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Frederick Douglass alums gather for portraits

ELM CITY — When Wesley Artis showed up a few minutes late for a portrait of the Frederick Douglass class of 1965, classmates told him he needed to go straight to the office before he could join them.

They all laughed and let Artis take a position on the back row as a dozen members of the class joined three teachers for the portrait on the steps to the auditorium of what is now Frederick Douglass Elementary School.

“In May 1965, a class of 77 students ascended up those steps and received our diplomas, and then we all descended those steps and went out into the world to serve the world,” said Bernice Pender Winstead, a classmate present for the portrait and vice president of the Frederick Douglass High School Alumni Association.

Frederick Douglass High School operated from 1939-69 as a school for African Americans. Under integration, the school became Elm City Elementary in 1970, and the underclassmen were assigned to Elm City High School.

After a decades-long effort by association members and others, the Wilson County Board of Education decided to rename Elm City Elementary in 2018, restoring Douglass’ name.

Plans now call for razing the historic building to make way for an entirely new Frederick Douglass Elementary School.

Members of the Frederick Douglass class of 1965 decided to join together for a portrait at the school before it’s torn down. 

So on Saturday, class members met and posed for portraits on the steps of the auditorium building.

Linda Wells Battle of Wilson organized the event.

“The class of 1965, the most gracious class to graduate,” Battle said. “We decided we would come out and take a picture. They are going to tear it down and rebuild it, so we want to get a memory portrait on the steps to have in remembrance that this is what we took before they tore our school down.”

The gymnasium and auditorium are the only original parts of the school that remain.

“They had added some on, but these two are the original,” Battle said.

“We just had so many memories. The class of ’65 was a class that always stuck together,” she continued. “We were always in each other’s area. We always cared about each other. And even to now, we will go out and eat and sit down and cut up because we just love each other so much. We are family.” 

Battle said the guys in the class were always into something. 

“The guys were always cutting up, and the principal had stated at one time that we were the worst class to ever come through there, but we don’t believe that. The guys were always doing something like slip(ping) through the woods and going to the store, and no one was supposed to be over there,” she said. “They would just go over to the store and come back, and the principal would be standing out there and catch them.”

One of those guys was Eddie Morris Pitt, who attended Saturday’s portrait shoot.

“The store was right across the street over there where those house are at now,” Pitt said. “We couldn’t come out on this side of the woods because we didn’t want the principal to see us, so we would go through the woods and go across the street and then come back to the store.”

Pitt, a Vietnam veteran, said he has good memories from the school.

“Everybody was nice. The teachers were nice,” he said. “They had a high level of basketball team. All that was good to me, and I loved it.”

While attending Frederick Douglass, he met the woman who would eventually become his wife, Shirley Pitt. 

“We dated a little bit before school closed,” Pitt said. “That was in ’65, and then we got married in ’66. And we have been married 57 years.”

The Pitts are two of their graduating class’ 77 members. Some 29 have died. 

“I caught Eddie coming back from the store with my Valentine candy,” Shirley Pitt recalled. “I saw him out the window coming back, and he put it in the bus and the children stole it and ate the Valentine candy. They he had to go buy me some more Valentine candy.”

Shirley Pitt said she and Eddie were “an item.”

“We were sweethearts, started at 16 years old, and now we’re 75 and we’re still hanging strong,” she said. “We have two sons, seven grands and seven great-grands, so it’s four generations of us.”

Evelyn Lindsey Lucas said the Douglass classmates enjoy each other’s company.

“We always get together every year,” Lucas said. “Wonderful. With the virus out, we haven’t seen each other like we normally do, so it is good that they want to come out and take a picture with us. It has been 57 years that we have been together, and we are still a close-knit class, so it makes a difference.”

Bill Myers of Wilson, who taught music at the school and also served as its assistant principal, joined the students with former teachers Amanda Mitchell Cameron of Elm City and Jessie Jones of Rocky Mount.

Myers said the music teacher job at Frederick Douglass was his first.

“I had only planned to stay one year because I wanted to pursue my music career,” Myers said. “But I got caught up over here, the students who were so nice and the parents who were so supportive, and there was such a need to show kids new things … and I wanted to be a part of that, so I stayed and stayed and stayed and stayed until this school was dissolved and we went off to Elm City High School. Certainly, those kinds of memories don’t ever go away.”

Nellie Robinson Pitt said reuniting with her classmates is a blessing. 

“I am very proud to be here today to stand on the steps at Frederick Douglass where I graduated in 1965, and it is a blessing that the Lord has kept me,” she said. “I am 76 years old.”

Mildred Harris Pittman of Elm City said it hurts knowing the building will soon be torn down. 

“I look at it like this,” Pittman said. “They can take down the building, but they can’t do nothing with the memories.”

Artis said he looks forward to seeing the new school carry on Douglass’ name. 

“I hate to see the building go, but if they are going to replace it, sometimes you have to change things — and I think this is one of those times,” he said. “As long as they leave Frederick Douglass in the picture because that’s what it is, and I love it.”