Real History Lessons

Twentieth annual event brings new perspective to Dr. King’s legacy 

Ronnie Pepper wants us to think deeply about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message.
Portrait by Karin Strickland

Ronnie Pepper — veteran, storyteller, retired teacher, and native of Henderson County — was a child in the Jim Crow South, and he vividly recalls segregated restaurants, water fountains, and movie theaters. “We would pack a lunch and spend all day in what was called the ‘colored’ balcony of the Carolina Theatre, watching the same movies and cartoons over and over.”

His first three years of public education were spent at Hendersonville’s Ninth Avenue School, which from 1951 through 1965 served African American students of Henderson, Polk, and Transylvania Counties. “I remember everything about the school,” he says. “We had wonderful teachers, but we always got the old books. I remember in second grade the first time I got a new book in school. I opened it up, and there was no one’s name in it but mine, and it smelled so good!”

When legal racial segregation came to an end in 1965, Pepper and his classmates moved to integrated schools, but he’s committed to telling the history of black Americans in Henderson County, and to maintaining an alumni association for Ninth Avenue School students and their families. Last February, a group of 14 alumni, “led by the leadership and inspiration of Jessie Wilson,” notes Pepper, visited Hendersonville Middle School — the site of their old school — to share stories, photos, yearbooks, and memorabilia with students there. 

On January 20, 2020, at Henderson County’s 20th annual Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast, alumni and faculty of the Ninth and Sixth Avenue Schools will be recognized and honored during the event, which McCray Benson, President/CEO of the Community Foundation of Henderson County, says is one of the most diverse and unifying events held in the county. “It brings together all ages, races, and groups,” he says. “It centers around Dr. King’s philosophy and vision of how we can unify, work together, and increase the common good. It’s all about honoring him and his legacy.”

Pepper, who will serve as emcee and is chair of the MLK Unity Breakfast Committee for the second year, agrees. “We celebrate and remember him — we encourage people to think deeply about him through an annual theme, something he stood for.”

The 2020 theme is education, influenced by an article written by Dr. King when he was at Morehouse College in 1947, Intelligence Plus Character: The Goal of True Education. This year’s keynote speaker is Dr. Vergel L. Lattimore III, President and Professor of Pastoral Psychology and Counseling at Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, NC. Arts and musical performances are also on the program, and Pepper says the committee has invited students from Hendersonville Middle to share what they learned from the Ninth Avenue School alumni visit. He hopes to have enough historic yearbooks from the school’s active years (1951-1965) to place on tables at the breakfast as “great conversation starters … real history lessons.”

Benson says the annual breakfast truly does foster unity. “You start your day with people you may not know, but you sit together and talk and share, and then you see each other out in the community and say hello because you have that common ground. It really does build relationships.”

The MLK Jr. Unity Breakfast begins at 8:30am on Monday, Jan. 20, at Blue Ridge Community College’s Technology Education & Development Center conference hall. Doors open at 8. Tickets are available at the office of the Community Foundation of Henderson County (401 North Main St.) and at the door: $15 for adults, $5 for children 5-12 years old. For more information, call 828-697-6224 or see cfhcforever.org

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