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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gwendolyn Matthews, December 9, 1999. Interview K-0654. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Experience as one of first African American students to integrate Cary schools

Matthews describes her experiences as one of the first five African American students to integrate Cary High School in 1962. Matthews's father was an active member of the NAACP in Wake County and played a central role in the integration process. Matthews, along with four other students—all female—were selected to to test Wake County's voluntary integration process. Matthews recalls what it was like, particularly on the first day, emphasizing the hostility with which they were met. Additionally, she recalls that whereas she was extremely active and popular at her old school, she did not become involved in any activities at Cary High, largely because of the lack of acceptance she received from fellow students and teachers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Gwendolyn Matthews, December 9, 1999. Interview K-0654. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I attended, what is it now, I think it's West Cary now, but I attended what was EAST Cary Elementary when it was segregated until eighth grade. And then my ninth and tenth grades were also segregated. I attended a school called Berry O'Kelly High School which is not even in existence now. Method is there but the high school is not there. I think the gym is there because it is like the community center for Method now. But the high school itself, the building itself where I attended ninth and tenth grades is no longer there. All those years were fun years because I was very active. I was head cheerleader, for instance. I sang in the choir, I was in lots of clubs. And so I was very active, I ran track and one summer the regional and local sixty yard dash things. And so I had a really good time. Then in 1962, my father who was very active in the NAACP, integration was just getting started and there were pockets around the state as well as around Raleigh of schools being integrated. And so, at that time Cary High was more rural than it is now. It wasn't anything like, I mean Cary wasn't anything like it is now when I was back there in '63. Anyway, it took a year's preparation in terms of… they chose five of us. They were trying to get one in each grade. But what happened was, my cousin and I had always been in the same grade and had always been together, so they decided in the eleventh grade there would be two. So my cousin and I were in the eleventh grade. There was one in the ninth grade, one in the tenth grade, two in the eleventh and one in the twelfth grade, of Black students who first went into Cary High, there were five of us. And I really wish I could remember all their names now, but unfortunately I don't. I just remember my brother and a young man named Gregory Crowe.
PEGGY VAN SCOYOC:
Did you know Gregory Crowe?
GWENDOLYN MATTHEWS:
Yes. I knew all of them because we were at the high school together. So I knew all of them. I don't know why I can't think of the other two names.
PEGGY VAN SCOYOC:
I have some names written down that I extracted from the book, Around and About Cary, and maybe this will ring some bells. Francis White.
GWENDOLYN MATTHEWS:
Yes. She was one of the five and she was a senior.
PEGGY VAN SCOYOC:
Great, Okay. Phyllis McIver?
GWENDOLYN MATTHEWS:
Yes, I think she was in the tenth grade. And Gregory was in the ninth grade. And Brenda and I were in the eleventh.
PEGGY VAN SCOYOC:
Okay. And Brenda is your cousin? Okay. Esther Mayo
GWENDOLYN MATTHEWS:
Oh gosh. I think she was tenth grade.
PEGGY VAN SCOYOC:
Okay, and Lucille Evans.
GWENDOLYN MATTHEWS:
I think she was twelfth grade, she might be twelfth grade also.
PEGGY VAN SCOYOC:
Okay. So it was just… Gregory came a year after you, is that true?
GWENDOLYN MATTHEWS:
After me, yes.
PEGGY VAN SCOYOC:
So it was just girls that started that first year with you.
GWENDOLYN MATTHEWS:
Yes. Just girls. I wonder why. It's a good observation. But yes, we noted that too, we were all girls. There was, at least from my father, there was some discussion about how to act and what to do and what not to do. How to respond, how not to respond, certainly not to retaliate. Just go about attending classes and doing the kinds of things you should do as a student and not get yourself embroiled in any situation. The first week was extremely difficult because when we stepped off the bus, when I say we I'm talking about my cousin and I, when we got off the bus, because we were on the same bus because we lived on the same road at that time, I think at that time it was called Ramcat Road because the community was called Ramcat, so it was called Ramcat Road, and then it went to Holly Springs Road and now it's Tryon Road. So it too has had it's share of names. So we lived on the same road together. She lived just maybe three miles up the road from me and so we rode the same bus. And so when we stepped off the bus there was a crowd of people saying, "two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate." So that was not a comfortable time. I don't think I'd ever seen so many red faces, meaning angry, faces in my life. But they did not put their hands on us. We were spat at, but none of it hit us. And we were called lots of names, typical names that you might hear. "Nigger," "Coon," "Bitches," and so we were, you know… Stepping off to that was not fun and I would have preferred not to have come back. But my father was determined that I was going to go through this. And so, and because they were members of the NAACP, this was crucial for us to complete it, they felt. The "they" being the organization as well as my parents and Brenda's parents, mother and father. And so we did it. But the first, we never had any true friends there. As I said, I was befriended by those two and another young man, I honestly cannot remember his name. For some reason I want to call him Gregory, who was in my geometry, math class I had, it may have been algebra, but a math class that I had. And he was very friendly in a very sympathetic kind of way, so he would talk to me in class. And Adonna and Legare did the same thing, they would talk to me in class. And so it wasn't terribly bad, but I was not, I cannot speak for Brenda because we were always in the same classroom. So there was one of us throughout the day in a class by ourselves. So sometimes we were not called on. Even if we raised our hand we were not called on. Students would not sit beside us or they would move their desks so that they would not be, you know how desks would normally be in a room. But there would be lots of space around us so they would not be sitting close to us. I have to admit I could tell though that some students would have preferred not to be that way, but peer pressure is so very, looking back on it now, I'm saying this, peer pressure I can imagine would have been great for someone to have befriended us. Why those three individuals did, I have no idea, to be honest with you. I don't know whether they just didn't care and thought this is not the way to do this. I will at least speak to them, whether or not I come to her house to eat with her is one thing, but I will at least speak to her and see if she needs any help. So I did have those three people in my classes who were friendly enough to where I could get through the class. But coming from an environment where I was very popular, I was well known throughout the school and very liked, and participated to go through living nothing. I did literally nothing at Cary High. If I remember correctly, I did try out for something but the experience was so devastating I chose not to go back out and try for anything else, and so I never did.