Hometown heroes

by Head of School Dr. Noni Thomas López

above: Dr. Thomas López with high school classmates in Greensboro, NC

I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, but my mother and father were New Yorkers, so I grew up in a very New York household. We cheered for the Giants, we cheered for the Yankees, we cheered for the Knicks. New York had the best pizza and the best bagels. It was basically the center of the universe. My parents even worked hard to be sure that I didn’t have a southern accent.

My parents—my father especially—also wanted to be sure I was proud of my identity as a young black woman, and that meant knowing our history. Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges: Gordon students would recognize these names and faces, but when I was growing up, this was not a part of our curriculum in school. All this, I learned at home.

At home, I also came to know that people and events in my hometown of Greensboro had played key roles in the Civil Rights Movement. So when I considered what I wanted to share with students at Friday’s Beloved Community assembly, I immediately thought of the Greensboro Four. I grew up loving all things New York, but I also grew up knowing it was important to recognize my own hometown heroes.

The Greensboro Four were students at North Carolina A&T State University: David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil. They were sitting in their dormroom one night in 1960, talking about the injustice of segregation, and they decided to do something about that. Their plan? To sit in the white section of the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter until they were served.

It seemed like a simple strategy when I first learned about it. But as I came to understand what was involved, I was really struck by the risks that they took. They were harassed, humiliated, beaten. They could have been arrested and killed.


above: second graders add their voices to the Beloved Community assembly last Friday

The Greensboro Four taught me how a small act could inspire a movement. On February 1st, they sat down at those counters. By February 6th, about a thousand others had joined the protest and it had spread to other cities. By July 26th, just six months later, the Woolworth’s counter had been integrated. Six months was all it took to make a change that many people had said was impossible.

Twenty years later, I would have a small connection to this historic event. My family was friends with Dr. George Simpkins, the president of our local chapter of the NAACP from 1959 until 1984. Dr. Simpkins filed several lawsuits that led to the desegregation of recreational facilities, public schools, and hospitals. And, he fixed my tooth when my brother kicked it out. He was our dentist.

When it came time to recognize the twentieth anniversary of the lunch counter sit-ins, Dr. Simpkins asked my brother and I to help unveil a marker in front of the Woolworth’s that designated it as a historical landmark.

Now, that was a small connection. A footnote. But it is one that helped me connect my own hometown to a national movement, and recognize my own daily role in helping make the world a better place.


above: a Preschool student's response to the strategic plan Design Team's request for input

Gordon students are already making that connection between local activism and broader social change, long before they hit high school. It’s most visible in our eighth grade. Last year, eighth graders walked out to protest gun violence. In November, they rallied the school to benefit families at Pleasantview Elementary. And during the month of May, they’ll get direct experience working every day at local schools and service organizations.

But the roots of this engagement go deep, and they are planted in Gordon’s youngest grades. For these students, Gordon is their hometown, and this community offers them authentic ways to make a difference for their neighbors every day. 

This sense of ownership has been on display all this week at Gordon. The strategic plan Design Team asked students in every grade to reflect, in age-appropriate ways, on Gordon’s strengths and their vision for Gordon’s future. Alongside the wishes for treehouses and ziplines, there’s the students’ own vision of how they can take immediate action to make Gordon a more beloved community. There are hopes for less plastic. More inclusive games at recess. And a fervent hope, expressed in Kindergarten, second grade and sixth grade alike, that “when you are feeling low, there’s someone there who can help.” 

That’s the kind of hometown hero these students have all gotten to know here at Gordon, and it’s one that they all know how to be.

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