Carrboro Elementary Presents "We Were Kids"
A lifelong member of this community, Carolyn Briggs, engaged an audience of more than 100 parents, students and educators at Carrboro Elementary School (CES) for an evening presentation on November 21, “We Were Kids,” a look back at the Civil Rights activism by local youth in the 1960’s.
“We Were Kids” is the second in a planned series, “Now and Then,” partnered events with the Marian Cheek Jackson Center (MCJC). Last year as part of the 60th anniversary celebration of CES, the first event, “Crossing the Tracks Towards Education,” offered CES and community members a close look at the early days of integration in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, with a spotlight on Carrboro Elementary, and one of its first black students, Ronnie Bynum.
The “We Were Kids” evening started with a Chinese dinner provided by CES, before adults and older children filed into the auditorium, and younger children played games and participated in activities in the gym. The guest speaker was Briggs, who grew up on South Merritt Mill Road and attended Lincoln High School, the all-black school prior to integration. “Ms. Carolyn,” as she is called by friends and admirers, became a civil rights activist by the age of 16, when she began joining the first sit-ins in the early sixties.
Janet Davis-Castro, CES Instructional Coach, has spearheaded and provided much of the momentum for planning “Now and Then,” as a member of the school’s Equity Team. She said that the response to “Crossing the Tracks” last year was very positive, with parents and others asking for more equity-focused history events. “We partner really well with the Jackson Center,” Davis-Castro said. “We agree we want to make these events educational, but not like just another day in the classroom.”
Andrea Wuerth, MCJC Director of Education and Communication, said, “Last year marked the 60th anniversary of CES's founding, and Janet Davis-Castro wanted to highlight the fact that Carrboro opened during Jim Crow and originally was an all-white school. Janet decided that she hoped to make this event an annual collaboration with MCJC. The idea is to bring together parents and children in the Carrboro community and to focus on local history.”
As the CES Equity Team continued their conversations with MCJC last spring, a vision took shape for this year’s presentation. Wuerth said, “This year's theme emerged from a planning meeting in which we discussed that many Northside, Tin Top and Pine Knolls neighbors were very young when they joined the civil rights demonstrations, sit-ins and marches. Local historical accounts of this period often overlook the distinct feature of Chapel Hill's movement: the key role black high school students (and many even younger kids) played. Our CES-MCJC team decided we wanted to focus on what students can do today to bring about change for justice, featuring the powerful example of civil rights veteran Carolyn Briggs.”
Once the “We Were Kids” program began in the auditorium, Briggs took a seat on stage with MCJC staff, Brentton Harrison and Kirsten Coleman, who asked her questions as a PowerPoint projected images on the screen behind them. The black and white photos from the MCJC archives elicited murmurs and gasps occasionally; they were stark and dramatic and captured critical episodes in this community’s Civil Rights history.
Briggs described how strongly the 1960 sit-in at NCA&T impacted her peers in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. “Within a month, Lincoln High School students were protesting in front of Colonial Drugs on Franklin Street,” Briggs said. The sit-ins moved to the Long Meadow Dairy Bar, where Kipos Restaurant now sits. Briggs said the Dairy Bar allowed black patrons to purchase ice cream but not to sit in the dining room. “They would ask you to leave, but we just stayed there on the sidewalk,” Briggs said.
During that period, many of the activists were high school students because the consequences for them were so much lighter than for their parents. “Our parents would lose their jobs,” Briggs said. “But there wasn’t as much they could do with us.” She described how community activists led seminar trainings on how to get arrested. “Main thing was we tried never to react. We learned how to go limp. I wasn’t but 90 pounds, but it still took six police to move me.”
When Harrison invited audience members to come to the microphone and ask questions of Briggs, one young boy walked to the stage, and then 10 or 11 more students followed. One child asked, “What were you protesting for civil rights?” and Briggs answered, “The town was segregated and we were treated different.”
When a child asked, “What was the hardest part?” Briggs paused for a moment and said, “Not being afraid. But the longer we did it, the more courage we got.” She said the seminar trainings helped the young activists learn how to be passive and calm, and they had little fear of being hurt.
After students finished asking questions, they were invited to come onto stage, while adults stayed in the back of the auditorium and made protest signs. Harrison taught the children several civil rights songs, including “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
Wuerth said, “We thought of activities to make history come alive in a meaningful way and would involve everyone in the audience. We came up with the idea of having students come on stage to simulate a sit-in, and since Brentton has a terrific voice, to learn freedom songs. The great thing about these events is that so much happens spontaneously. In this case, Ms. Briggs demonstrated how they locked arms to make it more difficult for the police to arrest them.”
The finale of the evening allowed the children to sit on the stage, singing the protest songs while adults carried their signs, encircling their children, many of whom watched in amusement and wonder. Wuerth said, “We thought that bringing together everyone and ending with a freedom march would reflect the intergenerational nature of the local civil rights movement and that singing and marching would end the evening on a powerful note of unity.”
Principal Jennifer Halsey is new to CES this year, and Davis-Castro lauded her support and flexibility. “We’ve really appreciated that Jennifer was so open and trusting to the process of planning.”
Halsey said, “‘We Were Kids’ was a powerful, engaging event for our school community. I believe that our students were empowered by hearing the story of Ms. Briggs and how she stood up for what she knew was right at such a young age. Her story taught our students that you can be an advocate at any age and that your voice makes a difference.”
Listen to Carolyn Briggs' Oral History.