Saving Bonds-Wilson

The 1971 Bonds-Wilson High yearbook chronicled the first year of integration with dozens of uncaptioned photos of black and white students studying, eating and playing sports side by side.

The image of a blue and yellow cobra stared back at Johnnie Green as he sifted through the rubble remains of Bonds-Wilson High. This was no place for the fearsome mascot of a historic North Charleston school.

When Bonds-Wilson closed in 1985, almost no one thought to preserve the school’s memorabilia. But over the past year, some determined alumni have been working to save yearbooks, trophies and other scraps of their alma mater’s storied past to display in the new Bonds-Wilson Reading Room at Academic Magnet High. They hope to tell the story of their school to future generations of students.

Founded in 1950, Bonds-Wilson was an all-black school until integration in 1971. The Charleston County School District closed the school in 1985, clearing the way for what would eventually become today’s joint campus of Academic Magnet and School of the Arts.

In the fall of 2014, some alumni were disturbed when they heard that football players at Academic Magnet had been smashing watermelons in a celebration ritual after football games — and naming the watermelons Bonds-Wilson.

“These kids here, they don’t realize this is hallowed ground,” said Coakley Hilton, a member of the Bonds-Wilson Class of 1976. He and other alumni association members started working to collect pieces of Bonds-Wilson history shortly after hearing the news.

They were joined in their effort by an Academic Magnet student, senior William Pugh, who helped create the reading room as an Eagle Scout project before graduating in May. As one of a handful of African-American students at Academic Magnet, Pugh said he was struck by the campus’s transformation — first as an all-black school under state-enforced segregation, then as an integrated school, and now as a nearly all-white magnet school following a district-wide push to expand school choice.

“The students enjoyed everything and were successful, and now we’re shifting to the other end of the spectrum,” Pugh said.

The 1971 Bonds-Wilson yearbook is an understated document of integration. Now on display in the Bonds-Wilson Reading Room, it opens with page after page of uncaptioned photos. Some are in monochrome, others in color beneath a dreamy ’70s patina, but each features black and white students side by side — in neat rows of desks, in the chemistry lab, in the cafeteria, on buses.

James Turner, now a Charleston County magistrate judge, was part of the first class of white students to enter the school. He recalled feeling some anxiety about the change. Classmates from his previous school ridiculed him for getting sent to the school at the edge of the historically black Liberty Hill neighborhood.

“We just didn’t know what to expect,” Turner said. “We would have been as likely then to visit the North Pole as Liberty Hill.”

There were fights in the halls in the first two weeks, Turner said. But after some stern words from Principal T.L. Collier in a school-wide assembly, he said students found a way to live in peace. Turner made lifelong friends, including school leaders he now regards as heroes.

As part of his contribution to the reading room, Turner spent hours clambering through a musty storeroom at nearby North Charleston High, eventually digging out two state championship basketball trophies from 1963 and 1974.

Other items in the reading room came from graduates’ personal collections. Green’s contribution, dug from the rubble, was a hand-painted bass drum head that hung on a wall of his home for years.

The 1971 yearbook belonged to Lonnie Hamilton III, a jazz musician and former band director at Bonds-Wilson who went on to serve as Charleston County Council chairman.

The artifacts kept trickling in. Art Shell, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Bonds-Wilson alum, donated a Hall of Fame plaque and a golden football commemorating one of his two Super Bowl appearances.

Macio Jacobs, class of 1964, heard through the grapevine that a granite slab donated by the class of 1976 was being left out in the grass beside a maintenance shed. Still fit and active in his early 70s, he helped some friends lift the 300-plus-pound slab into a pickup truck before storing it in his garage. It is now on display in a courtyard at Academic Magnet, its engraving of a cobra highlighted in a fresh coat of blue paint.

“Our teachers really took a good-faith effort to get us educated, and this is a part of history, especially up there on Liberty Hill,” Jacobs said. “We didn’t want it to just die.”

This year, some Bonds-Wilson alumni have expressed concern about preserving the history of Lincoln Middle-High, a historically black school in rural McClellanville that is slated to close. It opened in 1954.

A school board committee recently approved a recommendation to “ensure the Lincoln Middle-High School artifacts are preserved,” although it remains unclear how those items will be saved.

Thomas Colleton Jr., chairman of the Constituent District 1 Board of Trustees, said the school’s principal has assured him the district will store items from the school to be displayed a later date. Ideally, he said, the collection will end up on display in a promised new high school in Awendaw.

“Anything that has to do with the school, those things are going to be packed up and stored in an area that’s safe,” Colleton said.

Reach Paul Bowers at (843) 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.