02/28/07 — His historic first day

View Archive

His historic first day

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 28, 2007 1:56 PM

He could have been anybody’s 15-year-old child walking up the steps on the first day of high school.

He wasn’t particularly large for his age. In fact, he probably even appeared frail as he made his way through the crowd toward Goldsboro High School.

Glenwood Burden didn’t feel much like a pioneer.

Except he was black.

And in the year 1961, that made a difference — a difference that was being felt around the country as others like him broke the color barrier to pave the way for future black students.

He still recalls that fall day, trying to ignore the taunts, chants and threats that erupted from the crowd gathered in Herman Park.

“A flood of white people — on the streets, on the sidewalks, in the parking lot,” he described. “I’m like the only black person and everybody else is white.

“All the verbal threats — ‘We’re gonna kill you, you’re gonna die’— out loud. I’m hearing that.”

He was fortified only by the desire to make his family proud. He and his father had already discussed the importance of him responding to the shift away from segregation.

“I’ve got a mission to accomplish,” he recalled thinking. “I don’t know an apple from a jack, but here I am.”

He was not completely alone that first day. The NAACP sent the Rev. E.O. Edwards, whom he described as “like my chauffeur that day,” and Geneva Hamilton.

“They took the brunt of it rather than involve my family,” Burden said.

As he made his way closer to the doors of the school, the throngs parted, revealing the walkway to the registration office.

His journey to that day of firsts began months earlier.

“Myself and about four or five other students were chosen by the NAACP to start the integration process,” Burden said.

But then he went out of town for the summer.

“While I was gone, applications got approved. However, in the process, there were a couple of people that decided, ‘I’m not going,’” he said.

When he received the call from his mother telling him he had been accepted to the high school, she failed to mention that he would be the only black student attending that fall.

He and his father discussed the enormity of the situation –– and his responsibility.

“Dad and I sat down and talked about choices,” Burden said. “(He told me), ‘It’s your choice but look how many people you could help.’ He was very positive about the whole process.”

They also bandied about the possible consequences.

Burden said his father told him: “‘If you want to apply, I’ve got your back. It’s your choice.’”

It was not an easy one to make. Burden had seen films about the bombings and fighting in other communities where integration was imminent. And it wasn’t like he was an A student, he admitted.

But he had earned the chance to try, so he did — in part because his dad convinced him it was the right choice.

And he became a part of local history.

“I was the ‘chosen one,’” he says now. “But it was not like I wanted to do it. It was because of the influence of my father.”

When word got out that a black was going to be at Goldsboro High, Burden said, “There I was, left with all that in my lap, so to speak.”

But with the apprehension came a sense of pride.

He knew he was walking that path for more than just himself — and even though they couldn’t be there on that first day, he knew his family was behind him. The oldest child in a family of six, he said he felt the support of aunts, uncles, relatives, as well as the black community.

And on some level, he realized he was in a position to make a difference.

“It’s sort of like coming to a point where you’re being recognized as doing something,” he said. “Not that I was a hero or any rock star or whatever but, OK, you’re going to do something.”

His family prayed for him and encouraged him. But nothing prevented the bomb scares and the threatening calls and mail that came their way.

“’You’re in my town, and we’re gonna kill you the day you step out on the school grounds’” was the message being sent loud and clear, he said. “It was coming like daily once the word got out.”

Meeting Goldsboro High principal C.W. Twiford was a turning point for Burden.

“I could see more of the point of what I was doing,” he said. “I felt real welcome (by him).”

Within an hour of his arrival that first day, Burden was officially registered and made his way back out of the school building.

“Through the crowd, here come the threats,” he said. “Some very negative, threatening things.”

There was still another hurdle, however — attending classes.

School systems were different in those days for blacks and whites, Burden said. Black schools inherited outdated books and materials handed down from white schools when they got new ones.

He needed help at first, he said.

“The curriculum I was pursuing was not like a college transfer or something. I had to take some tutoring to catch up because the things that they were telling us were secondary to the curriculum (we had in the black schools),” Burden said.

The tutors were very good, he said, and helped him handle the academic struggles he faced at the outset.

“I had enough intelligence, if you taught me, if you gave me the tools,” Burden said.

The public outcry continued, though. Bomb threats began to be directed to the school, an average of once a week.

“So everybody had to go outside to the football field. Sometimes students made negative comments to me, blaming me for being there and the students having to stand outside in the cold,” Burden said. “Physically, I was never touched, but I got more verbal abuse than I could handle.”

Things began to improve, he said, once his classmates realized he was “just another student like they were.”

But being the only black student at the school was still not easy.

“There were those that would accept me,” he remembers. “Those that were interested would walk down the hall with you, but when you go to lunch ... a lot of times I had to eat alone. That was a tough call trying to find someone I could bond with.”

Patience won out, though, Burden said.

