became ill.

INTERVIWER: You have something from ’32.

Best: Yes. In the class of ’32, my mother and Tom Jervey were in the… Carolyn Chestnut was there too. A lot of old Wilmingtonians that you might ...

Cody: Yeah. Names we’d recognize. What else have you got in your folder there?

Best: Memorabilia from my class in 1947.

Cody: Oh, what’s that picture?

Best: That’s the picture of the 30th reunion.

Cody: Let me try to get. There’s a little bit of glare there. That’s better. OK. Where was that held?

Best: That was held down at Wrightsville Beach at the Holiday Inn.

Cody: Before it got hit by the hurricane and they had to rebuild it (laughter).

Best: That was held in 1977. Of course I’ve got all this from ‘Miss Williston’ from 1947. There’s some old pictures. I doubt if you can get …

Cody: So they had a ‘Miss Williston?’

Best: Yes, every year they had a ‘Miss Williston’ and her court.

Cody: Right, so were you a ‘Miss Williston?’

Best: No, I wasn’t. I was too busy cheerleading (laughter).

Gerald: Yes, ‘Miss Williston’ was elected by voting for your person. You would ride around on a field on a car that was always donated from Harris Pontiac.

Johnson: Like a convertible?

Gerald: They would have a homecoming game and that’s when the queen would be crowned.

Johnson: Now were you ever queen?

Best: No, I was not a queen, but I was ‘Miss Williston Alumni’ back in ’87. In fact, I raised the highest amount of money that year and that was the way, whenever you would participate in the king and queen coronation for the alumni, if you raised the highest amount of money, you would automatically be crowned queen and that year I was. I raised the most money.

Cody: So what kind of fundraisers did you have?

Best: Well, we put on different efforts. I had tickets that were made and we would raffle off maybe appliance, a small appliance, like maybe a toaster. We would sell tickets for possibly about a dollar. We had other people, you know, helping do different things. What we used to do, we were able to get credit for the amount of tickets that you sold and for the amount of ads that you were bringing in.

So I had enough people that I knew that purchased an ad for me. Those that didn't purchase an ad, they’d purchase a ticket. That was the way I was able to obtain that.

Gerald: You would get the out of town alumni to send donations.

Best: Yes, to send you donations.

Gerald: One time they were giving one scholarship and then they got up so they could give three, one at each high school. I think that was nice and I’m sure the children appreciated it. I know I did because my daughter got one.

Johnson: Now are they still doing the king and queen contest now?

Best: They’re doing the king and queen contest, but we started a little to late this time in order to get anyone to participate so we put that on the back burner until next year and hopefully we’ll have more people that will be able to take a part.

Cody: Your picture’s in that book. What’s it say by your picture?

Gerald: This is very fragile. This is a picture of me. When we graduated from high school…

Cody: So this is your senior yearbook?

Gerald: This is my senior picture and we would also have to sit to take the senior picture. Mr. James Harris was the photographer at that time and every senior had to sit for their picture and we would have little pet words you know by our names. Mine at that time was “Alrighty, oh sweetie” (laughter).

Johnson: So did you say that aloud?

Gerald: I did.

Cody: Did it list there your activities and all your other stuff?

Gerald: It did list my activities.

Johnson: See what it reminds you of.

Gerald: [inaudible] missing so I can’t and you see how fragile it is.

Johnson: Falling apart.

Gerald: I was in the scrapbook club, the charm club and the student council and as I stated earlier, tennis.

Cody: So you were a student leader because you were in the student council. What was the scrapbook club?

Gerald: The scrapbook club was where you would do, collect pictures and what have you and make a scrapbook. They had judges in order to determine who had the best scrapbook in the class. We did pretty good.

Cody: And then the charm club, what’s that?

Gerald: The charm club, that was, you just had that element about you, you know (laughter).

Cody: Just one of many charming ladies. So how many yearbooks were published do you think? Are those still out there somewhere?

Gerald: They are still out there. What happened with this one, it’s about 46 years old so it’s a big fragile. It’s worth a lot to me. They began to make these yearbooks; I think possible in ’48 …’46.

Best: In ’46 they made the first one, ’47 they skipped. In ’48 they made them every year.

Gerald: And after that they made them every year.

Cody: I bet that last one… did they know, I guess they knew when they were making the last yearbook that it was the last one.

Johnson: I’d like to see that sometime. Now could you tell us something about the Williston exhibit at the museum?

