Dorothy Counts was one of the first black students accepted to Charlotte, North Carolina’s Harry Harding High School as part of the city’s early initiative to desegregate schools. Her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Herbert Counts, pulled her from the school after she was harassed by white pupils for four days on her own. They were concerned for her safety. The attempt at desegregation failed when the other three black students withdrew as well.
Despite the implementation of the Pearsall Plan proposed by the North Carolina Advisory Committee on Education (The Pearsall Committee) to delay desegregation in the state in response to the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation was unconstitutional, forty black students applied to transfer to white schools across the state in 1956. (1954). Charlotte, North Carolina, has been totally segregated since the turn of the twentieth century. All of the city’s public schools, public accommodations, and neighborhoods were segregated. The Charlotte School Board, on the other hand, agreed to voluntary desegregation in the summer of 1957 in order to avoid federal or state-mandated regulations.
Counts, who was fifteen at the time, was one of four black pupils who volunteered to be transferred to the district’s all-white schools on September 4, 1957. At Harry Harding High School, she was the sole black student. Harassment began on the first day she was supposed to be there. Many of the events were coordinated by leaders of the segregationist White Citizens Council, who urged the school’s boys to block her entrance and the girls to spit on her.
Counts proceeded to Harding High School past a mob of enraged onlookers who screamed slurs, tossed rocks, and spat on her. When she arrived at school for the first time, she was subjected to much more abuse. Teachers ignored her when trash was thrown at her in the lunchroom. Two white female classmates who had befriended her on the second day were now harassed as well. Threatening phone calls were also made to Counts’ family. Her father decided to remove her from school after four days of harassment.
Unlike nine black students at Little Rock High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, who entered under a court order and were safeguarded for a year by hundreds of US Army soldiers, they had entered under a court order and were protected for a year by hundreds of US Army soldiers. Counts, who went to Harding High School on his own, had no protection and received very little media notice.
Counts’ parents sent her to an integrated school in Philadelphia to continue her studies. She returned to Charlotte in 1961 to study at John C. Smith University, where she graduated in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree. After that, Counts began working in the childcare industry. She worked in low-income families’ childcare services run by churches. She was also a member of Child Care Resources Inc., a Charlotte-based group that fought for improved child care.
Counts received an honorary diploma from Harding High School in 2008. Counts received a public apology from one of the audience members who had harassed her in 1957 in 2010. In 2010, Harding High School’s library was renamed after Dorothy Counts.
1957: The adolescent who defied segregation
Dorothy Counts made national headlines in September 1957, when she enrolled as one of the first and only black students at the newly desegregated Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, at the age of 15. (North Carolina). This was nearly three years after the Supreme Court determined in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Her father, along with their family friend Edwin Thompkins, dropped Counts off on her first day of school. Edwin offered to walk Counts to the front of the school while her father parked the car because their automobile was stopped from getting closer to the front entrance. “Hold your head up,” her father advised her as she got out of the car to walk down the hill. “There is no one who is better than you.”
The hostile throng of 200 to 300 individuals, largely students and parents, surrounded her and hurled racial epithets at her. She was harassed, spit on, and attacked with sticks and gravel by the mob.
Dorothy strolled by unfazed, but subsequently informed the press that many individuals threw rocks at her, the majority of which landed in front of her feet, and that students formed barriers but separated ways at the last second to enable her to pass.
With a shot of Counts being teased by a mob on her first day of school, photographer Douglas Martin received the 1957 World Press Photo of the Year (the first image above).
She went into the auditorium after entering the building to sit with her class. She was subjected to the same harassment she had experienced outside the school, with racial slurs being shouted at her all the time. During this time, she claims no adults helped or protected her.
She stated that she was ignored after going to her homeroom to receive her books and schedule. Her parents asked if she wanted to continue attending Harry Harding High School after the school day ended around noon. Counts stated that she wanted to return in order to reconnect with her classmates.
Dorothy became ill the next day. She missed school on Friday due to a fever and a sore throat, but returned on Monday. When I returned to school, there was no crowd outside the school.
Students and faculty, on the other hand, were taken aback by her return and began harassing the fifteen-year-old girl. Her teacher ignored her while she was in class and she was pushed to the back of the room.
During lunch on Tuesday, a group of boys surrounded her and spat in her food. She went outside and introduced herself to another new student in her homeroom class, who told Counts about her first impressions of Charlotte and the school.
Counts told her parents that she felt better now that she had made a friend and had someone to talk to when she returned home. Counts encouraged her parents to pick her up during her lunch period so she could eat after her lunch period experience.
Counts saw the young girl in the hallway on Wednesday, and the young girl ignored him and hung her head. A blackboard eraser was thrown at her during her lunch period that day, landing on the back of her head.
As she walked outside to meet her oldest brother for lunch, she noticed a crowd encircling the family car, which had its back windows shattered. Counts claims she was terrified for the first time because her family was being attacked.
Her parents removed her from school after four days of harassment that threatened her safety, but images of Dorothy being verbally assaulted by her white classmates were broadcast around the world.
Counts and her family relocated to Philadelphia, where the adolescent attended an integrated high school. She returned to Charlotte, completed her education at Johnson C. Smith University, and began working as a preschool teacher and education advocate.
She stayed in Charlotte and continued to work for a non-profit organization with children from low-income families.
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A man named Woody Cooper sent Counts-Scoggins an email in 2006. He admitted to being one of the boys in the famous photograph and expressed regret.
Cooper asked her to forgive him over lunch, to which she replied, “I forgave you a long time ago, this is an opportunity to do something for our children and grandchildren.” They agreed to tell their story and went on to do numerous interviews and speaking engagements together after that.