At the age of 15, Dorothy Counts was the first black student to integrate Harry Harding High School, an all white institution located in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Dorothy “Dot” Counts was born in 1942. She lived with her parents and three brothers on Beatties Ford Road, across the street from Johnson C. Smith University. Her father, Herman Counts, taught Religion and Philosophy on the campus.
On the morning of September 4, 1957, a young and towering Dorothy set out for her very first day of High School. Wearing a long polyester dress accented with a broad bow and ribbon handmade by her grandmother, she left her parents house. She was accompanied by her father and Edwin Thompkins a family friend and professor at Johnson C. Smith University.
Dorothy’s father drove her to school. Normally parents could drive down to the circle in front of the school and drop their kids off. However, when Dorothy’s father got there, the police had barricaded the street. Thompkins offered to walk Dorothy the rest of the way while her father found a place to park. In that moment, Dorothy’s father turned to her and said, “hold your head high.”
She got out of the car and looked down the hill towards the school. She’d noticed several students waiting there. It wasn’t until she had walked halfway down the street when she realized they were waiting for her.
Upon arrival , she was greeted by a jeering crowd of boys who spat, threw trash, and yelled epithets at her as she entered the building. Remarkably, she remained stoical throughout the fiery encounter. She said nothing, even though some students threw trash and rocks toward her, most landing at her feet. “I do remember something hitting me in the back,” she told a newspaper reporter, “but I don’t think they were throwing at me, just in front and at my feet.” She displayed remarkable dignity and poise. When asked if any students spat upon her, Dorothy answered: “Yes. Many. A good many times, mostly on the back.”
Counts’ family received threatening phone calls and her locker was broken into. A group of boys surrounded Dorothy at lunch and spit in her food. Teachers ignored her. On the second day, two white female students tried to befriend her, but they were also harassed by their classmates
On the third day, she decided to go home for lunch, which students were allowed to do. When her brother came to pick her up, someone threw an object at his car and shattered the back window. When she walked out and observed the damage, it was the first time she had felt afraid. School administrators and the police told the family they could not guarantee her safety.
On Thursday the family announced they were withdrawing Dorothy out of Harding. She had endured such harsh racism. Her father issued the following statement: In enrolling Dorothy in Harding High School, we sought for her the highest in educational experience that this tax-supported school had to offer a young American. Needless to say that we regret the necessity which makes the withdrawal expedient. This step, taken for security and happiness, records in our history a page which no true American can read with pride.
After four days, Dorothy’s family withdrew her. Although her matriculation at Harding was brief, several pictures of her ill-treatment had traveled the world. One particular photograph taken by Douglas Martin, received “Photo of the Year” in 1957. The many images that surfaced, sparked an outpouring of support among leaders, entertainers and organizations. Among them, civil rights activist and prolific writer, James Baldwin, religious leader Billy Graham, and comedian Steve Allen.
Life Magazine published an eight page spread on integration in Southern schools. The package included two photos of Dorothy. A few weeks later, the magazine published a letter to the editor from Michigan: My deepest admiration goes to Dorothy Counts for her quiet dignity and courage in the face of the indecency committed upon her by those tragic boys.
After her withdrawal, her family sent her to live with a relative in Philadelphia, where she attended an integrated school. She completed her high school education there and despite the harsh treatment she received in North Carolina, she returned back to Charlotte to attend Johnson C. Smith University, graduating in 1965.
In 2008, the now Harding University High School awarded Dorothy an honorary diploma. In 2010, the media center at the Harding was named in her honor. That same year, Dorothy received a public apology from one her tormentors.
Dorothy currently resides in Charlotte. Retired from a long career as a preschool teacher, child counselor, and advocate for early childhood education. She travels to local communities to educate them on the importance of school diversity.
Black History Everyday:
Recreate Model: Jasmine Y. Williams
Recreated Photograph Credit: Randolph Means