Jul 20, 2022 - News

What Charlotte can learn from the great life of Howard Counts

Howard Counts

Photo: Courtesy of the Counts family

It took two hours last weekend for friends and family to say what needed to be said to honor Howard Counts.

Those of us who filled Johnson C. Smith’s chapel turned our programs into fans and waved a little air in our faces while others gushed over him.

Speaker after speaker lined up to tell funny tales of golf trips and bourbon adventures, two of Howard’s favorite hobbies. But most of the words were more profound, as they celebrated a man who somehow turned anger into love.

Wait, you might be saying, who’s Howard Counts?

  • Howard, who died June 20 at 75, was a lot of things, from a trustee at JCSU to a nonprofit leader.
  • But he’s also notable for being in a special class of often forgotten Americans from the civil rights era: siblings of history makers.

Context: Howard was 10 years old on September 4, 1957, when his older sister, 15-year-old Dorothy “Dot” Counts, walked through a crowd of white people who threw pebbles at her, spit on her and hurled racist words toward her, on her way to integrate Charlotte’s schools.

A photo of her ran on the front page of the New York Times the next day, white kids making faces that would stay stuck that way forever.

  • Imagine that, Howard would say to me years later, shaking his head, being 10 years old and seeing your sister go through THAT.
Dorothy Counts Scoggins
A crowd of youths taunts Dorothy Geraldine Counts, 15, as she walks to a previously all-white Harding High School to enroll, September 1957. Photo: Getty Images

Backstory: Dot was the only girl in her family, with two older brothers, Herman and Wilson, and Howard, the baby. Now Dot is 80, and the only surviving sibling.

  • Their dad was a prominent minister, the Rev. Herman Counts, and they were a family that ate dinner together each night and shared stories about their days.
  • The story from that September 1957 day was as traumatic for her siblings as it was for her. Howard remembered his older brother Wilson pacing around the house talking about getting “the boys” together to go fight the people who harassed Dot.

Howard, from a very early age to his final days, was an observer more than a fighter. So he wrapped up all of the emotion from that day and stored it. For years, he’d later tell me, he “hated” white people.

  • But at West Charlotte High, he had an influential teacher who helped him process that anger.

Why it matters: Howard devoted his entire life to protecting his family and friends after that. He was the caretaker of the family story, tracing their ancestry back nine generations. He drove Dot to all of her doctor’s appointments, while also helping to raise his grandchildren.

  • Howard married Stephanie Russell in the fall of 1969. They were inseparable for 53 years. Stephanie was a North Carolina principal of the year. Howard climbed the corporate world as an IT professional.
  • They had a son, four grandchildren and hundreds of friends. His three grandsons who spoke at Saturday’s service all credited Howard with teaching them what it means to be a man.
  • He joined the JCSU board of trustees, the 100 Black Men of Charlotte.
  • He was treasurer at his church, and even in his final days he woke up in the hospital worried about church finances.
  • About 15 years ago, Stephanie and Howard helped found the Women’s Inter-Cultural Exchange, whose mission is to build trust across race and culture.

My thought bubble: It’s easy to think of civil rights legends as solo figures in photos. But they had family members worried about them through every courageous step.

Back in 2017, I wrote a story on Dot and the Counts family history when Charlotte magazine named her Charlottean of the Year. We asked Howard to take part in the photo shoot with Dot. Just casual, we said.

The Counts family is like that: full of grace and lasting first impressions. And to me and many others, they’re also a reminder that people can turn their worst moments into their greatest strengths.

At Howard’s memorial service, Johnson C. Smith president Clarence D. “Clay” Armbrister quoted the late Maya Angelou:

  • “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Howard Counts, who at 10 years old was made to feel a pain and hate that could’ve lasted a lifetime, spent the rest of his time here making everyone around him feel cared for.

  • Rest easy, Howard. You did your part.

Read Howard’s full obituary.

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