In the fall of 1968, Richmond County schools made a historic transition, the integration of the schools.
“We had it as smooth as you could expect in Richmond County and in North Carolina,” said J.C. Watkins, former principal of Leak Street School.
He still recalls, 41 years later, walking out the front doors of Leak Street on the first day of school to witness droves of children, of all races, walking through the courtyard and into the school.
Leak Street school, prior to integration, was an all black school.
“I never dreamed that I’d see this,” Watkins said.
Before the consolidation of the Richmond County school system, students from the Rockingham area were swapped among other schools as district lines were restructured.
Some high school students attending Leak Street school were transferred to Rockingham High School.
“We were somewhat apprehensive about what would happen,” Watkins said.
As administrators, both Watkins and former Rockingham High principal John Langley remember the transition being much smoother than expected - with only sporadic episodes of abrasive behavior.
Langley recalls only one “scuffle” at Rockingham High School during exams, “but it lasted all of 10 minutes.”
“It did take us a while to work it out,” said Langley, who was assistant principal at the time.
Langley would become principal for the 1970-1971 school year, the last year of Rockingham High. During the 1971-1972 academic year, the consolidation into a new high school designated his school as the new Rockingham Junior High. On Monday Langley will speak at Rockingham City Hall about the old Rockingham High School and his experiences there. The event is at 7 p.m.
The summer before school commenced, teachers and faculty attended multi-racial workshops, seminars, open houses and meetings with administrators and parents to enlighten and inform them as to what would happen that year.
“As I recall, I had only one parent come in and she told the teacher she didn’t ‘want her child going to Leak Street’,” Watkins said. “It was never anything more than a threat.”
Watkins attributes the smooth transition into integration to the communication shared between all Richmond County schools.
“They did it wisely,” Langley said.
The 1971-1972 school year was the first year the current Richmond Senior High School was used by students and staff.
That year, the high school’s colors changed and mascot switched to the Raider.
The old Rockingham High School would be demolished in 2003, more than 80 years after its construction.
“I was disappointed when they brought it down,” Langley, who opposed the demolition, said.
When the school was built in 1922, only about 10 percent of students would go on and attend a college or university. According to an accreditation certificate from The Southern Association of High School and Colleges in the 1920s, the total number of black students in Richmond County was 295. For the 295 students, they were divided among five teachers at 59 students per teacher.
With a total enrollment of 670, white students were divided among 20 teachers with 33 students per educator.
According to the accreditation certificate, 99 percent of girls were expected to become home-makers and subsequently take courses in homemaking.
Males, if not accepted to a college, were expected to take one of two roads, head to the mill or head to the farm.
“What impressed me were the teachers in that school,” Langley said. “I was so proud to be among those professionals. They taught me more than what they taught me in college.”
Intrigued by the mill communities of Richmond County, Langley said the architecture of the school was reflective of the textile mills lining Mill Road and throughout East Rockingham.
“It was a grand building to tell you the truth,” Langley said.
Mill and agriculture life was a huge aspect of life in Rockingham.
“Back in those days, the architecture of the buildings reflected the community,” Langley said.
Staff writer Bryan Stewart can be reached at 997-3111 ext. 15 or by e-mail at email@example.com.