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Black History Series Part VII --Integration in the Schools and Community

 

 

By Dr. Kathleen Thompson

This project has been made possible by the Pickens Arts and Cultural Alliance, and grants from the Georgia Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Integration in the Schools

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, (1954), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and White students unconstitutional. As a result, segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This ruling paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement.                                    Wikipedia                                                New Orleans, Louisiana, William Fridz Elementary School,1960:

Driving up to the school in the US Marshall’s car, six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges could see the gathering and actually thought it was Mardi Gras. “There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of behavior goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras,” Ruby recalled later. As soon as Bridges entered the school, White parents went in and brought their own children out. All of the teachers refused to teach where a Black child was enrolled. The school system hired Barbara Henry from Boston, Ma., to teach Bridges, and for over a year Mrs. Henry taught her alone as if she were teaching a whole class. Every morning as Bridges walked to school, one woman would shout, “I’m going to posin your food Nigger!” Ruby was frightened by the threat but was afraid to tell her parents.  Instead she would only eat food in sealed bags, items like potato chips. A psychologist, Robert Coles, who befriended the family, got Ruby to talk about her fears. Reassured, she again ate cooked foods. Ruby was driven to school for a year by federal marshalls who escorted her inside the school to her teacher.  In the afternoon the marshalls took Ruby home. The abusive crowds lasted for months.

Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier and we’re all very proud of her.” In her own writing Ruby continued the story in her memoirs, “Militant segregationists, as the news called them, took to the streets in protest, and riots erupted all over the city. My parents shielded me as best they could, but I knew problems had come to our family because I was going to the White school. My father was fired from his job. The White owners of a grocery store told us not to shop there anymore. Even my grandparents in Mississippi suffered. The owner of the land they’d sharecropped for 25 years said everyone knew it was their granddaughter causing trouble in New Orleans and asked them to move.”

Pickens High School, Jasper, Georgia, August, 1965:

Twelve high school students and three elementary children were the first to integrate the Pickens County School System.  As a precaution, the bus that brought the students that first day had a police escort provided by the county sheriff. The first day went so smoothly that the escort was deemed unnecessary and discontinued. Myrna Denson remembered, ”By noon we knew there would be no problems.”

School Integration

comes to Georgia

The journey from the first Supreme Court integration decision in 1954 to actual  integration was a long one. Many White Georgians resisted integration and advocated closing schools rather than abiding by the court’s decision. Promises to prevent the desegregation of public schools became a hallmark of the administrations of three Georgia governors during the decade of the 1950s: Herman Talmadge, Marvin Griffin and Ernest Vandiver.  Under Talmadge’s leadership, the state passed legislation requiring that public schools be closed and converted to private schools rather than submit to court-ordered desegregation. The Georgia legislature also adopted a constitutional amendment forcing the governor to cut off state funding to any school that desegregated. (Atlanta in the Civil Rights Movement at www.atlantahighered.org)

Governor Ernest Vandiver, Jr. was forced to decide between closing public schools or complying with a federal order to desegregate them.  He formed a special committee chaired by Atlanta attorney John A. Sibley to conduct public hearings on the issue. The committee was known as the Sibley Commission. In 10 hearings held across the state during March 1960, Sibley allowed witnesses to state their choice of two options: continuing massive resistance at the expense of the school system or amending state law to allow token integration while keeping segregation largely intact.

Despite Sibley’s efforts to minimize support for resistance, 60 percent of witnesses favored total segregation. On April 28, 1960, Sibley, ignoring the results of the hearings, presented the commission’s report to state leaders, in which he recommended accepting Hooper’s (Federal district judge) decision while offering several measures that would allow schools to remain largely segregated. Before the legislature had a chance to vote a new crisis (Integration at the University of Georgia) forced Vandiver to make a decision regarding segregation.  Choosing to avoid further confrontation with the federal government, Vandiver introduced a bill that repealed cutoff funds laws for both the university and public schools.  The bill passed on Jan. 31, and the Atlanta school system officially desegregated the following autumn of 1962 (New Georgia Encyclopedia).

In 1967, only 22 percent of the Black students in the 17 southern states were in integrated schools. In Pickens County full integration was achieved by the fall of 1966.  By comparison; Atlanta 1962, Savannah, Brunswick, and Athens 1963, Pickens County 1965-66, Gwinnett County 1966-68, Jasper County 1969 and Newton County 1970.

By 1969, the Georgia Board of Education accepted that school integration was inevitable. On Dec. 17, 1969, a ruling was agreed upon. Any county that refused to acknowledge the federal court order would lose state funding altogether. The order required that “dual school systems must be completely abolished” (New Georgia Encyclopedia).

