Fifty years ago, four black teenagers walked into Myrtle Beach High School and made history.
Among jeers and snide remarks from white classmates, three girls and one boy marched to their classes in 1965 as the first black students to desegregate an area school. Prior to 1965, black and white students in Myrtle Beach attended separate schools.
On Thursday morning Iris Jones Vereen, Prince Bowens and Martha Canty Gore celebrated 50 years of integration during a schoolwide ceremony. Ronetta Spivey Bowens, the fourth member of Myrtle Beach’s first black class, died several years ago. The four alumni were honored by Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes and several members of the Myrtle Beach City Council.
“Few among us can be pioneers,” said Principal John Washburn. “Though it sounds simple to be the first, pioneering is more difficult. Heroes face challenges most others are unwilling to accept.”
Gore, who graduated in 1967, said students at Whittemore High School in Conway were asked if any would be willing to integrate to Myrtle Beach. Gore jumped at the chance.
“Some were for [integration], some others were afraid of the outcome,” she said. “I was excited about it and when they asked me I did not hesitate.”
Gore started at Myrtle Beach as a sophomore and remembers the tensions caused by mixing black and white students 11 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional in the landmark 1954 case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. South Carolina was the second to last state to desegregate schools, but Myrtle Beach High was the first school in the area to combine races.
Fifty years later, Gore said she would choose the same path without hesitation.
“All I went through, just to know we paved the way for other students, it was worth it,” Gore said.
The students faced daily taunts from some of their white counterparts and Iris Vereen remembers checking her classroom seat every day to make sure students didn’t place anything harmful or sticky on it.
“They really did make it as hard as possible for us,” Vereen said.
Though the first day of school wasn’t as violent as scenes from Little Rock, Ark., – where students integrated in 1957 – Vereen said police were on campus to ensure the black students’ safety. Vereen recalls pushing her way through statue-like protestors in order to get to class.
“On our way in, I can remember students all around us, and they were not happy about us being there,” she said. “But we did it anyway.”
The bullies didn’t stop Vereen from graduating, though she “thought about quitting” often. Her parents encouraged her to continue her education at Myrtle Beach and she graduated in 1967.
The first four black Seahawks didn’t receive any acknowledgment of their integration pioneering until this year, Vereen said. But, even in 1965, she knew it was the right time to desegregate South Carolina.
“I was afraid, but I knew it was time because other states were doing it,” Vereen said. “I’m glad that I did it.”
The third living alumni, Prince Bowens, said he remembers traveling to athletic competitions with his classmates before public stores and restaurants were integrated. His team members had to bring food back to the bus for him, since he wasn’t allowed in many eateries.
“We’ve come a long way in 50 years,” Bowens said.
Officials from Horry County Schools and area religious organizations also were scattered throughout the school’s auditorium for Thursday’s ceremony, and students filled in empty seats.
Student-made slide shows and interviews were shown, and three students performed several songs for the crowd. Each honoree was presented with flowers and a print of the old Myrtle Beach High School located on Kings Highway.
Krystal Dodson, head of the community organization upHANDS and Myrtle Beach High graduate, introduced the honorees and encouraged Myrtle Beach students to embrace change and have courage in times of upheaval.
“They beat the odds and succeeded by any means necessary,” Dodson said. “We accept the challenge to stand on your shoulders and complete the work you started.”