Moving from the small town Elkin to Washington, D.C. during the tumultuous late-1960s was a big change for Paulette Gregory.
After growing up in the segregated south and graduating from Yadkin High School, Gregory worked at Sunbeam after high school and was laid off with several other workers. She turned down scholarships because she wanted to stay in Elkin with her grandmother. After her grandmother passed away she moved to Washington, D.C. to live with her sister in 1967.
“I thought there would more jobs and within a month of moving there I got a job in finance and accounting with the Department of Defense,” she said. “I was handling the payroll for 5,000 to 6,000 civilian employees including the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chief of Staff.”
While Gregory was living in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. She remembers the riots that broke out after his death. Rioters burned buildings, which she said still haven’t been repaired.
“It was like something you would see on TV. Army tanks were coming down the street and people were looting stores and the city had a curfew; it was scary,” she said. “My mother wanted my sister and me to come home. As we were leaving, state troopers stopped cars traveling into Maryland so the riots wouldn’t spread. I remember flying home and looking down and seeing D.C. on fire.”
As Gregory grew up in Elkin, the anger characterized in D.C. and other larger cities wasn’t duplicated in the small town, she said. However, there were still divisions.
“Elkin is a nice town, but we were still segregated because of schools,” she said. “But it always has been close community. Schools were integrated after I graduated from Yadkin High School.”
Gregory attended first through eighth grade in a two room school which is now St. Home Missionary Baptist Church on Oak Grove Road. The school had a cafeteria, bathrooms and a coal furnace.
“Being in a two-room school house, we learned a lot. You heard what everyone else was being taught, so by the time we got to eighth grade, we were rather smart,” she said. “Some of us would help the principal cook lunch, so we learned how to cook and set tables. We even had something on how to bank and keep up with our money.”
Whenever students had a field trip, they walked. They would walk the two miles to visit the Klondike Farm, the YMCA or the Barnum and Bailey Circus. From first to eighth grade, students had to walk two miles to the events while children from the North Elkin community would ride by on buses.
“I wondered why we, as God’s people, were segregated,” she said. “Regardless of heat or rain, we would walk and get back to the school house and we’d be tired. It hurt, but that was just the time we grew up in.”
Blacks were also allowed to shop in downtown Elkin, but were not able to dine or go into the theaters. However, Gregory does remember being allowed to see the “Ten Commandments” in the State Theater.
“We were all friendly with each other, but we didn’t sit down and eat together,” she said. “There are some people in town who have always acted the same though, such as Lestine Hutchens. She has always been the same: friendly and talkative.”
When Gregory finished eighth grade, she began going to high school at Yadkin High School in Boonville.
“We didn’t have Interstate 77 so I would have to wake up early and ride the bus,” she said. “It was weird starting at a new school in 9th grade, but I’ve been told I have the personality where I can fit right in. My junior and senior year I drove the school bus.”
After moving to Washington, D.C., Gregory married and returned home to Elkin, but moved back to D.C. where she got the same job she was working before.
“They told me that had never happened before,” she laughed.
However, Gregory returned home to Elkin permanently in 1980 with her daughter five year old daughter Fleurette, known as Flo in the community. Gregory said Flo fit right in at school, the second week she was in school she got a Wise Oil award for being smart and also got in trouble for talking.
After working for Bowman Grey School of Medicine in accounting, Gregory then took a job with Duke Energy, where she has worked for 30 years and will be retiring in June.
“Moving back was a hard decision, but a decision I don’t regret,” Gregory said. “I let God help me make the decision. I came home on a Sunday, interviewed for a job on Monday and was told I could come work on Wednesday.”
Since returning to Elkin in 1980, Gregory has been involved with United Methodist Wesley Chapel, the Elkin Rescue Squad, Habitat for Humanity, Elkin City Schools School Board and volunteered at the hospital. She is also responsible for having sidewalks put in on Oak Grove Rd.
“During my retirement, I’m going to volunteer,” she said. “I like to help people, but I don’t do it to get a pat on the back. If I see someone who needs help, I like to try and help out.”
Full name: Paulette Gregory
Employer: Duke Energy
How many years with the job: 30 and a half
Favorite food: Poultry
Favorite pastime: Spending time out doors
City born in: Elkin
Church: United Methodist Wesley Chapel
Reach Jessica Pickens at 835-1513 or firstname.lastname@example.org