DALLAS, N.C. – When Annis Meeks walked into the Gaston College classroom where the Computers for Medical Office class was meeting, she found another student sitting at her usual desk. Almost immediately, she recognized him as Terry Barnwell, an elementary school classmate who had moved out of the area decades before.
Meeks and Barnwell attended the segregated Dallas Elementary School, which was renamed the Gingles School. After graduating from 8th grade, they went to Lincoln High School in Bessemer City. They were in 9th grade when Barnwell moved to New York.
Meeks was transferred to Holbrook High School in Lowell when North Carolina schools were integrated. Although she had been in the honor society at Lincoln High School, she had to start over at her new high school. When it was learned that she had been the chief cheerleader at Lincoln High, she was asked to teach routines to the Holbrook cheerleaders but was not permitted to join the squad and cheer at games. She graduated from Holbrook High in 1967.
After high school, Meeks attended Gaston College briefly, then got married and moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky, as a military wife. She had two sons and eventually moved back to North Carolina. She worked at Gaston Memorial Hospital from 1973 until 1984, serving as communications coordinator for the nursing staff for 4.5 years and as a secretary in the surgery department for 6 years. A single mother, Meeks took a job as a receiving clerk with Freightliner in Gastonia, where her higher salary made it easier to put her two sons through college. She continued with the hospital as a relief worker, working holidays and weekends.
While at Gaston Memorial Hospital, Meeks went back to Gaston College, earning her associate degree in Liberal Arts from Gaston College in 1991. Her job at Freightliner enabled her to continue her education, and she received a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Belmont Abbey College.
She currently works part-time as a substitute teacher and part of the extended care staff at First Wesleyan Christian School. Although Meeks intends to stay at her current job, she always prepares for change and decided to enroll in the Computers for Medical Office class at Gaston College to enhance her professional skills. “Learning is life-long,” she said. “It keeps me energetic and vibrant. I plan to take additional classes as warranted.”
One of Barnwell’s memories from attending Dallas Elementary School was sharing textbooks because there were not enough books for each student. The shared books were often missing pages. One time, the school principal came into the classroom to distribute new textbooks to the students. “I can still remember touching the clean pages and the new smell of the books,” said Barnwell. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the new books were collected. They had been intended for another school and had been delivered to Dallas Elementary by mistake.
When he was in the 9th grade in 1964, Barnwell moved to New York City to live with his mother. He returned to North Carolina in 1970, having dropped out of school, and went back to New York in 1974. There he attended Brooklyn Tech and earned his GED, and then enrolled in John Jay College of Criminal Justice for a certification in security management. The certification was required for his job as a director of security management.
Barnwell continued his education and earned his master’s degree in Christian Ministry from Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. He moved back to North Carolina in 2009 and got married in November 2014. He is attending Gaston College to refresh and brush up on his computer skills.
Encountering Meeks in the Computers for Medical Office class, which is offered through the Gaston College Continuing Education Department, was a pleasant surprise. “The eyes and the voice were the same,” he said. “Our hair may be a bit dusty, but we’re still the same people.” Barnwell is happy to be back in his home state permanently. “I’ve never been more content with who I am, where I am, and where I’m going,” he said.
Meeks and Barnwell shared with their Gaston College classmates some of their experiences from their time together at Dallas Elementary. “It was a beautiful reunion,” said Steve Curtis, Instructor at Gaston College. “They hadn’t seen each other for over 50 years, yet they reconnected immediately.” When they started to talk about what they had experienced in elementary and high school, the other students in the classroom wanted to hear more. Curtis recognized Meeks’ and Barnwell’s story as a valuable history lesson and jumped at the opportunity to incorporate it into a class that teaches essential occupational skills for today’s workplace.
“Annis and Terry lived the history of segregation, integration, and the school busing process, and the way they told us what they had gone through was fascinating and inspiring,” said Curtis. “Both of them are great students and outstanding individuals I am proud to have met.”
Although they have completed the Computers for Medical Office class, Meeks and Barnwell say they will keep in touch. A 50-year high school reunion is being planned and they will have the opportunity to reconnect with many more classmates who lived through those historic times.