MOUNT AIRY — Area residents celebrated Black History Month in a ceremony at L.H. Jones Auditorium Thursday afternoon.
The Mount Airy, Surry County Branch of National Association of University Women, J.J. Jones Alumni Association, and Surry Senior Senior Center hosted a program to observe the “brave and courageous” folks who made lasting impressions on the black community in Surry County and the surrounding areas.
The program was lead by two songs. One hymn sung by Melva Houston, a member of NAACP, about The Big Dipper.
Houston told the story of how the slaves would follow The Big Dipper constellation to freedom, along the underground railroad.
Hymnals were of grave importance to slaves, as “it told them when to run,” said Marie Nicholson.
Houston also said that in addition to following the Big Dipper constellation, slaves would follow down trees along the river banks as a guidance to freedom.
Another hymn, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was lead by Nicholson, with those in attendance participating in the singing.
After the soulful melodies, Emma Jean Tucker, member of the National Association of University Women, told how Black History Month came to fruition.
She told those gathered Thursday that since 1976, every United States president has officially recognized the month of February as Black History Month, where as prior only a week was set aside to celebrate.
Civil Rights Battle
While the fight for civil rights were being fought nationally, locally three incidents were recorded and recognized during the program.
The first incident was told by Evelyn Thompson, called, “Let me sit where I please,” a situation similar to the nationally known story of Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus.
A local woman, Smith Reynolds, in May of 1949, sat down where she wanted to on a bus after a day of work, which landed her in jail.
At the time her employer, Fred Jarrell, promptly bailed her out of jail, according to Thompson.
“Reynolds was fined $25 and her bail bond was $300. To this day the community doesn’t know the outcome of that case, and we are still researching.”
The second incident told involved five girls and five boys, what Thompson referred to as “All over a soda.”
The movement took place at Lamm’s drug store, in downtown Mount Airy. In total, 37 arrests were made, but only a few were able to be taken to jail, as the others involved were juveniles.
The five girls arrested and taken to jail were Elaine “Joyce” Norris-Scales, Brenda “King” Pilson, Maxine “King” Mccluare, Patricia “Conrad” Smith and Betty “Smith” Baratt.
Two of the women who participated in the sit-in were telling of their parents reaction after they learned of their arrest. One saying her mother asked, “are you hungry” and the other mother asked, “did you get my hot dogs” as she was on a errand when she was arrested.
The third and final local movement recognized by Thompson, she called, “Just let us swim.”
The movement took place in 1962, after two African-American boys had drowned during the summer months while swimming in a river, according to Thompson.
At the time, the YMCA did not allow people of color to swim in their pool.
A group with the NAACP applied for a permit to march through the streets in protest. However, city officials did not grant the permit.
“At the time, it wasn’t illegal to march in a single file line, so that’s what we did. There was about 50 of us who walked through downtown.”
Thompson added, “We were protected by the police.”
After the march, the NAACP sued the YMCA, according to Thompson. As a result, “boys and girls of color could swim at the YMCA.”
After some changes had been made in the community — laws were made after protests both nationally and locally, many “firsts” began to arise.
African-Americans throughout the community began to reap the benefits of equality, though not without challenges, according to Cheryl “Yellow Fawn” Scott.
Hazy Bell became the first African-American employee for Mount Airy City’s Department of Maintenance; Lidia Lovell, the first African-American school principal in Surry County; and Orlandrus McArthur was the first African-Amerrican to integrate the Surry County School Systems.
Adeline Maggie Thompson Hatcher became the first African-American to graduate from North Surry High School wh ile Clinton Mittman became the first school board member for Mount Airy City Schools; and doctors Adam France and Robin France were the first African-American physicians to practice in Surry County.
Mae Bell became the first African-American allowed to work at any factory mill in Surry County with white employees on a day shift.
Finally, Charles Thompson was mentioned as becoming the first African-American vice principal in Surry County.
“Without these brave and courageous people before us we wouldn’t be where we are today. We are so thankful for their strength and courage.”
Reach Eva Winemiller at (336) 415-4739