They were 18 — or close to it — when they received their diplomas from the venerable Atkins High School in 1961. Last week, many of them came together again to celebrate a very different milestone — their 70th birthdays.
The Class of ’61’s reunion this year doubled as a collective birthday party. Last Friday evening, Marion Wilson-McGainey opened her home to her classmates for a fish-fry and cookout. Fifty-two years ago — when she and the others left Atkins — she couldn’t have imagined the world as it is today. Atkins, though, equipped her with all she needed to meet its ever-changing challenges.
Wilson-McGainey is the former executive director of Red Cross in Alameda, Calif., whose service area included San Francisco. During her three decades with the agency, she launched relief efforts in response to earthquakes, firestorms and many other disasters. After retiring, she relocated to Winston-Salem.
Wilson-McGainey said there was little time to be idle at Atkins, which she believes was a good thing. When she and her classmates weren’t in class or studying, they were heavily involved in after school activities, which for her included theater programs and volunteering at the local Red Cross.
“It wasn’t like it is now; you had no free time,” she said. “You went from class to activities.”
The technology is certainly vastly different these days than it was when she was a student, but as with everything else, Wilson-McGainey said she and her classmates have acclimated.
She said one thing the modern youngsters do excel in is technology, which they adapt to quicker then her generation did. But she said she and other members of the Class of ’61 were no slouches in that area either.
“I think a lot of us have adapted to it,” Wilson-McGainey said. “Most of us are on social media or we have iPads or an iPhone, if nothing else.”
Though technology has become a central teaching tool at schools today, Class of ’61 President Edna Smith said it still seems that some students are lacking. In her day, black schools like Atkins got used books and battered classroom furniture and equipment, yet every student excelled.
Many members of the Class of ’61 experienced the evolution of schools firsthand. Deloris Bailey of Baltimore, Md. was a teacher for more than 30 years.
“Kids have a better opportunity now, they definitely have it better,” said Bailey. “There’s a whole lot more out there for them to do and take advantage of, they just need to learn to take advantage of it.”
But she sees some disadvantages as well. Bailey doesn’t believe that today’s younger parents are as prepared to raise children as parents of her generation were. Back then, she said, parents had the support of the entire neighborhood as they pushed their children to succeed in school.
Doris Duncan Taylor, who travelled from Washington, D.C. for the reunion, retired after spending 40 years in education. She said these days parents don’t hold their kids’ feet close to the fire. During her teaching days, she said sometimes it didn’t matter when she told parents that their child misbehaved or failed a test.
“I think (students today) don’t have a concept of sticking together and being a family and supporting each other,” she said. “They lost that somewhere down the line.”
Owens Mills, Md. resident Claudette Cook-Womack retired after teaching for 41 years. Her late father, Lafayette A. Cook, was the first principal of Carver Crest Elementary. The school was renamed Cook Elementary School in his honor.
Cook-Womack said she still keenly remembers segregated Winston-Salem. She helped to integrate a local swimming pool. Cook-Womack was taken aback when she moved to Maryland and ventured onto an integrated roller-rink; she wasn’t allowed to skate at the indoor facility in Winston-Salem.
“All that seems to have changed,” she said. “People seem to be able to go where they want to go if they can afford to go.”
Weekend reunion activities also included a dinner at Lone Star Steakhouse and a Sunday morning worship service at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church.