Charlotteans of the Year 2017: Dorothy Counts-Scoggins

We needed her when she was a 15-year-old girl walking through an angry white mob. We need her today as the schools she sought to integrate are segregating once again


Published:

PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOGAN CYRUS

Sixty years after her famous walk to Harding High School, Dot Counts-Scoggins remains focused on the city’s public schools.

THE SEAMSTRESS and her new husband crammed into a rickety car in rural South Carolina with their five children. It was 1920, or maybe 1921; nobody’s quite sure of the year. They were a new family, the kids products of previous marriages, all moving as one unit 200 miles north to Lumberton, North Carolina, where the seamstress’s new husband had accepted a job as a barber. 

Her first husband died unexpectedly in 1915, leaving her as a single mother with two kids—a girl from his previous marriage and the young boy they’d had together, Herman. Herman would’ve been about 9 years old the day of the move, sitting in that old car with his new siblings and new dad, not sure of much but certain he’d ride anywhere with his mother, the strongest person he knew. 

Emily Benton was a light-skinned black woman. Her sisters had moved to New York and “passed for white” in order to get better-paying jobs, the family story goes. But her new husband, Edward, had dark skin, so there was no mistaking the family in the car when they stopped for gas in the tiny town of Rowland, North Carolina, just a few miles south of Lumberton.

Two white men greeted them with questions. Where are you headed? What are you doing here? At that time, in the most rural of the rural South, there’s no telling where the conversation might’ve gone from there.

Headed to Lumberton, Edward said. Got a job as a barber.

The two white men looked at each other and then at the black man. Well, one of them said, we need a barber here. What if we set you up in the vacant shop down the street?

Emily and Edward never got to Lumberton. The two men helped them find a home right there, helped the business get going, and soon it was the place to be. The seamstress and the barber quickly became two of the most respected and adored people in Rowland, population less than 1,000. 

Emily sewed dresses and shirts and curtains for upscale customers in southeastern North Carolina. She’d cut fabric for size and shape in the afternoons, then wake up the next day and take a seat behind at a foot-pedal-powered sewing machine. Watching her work could hypnotize you, the rhythm of the pedal pumping up and down, up and down, all morning long. She could make four dresses by lunchtime.



Dot has kept the sewing machine that Grandma Emily (top) used to make dresses, including the plaid one she wore on the first day of school in 1957.

People all over Rowland, white and black, called them Ms. Emily and Mr. Ed. He was never “boy,” or any of the other intolerable words assigned to black men at the time, and she never got a sideways look from anyone. At least that’s what they told their kids. This was the world they wanted to pass down, and this was the guide to living:  

Remember who you are; remember that you’re inferior to no one; remember that you can be anything you want to be; and don’t hold your head low for anybody.

Eventually, the five kids from that car trip grew up and had families of their own, and they taught their kids the same values. Herman, the boy who lost his biological dad at 4 and got his new dad at 9, met his future wife in high school. They married after he completed his undergraduate degree and seminary school at Johnson C. Smith. Herman became a Presbyterian minister on Charlotte’s west side and a teacher at JCSU and had four children of his own, three boys and one girl. The girl came along third, the jewel of the family, and she sprouted like sunflower stalk.  

Every summer, Herman’s kids traveled to Rowland to stay with Grandma Emily and Grandpa Ed for weeks at a time. On Saturdays, they’d all sit and watch the cars stuffed with suitcases pass through Rowland on their way to Myrtle Beach. On Sundays there was church, of course. The boys passed the weeks playing baseball in the fields, using dried-up cow patties for bases. The little girl hitched herself to Grandma Emily. 

She’d lie on her stomach on the floor and watch the sewing machine pedal go up and down, up and down. Sometimes Grandma Emily let the girl press the pedal with her hands. Three decades after Emily lost Herman’s father and had to start over, Herman and his wife had given Emily her only granddaughter. 

“Yeah, she’s spoiled,” Emily would tell her friends in Rowland. “Because I spoil her!” At the end of every summer, Emily sent the girl home to Charlotte with a gift, a new dress for the first day of school. In the summer of 1957, the dress was striking, red and yellow plaid with a bright-yellow bow.

