Phyllis McIver's love for the youth of her community was felt by the thousands of students who came through Southern Middle School during her more than two decades as a counselor there. And her love is still shared today with community members who come to her for guidance and mentorship. Her story illustrates that being a part of a community is a lifetime commitment to love thy neighbor.
Q) What was your upbringing like?
A) I grew up in Leasburg in Caswell County, but I’ve always considered myself a borderline person because I grew up close to the Person-Caswell county line and I spent so much time in Person County. Actually, I knew more people in Person County than I did Caswell because we spent our spare time in Person County. My Grandmother lived on Hill St. in Roxboro, so I was always there sitting out on her porch, spending time with her. My mother was involved in Civil Rights activities in Person County with the NAACP. Herschel Seets was the head of the NAACP at that time. I remember as a child meeting at the old log cabin library in Roxboro with Mr. Seets and him giving them directions on Civil Rights and marching. And I remember, as a child, marching with my mom, holding her hand, and she was carrying a sign to integrate A&P grocery store which used to be located where Schewel’s Furniture is now.
As a child we attended two churches. My father was a deacon at St. James Baptist Church in Leasburg and my mom was very active in her church, Mill Hill, which was in Person County. So, I grew up being active in both churches, and back then you could do that because most churches didn’t meet every Sunday. St. James met on third Sunday and Mill Hill met on fourth Sunday. So, when I went up to be baptized at St. James I told the pastor that I wanted to be a member of Mill Hill. He said No, we’re going to keep you here. And I remember as a 12-year-old saying, No I want to be a member of Mill Hill. So they made me a member of St. James but later in life I changed my membership to Mill Hill. But that just shows how my childhood was split between both counties. Now I am a member of New Mount Zion Baptist church where my daughter, LaTonya Penny, is the Pastor. But Mill Hill is still my church family.
I graduated high school in 1972 and I was one of the top-10 outstanding seniors at Bartlett-Yancey. This was after integration. We integrated when I was going to 10th grade. So I was in that movement in the 10th grade trying to figure out, OK, how are we going to deal with this? Is it going to be a problem? And actually, it was not, especially in being a bus rider and sharing that close space with each other. I actually became close to some of the white students, especially the white males, because I was one of the last to get dropped off, so there was a lot of time for conversation. We all kind of bonded and they would tell me that their parents would disagree with them talking to me. That was a really interesting time.
After I graduated high school, I attended St. Augustine’s College (now University). I had applied at North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T, and I was accepted at all three. But the main reason I chose St. Augustine’s is because I used to follow behind my sister, Shirley Thomas, who was married to Reverend James Thomas, and both of them were attending St. Aug. Even when I was in high school, I used to go spend the weekend with them in Raleigh. So, that's how I made the decision to go to St. Aug, because I knew more about that particular place, that particular university. I loved my days there. It was a small college and you really got to know your professors on a personal basis. I actually got married when I was in college and still graduated on time with my class in 1976. And it was just a nice place to be.
Q) What was your career path and what are your proudest achievements?
A) I spent the majority of my career at Southern Middle School. But before that I worked at Piedmont Community College for about eight years in the human resources development program. At PCC I was teaching job-seeking skills to adults. Everybody in my class was way older than I was. And I would teach them how to fill out an application, write a check, do a budget, things of that nature. I left there because I was contacted about taking a position with a new federal program that was being placed in the middle schools, the Job Training Partnership Act program. And my job was to teach students at Southern and Northern Middle Schools how to fill out applications and how to choose the correct classes. I worked half-day at Southern and half-day at Northern. But I only did that one year before John Harris, who used to be the football coach at the high school—he was the counselor at Southern, but during that time, he was sent to the high school to become the football coach, which left his counselor position available. And I remember one day while I was working for the JTPA program, Mr. Johnny Lunsford, who was the principal, and Jimmie Rogers, who was the associate superintendent at that time, came to my office and asked would I consider going back to school and getting a master's degree in counseling because I had a good relationship with the students and they had been observing me at both schools. And I said, Sure!
So, they put me in an interim position as counselor at Southern Middle School and gave me a chance to go back to school part time. I went to NCCU after work every day. Both my children were in middle school at that time. And so, it was difficult, with my husband working out of town in construction most of the time, having to trust my kids to do what they were supposed to do. But they learned how to cook and take care of themselves until I got home from class. So, I was able to my master’s within two years. That was 1990.
