Social Life

Daily life for William Penn students began early. School started at 8:30, but most students did not have access to transportation. The city did not run school buses for black students, and since city buses were both expensive and inconvenient, most children walked to school unless the weather was absolutely terrible. For some students on the Southside of High Point, that walk was up to two miles each way. There were social benefits to that daily ritual; Laverne Lucas remembers that she and her friends would pick up other students on their daily journey in what they called a “walking bus.” She also remembers watching the school buses filled with white kids pass them and thinking that her parents paid the same taxes that those kids’ parents did.

The majority of students’ days, of course, were spent in class. Mary Lou Blakeney recalled their lessons as a mixture of academics, social graces, the arts, and morals. Laverne Lucas’ teachers told her that she and her classmates would have to work four times as hard as white students and gain four times the knowledge to overcome the nation’s racial divide. School administrators determined students’ schedules based on a combination of IQ testing, performance in elementary and middle school, and family background. Willie Pressley remembered that students placed on a college track (as he was) were placed in liberal arts courses and discouraged from taking skill-based classes such as typing. Regardless of students’ track, the workload was intense; there were no study halls, so other than lunch period, they were in class all day. Many alumni view this experience as valuable, and claim that it helped the majority of William Penn graduates to move on to college [we have not been able to gather any sufficient statistical evidence to either support or refute this claim].   

After school, the campus buzzed with extracurricular activities, including sports teams, music organizations, and social and academic clubs. Principal Samuel Burford made a policy decision during the early 1940s to try to keep students on campus as much as he could. That decision led to the creation of many of these activities, including the band, as well as the decision – which was very unpopular with students – to keep them on school grounds for lunch (Yvonne Bostic-Short and her friends got sent home one day because Mr. Burford caught them sneaking off campus). By the 1950s and 1960s, his policy had resulted in a vibrant campus that also continued to serve as a community center for youth groups like the Boy Scouts.

Sports Teams

Music Organizations

Other Activities

National Honor Society

Social Clubs

Of course, other students had to work after school and on weekends. William Penn students held a variety of jobs, from bagging groceries to bussing tables to selling snow cones. At times these jobs were difficult to get, and other circumstances made them hard to keep. Willie Pressley recalled that when he worked in a restaurant as a busboy, a white woman said she did not want him where she was eating. When he spoke back, he was fired. In part because of these challenges, other students were more entrepreneurial. They earned money doing yard work, shoveling snow, or doing any odd jobs that they could find.

School, extra-curricular activities, and work did not leave William Penn students with much leisure time. Many alumni pointed out that even when they did have free time, the opportunities for entertainment were quite limited for black teenagers because many local establishments remained segregated. For example, black students who wanted to go to the movies could not go to the Centre Theater, and at the Paramount. they had to enter through the back door and sit in the balcony. Once there, they could not buy food from the concession stand or use the restrooms. Only the Ritz Theater on Washington Street welcomed them; it did not show first-run movies, but many neighborhood children spent long stretches of their Saturdays watching cartoons, serials, newsreels and movies there. Restaurants such as McDonalds and A&W would not serve them. Students brought their own food and root beer and hung out in the parking lot of the A&W, and eventually launched a protest to try to desegregate it, which led the owner to shut down his business rather than serve black customers.

Two places where William Penn students were welcome to socialize were the Carl Chavis YMCA/YWCA and Washington Terrace Park. The Y offered afterschool and weekend activities, as well as dances for community youths. Washington Terrace had such great facilities (including an Olympic-sized swimming pool) that it attracted African American families and churches from all over the Southeast. In addition to swimming, kids danced, rode a train, and spent much of their summer vacations hanging out with friends in “the Park.”  

“We had to attend church. It wasn’t a choice that we made, different parenting today than yesterday.” - Peggy Allen, Class of 1951

“If you didn’t go to church, you couldn’t do nothing else all afternoon.” - Jerry Camp, Class of 1968

Churches were also an integral part of most William Penn students’ social and family experiences. The black communities on the south and east sides of High Point supported a variety of churches; what all of these religious communities shared was an expectation that children would go to church on Sundays (and often on Wednesdays). Peggy Allen said, “We had to attend church. It wasn’t a choice that we made.” Jerry Camp added, “If you didn’t go to church, you couldn’t do nothing else all afternoon.” He also mentioned that church was a social as well as a spiritual place for kids; they saw their friends there, and participated in services through organizations like youth choirs.

Just as the lines between social, spiritual, and family life blurred in church, there was significant overlap between students’ school experience and the rest of their lives. Many of William Penn’s teachers lived amongst their students and knew their families. Alumni recall that it wasn’t odd to see your teacher at your basketball game, in the grocery store, or in your church. Parents often knew about students’ infractions before the kids even made it home at the end of the day, and particularly with younger students, many adults approved of corporal punishment for kids both at home and at school.  

In this restricted and quite public environment, dating practices were very different from what they are today. Many Pennites recall that dating and courtship were done openly, and there was very little privacy. Most dating took place at school. Walking to class or walking home with a boyfriend or girlfriend was a big part of courting, but afterschool time was limited because parents set clear expectations that they expected children home within a relatively short time period after school or activities were over. If parents allowed dating, Saturday and Sunday afternoons were generally when boys would visit their girlfriends’ houses. Other types of dates were rare because most kids had neither money nor a car, and because most establishments in the city were not open to blacks. Even home visits were limited because according to Jimmy Scott, Friday night was family time, Saturday night often meant sports or other school activities, and Sunday was a school night. House parties happened, but they tended to be relatively small and only occasionally involved a bottle of wine or a little moonshine. Nearly every alum indicated that drugs were unheard of in their school community.

Washington Terrace Park was built in 1938 and was originally called the Colored Municipal Park, or "the Park" in the African American community. It was officially renamed Washington Terrace Park in 1953. It served as more than just a neighborhood park; according to the High Point Enterprise, it was “the pride of the city” and one of the finest parks in the country.

The facilities included an Olympic size swimming pool, 50ft by 82.5ft, a circular wading pool approximately 30ft in diameter with a surrounding sand beach, a large bath house, a regulation baseball diamond, a softball diamond, six tennis courts, basketball courts, and grounds for picnics and games. The bath house contained an upstairs pavilion, showers, dressing rooms, administrative offices, and public toilets. It also had a train that children could ride around the park’s perimeter (that train is now at City Lake Park).

Some of the activities people enjoyed at the park included swimming, softball, croquet, checkers, and horseshoes. The climactic events of the summer season were the city-wide tennis tournament and the intra-city swim meet. Summers also brought a lot of tourism, as families and churches traveled all over the Southeast to congregate at Washington Terrace.

Train at Washington Terrace Park

Washington Terrace Park