The Pickens County Board of Education devises a plan

The Federal Government, in the form of the US Department of Education, required every school system in the United States to propose a desegregation plan. The Pickens County Board submitted a plan late in 1964, and another in the spring of 1965, both were rejected. School Superintendent M.T. McMurrain received a letter from Frances Keppel, US Commissioner of Education dated July 19, 1965. The third plan submitted was accepted. During the 1965-66 school year, Black students and teachers could voluntarily transfer and Tri-City School would continue to operate. But in the beginning of the 1966-67 school year, Tri-City would close and all of the schools in the county would be integrated.

Choosing, now or next year

For the 1965-66 school year, Black families had to make a choice, remain at Tri-City for one more year or have the children be the first to integrate.  All of the former students I interviewed explained that the decision was made by their parents with no input from them. “In that era, students did what they were told,” JoAnn Bridges stated. “I don’t like change and wanted to wait, but kids then were obedient. My mother said, ‘It will be the best for us,’ and I accepted that.” While the students did what they was expected, the decision to wait or go now was a difficult one for parents. Emma Washington recalls that choice, “I said wait a year, but my father, Olin Collins, felt sooner was better. He volunteered to be sure the children got to school, so I signed the papers for Sandra and Michael to transfer.”  Michael Collins told of his family’s decision, “It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t asked. I was obedient and trusted my family’s decisions.”

First Black students

to integrate

Seniors: Reginald Chatman, Ronald Johnson and Roderick Moore. Juniors, grade 11: Deborah Humphrey. Sophomores, grade 10: Jackie Morgan, Pam Moore, Annie Kate Mackey, JoAnn Bridges and Robert Pitts. Freshman, grade 9: Faye Chatman and Michael Collins. 8th grade: Melvin Nelson Bridges. Jasper Elementary: Brena Farrow, grade 4, Karen McClure, grade 3, and Sandra Collins, grade 2. (Source; Pickens Board of Education records, cross checked with PHS 1966 yearbook.)

How would integration go, a community wonders?

Pickens County parents and school personnel knew of the violence in other places including in nearby Alabama’s cities: Little Rock, Birmingham and Selma. There were a few die hard segregationists who called Board of Education members to voice their opposition. By and large the emotions for adults were anxiety and concern for everyone’s safety. Parents, Black and White, worried and fretted. People knew that violence was not the Pickens County way, but the potential for smaller problems was there.  There was a discussion at the August 3, 1965, Board of Education meeting, but the board records in that era provided no details of any discussions, only an agenda.

For students the impending arrival of Black classmates at Pickens High School evoked a combination of curiosity and discomfort that comes with major changes. Worry is not the teen way.

First Day, Pickens

High School

The morning of the first day of school teachers and administrators always arrive early. The principal of Pickens High School that day was new to the job. While Bill Hasty was a seasoned administrator from Cherokee County, this was his first year at Pickens High School. He had been a principal at an all-White school in Ball Ground and had no prior experience with integrating a school.  Myrna Denson was also a first year secretary in the front office.  Coach Roy Cowart recalled that this was his initial teaching position.  On top of that he and Kathy had their first child just a week earlier.

Concern for the changes and the day’s events hung in the air, but no one discussed it. Surprisingly there were no special faculty meetings to talk about how to handle integration. Nor do former faculty members remember any lengthy discussion about the coming Black students at the meeting the day before school began. Opening day would be business as usual.

While parents and faculty might have felt anxiety, the White students were more curious than worried.  Gail Baldwin was in the 10th grade, “It didn’t bother me, but it was different.”  Another student at that time said that at first the Black students seemed exotic but, “Within a day or two they blended in and weren’t any different than us.”

The Black students arrived by bus but with a police escort. Myrna observed that no Black parents drove their children to school and all arrived by bus. The sheriff’s deputies did not walk in with the Black students but lingered awhile outside just to be sure they were not needed.  They would not be called upon the next day.

Myrna Denson remembers the day vividly, “We were scared to death, and so I expect were the Black students. None of us acknowledged our fears but stayed calm, and that helped.  After they arrived and went on to homeroom we all relaxed.  By afternoon we knew the Tri-City students would fit right in.”

The Black students’ respectful attitude was a key factor in how smoothly the day progressed. Teacher Mary Jane Griffith explained that, “I am not sure if the students were hand picked or not, but you could not have chosen better.  The three senior boys were excellent students and most polite.” Myrna Denson remarked that, “I was only 25 and the Black students treated me with great respect. It was, Yes Ma’am, and No Ma’am.”  Both Myrna and Mary Jane agreed the faculty at Tri-City High School and the students’ parents had instilled the qualities of discipline, hard work, self respect and respect for others in the arriving students. In reciprocation, Roderick Moore described his White teachers, “They were fair and treated us with respect.”