It was more than a dress. It was a tradition, a checkered cotton symbol of all of that family history—a grandmother who had become a single mom unexpectedly and made it, a black grandfather who had pulled into a rural Southern town in the 1920s to meet two white people who persuaded him to start a career and life there, a father who had become a minister and taught his daughter the same lessons he learned as a child. 

Herman went over those lessons with her one more time, just to be sure, the night before the first day of school in 1957: 

Remember who you are; remember that you’re inferior to no one; remember that you can be anything you want to be; and don’t hold your head low for anybody.

That’s what 15-year-old Dorothy Counts wore as she stepped out of the car and started walking toward the front door of Harding High School on September 4, 1957.

That’s what all those white kids spit on.

***

Dot visits with her brother Howard at the home she owns near Johnson C. Smith University. “We grew up as a part of this university and this neighborhood,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I moved back here.”

WE NEEDED Dorothy Counts then. We needed someone, a black child, to walk through the wall of white to begin to bring an end to the segregation of Charlotte’s schools. We needed her picture to go around the world, the one with her with her head high and her back straight while they yelled at her and spat on her, striding with grace in a sea of disgrace. We needed her to show us what we look like when we hate people because of their skin color.

We need Dot Counts-Scoggins, as she prefers to be called now, again today. In some ways, we need her now as much as ever. It’s almost unbelievable to her, the scenes she’s seeing again. Young white men rolling into towns proudly claiming to be white supremacists, yelling the same things she heard on that walk to school in that dress. A radical group planned a march in Charlotte, too, scheduled for December 28. It’s since been called off, but still the possibility of that image lingers—angry white men, with torches, in this city, three days after Christmas, two and two-tenths miles and 60 years and three months from where Dot started her walk. 

We need her now for other reasons, too. Charlotte’s schools have re-segregated, and parents are again lining up at school board meetings to fight attempts to change that through student assignment. 

In south Charlotte, a group of students at mostly white Ardrey Kell High showed up drunk and high to a football game earlier this year and hollered racial slurs at a visiting black middle school student. 

Meanwhile, some of the city’s Latino schoolchildren are afraid to step off of buses in the morning. Dot witnessed their fear first-hand just this past fall. She’s helping to start a new mentorship program at Garinger High School. The program, supported by the Women’s Inter-Cultural Exchange, assigns individual mentors to the top 15 sophomore girls in the school, determined by grade-point average. The goal is to keep the brightest students from veering off course before they graduate. Dot is one of the mentors, but she’s been instrumental in organizing the program. At the orientation session in September, she pulled out her phone to take pictures of the group, only to feel someone tap her on the shoulder.

“What are you going to do with those?” the person asked the woman whose image appeared in papers across the world when she was 15. Garinger’s student population is about 40 percent Latino, and many parents don’t want their child’s photos taken and posted online, the person explained.

It pains Dot to see children afraid to walk into a school because of their skin color or where they’re from. Before that day in 1957, she wanted to be a nurse. After that day, she devoted her life to making sure children didn’t have to endure what she endured. But still they do.

“I go to school board meetings now,” Dot tells me, “and I listen to people talk and think, ‘In this day in time in Charlotte, after all of what we went through, after what I went through, after Charlotte was a world-class city for education, that people can come in here and make those comments about the fact that they don’t want their children to go to school with someone who doesn’t look like them.’ I can’t believe some of the things I hear.”

In her lifetime, she’s watched the school system that shunned her become among the most diverse in the country, then watched it go back to a place where more than half of the schools are segregated by race. The city she loves now ranks dead last in terms of economic mobility. These problems didn’t come about solely because of sweeping policy decisions—although some certainly played a role—they formed because of countless little stories and individual choices made by families over time. 

We need Dot today. We need her out there, 75 years old, in this year that marked the 60th anniversary of her walk to Harding, telling her story over and over, starting mentorship programs in the neediest schools, leading cultural exchange initiatives, attending school board meetings just to be present. It’s a hell of a burden, but one she’s gladly accepted for more than a half-century.

She tells one story from the end of 1970s, when she and her husband moved to Matthews to raise the two children they’d adopted. This was about a decade after a Supreme Court decision allowed the local school system to enforce busing as a way to create more diverse student bodies. Despite the praise Charlotte received as a model for desegregation, busing never received full support among all families, a reality that ultimately led to the decision being overturned in 1999. 

