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When Wilson’s Charles H. Darden High School became a middle school in 1970, graduates immediately formed the Darden Alumni Association in order to maintain the school’s legacy, as well as provide scholarships for Wilson high school graduates who planned to attend historically black four-year colleges and universities.
Every year since 1972, Darden alumni and their families have attended reunion activities in Wilson over Memorial Day weekend.
“We used to have 5,000 to 6,000 attend each year,” said Donna Simms Pulley, Darden Alumni Association executive director, “but as time has gone by you can imagine what has happened to people since then. Many can’t come because of age, but many of their children and even their grandchildren participate in the weekend.”
Pulley said that some people who attend the Memorial Day weekend functions never attended Darden but come to the reunions because of their families’ association with the school.
Organizers expect between 2,000 and 3,000 reunion attendees this year.
“For many people, this is their ‘thing,’” Pulley said. “They look forward to it every year and plan all year to attend.”
Attendees include alumni who live as far away as California, New Mexico and Arizona. Darden Alumni chapter organization are located in New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, the Tidewater Virginia area and Wilson.
“We have noticed that a lot of alumni who moved away are beginning to return home and moving back to the Wilson area to retire or as retirees,” Pulley said.
This year’s oldest attendee is believed to be Willa Jones Turner at 94 years old. Bertha Carroll attended last year at 101 years old and was recognized by the Association. Carroll died in October.
THIS YEAR’S EVENTS
The reunion activity schedule is filled with events for alumni in general and for individual graduating classes. Various functions and registration will be on Thursday, May 24. Friday’s schedule includes a general association meeting and a meet and greet from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Saturday finds attendees at the annual scholarship awards banquet where the keynote speaker is a previous scholarship recipient. The Saturday night scholarship fundraiser dance is held from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. During the dance, a “roll call of classes” takes place where both alumni classes and individuals donate money for college scholarships, the Darden Alumni Center building fund or both.
Many Darden alumni classes attend services together at various churches in Wilson on Sunday morning and then hold individual class reunions with banquets and cookouts that afternoon. A disco dance fundraiser for the Darden Alumni Center building maintenance fund begins at 10 p.m. Sunday and lasts until 2 a.m.
“Obviously, we don’t sleep that weekend,” Pulley said.
Each year, the 50th and 75th reunion classes are honored, with this year’s honorees being the classes of 1968 and 1943.
Pulley said that some alumni stay with family members who still live in the Wilson area, many stay in hotels here and in Rocky Mount.
Prior to the late 1930s, Darden High School was called Wilson Colored High School. The school was then renamed after Charles H. Darden, one of Wilson’s most prominent African-American citizens and a proponent of education. Darden was a former slave who became the state’s first African-American mortician and funeral home owner.
The Darden Alumni Association awarded its first college scholarship in 1971 in the amount of $500. Since then, the association has provided local high school seniors with more than $490,000 in scholarship money.
The group helps with the Wilson Education Partnership’s book bag project, the Rotary Club of Greater Wilson’s dictionaries for third-graders program, and has provided scholarship winners with additional money to cover the cost of books in college.
The association also sends local high school students to various off-site workshops, assists with AP and IB testing and helps with the school system’s Gentleman’s Agreement group.
The Darden Alumni Association opened its center on 1600 Lipscomb Road in May of 1991.
For more information about the 2018 Darden Alumni Association Reunion weekend, call the association at 252-243-9316 or Donna Simms Pulley at 252-289-5925.