There were of course a few remarks by rude White students.  JoAnn Bridges recalled being called a “chocolate drop” by two boys on the bus and crying, as well as spitballs being sent her way by a mean White boy.  JoAnn also remembers that White classmates Claudia Miller and Melba Bryant were friendly and welcoming from the first day. Another White girl remarked to her, “I thought you’d be different but you’re the same as us.” Michael Collins described his first day at PHS as “pretty smooth.” Taken as a whole the first day and subsequent days went well.

In the afternoon of the first day, Maxine Moore asked Frances Chatman  how she was doing. Frances was the mother of Reginald and Faye who were transferring from Tri-City to Pickens High. Frances replied that she had worried and prayed all day and stayed on the other end of town to try and keep from being so nervous. By their afternoon conversation it was apparent to the whole community that there would be no trouble and that the day went smoothly at school. Roderick Moore described his feelings that day, “My parents were worried and scared but I wasn’t. I knew that whatever happened those of us from Tri-City would be together.”

Jasper Elementary School

With just three Black students and much younger children, integration was far less dramatic. Still the small number of Black students made it harder for them to feel the solidarity and security that the high students felt. Karen McClure Benson recalls being asked several times, “Is your blood red?” A White student, Paul Hamnac, remembered, “I was in the fourth grade. It was a big thing for my parents. Not so much for me. Somehow I knew people all wanted the same thing.”

The Second Year

At the July 1966 meeting, the Board of Education officially closed Tri-City School and transferred approximately 90 student in grades 1-12, as well as teachers into other schools.  Leila Brown was principal at Tri-City before and during integration, and is credited as being a “Stabilizing liaison between the Black and White communities during this critical period” (Pickens County, Georgia, Heritage, 1853-1995).

Recently I spoke with seven adults who transferred from Tri-City to other schools in 1966.  All agreed that there were no major problems, “just a little kid stuff.”  By then the novelty of new Black students had worn off. Michael Collins remembers that this was a somewhat harder change because the Tri-City students were losing their school.  “Some of the students resented the closing and weren’t eager to change schools. It wasn’t all or even most of the Black students, but pockets of resentment,” Michael explained. “As a whole, pretty much everybody got along,” he added.

An examination of yearbooks between 1965 and 1975 reveals Black students participating in a wide variety of school organizations and activities. The first year, with only 12 Black students, Black faces appear in photos of the Glee Club, Coed Y-Club and Letterman’s Club as well as on the basketball, football and track teams.

In addition to students, Miss Aileen Prince transferred from Tri-City High School. Miss Prince taught science for many years at Pickens High and is remembered as a liaison with the Black students, families and community. PHS Home Economics teacher Mary Jane Griffith explained that Miss. Prince later has a “Gentleman’s Club” for the young Black men at the school and was, “a positive influence on our Black students, boys and girls.” Roderick Moore described Miss. Prince as, “strict, kind, and a very good teacher.”

Integration at Head Start

The Pickens County Head Start, under the leadership of Betty Walker, was the first in the state to be integrated. Black teachers and teacher aides included Mary Louise Roach Moore, Mary Ann Roach, Willie Mae Weaver, Katyleen Mackey McClure and Carrie Jordan Bridges. During the time that Mary Ann Roach was at Head Start she finished her Bachelor’s degree in Education from Brenau University and taught for the school system for over 20 years.

Dan, possible break point if the article is too long

Sports, a Microcosm

of Change

While Pickens High School’s Black minority was small, surrounding counties had no Black student in their high schools or Black families in their communities. This included Fannin, Gilmer, Dawson and Forsyth counties. Cherokee County was one of the few rivals that had Black players. During the first year of integration, Ronnie Johnson and Reginald Chatman played end on the football team, and also were starters on the basketball team. Of the 10 teams played in football that year, at least eight would have been all-White.

The first football game in 1965 was against Forsyth County. Pickens lost  0-18. A loss meant less resentment and potential problems from Forsyth, but the tide would be turned by later teams.  Bill Sperling was the head football coach in 1965 to 1967.

Prior to the Forsyth/Pickens varsity football game in 1969, there was apprehension related to possible race issues. At the end of a close and hard fought game Michael Collins scored the winning touchdown. Coach Enis instructed him before the play that after he scored and Enis expected Michael to score, to go directly to the bus and “the rest of the team and coaches will be right behind you.” They left with a police escort that night and did not stop to eat until close to Pickens County.