Gerald: Yes, I think they did. The one, where was it?

Johnson: New Hanover? Cape Fear Museum?

Gerald: “More than an education, the black learning experience in New Hanover County” – that was back in ’93 when they had the exhibit and it ran a year and a half, I believe it did. I think Russell Raines was a classmate of mine,’56. He played football. There was a jacket that was on display for him and his cleats that he wore when he was in high school and there were different ensembles that the Glee Club wore that the jackets were still available and the tams that some of them wore whenever they performed with the Glee Club. There were different, I’m trying to remember, pictures of when the children went to Maffet Village School, Peabody, Dudley and little Williston.

Best: They all merged into Williston School.

Johnson: Now isn’t there a Williston room there now?

Gerald: There was a Williston room in the museum, which was purchased by fundraising when we had this event and also Joseph McNeil was the first person that had an event that was held there and I introduced Joseph McNeil that year for the very first time speaking for the Williston Room and whenever we had different people to come in from like Percy Heath, he graduated from Williston. We did a walk of fame with him. We served a reception for him and also for Joe McNeil and whenever we have different ones that come in that are Willistonians or Wilmingtonians that have a Walk of Fame, we usually try to host the reception in the Williston Room.

Cody: It’s a pretty room.

Best: Thank you. There have pictures in there of students from grade school that funneled into Williston to us.

Gerald: Harry Warren was very instrumental in helping us get that together at that time. I understand he’s in Whiteville now.

Cody: Right, the forestry museum. Started a brand new museum.

Best: Most of the money was raised by the Williston alumni. We purchased that room. The purchase of that room was $40,000.

Cody: Oh my goodness. You had to do a lot of fundraising.

Best: It is paid for (laughter).

Cody: You are proud to say. I know you all have worked hard to keep the memory alive.

Best: Very much.

Gerald: We did bring some more things. Someone said that the interview would be more than an hour, but … These are just some of the papers that I’d like to just let you see how I keep my papers and how they’re beginning to turn.

Johnson: Starting to get a little crisp, aren’t they?

Gerald: This paper here is in 1991 and as you see, you can see the Williston wall and also they talked about the Cape Fear Museum and the Williston Auditorium. That year I was president and they did this article in the Wilmington Journal.

They also have the list of their scholarship recipients that year, Alma Reid, Rasheed Malloy and I think Gabe Bradley.

Johnson: We might want to, should we change the tape. I’ve got about six minutes left. Why don’t we take a little bit of a break and I’ll change the tape here.

Johnson: OK. We’re recording again here. Let’s see what else you got Ms. Ethyl.

Best: This is the paper from Lifestyle. This bracelet that you see here, the Jewelry Box used to give these to the seniors.

Best: Oh, they gave us a small cedar chest.

Gerald: They used to give us a little charm bracelet and this is one of the Williston blazers that they wore.

Cody: For the Glee Club with the musical note.

Gerald: Down here to the very bottom, it’s a little bit difficult, but this is the raising of the flag at the Williston School in 1968, where they were at the closing.

Cody: The last time.

Gerald: And of course in the back here, you can see the band.

Cody: That’s great. So you still have your charm bracelet I bet.

Gerald: Well no, I don’t have my charm bracelet anymore. For some reason or other I misplaced it.

Cody: Do you still have your cedar chest?

Best: No (laughter).

Cody: When we’re young, we don’t recognize the significance of these things.

Best: No, we don’t recognize the value of things.

Gerald: This is the teaching staff of 1939 of Williston and these are some of the photos in 1932 and this is one of the events that was held when we were at Williston for the mix. The Star News came over and interviewed us and that was on the steps of the Williston Industrial School. That was next door to the senior building.

Johnson: That is Gregory now?

Gerald: Which is Gregory now.

Best: I remember when that first school burned down in 1938, I think it was 1938. My aunt was going there and she came home and said the school burned down, burned up her blue coat. That’s what remember.

Johnson: Isn’t it funny what we remember.

Cody: What is that framed…?

Gerald: Oh, please. I could not help but bring this. This is a picture of Williston Senior High

Johnson: It’s upside down.

Gerald: Oh, I’m sorry. This is a picture of Williston Senior High, the school that I graduated from, that was given to me when I retired from Randall Library. Most people usually give a picture of the building that they work in, but they knew how fond I was of Williston so they gave me a picture of Williston and I was just ecstatic.

