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MLK Unity Breakfast attendees honor Ninth Avenue School

Keynote speaker Vergel L. Lattimore III urges people to value education during the MLK Unity Breakfast on Monday. Keynote speaker Vergel L. Lattimore III urges people to value education during the MLK Unity Breakfast on Monday.

Members of the community on Martin Luther King Jr. Day remembered the old Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue schools, 55 years after the last school bell marked the end of “separate but equal” racial segregation in Hendersonville schools.

 

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast on Monday drew 325 people who braved early morning temperatures in the teens to celebrate diversity over Bojangles eggs, bacon, sausage and biscuits at the Blue Ridge Conference Hall at BRCC.
Built on Sixth Avenue at Valley Street in 1916 for $700, Sixth Avenue School was a two-story wood-framed building with classrooms on the first floor and an auditorium on the second.
“Until 1936, the school term lasted only six months,” Associate Schools Superintendent John Bryant told the audience. “I know about 13,400 kids would love us to go back to that school term.”
When a federal Depression-era relief grant allowed the city to build a new stone gym at Hendersonville High School in the 1936, the old wooden gym was dismantled and moved to Ninth Avenue to serve as a high school annex. Eighteen years later, in May of 1954, a grant of $96,600.29 from the School Plant Construction Repair Fund state of North Carolina paid for construction of a new school on Ninth Avenue, built under the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case that declared separate but equal accommodations to be constitutional. A union school, the new Ninth Avenue school served black students in grades 1 through 12 from Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties.
It would be 11 more years before Henderson County schools and the old city school system integrated. Ninth Avenue held its last commencement in May of 1965, with 16 students earning their diploma. The building, which underwent a major renovation, has served as Hendersonville Junior High School and Hendersonville Middle School.
District Attorney Greg Newman recounted the numerous luminaries who had graduated from the African-American school, including Floyd Benjamin of Brevard, who became president and CEO of Keystone Pharmaceuticals. Newman quoted Benjamin saying: “I do not have a problem with celebrating Ninth Avenue School. I have problem with celebrating the idea behind Ninth Avenue School.”
Keynote speaker Vergel L. Lattimore III, president of Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, urged the attendees to value education, character and wisdom. An ordained elder in the AME Zion Church, Lattimore was the first African-American chaplain to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard.
Only education allows people to achieve social change and freedom, he said, supporting the theme with quotes from Horace Mann, Langston Hughes, Nelson Mandela, John Hope Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr.
Heed the words of Mann, he said: “Character is what God and the angels know about. Reputation is what men and women think about.”
What teachers say to young people, he argued, can make a lifelong difference.
When he was a sophomore at North Mecklenburg High School, he told his teacher he had chosen Martin Luther King Jr. as his term paper topic. “He said, ‘Vergel that’s wonderful. You will one day be a great man like Dr. King.’ I said, ‘What?!’”

“That stuck with me because he thought enough of me to invest in that thought, that idea, that I could achieve like Dr. King,” Lattimore said. “And I’ve gotten to travel all over this country and the world in my role and I never forgot that.”
In his mountaintop speech, King “was teaching us about the courage to face the past and (that) it takes wisdom and strength to face change that must come from the past (and) to go and move into the future,” he said. King’s aspiration that everyone would obtain their rightful place in the world “is my goal for everybody, that everybody takes their righteous place in God’s world.”
To move society toward understanding, “We must become students and teachers of each other, about our history, about our culture, about our family history, about our relationships with each other,” he said. “We must celebrate each other’s story.”
“Relationships move at the speed of trust," he said. "Social change moves at the speed of relationships. Character building is something we have to do every day. It’s not something you do one time and you’re done.”
A plaque on the wall at a counseling center in Salisbury, he said, contained sound advice: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”