In the 1920s and 30s there were only eleven grades. And all grades were on the same campus—in the same building, for that matter. That campus was at the intersection of Hwy 55 and Mason Street—the current location of Apex Middle School.
Children from Apex attended school here beginning in the first grade. Children from out in the country attended community grade schools and then bussed to Apex for high school. My father, for example, started at West Wake School in Bonsal. Ben Jones and Katharine Jones Ogburn started at the Fairview School. Others started at grade schools in Olive Chapel or Collins Grove or New Hill. But they all attended high school together in Apex.
That was, of course, the days of segregation, and there was no local high school for African-American children. Some rode the bus to Berry O’Kelly School in Raleigh. Most stayed home to help on the farm. It was not until 1952 that there would be a high school for Apex’s African-American community.
A couple of years ago I sat down with several of Apex’s senior citizens and asked them to tell me what Apex High School was like in the 1920s and 30s. Who were their favorite teachers? What was the classroom atmosphere? How was discipline maintained? What were the extracurricular activities?
Margaret Benton Ferry, who was born in 1914, told me there were two rules for Apex’s teachers. “They had to live in Apex, and they had to go to church.”
One of the teachers everyone told me about was Linda Newton, the math teacher. “Every time Miss Newton saw a Benton coming into class, she told us to go to the waste basket first.” That’s because Mr. Howard Benton, Margaret’s father, ran a grocery store in downtown Apex—which gave all the Benton children ready access to chewing gum. “She gave my brother Bob such a hard time—and Bob gave her such a hard time—that Dad eventually took him out of school and put him in another school down near Salemburg, a military school.”
Ben Jones, who was born in 1919, told a story illustrating why Miss Newton was his least favorite teacher. “I was a junior, working a problem on the board. When I explained the problem to the class, I said ‘174 likes 27.’ I was trying to say ‘lacks,’ as in a subtraction, but I had a country accent. Miss Newton always carried a wood dowel, for pointing at the board. She came up to the front of the room and hit me hard on the head. And it hurt! She said: ‘174 doesn’t like 27, it lacks 27.’ I had always ‘liked’ math until then.”
Ben said that one of the most popular teachers of that era was Bill Gibson—principal, history teacher, and football coach. As an example of Mr. Gibson’s commitment to his students and athletes, on one occasion Mr. Gibson took the time to drive Ben and his teammate, “Big Robert” Wilson, to Wake Forest College to meet with the football coach and inquire about a scholarship. This was the middle of the Great Depression, and Ben’s own father had died a decade previously. Mr. Gibson stepped in and did what he could to help.
Roy Cooke told me that everybody liked Mr. Gibson because he was tough enough to command respect yet patient and kind enough to be approachable. “He never appeared mad, and he never expelled a student. If somebody was sent to the office, he would sit down and talk with them. In a mellow tone, he would explain the value of an education: how it would help you get a job, how it would help you make money.”
Gladys Tunstall Donnelly told me that Mr. Gibson is the reason she loved history. “He was a great teacher, and he knew how to handle the tough ones. Everybody warmed up to him.” And, she added, it didn’t hurt that “he was a fine-looking man!”
In those days schools held chapel at least once a week. Gladys told me the whole high school would go to the auditorium and sing. “Patriotic songs, mostly. Then we’d have a devotional—a student would read a short scripture, then we’d get a pep talk from the principal—Mr. Gibson.”
Gladys still remembers her first Home Economics project—making a bathrobe on a sewing machine. “It was navy blue, trimmed in red with a bias tape.” It was beautiful, but there was just one problem. “The first time I laundered it, it all came apart because I forgot to fasten all the bias tape.”
Gladys told me a funny story about a boy who wanted to kiss her and another boy who played a prank to keep that from happening. Gladys and Alson Johnson were the leads in a play called “Speeding Along.” “Alson was supposed to kiss me at the end of the play, and Roy Cooke played a trick on Al: he pulled the curtain early. Alson didn’t kiss me; he just froze. And he got mad at Roy!”
In addition to chapel and drama, the high school auditorium was also the venue for a beauty contest. Jeanne Sutton Hack, who was born in 1928, told me they had a competition for each age group. So, when she was six years old, she entered her first beauty contest along with her friend, Grace Marie Blades.
At that time there was a young woman named Evie Bell Wilson, who had grown up in Apex and then travelled to New York to learn how to be a hair stylist. Jeanne told me that Evie had just come back from New York, and “she needed people to practice on.” So, as a six-year-old girl Jeanne found herself being dolled up by a New York stylist. “I have naturally curly hair, and she rolled it in these long Shirley Temple curls, and put a pink bow ribbon in my hair to match my dress.” Jeanne didn’t win, but her friend Grace Marie did. “She had coal-black, beautiful hair.”
In addition to the beautiful hair, there was supposed to be a beautiful walk. Jeanne says that the adults taught the girls “how to walk like the big girls in the beauty contests.”That was nice, except that once Jeanne and Grace Marie got out on the stage, they couldn’t help but revert back to acting like little girls. “We got the giggles and we couldn’t stop. I saw my parents and tried to be sedate. But I couldn’t stop giggling.”
Warren Holleman and his brother Toby are authors of Pluck, Perseverance, and Paint: Apex, North Carolina: Beginnings to 1941. Copies are available from The Rusty Bucket in historic downtown Apex.