Preston Roach, Jr. recalled the 1968 football game against Forsyth County held in Cumming. A drumming by Pickens at the 1967 game in Jasper added to the tension. Preston was one of three Black members of the band, and as such was seated in the stands during the game. “Tension was at a fever pitch. The administration, staff and coaches handled it well.  They had a feel for what was right. There was certain stuff that they weren’t going to allow.”

In the fall of 1965 to the late 1960s when the teams traveled to schools that could involve possible racial problems, a police escort was arranged as a precaution. Another issue was getting a meal for the team. In some counties there were restaurant owners who would refuse to serve anyone who was Black or just close the restaurant when they saw there were Blacks to be served. To avoid this situation the coaches or administrators contacted restaurants ahead and arranged to stop and eat at accepting places.

Racial tensions still existed in Forsyth County during the 1960s and 1970s. Lawton Baggs was teaching in the county in the late ’60s and recalled that there were several homes on the lake sold to Black professionals. A local realtor was accused of doing the transactions and harassed by the racist element.  It got so bad that the realtor put an ad in the newspaper to deny the accusations. It was in such a racially charged atmosphere that the students and coaches played.

By 1970 the Pickens High Football Team included seven Black A-team members, three more on the B-squad, two cheerleaders, two band members and under the Dragon mascot costume was Sandra Pye, another Black student. Coach Roy Cowart explained, “In the early years of integration there was always some tension before games when we played all White communities. Not for what our kids would do, but emotions run high during games and we were concerned for a potential incident, particularly from the stands. We asked our players to be level headed in both football and basketball.” Fred Anderson added, “Coach Enis was good to the Black kids and (Assistant) Coach Qualls was like a father to me. Color didn’t matter, they played their best players.”

Fred Anderson played for Pickens High School in the 1970 game against Forsyth County and remembers the game. “We dressed on the bus to avoid any situations. Some people in the crowd would shout racial slurs. At one point the Forsyth coach hollered to the quarterback, ‘Catch that Damn Nigger’ to which the boy responded, ‘Which one coach?’” As in earlier Forsyth away games Coach Enis planned to leave quickly.  They went directly from the field to the bus. “After beating Forsyth 20-0, it was best to get out of town quickly,” Fred recalled.

Gilmer County was a traditional rival for Pickens.  red Anderson contends that the racial slurs and tension was as bad as at Forsyth. “When we arrived there would be signs in the stands and on the field house, ‘Kill the Coons.’” The final score for the 1969 game was Pickens 27 and Gilmer 0.  “It’s easier to ignore racial remarks when you know your going to beat the other team.

1971-1972 was Fred Anderson’s senior year. He set school records in rushing yards (4,632), single game rushing yards (337), scoring (320 points) and touchdowns (49). He was named Player of the Week in the State of Georgia three times and to the Georgia Prep Honor Roll 7 times. In the AAA classification Fred was All-State Georgia in 1970, 1971 and 1972. His total offense in 1970 of 7,480 yards was a region record. The University of Southern Mississippi provided Fred Anderson with a full four-year football scholarship. Fred graduated after playing for four years.

Rickey Benson was the first Black student to get a basketball scholarship. After graduation in 1975 he played for Gaston State College in Alabama.

The times they are a changing

Michael Collins entered the 9th grade as one of 12 students who integrated Pickens High School in 1965. By the time he was a senior in 1968-69, segregation, integration and race were non-issues for students.  Michael was elected class president, captain of the football team and Student Body president. Several of his former teachers testified to his leadership skills. “Ask him about the student lunchroom walkout he stopped,” one former teacher told me.

“We called it the Great Lasagna Revolt,” Michael recalled. “Every Friday lasagna was served in the lunchroom and students complained.  Someone said we should walk out and I casually agreed. To my surprise the students were actually going to walk out. The principal called me in his office and asked what I knew and if I could stop the demonstration. I knew I had to talk to the kids. We didn’t walk out, but the administration was fair and listened. After that we got a variety of selections on Fridays.”

The most telling indicator of a reversal of attitudes and behavior was in 1967 when Michael was arrested for using the wrong bathroom. He and a group of eight or so White friends were going to the movie in Jasper. They arrived early and decided to walk on to the Welcome Junction Grill. This was a high school hang out before and after movies. There were two inside bathrooms and two outside and on that day only the outside ladies room worked.  The owner told Michael he could use that bathroom. He had been there many times before and knew the management well. “Everyone used that bathroom.  It was like today’s Uni-sex bathrooms,” Michael explained.

When he came out a city policeman stopped Michael and asked why he was using the ladies room. The officer did not believe him and took Collins to the squad car. A friend saw him being taken, and Michael called, “I’m going to jail, call my Mama!” The owner tried to tell the police that he gave permission with no acknowledgement by the officer.

