Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines homecoming as “ 1) a return home and (2) the return of a group of people usually on a special occasion to a place formerly frequented or regarded as home, especially an annual celebration for alumni at a college or university.”
Homecoming celebrations have expanded over the years to the congregations of faith houses and high schools across the United States. How many of us have witnessed a high school homecoming celebration at the magnitude of Wilson High School in Florence?
What is it that attracts more than 100 graduation classes back home to a parade and more than 10,000 attendees at a Friday night homecoming game and a half-day Saturday cookout known as “Tigerfest”? Please permit me to share a few insights.
Perhaps like no other high school in South Carolina and very few, if any, across this nation, Wilson’s history is one of outstanding accomplishments. Founded in 1866 at the Poynor Building, located at the southwest corner of Dargan and Palmetto Streets through the Freedmen’s Bureau, the school has since been located on Athens Street, 1200 N. Irby St. and now its present site at 1411 Old Marion Highway.
One can view Wilson High School history in two phases: 1866 to 1970 and 1970 to the present. Students who attended and /or graduated from Wilson between 1866 and 1970 had an education in segregated schools.
Regardless of the inequities in terms of facilities, funding and other resources, the sense of pride among the students and other members of the school community was a source of inspiration that is evident today. One of the quickest ways to start an argument among members of the Wilson alumni would be to express your opinion about which class was the best. These opinions continue to be expressed in 2019.
In 1956, a new facility was built and occupied at 1200 N. Irby St. for grades 10-12. Like on the Athens Street site, students in the city walked to school in rain, shine, sleet or snow, and students from as far away as the Meadow Prong and Mars Bluff communities were bussed to school.
We were blessed to have an administration and faculty that supported high academic standards and an activities program that included athletics, as well as band, choral music, drama and art. Classmates formed a bond that helped us survive the pains of segregation. Then, 16 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools being unconstitutional in the United States, Florence School District One desegregated its schools in 1970. This was what the words of our alma mater refer to as “a changing hour.” West Florence High School was built and occupied. Some white students were rezoned for Wilson and some African-American students were rezoned for West Florence. The change was met with some resistance. I mention this not to reopen old wounds but to further illustrate how special Wilson High School’s homecoming is.
After having been an assistant principal at West Florence High School from 1971-1974, I was afforded the opportunity to become principal of Wilson High School in August of 1974. The need for healing as a result of the desegregation process continued. Trust needed to be enhanced throughout the Florence community that high expectations, discipline and a safe school environment produces excellence in any school environment, regardless of its demographics.
Despite the efforts of some people to change the name of Wilson High School, close Wilson High School and/or discredit its successes, members of the African-American, white, Asian and Latino communities trusted the administrative team, faculty and support staff of Wilson High School to show evidence that we were not an Amos and Andy operation.
Non-African American parents and African-American parents worked together to raise monies to purchase band uniforms, athletic uniforms and a sound system to enhance choral and other performances in the auditorium. Participation on the academic teams, cross country, tennis, golf, soccer, softball, volleyball teams, track and field was enhanced by students of all ethnic groups that WANTED TO REPRESENT the Purple and Gold for Wilson High School. That desire is evident throughout the curriculum today.
So, we come together in October to celebrate not as a community separated by years attended or race. Instead, we fly our flags on our cars, don our purple and gold, cheer and fellowship together at the various events to make a statement about how far we have come.
From the Midlands to the coast, Wilson High School is one of only four high schools that existed during segregation and is still active. The others are C.A. Johnson in Columbia, Burke High School in Charleston and C.E. Murray High School in Greeleyville (Williamsburg County).
Wilson embraces the Be-attitudes: Be Present, Be On Time, Behave and Be Pawsitive. Then there is the ringing of the bell, to let Wilson students know at their events we are present to encourage them to do their best. D-E- E!! We expect them to be Determined, Excellent and make Extraordinary efforts. Tiger UP!
Lift Happy Voices Praises Unfold
Hail the Purple and the Gold
Let songs of gladness rise to the sky
For Dear ’ol Wilson High
And strive to show as on we go, ability and power
To do the right with all our, through every changing hour
With loyalty, courage and hope, our lives shall e’er be blest
And ever for our Alma Mater we work and do our best
As on we go our aim shall grow, our cheers will ever cry
To do the right with all our might
For thee, Dear Wilson High