Memories of Ella Whitworth
In 2005, at age 100, Ella Whitworth could still remember the kind of history that most people have only read about in textbooks or seen in movies. Actually, she remembered a lot more than that. Having lived through almost the entire 20th century and possessing an incredibly detailed memory, Whitworth could talk about things that never made it to the history books.
Like the bus boycotts of Winston-Salem. Never heard of that? Two decades before Rosa Parks took her famous seat on a Montgomery, AL, bus in 1955, Whitworth was making her own quiet protest right here. She told the story shortly before her death in 2005 to archivists at Winston-Salem State University, her alma mater. Born in 1905, Whitworth had seen her share of racism as a child: having to go to the back entrance of stores to try on shoes, not being allowed to try on dresses in stores, watching her parents suffer indignities. So when she had her own two daughters, Whitworth determined they would not go through the same thing.
Every Saturday, Whitworth would take her two young daughters downtown to shop at the A&P. When they boarded the bus for home, Whitworth would pile her daughters and the grocery bags into a seat while she stood watch nearby. “I was ready if someone asked those children to give up that seat,” she recalled during the taped interview. “If they are going to take my money, then I’ve got a seat on that bus.”
Whitworth took this same action every week, and she said the bus driver never bothered her. She took a similar tack at downtown department stores. “When I went downtown to shop, they didn’t want you to use the bathroom,” Whitworth said. “My little girl would say she had to use the bathroom, and I would tell her to just go behind that curtain and do what you got to do.” That usually resulted in a sales clerk quickly escorting the little girl to the proper place. “You can have your rules, but you’re not going to deny my children,” she said.
Whitworth, who in 2005 was the oldest living alumnus of Winston-Salem State, moved to Winston-Salem in 1909 with her parents, Wesley and Mary Davis Murray. The Murrays had heard there was good work to be found in the R.J. Reynolds tobacco factories; both ended up working there for years. Whitworth attended Slater Industrial and State Normal Schoolâ€”the precursor of Winston-Salem Stateâ€”and graduated from its high school division in 1923. In 1925, she completed the school’s two-year program for teachers and later returned to Winston-Salem Teachers College (now WSSU) to get a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1939. She taught until 1967.
For most everyone else at WSSU, school founder Simon Green Atkins is a portrait, a statue, a name on a building. For Whitworth, Dr. Atkins was the man she and the other students thought of as a second father that they both loved and feared. “The students were so in awe of Dr. Atkins that if they saw Dr. Atkins downtown, whatever they were doing, they would just straighten up. He wanted his students to be somebody and to be the best.”
Whitworth remembered marching two-by-two, dressed in the school uniform white blouse with a sailor collar and navy pleated skirt, to various downtown churches with her fellow students on Sunday mornings. In the fourth year of high school, Dr. Atkins required all students, even those whose families lived nearby, to stay in a campus dormitory. Sometimes, Whitworth said, he would give out weekend passes for students to visit their families. But they had better be back in time for Sunday evening vespers. “He was a good example for the students,” she said. “All the students loved him. He always had time to stop to speak to you. He was a gentleman.”
Atkins hired only the best for his faculty, Whitworth said, marveling at the fact that every faculty member had a Ph.D. or a master’s degree, “even way back then.” His reputation, and that of the school, went beyond the borders of North Carolina. “Everyone wanted a teacher from Teachers College,” she said.
But more than that, everyone wanted to be a part of this exceptional school community. “It was one big family,” Whitworth said.
“An Interview With Ella Whitworth,” Ella M. Whitworth Papers, Winston-Salem State University Archives, Winston-Salem, NC.