By Kerria Weaver
What may seem like an ordinary street in Whiteville was home to a who’s who of notable Black principals and educators who lived there during the 1930s and later.
Still known as Principal’s Row, the 300 block of West Columbus Street is one block from what was once segregated Whiteville Negro High School and Central High School, now Central Middle School. Many descendants of those educators continue to live there, more than half a century after local schools were integrated in the late 1960s.
Louise Turner, 94, a long-time guidance counselor in the Whiteville school system, remembers each principal who lived on the street, one of them her own high school principal.
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Turner said her family emphasized the importance of an education.
“I come from a family of eight and my parents made certain we all went beyond high school,” Turner said.
There were 10 Black schools in the Whiteville area, with Whiteville Colored School being the first. The school was established during the mid-1880s and served only elementary grades.
In 1928, the school began to serve a combination of elementary and high school students, becoming known as Whiteville Negro High School. W.M. Rhinehart, principal at Mount Olive School north of Whiteville, along with members of the community, helped organize the new high school.
Turner attended Whiteville Negro High School, graduating in 1945. She was a part of the last class to graduate from the 11th grade before schools added 12th grade.
James O. Harris was the principal in 1945. He oversaw a faculty of five teachers, including himself. He also served as a basketball coach for the girls and boys teams.
“He was a good principal, a basketball coach, and he taught mathematics,” Turner said. “When I went to him, I decided I wanted to change my major from English to physical education and teach girls physical education.”
Turner returned to her high school in the 1950s after receiving her degree. She became a physical education teacher and a counselor under principal R. Grayer Powell. Powell is known as one of the strongest disciplinarians at Central High School, serving as principal from August 1957 until his death in May 1967.
Powell was highly regarded in both the school and the community. Under his leadership, students and teachers respected academic standards.
Carol Caldwell attended Central High School and remembers how serious Powell and other principals were about students’ educations.
“Principals back then were very involved in the community. They knew the children in their schools and their families,” Caldwell said. “They were revered by the school and community.”
Turner also mentioned how well the principal and parents communicated with each other back then.
“There was a strong relationship between the principal and the parent,” Turner said. “The student did not have much of a chance. What you did at school soon got back to the parents.”
Even though principals were highly respected in the community and in the schools, they made sure to keep it professional with students and the public. Andy Anderson, an alumnus of Central Junior High, remembers how you would never find a student hanging out with a principal.
“Back then there was no way that you would fraternize with a principal,” Anderson said. “Principals would not play in the general public, have parties, or any of that type of stuff happening because they were revered like pastors.”
Powell not only had high student-teacher expectations, he cared about the appearance of the campus and the image of the school. He encouraged students to use the sidewalk and pick up litter on the campus.
Powell died in 1967 after a brief illness. Hundreds attended his funeral, which was moved to the school gym to accommodate the overflow crowd.
The school named Turner interim principal, and she upheld the standards Powell put in place, making sure each student had plans after graduating.
Using prior knowledge from other principals, she excelled in the position.
“It was an awesome experience, I was fortunate,” Turner said. “When integration took place, I went to Whiteville High School when Carlton Prince was my principal. He was a lifesaver because he helped me get through the end of that year.”
Jai Robinson graduated from Whiteville High School in 1985 when Turner served as the school’s counselor.
“I would sit in Ms.Turner’s office and she would call people and ask them what they were doing over the summer,” said Robinson. “Ms. Turner would say, ‘You’re doing something. Either you’re going to college or the army, but you were going to go somewhere.’”
Turner cared about each student’s future and wanted them to make something of themselves.
“I tell people that Ms. Turner and my mother had this ongoing battle because my mother wanted me to go to Southeastern and Ms. Turner was like, ‘No, she’s getting out of Columbus County,’” Caldwell said.
In the 1968 school year, the Whiteville city school board named B.T. Callum principal of Central High School. Callum resigned from the position after two years, and the school became a junior high school starting in 1969, the first year of full school integration.
“Prior to integration, the principals, groups of students, faculty members and parents met religiously for an entire year to discuss the transition,” Turner said.
The school board chose Lloyd D. Best Jr., as principal of the integrated Central Junior High. Best was also highly respected in the community at such a pivotal time, and he had to formulate how to accommodate students, parents and the community across ethnic lines.
Anderson had Best as a principal when he was in middle school and viewed him as the consummate professional male figure.
“Lloyd was a constant man. He was professional in everything he did,” Anderson said.
As alumni reflect on the history of the storied school and the principals and faculty who lived on Principal’s Row, they recognize how significant these educators’ roles were in shaping the lives of young people.
“That professional male role model was important to me. I will never forget all of those influences,” Anderson said. “(They were) bigger than life.”