Being a school counselor at Southern was the joy of my life. I was technically still young even though I was married with two kids. And I dealt with people from all walks of life. It was a real eye opener for me. I had the chance also during the early years to work with Duke Torain, who was the attendance counselor, and I would go out with him sometimes when he was dealing with girls or going to pick up kids to bring to Southern. And to go into the different homes and to see how so many of our youth had to live, it sunk in for me that I needed to help, that I needed to really be there for them to help them learn the things they needed to know about basic life. So I spent a lot of time doing personal counseling with some kids.
I worked at Southern for more than 20 years, under probably five or six different principals. I can’t even count how many assistant principals. But one of my favorite experiences was working alongside Bertrend Pool, who was and still is the ISS coordinator, and Howard Johnson who was the assistant principal at the time to form the Men of Distinction program. We saw that we were losing so many young men, and we needed to come up with a way that we could work with them one on one and intervene. And so the three of us sat down one day and came up with the criteria for the Men of Distinction program. And so that’s how that got started.
After Mr. Johnson left Southern, Mr. Poole and I also worked with then-principal Laura Hodges who was a Black woman. And we got in contact with all the Black pastors in the county to try to work with us on reaching parents who were not active in their children’s scholastic pursuits to be more accountable. So we helped organize all of that. We did a workshop giving them ideas and coming up with ways that they could help with the student/parent/school relationship and maybe address those issues from the pulpit or start programs in their churches. And that was very positive…until…there was some disagreement with the superintendent at that time and Principal Hodges left…not because she wanted to, but because we were still in a time where people didn’t like to see change (sigh). But the work we were doing was the main milestone for me when I look back at my career. That, and the individual counseling I was able to do with some of the students.
I just have a love for the youth and I got very attached to the students at Southern. I have even appeared in court with some of them. But after 32 years with the state of North Carolina I retired in 2008. And I had said that I would just take a break and rest, but after a series of coincidences, I got connected with a counselor position in the Halifax, Va. school system. And I worked there for another 10 years before retiring for good.
Q) What organizations or community endeavors do you participate in?
A) While I was working I was also on the board of the Person County Youth Alternative Program. Most of the kids in that program had gotten in legal trouble and my role was to try to come up with different ideas to build relationships within the court system. I also worked with Roots and Wings, another program designed for at-risk students. I served on that board to try to come up with ideas to reach parents and assist them in building relationships.
I was also on the board for Roxboro Community School to establish it. Of course, I was the only Black person on the board. They wanted someone from the public schools to serve on it. So, I did that for a while.
And I'm a member of the Roxboro Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc!
Q) Why is it important that women be recognized for their foundational work in our community and our nation?
A) I think it's very important to recognize the work of women. I think back to growing up around my grandmother and my mother and my aunts, and how they were always the strength of the family. And thinking about the Black women in history that I learned about at St. Augustine’s—not in high school at Bartlett Yancey—they were strong women who did amazing things.
And of course, the heroic women of today, like Stacey Abrams, who turned Georgia around. We as women definitely need to be recognized. We’re the thread that keeps everything together.
Q) What do you envision for the future of Person County?
A) Person County needs a lot of work. When my daughter became pastor at New Mount Zion, I was apprehensive about her coming back and working in this county because I felt like she might not grow here, and I knew the attitude of the white population here in Roxboro. I knew what she had to offer to any community and I didn’t want that taken away from her here. I think Roxboro, first of all, needs to become unified. I’ve attended some meetings with BASIC, and their whole purpose is to unify the community. But a question was asked early on when the program started, how many people in there were originally from Person County. And I think only one white person at that time was originally from here. So, most of the white people in the group were people who migrated to the area. But nevertheless, they see the need for unification, equality, and better communication here. And those are the three things that we have to improve in Person County. We have to look at and listen to the young people who are saying Black Lives Matter. We have to stop seeing young Black men as thugs. We have to have more programs that help us see each other in positive ways. We have to all stop being so resentful of each other and be supportive of each other.
Q) What is your advice for girls and young women who look to you as motivation?
A) Be yourself and do your best. Don't limit what you think you can do. Push yourself to achieve. And that's one thing that I loved about Dr. Hodges when she was the principal at Southern. She saw young black girls who were not receiving the attention they needed but were smart. And we encouraged them to take higher level classes instead of doing the bare minimum. So my advice is, don’t do the bare minimum. Do your best. Don’t follow the crowd and do what others are doing. Do not be bullied or pressured into doing something that you shouldn't do. Be yourself and do your best.