Dot remembers being at home one day when a woman came to the door holding a piece of paper with signatures scribbled on it. It was a petition to keep the kids in Matthews, a mostly white area, from being bussed to First Ward School in a predominantly black neighborhood.

The woman held out the pen and asked Dorothy Counts to sign it.

“You’ve come to the wrong house,” she said. “I don’t think you know who I am.”

***

ON THURSDAY, September 5, 1957, one day after the first day of school, Herman Counts Jr. was in the final days of a summer job as a waiter at a private club along Long Island Sound in Connecticut. Most of the visitors worked in Manhattan, and although they came to the club to get away, they still wanted to keep up with the news. Herman Jr. was a thoughtful young man, the oldest of four children, and heading into his senior year at Johnson C. Smith. He knew that he could keep the guests happy if he placed copies of The New York Times on the tables before they came down for breakfast. That morning, he picked up a stack and started making the rounds when he saw the picture of the girl in the dress going to school.

Eyes work faster than brains in moments like these.

“I said to myself, ‘That looks familiar,’” Herman Jr. says now. “So I kept scrolling down and I read it and it said, ‘Charlotte, North Carolina,’ and I looked back up and said, ‘That’s Dot. That’s my sister.’” He found the first train ticket home.

People think they know Dorothy Counts from the pictures; they’ve been the subject of stories all around the world for decades. People who’ve never met her post personal essays even today about what the girl in the photos means to them. Others have written poems about her. This past September, on the 60th anniversary, a German newspaper wrote about the photos and sent Dot a copy of the story; she still has no idea what it says.

But the famous photos don’t include the most important part of Dorothy Counts; they don’t include all the people who called her Dot, her family. In this family, nobody ever truly walked alone. In this family, what happened to one of them happened to all of them.

They ate dinner together every night at 5 p.m. Their father, Herman Sr., insisted on it. Their house stood just across Beatties Ford Road from Johnson C. Smith’s campus, in what is now the parking lot for M&F Bank. The kids grew up playing ball in the nearby baseball field, but always knew they’d better be in the door at 5 p.m.

The dinner table was a space where they could say anything as they recounted their days, then receive advice from their parents. Of the people who were at the table the night of September 4, 1957, only two are still alive to talk about it—Dot and her youngest brother, Howard, who was 10 that night. Herman Jr. was in Connecticut. Her parents are both gone, and her second brother, Wilson, died about a dozen years ago.  

Howard retired after a career in information technology and now lives in Cotswold. He invited me over one afternoon in September. A For Sale sign was out front; Howard’s 70, and he and his wife figure it’s time to downsize. A book titled simply Jack Kennedy sat on the coffee table. 

Howard, who runs a small web development company for fun when he’s not playing golf these days, is the family historian. He has ancestry apps on his phone, and his records go back centuries. “Nobody in our family was a slave,” he tells me. “At least not in the U.S.” 

His third-great-grandmother on his mother’s side, he says, was brought from Africa to Jamaica as a slave. She worked in fields there for a few years before she was sold, Howard says, to a doctor in Charleston, who freed her upon her arrival. 

Howard can tell you details about most of his ancestors, but when I ask what was said around the dinner table that night, he comes up empty. He was 10, after all. He does remember his brother Wilson, who was 17, pacing around the house talking about getting “the boys” together and going down to school to fight. Herman Jr. laughs when I tell him that. “His bark was worse than his bite,” Herman says. “Wilson would run around picking fights with people, and run and leave me there to defend him.”

But when it came to Dot, Herman Jr. says, Wilson would’ve done anything.

“There’s stories in our family that when Dot was just learning to walk, Wilson would just go up and push her down,” he says. “He didn’t like her, but he didn’t want nobody else to mess with her.”

They all refer to Dot’s days at Harding as “the situation with Dot.” Not the days when she changed the city. Not the days she became famous. Not the days she was at the center of a picture seen by James Baldwin in Paris, a photo that persuaded him to return to the United States. (A February 2017 New Yorker story on Baldwin says that after he learned that spit was hanging from the hem of Dorothy’s dress, he wrote a letter to his literary agent saying, “Some one of us should have been there with her.”)

Dot’s walk through the crowd and to the doors changed the worlds of a lot of people, but to the family that lived through it, it’s still “the situation.”

