Martin Luther King Jr. touched the lives of millions of Americans as a pastor, speaker and civil rights leader, but one woman in Aiken remembers him as a friend.
Irene Curtis, 94, grew up in Atlanta on Auburn Avenue, on the same street as the boy who later spearheaded the movement that ended racial segregation in the United States.
"I was about three or four years older than Dr. King," Curtis said. "But you know how girls are – we're looking at the older guys. We're not looking back at the younger guys."
Curtis, who lives in a gated community close to Aiken Regional Medical Centers, was born in Atlanta in 1925. She can still recall every church that was on every street corner around Auburn Avenue – referred to as Sweet Auburn – that she grew up in with King.
"We grew up the in the same area, and we all had to play together because we were colored," Curtis said. "We were 'colored' then ... And we had every kind of business you can think of on Auburn Avenue."
Auburn Avenue, Curtis said, was known as the "Black Wall Street of the South." At the time, the area was rapidly attracting young, entrepreneurial African Americans. But Jim Crow laws dictated everything from what school they could attend to what street fountain they could drink from, and in Atlanta's downtown businesses Curtis remembers seeing "whites only" signs in almost every window.
"So the colored people started little businesses," Curtis said. "Hotels, bakeries, restaurants, drug stores ... You name it, and we had it, so we didn't have to worry about going downtown. We had it all. We were very proud."
The defiance of Sweet Auburn, where aspiring business owners refused to accept race as a requirement of success, served as the unique backdrop for Curtis' and King's childhood. At the neighborhood's height, it was celebrated as a hub of black-owned newspapers, businesses and churches, and was even referred to as the richest street in the world for African Americans.
But even in Sweet Auburn, Curtis couldn't fully shake the feelings of anger and shame that segregation inflicted on millions of African Americans.
"I hated segregation," Curtis said. "I hated it with a passion, because it demeaned you so much. You felt so insignificant and small. I didn't want to feel that way."
To escape, Curtis would visit the library and indulge in her absolute favorite activity – reading.
"I would go to the library, and I would read historical novels to satisfy my soul," Curtis said. "I would always be the princess or the queen, 'cause I could be anybody I wanted to be. They seemed to have the money and the wherewith to do it all."
Curtis would also read the dictionary sometimes – though she said that was because she and the other neighborhood children were always looking up the "big words" King would say to them.
"He was very smart," Curtis said. "He would enter all the different contests and he would always win. He was very, very intelligent. Even as a little boy, he could talk himself out of getting beat up. He always used those big words."
Curtis also had a knack for education. She graduated from Spelman College, a historically black college for women, when she was just 18. She married her husband of 57 years, Charles Curtis, right before she received her diploma. The couple drove across county lines when they married, on account of Spelman having a rule at the time about their female students not marrying men before they graduated.
Curtis' husband owned a printing business called Curtis Publishing. Eventually, the couple and their two young sons left Atlanta and moved to Los Angeles, where they stayed for more than 30 years.
"We thought that Los Angeles was completely integrated," Curtis said. "It was really better than the South, but we still faced segregation and some discrimination."
From Los Angeles, Curtis watched as the civil rights movement erupted.
"We supported it and everything but, because I was far away from it, I didn't feel the repercussions like they did in the South," Curtis said. "... But I didn't feel what the Southerners did, because they were right there in the middle of it."
Curtis said she supported the movement by donating funds, and she felt "extreme joy" when segregation was legally abolished.
"I was so happy for everybody because I knew that both sides of the equation would come together," Curtis said. "If the South did it, they really felt it, because people in the South were more adamantly against it than others."
In Los Angeles, Curtis fulfilled a dream she'd had since she was a little girl. She became a teacher and worked in the school system for decades.
"I always wanted to teach," Curtis said. "I used to teach my dolls. I had the smartest dolls in Atlanta."
Curtis started her career in the L.A. Unified School District as a second-grade teacher. She went back to school to get her master's degree through night classes, while also being a mother of three – something she said was only possible because of her husband, who would cook them the "meals boys love" like hamburgers and potatoes.
She went on to become a vice principal, principal, and deputy administrator of LAUSD. At one point, she was over more than 76 schools and was in charge of all their federal programs. The Atlanta native who had once been banned from certain schools for the color of her skin helped run one of the largest school districts in the United States.
Although she didn't march on the front lines of the civil rights movement, Curtis played an important role in the integration of schools in L.A. that followed.
One of her roles included overseeing court-imposed busing of students who lived in different areas of the city. That included traveling out to communities on the city's outskirts at night and explaining to parents what was happening with the program. The era that followed integration, she said, was "not a friendly environment," but she believed in keeping her promises she made as an administrator.
And she never forgot why she started he career with the school district in the first place.
"The most rewarding thing about being a teacher is when we're teaching reading, and the child catches it," Curtis said. "You know, there's a point when they don't understand, and you keep trying and trying to get them to understand what the word is, and then they see the light. And you see the light in their eyes, and it's just so beautiful, and it just grabs your heart, because you know you've taught the child something."
After her husband passed away, Curtis relocated a few times before settling in Aiken 10 years ago with her son, Nolan. She became an active member of the Aiken Branch of the American Association of University Women and was presented a proclamation by former Aiken Mayor Fred Cavanaugh on her 90th birthday honoring her extraordinary life.
Curtis continues to try and support young adults, who she says "keep her young," in the area through mentorship.
"I like to encourage them to stay in school," Curtis said. "And I like to encourage them to go on in school. If they want to be something, they can go to Aiken Tech for two years and go on to USCA or in (USC) Columbia. I do want to encourage them because I went to school, and that's how I made it. When I wanted to be a principal, I had to go back to school. It took six years. I had three children and a husband – I could not have done it without my husband."
Curtis traveled all over the world with her husband, but one place she'd like to see again is her condo on the Columbia River in Washington.
And she never lost her passion for reading.
"I'll read everything I can for as long as I can," Curtis said.