Two days before Thanksgiving in 1951, John Dudley, vice president of the Adkin High School senior class, went to the secretary’s office with a message for the morning announcements: “Carolyn Coefield has lost her little red pocketbook.”
As the words went out over the public-address system, the students at the segregated school in Kinston, N.C., rose from their desks. This was the secret code they had been awaiting.
The all-black student body walked out of the building, gathered their protest signs and headed for the streets. Among them were Dudley, 18, juniors Harold Suggs and his sweetheart, Frances Croom, both 16, and freshman Eleanor Darden, 13.
On Saturday, Dudley, now 83, Harold and Frances Suggs, 81, and Eleanor Darden Stewart, 78, will be among the first members of the public to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Their little-known walkout nearly 65 years ago was modest. But it came as legal challenges to school segregation were building and disadvantaged black students were starting to protest the plight of their schools.
Accorded VIP tickets, the four, along with younger Adkin alumni Charles Jarmon, 77, and Samuel Dove, 74, will join President Obama and other dignitaries for the opening ceremonies.
“It’s a miracle that we’re here,” Harold Suggs, of Fort Washington, Md., said in an interview last week. “We knew there was something better. And if you don’t fight for it, you never get it.”
Once idealistic teenagers upset over dismal conditions at their school, they have lived to see their story enshrined in the museum’s digital collection of interviews with unsung civil rights veterans.
“We feel so special and so proud, being recognized and represented,” said Stewart, of Hyattsville, Md. “It’s historical for us, as well as the city of Kinston.”
The six were among scores of people contacted for the Civil Rights History Project, an effort by the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress to gather the reminiscences of lesser-known figures from the civil rights movement.
The object was to gather “people’s stories who were involved . . . and for the most part were not famous, well-known individuals,”said Elaine Nichols, the project’s co-coordinator and new museum’s supervisory curator of culture.
More than 130 interviews were conducted over the past few years, and all of the subjects were invited to the museum opening, Nichols said.
Adkin High School was a “Rosenwald school,” built in 1928 for African American students with the help of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who helped to build many such schools across the South in the early 1900s.
But the school had been constructed beside a creek, which regularly flooded the campus, Dudley, of Silver Spring, Md., said in an interview last week.
The school gym was an old wooden building called “the barn” that had been built by students and was heated by a potbelly stove, he said. There were no bleachers, and game attendees had to stand against the walls to watch.
Most things the black students received were hand-me-downs from the local white high schools: Books that had missing pages. Sports equipment that came to Adkin when it was being thrown away at white schools.
“Everything was so inferior,” Harold Suggs said. “It was almost like everybody was fed up. . . . It was a situation where the cup runneth over.”
Many students came from needy homes, he said, and some lived in public housing. Few had the luxury of a telephone. And most had felt the cruelty of racial discrimination and segregation.
Dudley recalled as a child sitting on a largely empty bus in Kinston with his mother, Louise, when a white man approached and stood over them. “Nanny,” he said to Dudley’s mother. “Aren’t you going to get up and let me sit down?”
The bus driver intervened, telling the man to come up front and sit. But Dudley was humiliated.
“I’m nine years old,” he said. “And I still remember that to this day. I could not understand the disrespect my mother had to suffer.”
The school walkout was sparked after Dudley’s homeroom teacher, Beulah Davis Hussey, one day brought in a copy of the Weekly Reader, a publication for students. It had a story about all the things the “ideal school” had.
Adkin, a spartan brick building, had few of the amenities listed. The students asked whether any school had those things. Yes, the teacher replied. The local white high school did.
How could people get things they lacked? She said that sometimes they went on strike. There was the idea, although “we didn’t look at it as strike,” Dudley said. “We looked at it as a walkout.”
He and four other students came up with a list of demands, which included a proper gym, a vocational shop, more classrooms and a home economics area, and took them to a board of education meeting in Kinston.
Dudley said the all-white board members studied the demands, and said, “Who sent you?”
The students had been careful not to involve teachers or parents, for fear of retaliation. “We knew many of our parents worked for the white establishment,” he said. “The teachers, if they were involved in any way, they could be fired.”
He said the students replied: “Nobody sent us.”
The students were told there was no money in the budget for ten years for such improvements, Dudley said.
The walkout was on.
Closed-door student meetings were held in the barn and the auditorium. Everybody in the seventh- through 12th-grade school was in on it, Dudley said. Placards calling for equal education were drawn up, he said.
The walkout was set for Nov. 20. The signal to act would be the announcement about Carolyn Coefield’s imaginary purse.
That morning, most of the students left the building. But Jarmon’s seventh-grade teacher would not let her students go. “You’re not going anywhere,” he remembered her saying. He was 12 at the time.
The others assembled at the black Carver theater, not far from the school, formed a line and paraded through the town. “There was no talking,” Frances Suggs said. “It was almost like innate, like we were supposed to do it.”
They hadn’t discussed how onlookers might react. But none of the students faltered. “It’s phenomenal,” Frances Suggs said.
The march lasted about 45 minutes. It was orderly, and there was no public reaction to the hundreds of marching black students. “We caught the city by surprise,” Dudley said.
Afterward, the marchers went home, and everybody went back to school the Monday after Thanksgiving. Little was said about the walkout. “We did what we had to do,” he said.
Dudley said the students knew nothing of a similar walkout the previous April at an all-black high school in Farmville, Va., or about the fledgling legal cases that would soon end legalized racial segregation in public schools across the country.
And they had no sense that they had played a part in a movement that would change American history, he said.
Despite the school board’s initial declaration of a lack of resources, within 18 months of the walkout, Adkin had a state-of-the-art gym, new classrooms, band rooms, a vocational shop and a home economics room.“We got everything we asked for,” Stewart said.
By then, Dudley and the other Adkin “Pirates” of the class of ’52 had graduated. But he said the seniors always knew they were working for their younger classmates, and for others who would follow in the years to come.