RALEIGH — Nearly six decades ago, Leonard Hunter graduated from Ligon High School, a fact he’s carried with honor all over the world.
Last week, he told students at what’s now Ligon Middle School that he’s hoping they’ll do the same.
“I want you to be as proud of this school as I am,” he told students Thursday. Ligon, founded as a high school, celebrated the graduation of its first senior class 60 years ago with a week of events.
Just a little more than a mile away, Washington Elementary School celebrated the 90th anniversary of its first graduating class with its own events, including alumni talks and a reception.
Both schools were built for black students to attend in then-segregated Raleigh.
Washington was founded as Washington Graded and High School in 1923 after nearly 20 years of demands by parents who wanted their children to be able to attend secondary school.
Eunice Hawkins, who graduated from Washington in 1952, said the school was an integral part of the community she grew up in. The school served all of Raleigh’s black students, who would walk for miles to get there if they had to.
“We were very proud of Washington High,” she said. “The students were there to learn and the teachers were wonderful.”
Ligon opened in the fall of 1953, and the older students at Washington moved there to complete their education.
Hunter, who graduated from Ligon 1955 and went on to a career in the Air Force, said the school was filled with teachers determined to get the best out of their students .
In those first years, the students set a standard for success he said he hopes Ligon students will continue to measure themselves against as time goes on.
“You’re laying the groundwork here for what you’re going to be,” he told them.
Not everything about the transition to Ligon was easy, Hunter said. Students were well aware that the school building itself didn’t measure up to the schools white students attended, and that they didn’t have access to the same resources.
A group of parents took legal action in 1956 to integrate Raleigh’s schools, but the school system was slow to make the change, finding ways to head off the efforts of black families.
Ligon wouldn’t become integrated until 1971, when it also became a junior high and then a magnet middle school in 1982.
Integration was a victory for the community, though some alums also were upset to see Ligon lose its status as a high school in the process.
Hunter was one of several Ligon alums who shared their stories with students in the week leading up to a celebration Friday night.
The week-long celebration at Ligon also included dance performances choreographed by one of the school’s most recognizable graduates, Chuck Davis, founder of the Chuck Davis Dance Co. and the African American Dance Ensemble. Davis, who graduated in 1954, choreographed an original dance for the school featuring students who rehearsed with him through the day on Friday.
The students who danced with him said they were glad to be a part of the day.
“It was hard, but it was fun,” said Trae Mitchell, 13, a seventh-grader.
For alumni, the events were also a chance to reconnect with old friends. Hawkins, who has helped lead the school’s alumni association, said she was looking forward to reminiscing about her days at the school.
Hawkins left Raleigh after graduation and spent most of her career as a social worker and administrator in New York City before returning to Raleigh. But like Hunter, she’s always carried her school days with her.
“I got my start at Washington High and I will always be grateful,” he said.
Barr: 919-836-4952; Twitter: @barrmsarah