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Black History Month 2014: Dorothy Counts

Attending Catholic school as a young girl it was imperative that we buy new uniforms each year. Since my sister is only 14 months older than I, we ended up wearing the same size clothes once I caught up to her and I had the luxury of not being able to fit into hand-me-downs as a child. At least, not too often. Every August our parents took us shopping for the blue and green plaid dresses, skorts, pants, and jumpers. We each got a pair of saddle shoes as well and every time we did my mother told us the story of getting her yearly saddle shoes and how she held the box in her arms and smelled them all the way home. She wasn't allowed to wear them until school started. A tradition she kept alive with us as well.

Last year, while his class was discussing Plessy v Ferguson and Brown v Board of Education, one of my history teachers asked me to come in and speak to his class. 

What am I to be talking about? I asked.

Your life, your family, and what these cases mean to you as a Black woman in America.

Fair enough, I thought. I can do this. I have strong feelings about this and I can share them with students.

It meant, of course, calling my father and asking him why school was so important and why he pressured us to go as far with our education as possible. We discussed his attending an all-Black school in New Orleans (a Catholic one, of course) and how much he wanted us to integrate with other cultures. It's why he and my mother chose Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago, to enroll us in school. Prior to that we live in the affluent Pill Hill area so known for all the Black doctors who built homes there in the 1970s. 

We lived well for many years as my father's printing business grew and our family provided us with all we could need. Not just a private education (though we longed to attend the Lab School later on) or Catholic school uniforms for St. Thomas the Apostle or for the family vacations we took, but for the richness of the people I grew up with and the bonds formed in that area of Chicago. We had a lot and we knew it. Our parents didn't allow us to forget that or what it took to get there. 

To be fair, this isn't about my schooling or my father's background or where we lived and what we wore to school. It's about a dress, yes, and a brave teenager who wore a beautiful one on the morning of September 4, 1957.

Dorothy Counts wore a pretty dress that morning. I can't stop thinking about it when I see this picture.


It's plaid, just like my dresses for school were. A long, satin-y looking bow drapes almost to her knees. The cuffs on her sleeves are just delicate enough to make me want this dress and the collar is sweetly framing her neck. I'm sure that on this morning Dorothy picked it out. I imagine she, or her mother, starched the collar and ironed it to perfection. When I see this photo I wonder if she ate breakfast or if she was afraid she would throw it up once she set about her day. First days of school are like that. They can be anxiety-ridden experiences. That can't even begin to describe what her first day was like, though.

Dorothy was, in that photo, on her way to Harding High, a previously all-white school where she would be the first African American in attendance. On her way, she was greeted by a a swirling storm that threatened her life and her lovely dress. A crowd of boys and men who spat on her, threw garbage at her, and hurled racist epithets toward her. 


She was a 15 year old girl.

A girl with a pretty dress.

And she is one of my heroes.

Adults yelled at her and screamed for the other schoolchildren to keep her out of the school. She last only 4 days there before her parents moved to the already-integrated schools in Philadelphia. Much has been written about her, known to her family as Dot, and we know her teachers ignored her and that only a few of the white students were brave enough to befriend her, but that was brief. The pressure on them was too much and she was left on her own. 

She went on to earn a degree at Johnson C. Smith University (an HBCU) and her life was dedicated to working for child care resources. Four years ago in 2010, Harding High School renamed their library to honor her, now with her married hypenated name of Counts-Scoggins. Her name is important, but it's always the dress that gets me and all the feelings that come with knowing a girl put on a pretty dress and was treated so poorly as she tried to get an education.

I have always found her name a fascinating topic. Dorothy Counts. Apropos, isn't it? That a young, brave girl in a picture-perfect dress took on such a role and made an impact on the history of the United States. 

Does Dorothy matter?

Absolutely. Dorothy Counts.

Photos courtesy of Wiki Commons

« Black History Month 2014: Sojourner Truth | Main | Black History Month 2014: Jacqueline Woodson »

Reader Comments (8)

I never heard this story before, and it made me cry to think of grown men spitting on a 15 year old girl.

Thank you, Dorothy.

February 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmber Marlow, theAmberShow

I wonder if she and her mother debated between wearing a less nice dress in case someone threw something nasty at it or wearing the nice dress because everyone would be watching her and she needed to make a good impression. Terrifying. She looks so much older than 15. Beautiful.

February 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKizz

still stings a bit. there is still much farther to go. feeling grateful.

February 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbunnie hilliard

I had never heard her story. Thank you so much sharing it. I love the perspective of looking at it from the dress - a tender spot of hope.

February 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I've heard of her story before, but not ever how you just told it here. Thank you for telling a piece of our history like this, from this perspective. You remind me of Ava DuVernay with the way you tell stories Kelly. Both of you expose the humanity in events like this and draw readers and viewers into it, into the people who are history now, but were once living and breathing people just trying to live their lives the best they knew how. Thank you.

February 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterA'Driane

What a brave young woman. She had to be terrified. Dorothy does indeed count. So does every other black life. <3 Thank you for sharing this piece of history. Thank you for sharing yourself.

February 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

How important you were in Iowa back in the day,I often ask Rev James about you.
You'r life has been a gift to many,
Proud to know you and get a update.
Lewis C. Smith II Cleve Ohio.

June 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLewis C. Smith II

The times needed a brave lady as yourself, You were chosen, I am heartfelt and thankful for the impact you have made in America. The people of the time mentality could not get self improvement above their Training and Ideology.
the Beauty is even the founding fathers learned by their words and their actions that
"All men are created equal" and so released their slaves, many wanting to stay as bond servants because they had been treated so well.
It is possible to grow beyond our station in life! The Lord is Always Right!

December 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Alvarez

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