It lasted a week. September 4, 1957 was a Wednesday. Dot was sick Thursday and Friday. She went back the following Monday. On Tuesday, a group of boys surrounded her lunch table and spat in her food. She asked her father if she could come home Wednesday for lunch. He said yes. That Wednesday morning, someone threw an eraser and “something sharp” at her and hit her in her back. 

She walked out of the school for lunch and Herman was standing beside the family’s Mercury. She was thrilled to see him. She didn’t know he was coming back from Connecticut. But when she looked closer at the tangerine-colored car, she noticed that the back window was shattered. Someone had thrown a rock, painted orange to look like a piece of fruit, at the car when Herman pulled up. That night, at dinner, their father decided to pull Dot out of Harding. “I sent you to school to get an education,” he said.

She enrolled at a school outside of Philadelphia. The next year, the family moved out of the house and into a new development a few blocks northwest on Beatties Ford Road known as McCrorey Heights. Dot came back to North Carolina from Philadelphia and graduated from a private high school in Asheville. She went on to Johnson C. Smith, then lived awhile in New York before returning to the city where she grew up in the 1970s. Howard returned to Charlotte around the same time. Herman Jr., who is 80 now, moved to Ohio early in his career and still lives there.

Today, the only person who remembers anything about what was said in the house those seven nights in September 1957 is Dot. And all she can recall is that each evening when she’d tell the story of her day, her father asked her if she wanted to keep going. And each day, until the last one, she said yes.

“I really felt that if I went back, once they got to know who I am, it’ll be OK,” she says now. “I guess it was hard for me to think, and maybe that’s just me being naïve, that people could treat another human being the way I was treated. Just because I wasn’t like them, not realizing that in so many ways, I was.”

***

THE MEN in the room, about 30 of us, are sitting in a circle. We’re here tonight for a meeting of the Champions group, which has as its mission statement “building trust across race and culture.” The Champions are an affiliate of the Women’s Inter-Cultural Exchange, started years ago with the same purpose. Several local business leaders and community leaders are in the room for an activity called chain reaction, which is designed to explore our implicit bias.

We’re handed a sheet of paper with various races and cultures on it, and under each heading, we’re told to write down all the words we heard about those races and cultures as kids. Then, we’ll go around the room and share those words, honestly. 

Howard Counts is seated about a half-dozen seats to my left, and when he speaks, the whole room quiets.

He says that when he got to the section for “White/Caucasian” he had a difficult time. As a young boy, he said, he’d grown up in a minister’s family and was taught to love everyone. He didn’t think about race as a kid, and neither did his siblings. Then, when he was 10, they had “the situation with my sister,” and he went through years in which he hated white people for what they did to her. 

In the weeks that followed Dot’s first day at Harding, people accused her and her family of being naïve. Even today, she uses the word—she said it three times in the afternoon I spent with her in September for this story. The word bestows blame on Dot and her family, though. For sure, she and her siblings didn’t understand people’s capacity to hate. But that’s mostly because, if you look at where they came from, they were kids who never learned anything but love, and shouldn’t we all wish to be so naïve? 

The summer before she went to Harding, Dot attended a church camp at Grinnell College in Iowa for a week. Her roommate was a white girl from Illinois. When they were unpacking their belongings, the girl didn’t say a word to Dot. She just stared at her. Finally Dot asked her if something was wrong. That opened up a whole set of astonishing questions.

“She wanted to know if I had a tail,” Dot tells me. “She wanted to know if my skin rubbed off. She kept looking at my hair. Finally I just said to her, ‘We need to sit down and talk about this because a lot of what you’ve heard are myths and are not true. Believe it or not, you and I are alike in a lot of ways.’”  

The two became friends for the rest of the week.

And this, right here, is probably the biggest reason we need Dot Counts-Scoggins again now. We think we know so damn much these days. But really, do we? Or are we simply calling up facts on our devices and moving on, as if life is just a landfill of trivia answers we pick up and discard at will? Are we meeting people who challenge us, or are we just curating our social media feeds to support our beliefs? Do we know what we know and shut the rest out? Have we not learned anything?

***

"YOU'LL COME pick me up?” Dot Counts-Scoggins asks me as we arrange to meet for lunch in September. 

“Well, yes, of course,” I tell her. “Whatever you want. Where do you live?”

