Big Four alumni express gratitude in Winston-Salem to teachers who shaped their lives

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

The Big 4 Teachers Appreciation Luncheon filled the Bighouse Gaines Ballroom of the Embassy Suites hotel in downtown Winston-Salem, NC, Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. (David Rolfe/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Frank Thomas’ rich, bass voice hummed out deep and smooth Friday, signaling everyone who had been milling around the B.H. Gaines Ballroom at Winston-Salem’s downtown Embassy Suites to find their seats, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

His voice, Thomas said, was why Flonnie Anderson called on him to read in her English class at what was then Anderson High School.

“She loved to hear me read that English literature,” Thomas laughed. “Too bad I didn’t learn all of it.”

Together, with Atkins High School (now Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy), Carver High School and Paisley High School (now Paisley IB Magnet School), Anderson was once part of the “Big Four,” Winston-Salem’s four black high schools.

Thomas thanked his former teacher, who sat nodding in the crowd. Anderson was one of more than two dozen former “Big Four” teachers honored Friday at the group’s annual luncheon. Teachers and alumni from the schools have been getting together the past 20 years for a weekend of activities, allowing longtime friends a chance to catch up and a community the chance to celebrate its rich history.

“We want to make sure the history of these four black schools doesn’t go away,” said Eric Martin, president of the Paisley High School Alumni Association. “Not a lot of cities had four black high schools. It is unique.”

The annual gathering kicked off Thursday with a church service, followed by the teacher appreciation luncheon Friday. A dance tonight at the Benton Convention Center will wrap up the weekend.

During Friday’s luncheon the atmosphere was one of gratitude for the gift of great teachers. There was no anger or bitterness over segregation. Instead, there was visible pride in the community that students and teachers created together during that time.

“We didn’t have what the white kids had, but we made do with what we had,” said Adele Burney, a home-economics teacher at Paisley and Atkins high schools in the 1960s and ’70s. In the 1970s, Burney was transferred to Reynolds High School, where she became the school’s first black guidance counselor. Burney said the move to help increase integration at Reynolds was a “great experience,” but she’ll never forget her years teaching in two of Winston-Salem’s black high schools.

“You make us feel good,” Burney said to the dozens of former students who came to honor her.

Students like Sandra Miller Jones, a member of Class of 1964 at Paisley High School. Jones went on to graduate from Howard University and became the first black woman to receive a Master of Business Administration from Northwestern University. She was the first black female manager at the Quaker Oats Co., where she cut her teeth before founding Segmented Marketing Services, Inc., an ethnic promotions company. Jones returned to Winston-Salem in the 1990s, where she rekindled friendships with former teachers and classmates.

“They’re more than just teachers,” Jones said, hugging Burney and another former teacher, Billie Matthews. “They’ve been friends and mentors throughout my life.”

Matthews, who taught math at Atkins, Paisley and Glenn high schools, said that being part of the “Big Four” was being part of a community you could be proud of. And it has lasted long after the schools themselves, only one of which has continually operated as a high school.

“They learned from me,” Matthews said. “But I’m learning from them now.”