Cody: So nice to be able to give somebody something you know they’re going to appreciate. So long did you work at UNCW Miss Ethyl?

Gerald: 15 years.

Cody: You worked in the library?

Gerald: I worked in the library, possibly, maybe, around about six or seven of those years.

Cody: And before that you were in…

Gerald: Before that I was the bookstore for a while. I worked in Alderman. I worked in the dorms and wherever I worked, everybody said well do you know Miss Ethyl and I said “Why not? I go all over the building”. (laughter)

Cody: And before that you worked…

Gerald: Before that I worked at Wilmington Union bus terminal for 11-1/2 years and I worked to Noble for about five years, Noble School.

Cody: So you know everybody in Wilmington pretty much (laughter).

Gerald: Well, I know a lot of people, I’ll put it that way.

Cody: And Mrs. Best, you were in New Jersey when your kids were in school and then you came back.

Best: I worked at Sunny Point before I left here. Then I worked at the U.S. District Courthouse and came back. I worked for a couple of places, the housing authority, and I retired from the Board of Education.

Gerald: You worked at Social Security too.

Best: Oh yes, Social Security, I forgot it (laughter).

Cody: So what year did you retire from the school board?

Best: ‘93, almost 10 years.

Cody: Hard to believe, isn’t it.

Best: I believe it now (laughter).

Johnson: Now did you have some other pictures to share?

Best: Well yes, these are black and white.

Cody: That’s all right, even if we don’t see them well, if they remind you of something you can tell us about.

Best: Well this was the homecoming game, high school game, the flyer is from 1946.

Cody: And what teams did you all play?

Best: Hillside High School in Durham. The football game was at Legion Stadium. They have different ads in here from businesses that were in the city then. This is the cheerleading squad, ‘Miss Williston’ and her Court. I keep these around as memorabilia. All of this is the last will and testament of the class of ’47. You can’t see that on the photo.

Cody: Oh yeah. That’s a big blur. That’s right, they help you remember those days.

Best: Williston was an institution all by itself. I’ll remember more when I leave here (laughter).

Gerald: That’s what I said, you know, one person may remember one thing and somebody may not remember another, but there may be something that you forgot that I remember and there may be something I forgot that she remembers.

Cody: Right, that’s why we thought if we had the two of you here together, it would help with that. You were mentioning the fire of the building back in the 1930s. What caused that, do they know?

Best: I don’t know. I don’t know what caused that.

Cody: And then what happened to…where did the children go while the school was being…

Best: They went to Gregory; it was next to Gregory Congregational Church up on 7th and Nunn. There was a big building there. I know some of them went there until they built the other school. I don’t know where all of them were.

Cody: It seems like it would take probably about a year to build a school.

Best: During that time, I was going to Peabody so it didn't concern me.

Cody: Right, don’t remember so much about it except your aunt’s blue coat (laughter). It was probably her favorite coat.

Best: Or mine.

Cody: So Joyce you went to Williston…?

Johnson: Until my senior year.

Cody: How did it affect you? I haven’t asked you that yet. What did you think about the closing?

Johnson: Oh, I hated it. Well one thing because I had looked forward to graduating from Williston and so it was very devastating.

Cody: Yeah especially your senior year.

Gerald: Graduation was always special, the music.

Johnson: Now I was able to march with the seniors of ’68 because I was a marshal so I was able to march to War on March of the Priests and I mean at Hoggard it was just a different experience. A lot of students didn't march at graduation.

Cody: You mean at Hoggard?

Johnson: At Hoggard as a protest, but I did march because my parents made me march (laughter).

Johnson: You could protest all you like, but … (laughter)

Gerald: There was a lot of anger then. Anger by parents and students that the school was closing and they weren’t received in the other schools with open arms.

Cody: Right, they belonged at Williston.

Gerald: Yes and they had this feeling that they belonged to Williston and Williston belonged to me. When they integrated the schools, they should have done it slower or something like that. Just pushed them on in there with people that didn't want them.

Johnson: That’s true. It was devastating in that respect because I know my senior year, I only had two classes, English and government that I needed in order to graduate so I begged my parents, I’ll never forget, to get me out of there because I did not like Hoggard at all. I mean because then it was just Hoggard and that service station across the street and everything else was woods. So they did get me out of there.

