Bright yellow buses marked “Greenbrier County Schools” snake their way past Edna S. Brown’s Lewisburg home every day. 

Brown can remember a time when the county’s school buses didn’t travel over Maple Street or any other neighboring streets for that matter.

For decades, children in that neighborhood didn’t need a bus to get to school.

Brown was one of those children, herself – a proud graduate of Bolling High School.

“1938,” she says, of the year she finished school.

She can’t remember exactly how many were in her class, but says she believes it was either 16 or 18.

The majority of Lewisburg’s high school aged students didn’t attend Bolling.

Just the African-American students, mostly from Brown’s neighborhood and a few who walked as far as 10 miles away from White Sulphur Springs, because their community didn’t offer classes beyond 8th grade.

“Then a man started bringing them over here in a truck, but more started coming on a bus,” she says.

When Brown first started school, Bolling only went as far as 8th grade and the county didn’t offer any further educational opportunities for black students.

“If you wanted to go further, you had to go to Institute (Kanawha County) or somewhere else,” she recalls, making reference to Katherine Johnson, the White Sulphur Springs native and NASA mathematician made famous by the Academy Award nominated film “Hidden Figures.” Johnson, then Katherine Coleman, attended school through 8th grade in White Sulphur Springs before moving to Institute to continue her education.

“They had it for the white people,” she continues of, “but not for the black people.”

But Brown says that was simply the life she knew back then and Bolling was her school.

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“It was just like you couldn’t go to the restaurants or use the bathrooms or nothing at that time,” Brown, who will turn 96 on March 28, says of segregated education. “You just didn’t do it.”

And it never occurred to her back then that she might want to attend a school with white students, or that she might even have the right to do so.

“At that time, you didn’t think about things like that,” she says. “The way we were treated and all. I wasn’t thinking about going to school with white kids. I played with some of them, but coming up like that you don’t have anything like that on your mind. You’re just doing the things you’re supposed to be doing.”

Enjoying life and making the most of what the Bolling School had to offer, she says, was what she was supposed to be doing.

“It was a good school,” she says. “We had good teachers.”

And she remembers the names of every teacher she had, especially that of her favorite.

“Anna Garrison Jackson,” she says with a smile. “I remember. I can see her. Oh, yes. She was good. She was very good. And fair. Oh, yes.

“I loved math and if you couldn’t get math under her, you couldn’t get math under anyone.”

Bolling offered no frills to its students. Just the basics, or a general education, as Brown says.

“We had good teachers, but no extras,” she says. “Typing or things like that wasn’t offered. We were just getting a general education.

“I guess a general education was all they thought you needed because you’re black. And you didn’t think about wanting more either.”

It was when Brown was in school that Bolling slowly began adding grades – 9 through 12 – until the first class graduated in 1936.

Before that, Brown, who at one point had her sights set on becoming a math teacher, planned to leave the area to finish school and go on to college.

“I loved math and I was good at it and I knew it,” she says.

But matters of the heart trumped her dreams and life took a different turn.

“Then the only thing you start counting is children,” the mother of six and now great-great grandmother says, laughing. “But I’m glad I had the children. I can tell you that. But I had always thought I would be a math teacher because I loved it.”

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Brown raised her four children in the same community in which she grew up.

And, just as her mother and father before her, Donna Swann walked to the Bolling School every day.

“We were kids and that was our school,” says Swann, who still lives in Lewisburg. “It was right here in our neighborhood. We didn’t think about what other kids maybe had that we didn’t have. We didn’t have any comparison. We went to school every day and we were taught.”

From kindergarten through 6th grade, Swann walked to school and home each day and even went home for lunch.

In 7th grade, her walk got a little longer.

“That’s when they integrated the schools and we had to walk across town to Lewisburg,” she says.

Brown explains, “I went to the BOE I don’t know how many times trying to get a bus to take our kids over there. But they said it wasn’t a mile or something like that so they could walk.”

“Rain, snow or whatever, we had to walk,” Swann continues. “And we could only wear dresses to school so mom would put corduroy pants under the dresses and when we got to school we had to take them off.”

Fortunately, Swann says, for the most part, the walk was the worst of the experience.

Tensions were high early on, but she says she doesn’t remember any real conflict.

“The Lewisburg kids didn’t want us over there and we didn’t want to walk over there,” she says. “In the beginning, it was like we were forced. We were happy where we were and then all of the sudden they were telling us you had to go over. And our school was our community, but all of the sudden we had to leave. It was hard.”

But after the adjustment period, Swann says she realized things were better.

And although Brown didn’t attend integrated schools as a student, she was very much a part of Greenbrier East High School when it opened in 1968.

“I was the only black cook in the school and in the county,” she says of the job she kept for 20 years. “And it was good. We all got along. There was never any difference and a lot of us became lifelong friends.”

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Bolling High School, named for founder Professor E.A. Bolling, first opened as the Lewisburg Colored School in 1877, graduated its final class in 1961. The commencement photo shows four graduates. The structure sat empty for several years before reopening as the integrated Lewisburg Intermediate School to help accommodate a surge in enrollment. 

Brown began seeing buses move through her neighborhood then, as the county began transporting children the short distance it had once refused to take her children. 

The school closed in the early 1970s and the structure was once again empty for many years. It was purchased by the City of Lewisburg in the early 1990s and has served many purposes in the years since, including as the Bolling Opportunity Threshold of Greenbrier County School. In the early 2000s, it passed hands again to a group whose goal was to revamp the historic building for community use.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, however.

The old white, three-story building that sits on the corner of Oak and Feamster, is nearly visible from Brown’s house. She lives just a street over.

She shakes her head when she speaks of the broken windows and vandalism that has occurred through the years.

“They’ve been saying they’re going to do something with it for years, but it’s never been done,” Swann says.

“I want to see it used for the community,” Brown adds.

Bolling, she and Swann say, will always hold a special place in their hearts.

“We had a lot of tradition at Bolling,” she says. “We lined up every morning at 8 and said the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the school song. Then we marched into the school.”

Although Brown wants to see Bolling preserved, the current structure is not the same school she attended as her senior year was spent in makeshift church classrooms while the school was rebuilt following a fire.

Nevertheless, Bolling is part of her history.

“Without a Bolling, I don’t know what I would have done,” she says.

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Brown and Swann say they didn’t understand the full scope of discrimination when they were young.

“I was happy to go to the movies,” Swann says. “You could spend 10 cents and go watch two movies all day long. It was a pleasure and a privilege. I’d buy a Sugar Daddy for a nickel because they were harder and seemed to last longer. And the fact that I had to sit upstairs or go to the bathroom upstairs was just the way it was.”

But it’s not now.

And discrimination, she says, is learned. She sees that now.

And she knows it doesn’t have to be.

Even though Swann says equality is “500 times better” today than it was 50 and 60 years ago, she says things are still not perfect and, in today’s political climate especially, people are worried.

“We’ve come so far and it’s sad when you see kids come home and what others are teaching them, not just because they’re black but because they’re heavy or something else,” she says. “If people would teach kids while they’re young, the world would be a better place.”

Brown adds, “The parents are the ones who make the difference. But when you put the kids together, they don’t know any difference at all.”

Email — mjames@register-herald.com

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