“Right near where I’ve always lived,” she says.

I pull into her driveway at about 11:40 on a Wednesday morning. Her one-story house is on a corner lot on Campus Street, a couple of blocks from the Smith campus. She’s lived here since 2002, after she and her husband divorced. Her little white dog yaps at me as I approach the front door, so she tells me to just wait outside. She’s still the same height she was then, about 5-foot-9, but now she wears dark-rimmed glasses and takes it easy as she comes down the steps.

“You come over to this side of town much?” she asks as she gets in the car.

“Mostly for work,” I tell her.

After lunch, I ask if she’ll show me some of the places she remembers.

“Sure,” she says. “Where have you been on the northwest corridor?” 

A good tour guide needs to know where her audience is coming from, I suppose. I tell her I’ve been all over, just never with someone who has nearly eight decades’ worth of knowledge about this place. 

We turn onto Trade Street and head toward the Five Points intersection where it turns into Beatties Ford Road. 

“When I grew up this was a two-lane street,” she begins. “And this corner right here was a development. There was a drugstore, and one of the first Harris Teeters. Only it wasn’t called Harris Teeter. It was called Harris and Teeter. My brother worked there.”

I pull out a recorder and placed it on the seat between us. For the next 54 minutes, we drive from neighborhood to neighborhood, from cross street to cross street, along Beatties Ford Road. She has a story for nearly every corner and every house. She shows me the new architecture and the pricey homes being built in Biddleville, and she tells me about the families who lived on those lots before. Back when she was a kid, this part of town was Biddleville-Smallwood, and Biddleville was the black side and Smallwood was the white side. Now, she says, Biddleville probably has more white families than black families. 

We shoot up Beatties Ford, past the spot where she used to go to elementary school, which was torn down to make room for Brookshire Freeway. We turn right into McCrorey Heights and she starts talking faster.

Over here is the brick ranch where her parents moved in 1958. Over there is where the president of JCSU lived. Over there is where Dr. Edwin Thompkins, the man who walked with her to school that day, lived. And over there is the three-bedroom ranch that Dr. Reginald Hawkins lived in, the home that was bombed in November 1965 by people who wanted the outspoken activist silenced. This was the neighborhood where Charlotte’s black civil rights leaders discussed their next moves over the dinner tables. 

“Who lives there now?” I ask of the Hawkins house.

“A white family,” Dot says with a short, sharp laugh.

We pull back onto Beatties Ford and drive toward West Charlotte High School. We stop at a red light at LaSalle Street. The next street up is Catherine Simmons Avenue. A man was shot and killed on Catherine Simmons in March, and two more were shot on the same avenue in late August, but lived. 

“This is one of the areas that really needs a lot of cleanup,” Dot says, her voice trailing off. “I hate what has happened at this corner right here.”

We slip past the intersection with Catherine Simmons Avenue at about 3 p.m., on a Wednesday. Less than 30 hours later, another man will be shot and killed on the same street.

We turn around when we get to Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. 

We zig-zag back down Beatties Ford, her eyes always out the window, stories flowing. We pull into a small section of homes around Johnson C. Smith. She points out a few more houses and tells me about the owners who live there today, and the owners who lived there decades ago.

When we arrive at the intersection of Martin and Flint streets, her voice becomes louder and stronger, as if to let me know what she’ll say next is important to her.

“This is the area in which we all grew up,” she says. “Howard and Herman and Wilson and I, we grew up as part of this university and this neighborhood. That’s why I feel that I have an investment in this neighborhood, and that’s one of the reasons I moved back here. That’s all I know. I mean, I’ve lived other places, but still the bottom line is, this is home.”

I pull into her driveway and she tells me to call her if I need anything, anything at all, and I assure her that I will, that we will. She walks up the steps and opens the door to calm her barking dog, to answer the emails she’s missed, to get the Garinger mentorship program going, to make calls to drum up support for universal pre-K, to save us from repeat offenses. 

And every night after she’s done all that, Dorothy Counts heads to bed and catches a glimpse of an old piece of furniture that sits just inside the bedroom door, a sewing machine she had restored a few years ago, foot pedal and all.

MICHAEL GRAFF is a writer in Charlotte. Reach him at michaelngraff@gmail.com.

Edit ModuleShow Tags