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Emmett Scott High reunion rekindles memories

Before Rock Hill's black children were allowed to attend classes with whites, there was Emmett Scott High School.

For half a century it was the city's "black school." In 1970, when South Carolina ordered its schools to integrate, Emmett Scott was closed and most of its students were sent to Rock Hill High.

For those at Emmett Scott, it was a bittersweet moment.

"We were so devastated that Emmett Scott closed," said Addie Lowery, class of 1957. "I know it's supposed to be progress, but you gain something and you lose something."

Lowery and about 400 other former students and teachers - or Scott-ites, as they call themselves - spent the weekend celebrating the school's legacy during the 30th annual Emmett Scott High School Faculty/Student Reunion.

Classmates from several states showed up for the three-day commemoration that started Friday night with a "Last Prom."

On Saturday morning, traffic stopped and people lined Crawford Road to watch a small parade of cheerleaders and drummers march from downtown to the old high school, which has since been renovated into a recreation center.

Carol Sterling-Hemphill and Yvonne McCullough, close friends since elementary school and both wearing bright yellow "class of '69" T-shirts, stood outside the campus trading stories.

"The memories, the memories, the memories," McCullough said.

Sterling-Hemphill recalled "eating those good bologna sandwiches at the store ... in front of the school."

McCullough brought up a party that attracted "just about the whole senior class," who ditched school to attend. But the principal found out and made a surprise appearance. Then he called everyone's parents.

Nearby, Walter Chisholm, class of '52, was showing his son a walkway where former students' names are etched in the bricks. Chisholm, who lives in Philadelphia, spent part of the morning driving around his old neighborhood on Black Street, recalling shops that have long since closed.

The difference between now and then, he said, is like the difference "between night and day." Then, residents stuck close to home.

"We knew we weren't to venture here, we weren't to venture there," he said. A nearby church let children from the neighborhood use its recreation facilities because most places were for whites only.

'Where we started'

Several alumni worry that this weekend's reunion might be the last.

Scott-ites, who, in addition to Rock Hill, have chapters in New York, Washington D.C., New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have taken turns organizing the event. But as classmates age and pass away, it's becoming tougher to pull off.

"This is something we look forward to every year," said Mary Austin, who attended the school for first, second and third grade - Emmett Scott housed all 12 grades until 1956, when it became a junior high and high school. "It's historic. It's our stomping ground. This is where we started. It's something we'll miss if they stop doing it."

McCullough agreed.

The school was very special to students, she said. Many didn't want to leave once it closed.

Members of the class of 1972, which was sent from Emmett Scott to Rock Hill High, called themselves "rattlecats," a hybrid of the school's rattlesnake mascot and Rock Hill High's bearcat.

"We're hoping that (the reunion) continues," McCullough said. "That's the only legacy we have to remember Emmett Scott."

Josephine Jordan, class of '59, has been president of the nonprofit Scott-ites since the group started. She has had a hand in organizing nearly all of the reunions as well as other programs, including scholarships for promising students.

She plans to keep the reunions going, but less often. Every few years or so, she hopes to gather alumni for a special get-together such as a cruise.

Celebrating the school's history is too important, she said, and "we're not going to let it go away."

The school

The school was named after Emmett J. Scott, an educator and entrepreneur who became Booker T. Washington's top assistant. It was founded in 1920 and housed grades kindergarten through 12 until 1956, when it became a junior high and high school. It closed in 1970 after South Carolina's schools integrated. Rock Hill bought the property on Crawford Road and renovated it. The building is now a recreation center.