The year was 1970, and Flonnie Anderson’s theater students were on stage at Parkland High School for a performance of “Take Me Higher,” a piece written by one of her students.
The performance was controversial — not just for the content, which offended some conservative sensibilities at the time but for the performers themselves.
And black students.
On stage together.
For the first time in the history of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
Anderson, a Winston-Salem native, was in the back row.
In the front: A local pastor and some of his followers. And they weren’t there to support the county’s first integrated high school theater production.
Anderson said she watched in horror as the pastor interrupted the performance and challenged the student on stage, who was supposed to be giving a monologue.
“Instead of a monologue, it became a dialogue between the student and the pastor,” Anderson said. “I had taught my students that if anything happened, make it part of the performance.”
Those are the kinds of lessons that Anderson, who retired in 1989, instilled in her students. Hundreds of them, over her 34 years in education.
It wasn’t the first or the last time Anderson would break down color barriers. She was the first black actress to perform with the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem (now Twin City Stage) and, as a director, she helped integrate the theater department at Wake Forest University, too.
“She is a great role model for young people, particularly as a female performer,” said Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines. “She really contributes to our whole moniker of the City of Arts and Innovation, and helped improve the arts environment here in the city.”
Joines recently led an effort with Anderson’s family to have the Parkland High School auditorium named for Anderson, one that has received favorable support from the Board of Education.
Sitting in that auditorium earlier this month, Anderson said she would have loved such a space for her students to perform. It was built after she left.
Anderson herself could have been a full-time performer, instead of a teacher who performed on the side. At 85, her presence is still commanding and her style singular.
After graduating from West Virginia State in 1949, a professor intended to take her and several other students to California, to introduce them to the industry.
Anderson’s mother — who didn’t know that her daughter had majored in theater until graduation day — disapproved.
“I came from a family where if your mother said no, you weren’t doing it,” Anderson said. “So I came home and married my husband.”
Flonnie and Rudy Anderson Sr. have been married for 66 years.
“They’re still frisky,” said their son, Roscoe Anderson. “It’s fun.”
Flonnie Anderson doesn’t look back at what could have been. Instead, she sees a career well-spent.
“I was able to use my career to do what I truly wanted to do,” she said. “I always wanted them (her students) to feel good and to thrive.”
After a few short stints in other schools, she took a post at the old Anderson High School in 1960. The school has since been closed, but it was part of the “Big Four” all-black high schools.
“I was having so much fun,” she said. “My students were excelling.”
When the school system integrated in the second semester of the 1969-70 school year, Anderson transferred to the formerly all-white Parkland. She started the school’s first integrated theater program.
Anderson said her students were excited about theater, and for kids who had only known segregated schooling, theater helped break down barriers of race and class.
“I didn’t have too many reservations about desegregating,” she said.
Of course, that wasn’t true for everyone.
“I told my students: ‘You already know there will be some faces in our community who do not support desegregation, period. No matter what we do here, we’re going to be looked at very carefully.’”
Looking back, she said the theater program and performances received more scrutiny because of how much interaction, mingling and touching happens between students in a performance.
“That doesn’t happen in math class,” she said.
Anderson has spent a lifetime doing things that weren’t done: majoring in theater; desegregating a community; starting her own theater group, the Flonnie Anderson Theater Association. While still teaching all-black students at Anderson High, she entered a team a into speech festival held at Wake Forest University for high schools around the Southeast — for white high school students.
“The very first year we won the sweepstakes award,” Anderson said.
She still beams when she talks about that day, thinking back on her “children” (as she calls them) dominating the competition that people said they shouldn’t even enter. Her teams went on to win the sweepstakes award for three consecutive years.
Anderson, affectionately known by students as “Miss A,” has kept in touch with many of her “children.”
“It was in her classes that I learned some skills that would carry me for the rest of my life,” said Wayne Ledbetter, a student of Anderson’s at Anderson High. “The oral and written skills I gained through her encouraging my participation in theatre and public speaking have buttressed me throughout my corporate career in financial services.”
Like many students, Ledbetter has kept in touch with Anderson.
“She continues to be one of the most influential people in my life,” he said.
Joines said the auditorium naming will allow people in the community to express appreciation for all Anderson has done. In addition to time at Atkins, Anderson and Parkland high schools, she also spent 17 years teaching classes at the Career Center — reaching students from around the county.
For Anderson’s part, she is overwhelmed by the recognition. The joy, she said, was plenty.
“I was doing something I really loved,” she said.
“I loved every moment of it.”