LAURINBURG — In 1965, the classrooms at I. Ellis Johnson High School were not equipped with laptops or smart boards.
Children at the segregated black school made due with old Remington typewriters and second-hand textbooks. Yet most of the students that graduated that year went on to college and to successful careers in many fields.
Members of the I. Ellis Johnson Class of 1965 came together this past weekend to celebrate those accomplishments as well as reminisce and rekindle old friendships as part the 50th class reunion.
The reunion began on Friday with a meet-and-greet and lunch at the Hampton Inn. On Saturday, the group attended a breakfast and memorial service. A Maroon and Gray Ball was held Saturday night at the Highlands. The golden anniversary concluded Sunday with church service at Jones Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.
“We produced a wide array of professionals from our class,” said Barbara Jones Ellison, who served on the reunion planning committee. “We have lawyers, doctors and ministers …. we’ve got computer engineers and we didn’t even have computers.
“But we are very proud of the fact that we have come so far after graduating from I. Ellis Johnson 50 years ago.”
Ellison credits I.E. Johnson teachers and parents for pushing her and her fellow classmates to succeed.
“The school was wonderful,” she said. “Our teachers didn’t have the resources that the current teachers have and we were not tested to death like students are today, but we learned as much as anyone else.”
Ellison added that bad grades were unacceptable for most students at that time.
“There was also a sense of cooperation between parents and teachers,” said Ellison, a retired educator. “Teachers were caring and nurturing and at that time there were home visits. If you were not up to snuff, they didn’t wait until the end of the grading period, they were at your house conversing with your parents.”
The school opened in 1953 as Lincoln Heights School. It was the first public high school for African Americans in Laurinburg. Before that, black students who wanted to attend high school in Laurinburg had to attend Laurinburg Institute, a quasi-public school that enrolled both public and private students.
The school was named I.Ellis Johnson in 1959 after its first principal. As a consolidated school, I. Ellis Johnson served all black elementary students living in the northern section of Laurinburg and all black high school students residing in the city. At various times, the school offered Latin and speech as well as vocational courses such as carpentry and brick masonry.
“It was a great school,” said Vera Washington Bassett, who has attended every I.E.J. class reunion. “And it produced some great people. I’m very proud to say I went there.”
Older and wiser
When the students graduated on June 2, 1965, they were the 12th class to call I. Ellis Johnson their alma mater.
“Here now 50 years later our hearts are filled with some of those same sentiments,” reunion Chairman Nellie Dixon said in the welcome to the class. “We are older and wiser now, but we have retained the values of education, family and friendships that were first instilled in us at I. Ellis Johnson.”
Dixon who now lives in Kitty Hawk, said she is looking forward to the next reunion. The class holds a reunion every five years.
“It has been beautiful,” she said. “There has been a lot of camaraderie. We’ve laughed and shed a few tears over classmates who are no longer with us. It is what we hoped for.”
Theodore Harrington, who lives in Laurinburg, served as I. Ellis Johnson class president for four years.
“I don’t know how that happened,” he said. “They just kept picking me over and over again.”
Harrington who played football and served as captain for the Rams, said he tries to make all the reunions.
“We’ve been doing it every five years, but I would like for us to go to every three years,” he said. “It is great seeing the classmates you have not seen in years and catching up with them.”
At Saturday’s ball, there was a memorial wreath with photographs of the 25 class members no longer living.
One of those classmates was Bobby Cureton, the late husband of Annie Douglas Cureton, also a member of the Class of 1965.
“We had a moving memorial service today where we closed our eyes and reflected on the students, teachers and parents that have gone on before us,” Annie Cureton said. “It was a very touching moment.”
Cureton, who went on to have a distinguished career as an educator, said she was in the top of her class with a 3.5 grade-point-average, but she had mischievous side as well.
“I did keep things going all the time,” she said with a laugh. “I always created trouble and the teachers just thought I was an angel. When the governor came and Barbara Ellison sang for him I told Barbara that she made a real mess and it made her cry, cry cry. And she really does have a beautiful voice.
“That’s why when I got the Citizenship Award my senior year, the other students went crazy. They said “she can’t get that award she is terrible.” ‘
The group also honored its surviving teachers. They are: Theola Baylor, Mary Arline Carlson Anne Barnes Fennell, Iris Gilchrist, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Hodge and Mr. and Mrs June Tobias.
Fennell, who attended Saturday ball, served as an English teacher at the school for five years. It was her first teaching job after graduating from college.
“It was the best five years of my teaching career,” said Fennell, an educator for more than four decades.”I’m so delighted to be here. I didn’t want to miss this 50th anniversary. It is a once in a lifetime event.”
Reach editor Scott Witten at 910-506-3023