Alumni of Forsyth County’s “Big Four” historically black high schools kicked off their 18th Annual Big Four Weekend on Oct 18 with a spirited worship service at Greater Cleveland Avenue Christian Church.
“We all realize we are extremely blessed to be here, so we pay high honor to our Maker,” said George Johnson Jr., president of the Simon G. Atkins Alumni Association, Inc. “…We hope that (attendees) will be uplifted and invigorated, that they will come away with a sense of a renewed spirit and dedication and that they will want to partake in other Big Four events.”
Each year, one of the Big Four Schools – Atkins, Paisley, Carver and Anderson – host the weekend celebration. Atkins was in charge of this year’s program.
The Big Four Mass Choir, a mainstay in the celebration, brought audience members to their feet with rousing performances during the worship service Thursday. The choir, which is more than 100 voices strong, has become a highly sought after singing group in the local community, but nothing compares to performing for Big Four alumni, said Choir Director Eddie Bines.
“We’re excited, we’ve been looking forward to it for some time,” said Bines, who was a member of Atkins’ final graduating class in 1971. “One thing I’ll say about this choir is everybody that comes here, they love praising the Lord and they love each other, and with respect to the four high schools, we just love being a part of that history.”
In the nearly two decades that the choir has been in existence, Edna Smith, a 1961 Atkins alumna, has never
missed a Big Four Worship Service. The great-grandmother of two says singing at every Big Four service is a powerful experience.
“We have great expectations that somebody may give their life to the Lord because that’s what the program is all about,” she declared. “He is the One that will get all the glory.”
The choir was rivaled only by the hundreds in the audience, who enthusiastically lifted their own voices and hands in praise.
“We’ve got two good Big Four choirs in the house tonight – this one and that one,” Johnson said, gesturing first to the massive choir behind him and then to the crowd of attendees.
District Court Judge Denise Hartsfield presided over the worship service. The East Forsyth graduate has strong ties to the Big Four. She was a student at Atkins when integration forced its closure in 1971. Although she never had the pleasure of becoming an Atkins alumna, Hartsfield told the audience that packed the mammoth sanctuary that she has many fond memories of her time at the school.
“In those days, masters were made. There were teachers who really cared and who made sure that the students mastered the art that they were teaching,” Hartsfield declared, adding that today’s children aren’t always so fortunate. “…We are so blessed in this room. We are so blessed to have had teachers who cared about us. We are blessed because we had that opportunity, led by an awesome God, Who made it all possible.”
Rev. Dr. Sir Walter Mack Jr., pastor of Union Baptist Church, delivered the sermon. His remarks centered around Mark 2:1-5, a passage which he said was “celebrating the faith of four friends,” much like the four schools who have overcome fierce rivalries in the spirit of fostering friendships and preserving history.
“One of the realities that unify all of us tonight, whether we’re representing, Atkins, Carver, Anderson or Paisley, is that all of us are truly blessed, and the blessing that we have is this Big Four reunion that will remind us, when we look back over our lives, that we all have a testimony,” said Mack, whose father, the late Sir Walter Mack Sr., was an Atkins alumnus. “We’re able to come together tonight because we have survived some crucial times. We have survived some chaotic times. Regardless of the things we have experienced, it is always good to know that we have God on our side.”
The Big Four Worship Service made way for a slate of activities that Big Four alumni have come to expect during Big Four Weekend, including the annual Teachers/Staff Luncheon honoring former Big Four leaders, and the culminating dance at the Benton Convention Center on Saturday night. The Friday evening activity is always decided by the host school. Atkins alumni opted to host a talent show.
“The talent show was a tradition that we used to have in high school,” explained Johnson, a retired school administrator and member of the Class of 1965. “We’re just sort of piggy backing on what they used to do.”
Sheila Smith, president of the Big Four Executive Committee, said she looks forward to Big Four Weekend every year.
“I went to Atkins, and I just love the coming together of all of the classmates, the honoring of the teachers, and just the love, the joy and the respect that everyone has for each other, even after all these years,” said Smith, a member of the Class of 1969. “It’s exciting. It’s wonderful. It’s just a joy to see everyone come out.”