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Willis N. Hackney Library

Crossing the Tracks: An Oral History of East and West Wilson, North Carolina

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” James Baldwin

Dr. JoAnne Woodard and Arlembia Winstead

On July 3, 2014, we conducted an interview with Dr. JoAnne Woodard, Founder and Executive Director of the Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts & Education; and Arlembia Faye Winstead, an administrator at Sallie B. Howard, at the Sallie B. Howard School in Wilson, North Carolina, as part of the East Wilson Oral History Project.  This final interview for the East Wilson Oral History Project was a lengthy one, covering the early years of Dr. Woodard and Mrs. Winstead, who both grew up in East Wilson, but in different neighborhoods.  We also covered the civil rights movement in Wilson in the 1960s, and also how the city has changed since the end of Jim Crow.  Dr. Woodard also discussed with us the origins of the Sallie B. Howard School, and how her dislike of the state of education in Wilson County led to the school’s creation, based on the philosophy of Sallie B. Howard.

Dr. Woodard was born in Wilson in 1947 and lived her entire childhood on Washington Street.  Her grandparents were originally sharecroppers from Evansdale in southeast Wilson County.  They later came to Wilson, where her grandfather became a brick mason, while her grandmother worked as a domestic and in tobacco factories.  Although both of Dr. Woodard’s parents were Methodists, they sent all of their children to the St. Alphonsus Catholic School, which went from Kindergarten through 8th grade.  Dr. Woodard noted that the more children a family sent to the school, tuition would be cheaper.  Many parents in the area only sent their children to the school while they were in Kindergarten, as they did not want their children indoctrinated in Catholic ways.  However, if you wanted your children to receive the best education and go to college, sending your children to St. Alphonsus through the 8th grade was the best way to achieve that goal.

Along with the rest of her siblings, Dr. Woodard attended high school at Darden.  She noted that while the church was central to the community when her parents were growing up, in her generation “Darden was central to the community.”  Everything from after school activities to community gatherings were held there, and she noted how East Wilson lost a lot of its pride when the school was closed after integration in the 1970s.  Dr. Woodard took part in helping to get Wilson integrated in the 1960s.  She participated in many marches in Wilson, along with classmates G. K. Butterfield and Milton “Toby” Fitch, Jr., including the march to the Recreation Center on Sunset Road that led to the integration of the “whites only” swimming pool.  She described the event as “almost traumatizing,” but they achieved their goal with no violence.  It was interesting to note that Dr. Woodard told us that she subscribed to the philosophies of Malcolm X, who preached action “by any means necessary,” versus the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached a non-violent philosophy.  She said that many young people supported Malcolm X, while the older generations supported Dr. King.  Dr. Woodard said that she was so against Dr. King’s teachings that she refused to go with her family to the March on Washington in 1963.  However, she said that as she has gotten older she now supports what Dr. King wanted to achieve versus Malcolm X.

We also spoke with Mrs. Winstead about growing up in East Wilson.  She lived in the area known as the “Field,” which was the neighborhood surrounding old Stantonsburg Street, which is now South Pender Street.  She said that many of the people living in this neighborhood were not as well-off as the families who lived in the area east of downtown.  They could not afford to send their children to St. Alphonsus.  Mrs. Winstead attended public schools during her childhood, going to Elvie Street School and later Darden High School.  As one of ten children, Mrs. Winstead had to help bring in income for her family when she was old enough to work.  Both of her parents worked in tobacco factories, and she went to work at the Imperial Tobacco Factory, working from six in the evening until two in the morning, all the while having to attend school in the morning.

Dr. Woodard noted that when she came back to Wilson in the 1980s after living in California for a few years, the school system was not what it used to be.  Instead of black students going to schools that supported them, as they were during segregation, they were being left behind.  Her children could not get into the same gifted and honors classes that they had attended while living in California.  Resources were not being geared towards black children, and many of the institutions that had supported them in the past, including the churches and the community at-large, were not doing their part.  This led to Dr. Woodard wanting to start a new school that would support the growth of not only black children but other children as well, who were being left behind because of poverty and fractured communities.  Sallie B. Howard educated Dr. Woodard on how to work the educational system, and from what Dr. Woodard described as being “created out of a broken heart,” the Sallie B. Howard School was born in the late 1990s.  Today it boasts an international faculty, and has become well known for its educational excellence.

This final interview for the East Wilson Oral History Project was the perfect book-end for this series.  The creation of the Sallie B. Howard School was a direct link to the days of segregation and all-black schools.  As many of our previous interviewees have noted, when the black schools closed because of integration, East Wilson lost much of its heart.  These schools were the glue that held much of the community together.  They were the engines that sent the youth in East Wilson to college.  When these schools disappeared, many of the opportunities that the youth had in East Wilson was gone.  No longer did they have advocates in their own community helping them out.  That has been the purpose of Dr. Woodard, Mrs. Winstead, and the rest of the staff at Sallie B. Woodard.  They are there to help give the community something to believe in again, even if it is one child at a time.