This may have been racist on the part of the officer, but the reaction of the White friends was unconditional. They called others and walked and drove over to the city jail. Before long a crowd had gathered. When Emma Julia and her husband Velpo Smith arrived, the crowd of teens was growing and it was all White. Velpo asked the group to go home, but they would not leave their friend in jail. “A few had bats. They got there before me and shouted that if the police didn’t let me go, they would get me out. They were hoppin-mad,” remembered Michael.

When Emma Julia and Velpo entered, the police officer refused to tell what the charge was or to allow Michael to bond out to his parents. The officer insisted he must stay in jail.  Velpo quietly reminded them that the crowd outside had refused to leave when he asked them to do so, and that they would guarantee Michael would be back on Monday to see the judge.

The deputy considered the crowd outside and allowed Michael to go home with his parents. As soon as they walked out, the crowd of students cheered and promptly disbanded. On Monday the case was dismissed and the officer reprimanded. Not only was Michael a leader of an almost all White student body, but his fellow White students were threatening violence, not against him, but in a misguided attempt to protect Michael.

A story that occurred while Michael was attending Reinhardt College makes a similar point about change and really tugged at my heart. Michael and two Reinhardt College classmates made an auto trip to Roswell, Georgia. One friend was Black and the other White,  raised in McCaysville, a town with no Black residents and which was known for anti-Black sentiments by the residents. In was a cold winter night when they had car trouble and to make it worse the Black companion had develop a stomach sickness.  They stopped at a store and asked if the boy could rest a bit.  “Ain’t no nigger sitting here,” the owner snarled. By the time the tow truck arrived the Black student was even sicker. A kinder man, the tow driver put the boy in his cab to warm him.  On the way back to the college the White student asked if this sort of thing happened often.  “Often enough,” Michael replied. With tears of anger and empathy streaming he answered, “It just isn’t right.” Indeed every generation is capable of change.

Civil Rights Act, 1964

This act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities and made employment discrimination illegal. This document was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. www.ourdocuments.gov

Integration in the community

Integration in Pickens County lacked drama. Signs for separate water fountains and bathrooms were removed without event or comment. In the courthouse there were a set of White bathrooms on the first floor, and another smaller set of bathrooms labeled “Colored” in the basement. The basement rooms lacked a window, had a concrete floor and facilities of lesser quality. Upstairs the “White” bathrooms had windows, tile floors and better equipment.  After the signs went down residents of both races could choose between upscale, or downstairs.  The sign on the separate “Colored” entrance to the courthouse was taken down.

Signs designating the colored section at the train station were removed and separate seating abolished. Leila Brown was the first Black to serve on a Grand Jury and the first Black representative to the state teacher’s organization from Pickens County. Change happened with acceptance by the community.

Michael Collins recalled his first meal in a previously all White restaurant. “It was after a football game and a friend’s dad  took me out to dinner with his family after a game. He looked at me and said, ‘Gus, you’re eating in town with us and your going in the front door.’ Nothing happened; it wasn’t a Civil Rights action. Things changed, not in a dramatic way, they just kind of rotated in place.” That statement seems to describe community integration in Pickens County, it happened with a minimum of fuss and no protests.

The 1960s were years of racial turmoil in much of the South often characterized by anger and violence. In Pickens County the transition from segregation to integration went more smoothly aided by community acceptance and an abhorrence of conflict.

Acceptance and respect between races was a long standing tradition in Pickens County dating back to the era of Colonel Sam Tate. “I have always been treated well by White neighbors,” explained Preston Roach Sr. In a Facebook conversation recalling school integration Peggy Kendrick affirmed, “I’m glad that I lived in Pickens County (during integration) not elsewhere.”

References:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, www.ourdocuments.gov

The Civil Rights Movement, New Georgia Encyclopedia

Interviews, Michael Collins, Myra Denson, Lawton Baggs, Roy Cowart, Michael Collins,             2010, by Kathy Thompson, Maxine Moore, 2009

Group Interview, May 2010, Fred Anderson’s home, Tate

Pickens County Board of Education, minutes Board meetings July, 1965

Letter from the US Education, Department and student transfer records

Pickens High School Yearbooks, 1964-66 through 1972-73

Pickens Progress, articles related to desegregation, 1965-1866

Pickens County, Georgia, Heritage, 1853-1995

You many contact Dr. Thompson at 706-633-3865 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Comments, feedback and new information are welcome.

Photo Caption: The first three Black graduates of Pickens High School were Reginald (Reggie) Chatman, Ronnie Johnson and Roderick (Ronnie) Moore. Reginald Chatman passed away in 2004, his wife Vivian still lives in Pickens County. Ronnie Johnson lives and works in Atlanta. Roderick Moore resides in Jasper.

