A lasting legacy

May 22, 2024 • 3 min. read | By Staff Reports

(photo by Madeline Gray)

 

Retired educator Bertha Boykin Todd received the Wilmington Rotary Club’s first-ever Legacy Award this year.

 

“This honor was created to recognize people who have made major contributions, over many years, to improving the quality of life in Wilmington and New Hanover County,” rotary officials said about the award.

 

A long-time civil rights advocate and former educator, Todd played a central role in the desegregation of Wilmington’s schools. She also helped lead the efforts to bring the 1898 Massacre and Coup into the light in recent decades.

 

Todd was the all-Black Williston High School’s first, and only, librarian. Then when the school system was ordered to integrate, Todd was transferred to Hoggard High School. Tensions were high, and the student population erupted into riots one or two times a week. Todd, who says she learned how to control confrontational Black and white student interactions in unstructured library time, was called on to get the school under control.

 

“I had to figure out what would turn that school around so the kids would stop fighting each other. I read, prayed, and persevered,” Todd said. “I wanted to prove we could overcome the tensions a diverse student body incurred.”

 

Through a combination of innovative ideas, such as developing projects that all the students wanted to be a part of, and making Black and white students co-chairs of clubs, Todd helped the students learn to work together and befriend each other. Gradually, the riots stopped.

 

At the same time, Todd served as a liaison between the school board, superintendent, staff, and the community. She often arrived home after midnight after attending community meetings, listening to concerns and fears, and diffusing high emotions. When tensions rose, she was on the phone, dialing the hotline she was given for emergency calls to the superintendent and board members.

 

As Todd advanced in the school system – she was the first female principal of Hoggard High School’s summer school, career development coordinator, and director of staff development–she also became a community leader. 

 

Todd worked with the New Hanover County Human Relations Commission to handle complaints of racism and ensured that qualified African American employees were promoted to top administrative positions at the county’s social services department. Todd also spoke on behalf of the Wilmington Ten, a group convicted of arson and conspiracy after a riot in the city in 1971. A federal court later overturned their convictions in 1980, and Gov. Bev Perdue issued their pardons in 2012.

 

In 1995, Todd was asked to co-chair the 1898 Centennial Foundation, which was formed to mark the hundredth anniversary of the 1898 Massacre and Coup. Todd accepted, even though doing so meant entering a minefield of opposition to bring back up Wilmington’s violent chapter in history.

 

The Wilmington Rotary Club presented the award May 1 at its third annual Leaders in Service banquet. The others honored this year were Wilmington Health Access for Teens founder CONNIE PARKER (nonprofit sector); Arris Partners managing partner BRIAN MCMERTY (private sector), and UNCW College of Health and Human Services founding dean CHARLES HARDY (public sector).

 

-Lynda Van Kuren contributed to this story.