I got to work at Williston Junior High my senior year. Mr. Howie who was the principal was also my church member and so he created a job for me at Williston Junior High. So I worked in the library part of the time and in the office part of the time.

Cody: So they did integrate the junior high immediately?

Johnson: Right.

Cody: But just not the high school?

Johnson: Right.

Best: My boys were playing football so they were received with open arms, but the girls weren’t.

Cody: So the boys were because they added…

Best: Because they played football.

Gerald: Or basketball.

INTERVIEWER 1: And they could select any school. They could either go to Hoggard or Hanover no matter where you lived. But the girls had to go wherever they were sent.

Cody: What about the teachers? What happened to the teachers at Williston?

Gerald: They would push their way to like where the rest were. Miss. Williams was at Hoggard.

Johnson: She was at Hoggard. She was my senior English teacher.

Gerald: Miss Williams was at Hoggard and she had been to Williston as long as I can remember and all of the other teachers, you know, they had to go where there was a job available for them.

Johnson: And most of them were not able to, but jobs in senior high schools. They had to go to either middle schools or elementary. Miss Williams, that was her last year as a teacher. She retired in ’69.

Gerald: So many of them retired when it was time for them to retire. They had nobody to replace them. The students didn't go to college to learn how to teach. They learned something else because they didn't want to teach in these schools.

Cody: Right, if you felt like you weren’t wanted, then you’d go somewhere where you could do some good.

Gerald: …do another type of work.

Cody: Now Mrs. Todd went to …

Gerald: North Carolina Central.

Johnson: No after.

Best: She went to Hoggard.

Best: She was at the Board of Education for a while, wasn’t she?

Gerald: Yeah, but that was after she was teaching. She was at Central, also.

Cody: Oh yeah, coordinating the libraries.

Gerald: No, not libraries. [inaudible] was doing that.

Johnson: I thought she was over counseling at one time too.

Gerald: Yes, that’s what it was.

Johnson: Now she was the librarian when I was in school and she had a library club. You could be a part of the library club.

Cody: And were you part of the library club Joyce?

Johnson: No (laughter). No, no, no.

Cody: If you had it to do over again, you probably would be (laughter).

Johnson: No, I didn't get into the library until my senior year working at Williston Junior High.

Cody: You found your niche.

Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.

Cody: What else do we want to add to this? What other memories do you have? Have we about worn you out?

Best: Well we have the Williston Tribune, “What could you not wait to do when you were a senior?” and it says, “To walk up the steps.” They say, “What phrase did they use to signify entering from the 9th grade, 10th grade?” “Crossing the ramp.” “What was the name of the teacher who ruled the first and second floor with an iron hand?”

Gerald: That was L.S. Williams (laughter).

Best: “What was the teacher’s name who wore his tie over his shoulder?” B. T. Washington. “What was the most famous dessert that Williston had?”

Best: Cinnamon buns.

Best: “What was the head chef’s name who made the buns?” Mr. King. “What highlights the Williston band, and usually brought down the house – the Azalea Festival, particularly in front of the grandstand? “Which Willistonian was the first African American to win the Wimbledon single title?” – Althea Gibson. “Which Willistonian became a famous professional basketball star?” – we already spoke of him, Meadowlark Lemon from the Globetrotters. ‘Which Willistonian went on to play baseball for the Baltimore Orioles?”

Best: That was Sam Bowens, Jr., which was my classmate who graduated in 1956.

Best: “What was Mr. King’s favorite soul food meal?” Hog maws and rice (laughter). “Which graduate went on to achieve and made great strides in the Civil Rights movement?” That was Joseph McNeil in the sit-in at Greensboro.

Johnson: He was one of the students who did the sit-in?

Gerald: He’s at a museum now. At the Warwick Museum.

Best: “What was the Williston school mascot?” The tiger. “What was the original Williston colors before they were changed in 1946?”

Cody: Blue and white.

Best: “After the change, what were Williston’s school colors?” Maroon and gold. “Where was the band located?” Across the street back behind Gregory now. “Who was Williston’s favorite football coach?” Coach Colvin. “When Williston boys went away for the game, what would everyone say?” Bring home the bacon boys (laughter). “What year did Williston school close?” We all know, 1968.

Johnson: That’s very good. That’s great.

Cody: Well, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us about Williston. We really enjoyed hearing your memories.

Gerald: It’s great … to dig up all of these memories.

Johnson: Does your soul good.

Best: Thank you all for having us.

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