Charles Henry described his first three years at Conway High School as “basically living in two worlds.”
As one of just a handful of Black students at the historically all-white school, Henry said he’d made friends with white students, but many of his other friends remained at the nearby all-black Whittemore Park High School.
His senior year, 1970-71, those two worlds were forced to come together when all Horry County public schools were ordered to fully integrate for the first time.
Graduates of that first fully desegregated class at Conway High are now getting set to celebrate their 50-year reunion, and many are recalling a year that began with a lot of apprehension, but ended up being mostly calm and helped prepare them for future interactions with people of all races.
Sun News archives from Jan. 1970 show Horry school officials initiated a racial swap of teachers — moving 15-20 white teachers to all-black schools and vice versa — in an effort to stave off court-ordered full desegregation until the fall term, with then-Superintendent Tom McInville warning that “it would be chaotic” if the move were ordered in the middle of the school year.
A group of parents met McInville and school board members that February to see if there was any way around abolishing the dual school system, with one parent even suggesting the district give up federal funds, Sun News archives showed, but McInville reminded them that these same concerns came up when they began integrating in 1965, but no major issues followed.
Henry, whose parents were both educators in the district, said he recalled attending Conway High in 9th grade under a freedom of choice program that gave black students in the area the option of attending the white school, but he doesn’t remember any white students choosing to attend Whittemore Park High.
Lot of apprehension
Larry White, who transferred from Whittemore Park High to Conway High his sophomore year, said he was scared when making the move, but knew someone had to be first.
He remembered several of his former classmates at Whittemore Park ended up graduating during the summer of 1970 instead of having to finish their high school education at Conway High.
Sun News archives show there was a large contingency of the black community in Horry County worried that the desegregation plan would ignore their interests, including the possibility of moving black principals into lesser roles.
The Black Committee, composed of elected members from the county’s various African American communities, organized a countywide selective buying campaign against Grand Strand businesses in a push for various concessions by the school board, including the addition of black studies to the curriculum, according to Sun News archives.
Priscilla Fuller, who is helping to organize the 50-year reunion May 22 at the Conway Recreation Center, remembered that their textbooks didn’t have anything about Black contributions in America, but they had really good teachers at Whittemore Park that would bring resources from outside the classroom to ensure students learned about their ancestors’ accomplishments.
“We were still apprehensive in terms of how we would measure up … compared to white students because we never had that opportunity,” Fuller said. “What we found later on is we did measure up and in a lot of instances, excelled.”
She recalled a lot of speculation in the community about what would happen, given the chaos often associated with school desegregation in other parts of the country. But Fuller said she and others she’s spoken with ahead of the reunion remember their senior year fondly.
Part of what made the integration so successful was the formation of a group called the Bul-Tigs, Fuller recalled, which was composed of Black and white students and derived its name from the mascots of Whittemore Park (Bulldogs) and Conway High (Tigers).
The new club was created to promote racial harmony, according to its page in the 1970-71 yearbook.
Henry and White were among the group’s Black members, and White, now a Conway City council member, credited his involvement as the beginning of his political career.
White said the Bul-Tigs were called in to help solve burgeoning racial issues in the school to help minimize strife. He specifically remembered helping to unify the black and white cheerleaders despite stylistic differences.
“Some people love to say we don’t see color, but we do,” he said. “You can’t help but see color, … but you can’t let it dictate how you live. It’s a whole lot better to learn to know people as themselves rather than the color of their skin.”
Billy Benson, one of the white members of the Bul-Tigs, said he recalls everybody at Conway High embracing the integration in a positive manner, and it gave him confidence in the cause of integration.
Now the director of Conway National Bank, Benson said it’s shocking to think about how much time has passed since graduating high school, and he’s excited to see his former classmates.
Linda Griggs, another alumna helping to organize the reunion, said they hope the coming event will celebrate that peaceful integration and the accomplishments of this class of 297 graduates, which includes former NFL player Tressie Dunlap and Reginald Brantley, the first black student body president at Clemson University.