Integration in the Schools and Community

By Dr. Kathleen Thompson

This project has been made possible by the Pickens Arts and Cultural Alliance, and grants from the Georgia Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Integration in the Schools

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, (1954), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and White students unconstitutional. As a result, segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This ruling paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement.                                    Wikipedia                                                New Orleans, Louisiana, William Fridz Elementary School,1960:

Driving up to the school in the US Marshall’s car, six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges could see the gathering and actually thought it was Mardi Gras. “There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of behavior goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras,” Ruby recalled later. As soon as Bridges entered the school, White parents went in and brought their own children out. All of the teachers refused to teach where a Black child was enrolled. The school system hired Barbara Henry from Boston, Ma., to teach Bridges, and for over a year Mrs. Henry taught her alone as if she were teaching a whole class. Every morning as Bridges walked to school, one woman would shout, “I’m going to posin your food Nigger!” Ruby was frightened by the threat but was afraid to tell her parents.  Instead she would only eat food in sealed bags, items like potato chips. A psychologist, Robert Coles, who befriended the family, got Ruby to talk about her fears. Reassured, she again ate cooked foods. Ruby was driven to school for a year by federal marshalls who escorted her inside the school to her teacher.  In the afternoon the marshalls took Ruby home. The abusive crowds lasted for months.

Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier and we’re all very proud of her.” In her own writing Ruby continued the story in her memoirs, “Militant segregationists, as the news called them, took to the streets in protest, and riots erupted all over the city. My parents shielded me as best they could, but I knew problems had come to our family because I was going to the White school. My father was fired from his job. The White owners of a grocery store told us not to shop there anymore. Even my grandparents in Mississippi suffered. The owner of the land they’d sharecropped for 25 years said everyone knew it was their granddaughter causing trouble in New Orleans and asked them to move.”

Pickens High School, Jasper, Georgia, August, 1965:

Twelve high school students and three elementary children were the first to integrate the Pickens County School System.  As a precaution, the bus that brought the students that first day had a police escort provided by the county sheriff. The first day went so smoothly that the escort was deemed unnecessary and discontinued. Myrna Denson remembered, ”By noon we knew there would be no problems.”

School Integration

comes to Georgia

The journey from the first Supreme Court integration decision in 1954 to actual  integration was a long one. Many White Georgians resisted integration and advocated closing schools rather than abiding by the court’s decision. Promises to prevent the desegregation of public schools became a hallmark of the administrations of three Georgia governors during the decade of the 1950s: Herman Talmadge, Marvin Griffin and Ernest Vandiver.  Under Talmadge’s leadership, the state passed legislation requiring that public schools be closed and converted to private schools rather than submit to court-ordered desegregation. The Georgia legislature also adopted a constitutional amendment forcing the governor to cut off state funding to any school that desegregated. (Atlanta in the Civil Rights Movement at www.atlantahighered.org)

Governor Ernest Vandiver, Jr. was forced to decide between closing public schools or complying with a federal order to desegregate them.  He formed a special committee chaired by Atlanta attorney John A. Sibley to conduct public hearings on the issue. The committee was known as the Sibley Commission. In 10 hearings held across the state during March 1960, Sibley allowed witnesses to state their choice of two options: continuing massive resistance at the expense of the school system or amending state law to allow token integration while keeping segregation largely intact.

Despite Sibley’s efforts to minimize support for resistance, 60 percent of witnesses favored total segregation. On April 28, 1960, Sibley, ignoring the results of the hearings, presented the commission’s report to state leaders, in which he recommended accepting Hooper’s (Federal district judge) decision while offering several measures that would allow schools to remain largely segregated. Before the legislature had a chance to vote a new crisis (Integration at the University of Georgia) forced Vandiver to make a decision regarding segregation.  Choosing to avoid further confrontation with the federal government, Vandiver introduced a bill that repealed cutoff funds laws for both the university and public schools.  The bill passed on Jan. 31, and the Atlanta school system officially desegregated the following autumn of 1962 (New Georgia Encyclopedia).

In 1967, only 22 percent of the Black students in the 17 southern states were in integrated schools. In Pickens County full integration was achieved by the fall of 1966.  By comparison; Atlanta 1962, Savannah, Brunswick, and Athens 1963, Pickens County 1965-66, Gwinnett County 1966-68, Jasper County 1969 and Newton County 1970.

By 1969, the Georgia Board of Education accepted that school integration was inevitable. On Dec. 17, 1969, a ruling was agreed upon. Any county that refused to acknowledge the federal court order would lose state funding altogether. The order required that “dual school systems must be completely abolished” (New Georgia Encyclopedia).

