By JANIYA WINCHESTER, The Gaston Gazette
GASTONIA, North Carolina (AP) — When Willie Jones was growing up in Gastonia, kids went to different schools based on the color of their skin. And although he was among the first students to attend integrated schools here, he believes Gaston County still has “a long way to go” to achieve equality and equity.
“Times were tough, but I think we actually had more fun as kids compared to kids today,” Jones said of growing up in Gastonia in the 1950s.
Jones, now 68, grew up on North Highland Street, the second eldest of four children of Sarah and Alaska Earl Jones.
There was a youth center near their home, but Jones remembers spending much of his time outdoors with his friends and siblings.
“We used to play in the branch (streams) and ride bikes and go to the rink,” Jones said. “If the pool opened at 9 a.m., we would swim from when it opened until it closed.”
Jones and his brother, Walter, may also have been two of the first black people to “see” a movie in the old downtown Webb Theater in the 1950s, when the theater remained whites-only.
“Our dad cleaned the Webb Theater and the Center Theater so we would get up with him before school and help clean them up,” Jones said. He was about 6 years old at the time.
The theater was still separate at the time, so the brothers were only allowed to watch movies from the screening room on the third floor of the Webb Theatre.
“My dad used to tell us to make sure we used the restroom before we left the house because we couldn’t use the theater restroom,” Jones said.
Growing up, Jones couldn’t use the same water fountains or bathrooms as white people. This began to change with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“We had to go around the back to get our food from the cafeteria in Mile,” Jones said of the former restaurant in downtown Gastonia. “We also had a cinema for black people, called ‘The Palace,’ but it wasn’t as nice as the white cinemas,” Jones said of the theater formerly located on North York Street.
“There were rats inside almost as big as little dogs,” Jones joked.
Jones attended Highland Elementary School, Highland High School, and Frank L. Ashley High School between 1960 and 1971.
Gaston County schools began to integrate in the late 1960s, and Jones and Walter witnessed the impact of integration while attending the former Frank L. Ashley High School in the late 1960s. from the 60s.
“There was a lot of friction with the integration, but it was my brother’s class that suffered the most,” Jones said. “I’m glad they did because I don’t know how we would have handled that.”
His brother, Walter, was a year older and a rank above him.
“If you look at the directories, the clubs like the student council or the French club, they were all white,” the young Jones said.
But that, too, began to change when students like Walter Jones organized a “walk out” at Ashley High School to keep black students out of extracurricular activities, Willie Jones said.
By the time Jones started his own family, society had become more integrated, but he still remembers having to deal with the racism his daughters faced in the 1990s in their own neighborhood of Gastonia.
“My daughters were around 8 or 9 when they came to us (Jones and his wife Debra) crying that the neighbors had said they couldn’t play with them because they were ‘painted’,” said said Jones.
Jones was disgusted by the comments.
“I just never understood why it takes something like George Floyd murdered so brutally for people to understand that our (Black) lives matter,” Jones said. “How many lifetimes will it take for people to start seeing black people the right way?”
Progress has been made and Black has more opportunities than in the past, Jones said.
But, he adds, there is still work to be done.
Jones and his wife of 30 years, Debra, live in Gastonia. He is pastor of Wesley Chapel AME Zion Church.
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