Newton resident lives black history

Walter Ellis knows a lot about black history.

That's not because he studied it in school or perused endless history textbooks.

It's because he lived black history.

Ellis, 88, is a lifelong resident of Catawba County. He's seen the area go through many changes during his lifetime, and he celebrates Black History Month as a way to commemorate those changes and look forward to a future where people have the same opportunities — regardless of the color of their skin.

Ellis was born in 1922 near Maiden. He had five brothers and two sisters during a time when it was necessary for everyone to help the family's share-cropping business.

Ellis and his siblings assisted their parents with the share-cropping duties, which often forced them to miss school. But Ellis valued education, so he worked hard to make up his missed days.

Ellis and his siblings walked about five miles to get to their one-room school house. As they walked, they were passed by a school bus for white students only. Ellis said the students spit on them and yelled as they rode by.

Walking to school continued through the winter. Again, adversity didn't stop Ellis or his siblings from getting an education.

"Those cold days, we almost froze walking to school," Ellis said.

But he never gave up. He continued walking to school, with one thought to sustain him during the journey.

"I had a feeling that it was going to be a better day," Ellis said.
He was right.

Ellis graduated from what was then Central High School in 1941. He worked two years before joining the U.S. Army in 1943 as a machine gunner.

Blacks and whites were segregated in the Army. Ellis said races were separated, and each group had different tasks to accomplish.

During that time, blacks and whites in the Army were treated as "separate, but equal."

"Every body was treated the same, whether you were white or black in the Army," Ellis said.

After serving in the Army, Ellis returned to Newton, where he and his wife Evelyn have lived in their home on South Caldwell Avenue since 1946.

Ellis and Evelyn have three daughters, one son, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Throughout the years, the Ellis family witnessed pivotal moments in black history, from the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision banning segregation in 1954 to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech in 1963.

Each moment of advancement, Ellis said he knew was a moment that changed history forever.

"It was an inspiration because I knew that some good was going to come out of it," he said.

Ellis worked in the textile industry for 10 years before working at General Electric in Hickory for 30 years. He also worked another job to help pay for his four children's college educations. Ellis said he wanted to see his children succeed, and education is one of the best ways to be successful.

Though his children are grown, Ellis continues to support children's dreams of education. He helps fund a scholarship at his church, Coulter's Grove AME Zion Church in Newton.

"It means a lot to me to see children now who have any opportunity they desire," Ellis said.

Jerry McCombs, Catawba County NAACP chapter president, said it's a privilege to hear about the Ellis family's accomplishments.

"To me, it's a blessing to see all that Mr. and Mrs. Ellis have been through," McCombs said. "It inspires me to do better."

Overall, that's what Ellis said Catawba County has done — gotten better. He said the days are gone when students on whites-only school buses would spit at their black peers, and for that, he's thankful.

"I thought there would be (a black president) sometime, but I didn't know it would be now," Ellis said. "But that doesn't mean we should stop. I think we should keep moving."

Ellis advised students facing adversity in their lives never to give up, no matter the circumstances.

"Just stick on in there," he said. "Keep on going. If you keep going, something's going to happen down the road. If you look forward, then you can't look back."