Mary Lou Blakeney: Beyond Feb. 11
The image of a young black woman in a black dress sipping a martini is most likely not the image most people see when they think of Mary Lou Blakeney.
Most will think of her clad in purple, her favorite color, walking with her cane and a friend that more than likely drove her to her destination.
But before her days as a community civic staple, before she was a city councilwoman, she was a kid growing up in the segregated South and a teenager fighting for a cause.
Blakeney was born in Lumberton and lived there until she was 11. She moved to High Point with her mother, father, two brothers and two sisters and enrolled at AJ Griffin Elementary and later William Penn High School where she would become one of 26 students to make history as the first high schoolers to stage a sit in.
“I was 15, 13 days from being 16,” Blakeney said. “We had made up our minds that we were going to do this about two days after the A&T students did their sit-in. We put out a call for students and had discussions and did role playing. We had about eight days of planning.”
A lot of planning, Blakeney said, took place in the living room of Mariam Fountain, mother of Lynn and Brenda Fountain who were the first two black students to go to High Point (Central) High School. The other part took place at the church where Rev. B. Elton Cox, an original Freedom Rider, preached.
“A lot of people think that Rev. Cox put us up to (the sit-in) but we had the plan and we begged and pleaded for him to help us because he knew how people were going to react,” she said. There’s a certain amount of fear, knowing what could happen but we were also excited. Through all the excitement we knew we had to be serious.”
On Feb. 11, 54 years ago today, 26 students walked from William Penn High School (now Penn-Griffin) to Woolworth’s (where High Point Plaza Hotel is) to stage that historic sit-in.
“I saw (High Point) as one thing, experienced it as something else and without realizing it, helped transform it into another thing altogether.”
Life after Feb. 11
Blakeney does not define herself and her life by being a part of the sit-in. She graduated William Penn and went to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta to become a registered nurse.
“High Point is my home but Atlanta has my heart,” she said. “It was where I had a lot of exposure to a lot of different things. My girlfriend’s dad worked at Paschal’s Restaurant, which was one of the only black-owned restaurants. And then he opened a jazz club and everybody in the jazz scene came through there and I met all of them.”
Blakeney, who was transformed from known for her little black dresses and signature martini, met Gladys Knight on her 21st birthday and could party all night and still be ready for work the next day.
“I worked second shift so I got off work at 11:30 p.m.,” she said. “If I was going out, I’d bring my clothes with me, shower at work and I could get in at 3 or 4 a.m. and still get sleep because I didn’t have to be to work until 2:30 p.m. It was the life.”
After Atlanta, Blakeney moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., where she continued to work as a nurse. She traveled the country and abroad, appeared in a movie with Tom Jones, appeared on “Let’s Make a Deal” and “Wheel of Fortune” and got married and had two sons, Rob, 39 and Brad, 37.
She worked as a nurse for 34 years and came home to High Point once a year. On her last visit home in 1996, the year after she retired from nursing, she came home for a Pointers Reunion and her mother had to have shoulder surgery on both shoulders.
“I knew I wasn’t going to fly back and forth from California, my family was set so I stayed here,” Blakeney said.
When she came back to High Point, she got involved with senior citizens and helped at Morehead Center.
“The community at large was not paying attention to seniors,” she said. “I was a retired nurse and I could help them focus on their health and nutrition and little things that can make their lives better.”
Seniors also were the reason Blakeney decided to run for City Council in 2008.
“I thought seniors needs needed more attention that they weren’t getting, and still aren’t, so I ran for council,” she said.
In April 2006, Blakeney’s early life as a dancer, majorette and nurse put her in the passenger seat when she started having problems with her hip and continues to ride shotgun to all her board meetings, events and other obligations.
“I have a lot of good friends,” she said. “Sometimes it’s convenient to ride with friends when we’re going to the same place. We’ve gotten to the point where people call me and ask if I need a ride. I intend to drive again, just when I decide I want to.”
Blakeney sits on more than 10 boards and committees, including High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau, Macedonia Family Resource Center and the Commission on Aging. She will celebrate her 70th birthday on Feb. 24.
If I went tomorrow, I have lived,” she said.
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