Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
Paved the Way for
Desegregation of Public Schools
Seven African American students enrolled at Rock Hill High School in the fall of 1964, becoming the first black students to attend a previously all white public school in York County, S.C.
The Seven Pioneers were: Senior William Young, Juniors Kathleen Knox and Paul Watson, Sophomore Alvin Thomas Murdock and Freshmen Cora Murdock, Robert Toatley, Jr., and Vickie Young.
Prior to the 1964-65 school year, public schools in York County were segregated, with African American students attending Emmett Scott High School.
This historic event came 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared that the doctrine of “separate but equal” schools – the lynchpin of Jim Crow school segregation laws for nearly six decades – violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In early 1964, the Rock Hill School Board received 10 letters representing 14 African American students who requested a transfer from Emmett Scott to Rock Hill High School. Although 11 students were eligible to transfer, only seven requests were approved.
Several were hesitant about the move. Not only were they reluctant to leave friends they had attended school with since elementary school, but they also feared they would not be welcome at Rock Hill’s all-white high school.
The Seven Pioneers were carefully selected by leaders in the African American community. Several of their parents were either clergymen, members of the Rock Hill branch of the NAACP, or both.
William Young (since deceased) said in a 2004 newspaper interview that the NAACP sought students of character and a certain demeanor. “They didn’t want any hotheads,” he said.
The students endured racial slurs, threats, and other indignities. Vickie Young said that their school bus would be followed by white people who yelled threats and obscenities. She was spat upon at school. Robert Toatley, Jr., recalled that older students would stand in front of water fountains to keep him from getting a drink. He auditioned for the school band but was told he wasn’t good enough to join. Cora Murdock recalled students breaking her pencils and destroying her school projects. On one occasion, she was deliberately tripped on a staircase, causing her to hit her face on a stairstep.
Because the seven students were at different grade levels, the one time they were together as a group during the school day was at lunch. They often were the only black students in a classroom. Their isolation continued outside of the classroom. William Young said, for example, that his parents would not allow him to play sports or even to attend the school prom out of fear for his safety. One student, Alvin Thomas Murdock, did not complete the school year but later graduated from Emmett Scott.
The courage and moral stamina of these young people was remarkable. They and their parents were acutely aware of the fate of civil rights activists in other Southern communities who had been reviled, beaten, and even murdered for lesser activities than trying to integrate a previously white high school.