The Pickens County Board of Education devises a plan

The Federal Government, in the form of the US Department of Education, required every school system in the United States to propose a desegregation plan. The Pickens County Board submitted a plan late in 1964, and another in the spring of 1965, both were rejected. School Superintendent M.T. McMurrain received a letter from Frances Keppel, US Commissioner of Education dated July 19, 1965. The third plan submitted was accepted. During the 1965-66 school year, Black students and teachers could voluntarily transfer and Tri-City School would continue to operate. But in the beginning of the 1966-67 school year, Tri-City would close and all of the schools in the county would be integrated.

Choosing, now or next year

For the 1965-66 school year, Black families had to make a choice, remain at Tri-City for one more year or have the children be the first to integrate.  All of the former students I interviewed explained that the decision was made by their parents with no input from them. “In that era, students did what they were told,” JoAnn Bridges stated. “I don’t like change and wanted to wait, but kids then were obedient. My mother said, ‘It will be the best for us,’ and I accepted that.” While the students did what they was expected, the decision to wait or go now was a difficult one for parents. Emma Washington recalls that choice, “I said wait a year, but my father, Olin Collins, felt sooner was better. He volunteered to be sure the children got to school, so I signed the papers for Sandra and Michael to transfer.”  Michael Collins told of his family’s decision, “It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t asked. I was obedient and trusted my family’s decisions.”

First Black students

to integrate

Seniors: Reginald Chatman, Ronald Johnson and Roderick Moore. Juniors, grade 11: Deborah Humphrey. Sophomores, grade 10: Jackie Morgan, Pam Moore, Annie Kate Mackey, JoAnn Bridges and Robert Pitts. Freshman, grade 9: Faye Chatman and Michael Collins. 8th grade: Melvin Nelson Bridges. Jasper Elementary: Brena Farrow, grade 4, Karen McClure, grade 3, and Sandra Collins, grade 2. (Source; Pickens Board of Education records, cross checked with PHS 1966 yearbook.)

How would integration go, a community wonders?

Pickens County parents and school personnel knew of the violence in other places including in nearby Alabama’s cities: Little Rock, Birmingham and Selma. There were a few die hard segregationists who called Board of Education members to voice their opposition. By and large the emotions for adults were anxiety and concern for everyone’s safety. Parents, Black and White, worried and fretted. People knew that violence was not the Pickens County way, but the potential for smaller problems was there.  There was a discussion at the August 3, 1965, Board of Education meeting, but the board records in that era provided no details of any discussions, only an agenda.

For students the impending arrival of Black classmates at Pickens High School evoked a combination of curiosity and discomfort that comes with major changes. Worry is not the teen way.

First Day, Pickens

High School

The morning of the first day of school teachers and administrators always arrive early. The principal of Pickens High School that day was new to the job. While Bill Hasty was a seasoned administrator from Cherokee County, this was his first year at Pickens High School. He had been a principal at an all-White school in Ball Ground and had no prior experience with integrating a school.  Myrna Denson was also a first year secretary in the front office.  Coach Roy Cowart recalled that this was his initial teaching position.  On top of that he and Kathy had their first child just a week earlier.

Concern for the changes and the day’s events hung in the air, but no one discussed it. Surprisingly there were no special faculty meetings to talk about how to handle integration. Nor do former faculty members remember any lengthy discussion about the coming Black students at the meeting the day before school began. Opening day would be business as usual.

While parents and faculty might have felt anxiety, the White students were more curious than worried.  Gail Baldwin was in the 10th grade, “It didn’t bother me, but it was different.”  Another student at that time said that at first the Black students seemed exotic but, “Within a day or two they blended in and weren’t any different than us.”

The Black students arrived by bus but with a police escort. Myrna observed that no Black parents drove their children to school and all arrived by bus. The sheriff’s deputies did not walk in with the Black students but lingered awhile outside just to be sure they were not needed.  They would not be called upon the next day.

Myrna Denson remembers the day vividly, “We were scared to death, and so I expect were the Black students. None of us acknowledged our fears but stayed calm, and that helped.  After they arrived and went on to homeroom we all relaxed.  By afternoon we knew the Tri-City students would fit right in.”

The Black students’ respectful attitude was a key factor in how smoothly the day progressed. Teacher Mary Jane Griffith explained that, “I am not sure if the students were hand picked or not, but you could not have chosen better.  The three senior boys were excellent students and most polite.” Myrna Denson remarked that, “I was only 25 and the Black students treated me with great respect. It was, Yes Ma’am, and No Ma’am.”  Both Myrna and Mary Jane agreed the faculty at Tri-City High School and the students’ parents had instilled the qualities of discipline, hard work, self respect and respect for others in the arriving students. In reciprocation, Roderick Moore described his White teachers, “They were fair and treated us with respect.”

