Note: This story was first published in September, 2010
All high class reunions, from every school for every milestone year, are special and wonderful. The souvenir programs are always treasured. But this 50th reunion that started Friday in Rock Hill for that school that no longer exists, Emmett Scott High, and that year long gone, 1960 - this souvenir program has a special congratulations letter in it.
It is only three sentences. It just tells the people gathering from that class to cherish their memories, and each other. "Accept my warmest greetings," it says. The letter came on crisp, heavy stationery that only one man on earth has. It says, only, "The White House."
It is signed by a man named Barack Obama.
Never miss a local story.
A black man who, without the class of 1960, would not be president of the United States.
In that class of 1960 at the all-black segregated Emmett Scott , there were stellar students who became doctors and lawyers, teachers and policemen and military leaders, pastors and professors.
And a bunch of people, some well-known and some known only by their classmates, who later that year in 1960, and in 1961, would march and sit-in to end segregation.
Those who did not march or sit-in encouraged those who did.
Six of the now-famous "Friendship Nine," students from Rock Hill's Friendship Junior College who spent a month in jail in 1961 after sitting down at downtown Rock Hill's McCrory's lunch counter were from the Emmett Scott class of 1960.
The late Robert McCullough, leader of the Friendship Nine, was valedictorian of the Emmett Scott class of 1960. Also in that class were Willie McLeod, Mack Workman, W.T. "Dub" Massey, David "Scoop" Williamson, and John Gaines.
The "City Girls" who marched along with the men at Friendship?
Another half-dozen ladies from the Emmett Scott Class of 1960.
So many more who changed the world and country and state and community were in that class.
A quiet teen named Ida Elaine Johnson? She is better known today as the president of Clinton Junior College,
"We were a class filled with people who were taught in school, and at home, that we could be whatever we chose to be in the world," said Sylvia Heath Renwick. As an English teacher in colleges and Northwestern High School, Renwick changed the lives of countless kids of all colors and religions and backgrounds until she retired last year. "It never occurred to us that we would not dare to be great."
Segregation crumbled in part because of the actions of that class of 1960. "Jail, no Bail," the strategy of staying in jail rather than making bail to prove a point, was born from the class of 1960. The protesters, and those in the background who clapped on the street and marched, they were parents of that movement, too.
Barack Obama is president in this country in part because of the courage of those 111 students in that class, and the 73 who are still living today and serving as an example to the rest of us. They remember those days, but do not dwell on them. The country is better for all of us, South Carolina is better, Rock Hill is better, and they are proud to have been part of that.
"Our class was a class of achievers," said the man who came the farthest for this reunion, Ezell Long Jr. Long came from Germany where he works as an education consultant.
His late wife was one of the City Girls marchers. Long himself was supposed to be one of those at the lunch counter that day in January 1961, but his mother and grandmother ordered him not to go because they were afraid of what would happen in jail. Long later taught a generation of Rock Hill students tolerance and love along with math and reading. He wouldn't have missed this reunion for anything.
"We grew up together," Long said. "We went to school together. We succeeded together."
And they made history together.
"Our motto was the Space Age class in 1960, because that's when the space program started," said Arthur Williams, a reunion organizer.
"We knew even then that this class was special. That we would help make the world a better place, new, different, like the space age."
What makes these people who are pushing 70 years old now, these grandparents, even more terrific is that the civil rights struggle is not why they are gathering this weekend.
They are gathering in their hometown to share hugs, and memories, and pictures of grandchildren. To dance, and laugh, and giggle.
Their lives have not been bitter.
When Dave McCullough, a Texan now for so many decades, walked in wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat, he was immediately asked by three people: "Where is your horse, Hoss? Hitch it up outside?"
Gotta have a thick skin to be in the class of 1960.
Each person received a cut-out from the old Emmett Scott Rattlers annual from 1960 with a black-and-white photo of their senior picture.
The pictures are pinned to each person's chest. Arthur Williams and Henry Agers spent countless hours on them. The text next to each picture gives the clubs the person was in, or sports, or activities. Phyllis Thompson Hyatt and a cast of about 20 classmates spent a year coordinating this gathering.
They met Friday, addressed each other by first name, or nickname, or maiden name for the ladies. The men sucked in their guts. If the men had any hair left they made it look nice.
This reunion lasts all weekend at the new Holiday Inn behind the Galleria. Stop by and see these grannies and grandpas act young again. No matter what you look like, or where you come from, duck inside and see a bunch of people who, starting in high school right here in Rock Hill, changed the world with their courage.
If you never have, go ahead and thank them.