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Raleigh school explores the past on its 60th Anniversary

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They never saw themselves as underdogs, though Raleigh’s whites saw them that way. When the all-black John W. Ligon High School opened its doors in Southeast Raleigh for the 1953-54 school year, Leonard Hunter and Chuck Davis were leaders of its inaugural junior class, Hunter as class president, Davis as an all-state singer.

Best friends, they talked about how Ligon, though new, was plain, spare and not as fancy as Broughton, the flagship white high school in West Raleigh. Still, Ligon should be great—and better than Broughton.

Six decades later, Hunter takes pride in his Air Force career, including four combat stars earned in Vietnam, television shows for the Armed Forces Network and his role as a spokesman for the Tuskegee Airmen. He speaks in schools and churches about the famed black pilots, including some he served with, and about African-American history—which, as he likes to say, is American history.

Davis is, yes, that Chuck Davis, the renowned dancer-choreographer whose work with the Chuck Davis Dance Company and DanceAfrica in New York and the Chuck Davis Dance Ensemble in Durham is known all over the world. The Dance Heritage Coalition recently named Davis one of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.”

On Friday, Ligon will mark its 60th anniversary, with Hunter and Davis at the center of the festivities. An alumni night celebration at 7 p,m. in the Ligon auditiorium will feature the Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble in performance with Ligon students. It’s free and the public is invited.

The two remain the closest of friends. When I met them last week, they traded stories about getting kicked off the grounds at Broughton, and their awe—they can laugh about it now—the first time each one entered Broughton in later years. Hunter must’ve looked a little unhinged, because the Broughton teacher who welcomed him—a classmate of his from Ligon—reached out to brace him. “Brother,” she promised, “it’s going to be all right.”

Well, it is all right. Because as Hunter tells it so well—he’s Ligon’s unofficial historian—and as Davis affirms, Ligon quickly established such a high standard of achievement in academics, music, sports and as a source of community pride that Broughton, the white flagship, ceased to matter. For African-Americans in Raleigh and across eastern North Carolina who were starting to demand equal treatment, the name Ligon became synonymous with excellence.

Ligon, both men say, laid the foundation for their personal success. And it launched a long list of distinguished graduates into careers in law, medicine, education, the ministry, the military and, in the case of the late John Baker Jr., who graduated with Ligon’s first senior class, as professional football star and as Wake County’s much-honored sheriff.

What made Ligon High great? First, there was the corps of African-American teachers who were dedicated to helping every student succeed. Second, it was the Southeast Raleigh community, a tight-knit place where every child was every adult’s responsibility.

“Our families, parents, grandparents, cousins—the old axiom that it takes a village to raise a child was really true,” Hunter says. “Everybody in [Southeast Raleigh] knew my grandma like they knew his momma and daddy”—Davis is nodding—“and I don’t care where you were, if you were here in Lincoln Park or over in Oberlin, if you were messin’ up, one of those old sisters would get you right quick.”

And tell on you—because they cared.

And in school, Davis jumps in, teachers stayed until 5 p.m. and later. “And it would be nothing to look up and see one of those teachers come into your house.”

To this day, they can rattle off the names.

The librarian, Mrs. C.H. McLendon, who repaired the books that came over as torn-up hand-me-downs from Broughton.

Susie Vick Perry, who taught chemistry—and who threw John Baker’s giant shoes out the window when he fell asleep in her class. Perry is in the Raleigh Hall of Fame as a teacher and community health activist.

Clarence Clinton Lipscomb, a former light heavyweight boxing champion in the military who brought Shakespeare alive for Chuck Davis. There’s a N.C. Theatre Conference award named for Lipscomb.

And Emily May Morgan Kelly, who wrote Ligon’s Alma Mater and, with her successor, Ann Hunt Smith, made listening to Ligon’s choral music groups as exciting as hearing Ligon’s very famous Little Blue Marching Band.

Of course, Ligon is no longer all-black nor even a high school. Originally a senior and junior high, it became an integrated junior high school in 1971 when Raleigh and Wake County merged school systems. In 1982 it was converted into a magnet middle school with a GT (gifted and talented) concentration. Extensively remodeled, it is no longer spare and contains first-rate facilities for the arts and dance.

Through it all, Ligon is as it began—one of Wake County’s very best schools located in a historically black neighborhood. And a source of pride for everyone who knows it.

In the late ‘70s school leaders considered closing Ligon. That’s when Hunter had lunch with Sheriff Baker and Gov. Jim Hunt, and Hunter said that if Ligon was threatened, he’d bring out 5,000 alumni to ring the school and protect it. “They’ll never get near it.”

To which Baker added, according to Hunter, “I’ll be the first in line.”

This article appeared in print with the headline "Ligon's legacy"

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