Alton Bankston was poking around his Biloxi home, looking through Christmas decorations, when he found a 50-year old surprise that he now plans to share with his former students in Harrison Central High Class of 1966.
The treasures were stored in a heavy cardboard file box, and when he unhooked the clasp, flipped the cover and peered inside, he found a sort of time capsule of days when students still wrote in cursive and talked about wanting to grow up and join the family business or become a beautician.
The letters he found are yellowed and faded, yet still very legible 52 years after Bankston assigned the juniors in his history classes at Harrison Central to write about themselves, their families and their dreams.
“I have reread all of them again,” he said. “It brought back so many memories.”
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Bankston was just out of college and the 1964/65 school year was the second of the two years he spent at Harrison Central. At that time, the district encompassed parts of Jackson and Hancock counties in addition to Harrison.
It was a tumultuous time in the country’s history, with President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act and the Vietnam War ramping up, yet a great time to be in high school. The Beatles had invaded America and the Ford Mustang made its debut.
Many in the stack of letters capture what it was like to be 16 or 17 at that time; the carefree summer days swimming and the sadness over the death of a father.
One boy wrote, “I was the first child born to my parents, the lucky souls.”
Other students talked about their four sisters and three brothers, and siblings with ‘60s names such as Ken, Linda and Junior. “Much to my regret, I have no brothers and sisters,” one student wrote.
Some were taken with their new teacher. “He’s young and cute and a great teacher,” a student said.
Most wrote about their grades, activities and hobbies and what church they attended. One girl said she already was engaged. Another worked as a candy striper. Yet another bemoaned that a streak of 7 1/2 years of perfect attendance was broken by missing five days for measles. They dreamed of working at a newspaper office, a dress factory, as a secretary, an interior designer or joining the Peace Corps.
It was a different time, said Bankston, and that’s why he’s decided to mail the original letters back to his students. He contacted Robert Blackledge, president of the class of 1966, who sent the names and addresses of the students he had compiled for the 50th reunion in 2016. More than 50 of the students have died and some can’t be found. Bankston has written a letter to the others and is ready to mail them their letters.
“They will love to read these,” he said.
Along with the letters, Bankston found the 1964-65 student handbook, a copy of the Harrison Central Breeze newspaper, a program from the Baccalaureate and a contract that shows how much he was paid that year.
His salary in his second year as a teacher was $3,850 — paid in 12 installments of $320.83 — and that came after a $400 raise. Beyond teaching, he was expected to chaperone school events and keep the score clock at the basketball games.
He bought his first car, a ’57 Chevy, and rented a house with three other men on 22nd Avenue in Gulfport for $7 a week. They carpooled to save money and hung out at Rebel Dip hamburger joint, which the junior high Coach Joe Rouse had opened in 1962 and named for the Harrison Central Red Rebels.
“It was the spot,” he said.
As a kid growing up in Laurel, his family would come to Biloxi fishing and Bankston said, “By the time I was 13 I knew where I wanted to live. The people are just different here,” he said, “They’re fun loving.”
When a teaching position came open in Biloxi, he took it and stayed for five years. That was while the city schools were being integrated, starting with eight hand-picked African-American students with excellent grades being the first to attend Biloxi High, he recalls. The faculty formed a teaching team at the school and two years later the teachers became integrated, he said.
Bankston met his wife, Kay, while they were both teachers at Biloxi High. They married the last day of school in 1967 and celebrated their 50th anniversary in May.
Kay Bankston taught English and assigned her students to write about the most eventful thing in their life. She didn’t keep their essays, but both Bankstons remember many of the students they taught, where they sat in class and their attitudes. “I will never remember your grade,” she said.
Alton Bankston didn’t grade the students’ letters. “I needed to know more about them and their families,” he said.