“Finally, a couple of those type of people who were not prejudiced” defied the peer pressure and began to spend time with their new classmate. It was then, Burden said, that he realized that prejudice is learned behavior, “a lot of it was taught by their parents.”

Once they got to know him as a person, he said, “it was like everything was cool. Everything was OK.”

And like for any teenager, that made all the difference.

“That helped me along, too,” he said, accompanied by the feeling that “I finally belong.”

While it was a gradual process and a challenge at times, Burden said his confidence began to grow. His parents encouraged him and spearheaded the team effort that “we can do this,” which kept Burden motivated to continue.

And still, his family also suffered, he noted. They continued to receive threatening mail and hate calls.

“At first, it was kind of a fear because we’d never been there and then it became like, OK, here it is again,” he said. “It finally got to the point where we didn’t ingest it. We didn’t process it.”

Among the members of the black community, Burden said he was a hero of sorts.

“’Here comes Glenwood Burden. He goes to Goldsboro High School,’” he would hear.

“So that helped me to bear some of the negative onslaught that was still going on.”

And when the stress became too much or he needed a break, Burden said he would ask his principal if he could visit Dillard High School — the all-black high school.

“I had to have that, like my pacifier. The visits and the encouragement that I got from the other side of the street, the other side of the tracks, so to speak.”

The following year, as a junior, Burden felt even more at home at Goldsboro. He became a part of the Goldmasquers drama group, “so I’m really spinning this thing,” he said.

While he would have also liked to have played basketball, he said he couldn’t because other counties were not yet integrated.

“So that threat was real at all levels,” he said. “I couldn’t play at all. The feeling was, if you make the team and can’t travel, we don’t need you.

“I just thought they weren’t going to let me play because I was black, but the coach told me, ‘Here at the school we can basically deal with stuff, but out of the county, we don’t know what to expect, who’s out in the crowd.’”

His white classmates got a chance to experience a little bit of what his life was like when they came to visit him at his home.

“They were basically out of their place when they’d come to visit me in the ‘hood,” Burden says with a chuckle.

And again, the phone calls came, but this time they were positive, he said.

“Hey, he’s here, part of us” was the message he now internalized.

He graduated from Goldsboro in 1964 — three years after that first lonely walk.

He was advised to take a break from Goldsboro for a while.

“You need to get out of this town, to clear your mind, get your perspectives right,” he was told.

He took some classes at Wayne Community College and St. Augustine College, but left before graduating because the Vietnam War was going on and he was drafted.

He opted to go into the Navy and after four years, settled in Washington, D.C.

Returning to Wayne County in 1970, Burden married the former Margaret Wilson two years later. The couple have two children and five grandchildren.

Burden held a number of different jobs over the years, working as a truck driver, in retail, and a stint at O’Berry Center. But it was when he entered the ministry that he found his true calling.

For the past 25 years, he has spearheaded the TV program “Gospel Perspectives,” which features local interviews, preaching and sharing.

“It’s evolved — a ‘God Squad’ ministry for men, street witnessing, supplying food to the hungry and a ‘Good News Gang’ after school program for children,” directed by son Glenwood, Jr., he said.

Burden is also publisher of the “Good News Gazette,” a non-denominational monthly newspaper.

It began from a “vision from the Lord about meeting needs of the people,” he said. “People don’t read the Bible consistently or attend church regularly or at all, but everybody reads the newspaper.”

On Jan. 27, he was recognized for his 27 years of service in the ministry at a ceremony hosted by the nine preachers with whom he sings — another milestone of sorts.

Flames of Fire is a multi-racial, multi-denominational group.

“They decided to bless me with an appreciation service,” he said, likening the experience to going to the state fair.

“You’ve got the Ferris wheel and the sheep over here. You don’t know what the next thing is going to be. It was a roller coaster — sometimes we’re crying, sometimes we’re laughing with joy.”

But it was also humbling and, as his daughter reminded him, wonderful to be honored while you’re still alive to receive it.

It was especially fitting since, not long ago, he said it “hit me blindside — I’m doing what I think I’m supposed to be doing.”

And all the challenges that once seemed insurmountable have perhaps contributed to where and who he is today.

“The experience of all that at Goldsboro High School is what might have changed my life,” the 60-year-old said. “It’s like a humbling thing to keep me focused. See what God has done for me.”

As a father, he says he wanted to be a role model. In the community, he just wants to be a “part of the team,” an image he attributes to a dream he had.

In the vision, he said the question was asked about Michael Jordan and his sports team winning a tournament and how everyone from the towel boy to the bus driver had also received championship rings.

“The message that came to me from God was, ‘Just be glad to be part of the team,’” he said.

Being a Christian, he calls himself a work in progress.

“I’m still under construction, even though I have been placed in the place of leadership and over other people,” he said.

“I think this is like showing your scars, taking the mask off. All those issues, I look back and now I can say, ‘Thank you, Lord.’

“It’s pushed me. I don’t have to behave badly, don’t have to act ugly. I’m just following (God’s) orders.”