In the fight waged by Blacks to have public schools desegregated so people of African stock could access education, 15-year-old Dorothy Counts beat the odds when on September 4, 1957, she became the first African-American to attend Harding High, an all-white school.
Jeered by boys who spat, threw trash, and yelled epithets at her, she nonetheless soldiered on and in a shot crisply captured by the Charlotte Observer’s Don Sturkey, Americans and the world saw needless trauma she had to endure thanks to newspaper publications.
“People everywhere were transfixed by the girl in the photograph who stood tall, her five-foot-ten-inch frame towering nobly above the mob that trailed her. There, in black and white, was evidence of the brutality of racism, a sinister force that had led children to torment another child while adults stood by,” according to the charlottemagazine.com.
But the impediments put in the way of so many people of color by the state meant that Miss Counts had to leave the school only after a week when school administrators and police officials claimed they couldn’t guarantee her safety. Counts’ parents acted fast and sent her to live with a relative in suburban Philadelphia, where her core business was to study as any student ought to have.
But tenacious Counts returned to Charlotte, North Carolina and attended the Johnson C. Smith University to earn a degree even though the city showed her little love.
As an adult who has taken her rightful place in society, Counts volunteered her time and skills for 12 years heading up a church-based child-care center that served low-income kids.
Of the incident which impacted her life in a major way, she submitted: “What happened on that day really set me on a path. I’ve always wanted to work to make sure that bad things don’t happen to other children.”
It also set Charlotte on the straight path. Given the intense publicity the incident received, local business leaders urged racial tolerance which accounted for smooth school integration.
However, challenges persist in the public school system spanning inadequate books, chairs and other resources.
In 2008, Counts-Scoggins now a divorcee along with seven other people were honored for helping integrate North Carolina’s public schools. Each honoree received the Old North State Award from Governor Mike Easley. Counts received a public apology from a member of the crowd that harassed her in 1957.
In 2010, Harding High School renamed its library in honor of Counts-Scoggins, an honor rarely bestowed upon living persons.