There were of course a few remarks by rude White students.  JoAnn Bridges recalled being called a “chocolate drop” by two boys on the bus and crying, as well as spitballs being sent her way by a mean White boy.  JoAnn also remembers that White classmates Claudia Miller and Melba Bryant were friendly and welcoming from the first day. Another White girl remarked to her, “I thought you’d be different but you’re the same as us.” Michael Collins described his first day at PHS as “pretty smooth.” Taken as a whole the first day and subsequent days went well.

In the afternoon of the first day, Maxine Moore asked Frances Chatman  how she was doing. Frances was the mother of Reginald and Faye who were transferring from Tri-City to Pickens High. Frances replied that she had worried and prayed all day and stayed on the other end of town to try and keep from being so nervous. By their afternoon conversation it was apparent to the whole community that there would be no trouble and that the day went smoothly at school. Roderick Moore described his feelings that day, “My parents were worried and scared but I wasn’t. I knew that whatever happened those of us from Tri-City would be together.”

Jasper Elementary School

With just three Black students and much younger children, integration was far less dramatic. Still the small number of Black students made it harder for them to feel the solidarity and security that the high students felt. Karen McClure Benson recalls being asked several times, “Is your blood red?” A White student, Paul Hamnac, remembered, “I was in the fourth grade. It was a big thing for my parents. Not so much for me. Somehow I knew people all wanted the same thing.”

The Second Year

At the July 1966 meeting, the Board of Education officially closed Tri-City School and transferred approximately 90 student in grades 1-12, as well as teachers into other schools.  Leila Brown was principal at Tri-City before and during integration, and is credited as being a “Stabilizing liaison between the Black and White communities during this critical period” (Pickens County, Georgia, Heritage, 1853-1995).

Recently I spoke with seven adults who transferred from Tri-City to other schools in 1966.  All agreed that there were no major problems, “just a little kid stuff.”  By then the novelty of new Black students had worn off. Michael Collins remembers that this was a somewhat harder change because the Tri-City students were losing their school.  “Some of the students resented the closing and weren’t eager to change schools. It wasn’t all or even most of the Black students, but pockets of resentment,” Michael explained. “As a whole, pretty much everybody got along,” he added.

An examination of yearbooks between 1965 and 1975 reveals Black students participating in a wide variety of school organizations and activities. The first year, with only 12 Black students, Black faces appear in photos of the Glee Club, Coed Y-Club and Letterman’s Club as well as on the basketball, football and track teams.

In addition to students, Miss Aileen Prince transferred from Tri-City High School. Miss Prince taught science for many years at Pickens High and is remembered as a liaison with the Black students, families and community. PHS Home Economics teacher Mary Jane Griffith explained that Miss. Prince later has a “Gentleman’s Club” for the young Black men at the school and was, “a positive influence on our Black students, boys and girls.” Roderick Moore described Miss. Prince as, “strict, kind, and a very good teacher.”

Integration at Head Start

The Pickens County Head Start, under the leadership of Betty Walker, was the first in the state to be integrated. Black teachers and teacher aides included Mary Louise Roach Moore, Mary Ann Roach, Willie Mae Weaver, Katyleen Mackey McClure and Carrie Jordan Bridges. During the time that Mary Ann Roach was at Head Start she finished her Bachelor’s degree in Education from Brenau University and taught for the school system for over 20 years.

Dan, possible break point if the article is too long

Sports, a Microcosm

of Change

While Pickens High School’s Black minority was small, surrounding counties had no Black student in their high schools or Black families in their communities. This included Fannin, Gilmer, Dawson and Forsyth counties. Cherokee County was one of the few rivals that had Black players. During the first year of integration, Ronnie Johnson and Reginald Chatman played end on the football team, and also were starters on the basketball team. Of the 10 teams played in football that year, at least eight would have been all-White.

The first football game in 1965 was against Forsyth County. Pickens lost  0-18. A loss meant less resentment and potential problems from Forsyth, but the tide would be turned by later teams.  Bill Sperling was the head football coach in 1965 to 1967.

Prior to the Forsyth/Pickens varsity football game in 1969, there was apprehension related to possible race issues. At the end of a close and hard fought game Michael Collins scored the winning touchdown. Coach Enis instructed him before the play that after he scored and Enis expected Michael to score, to go directly to the bus and “the rest of the team and coaches will be right behind you.” They left with a police escort that night and did not stop to eat until close to Pickens County.

Preston Roach, Jr. recalled the 1968 football game against Forsyth County held in Cumming. A drumming by Pickens at the 1967 game in Jasper added to the tension. Preston was one of three Black members of the band, and as such was seated in the stands during the game. “Tension was at a fever pitch. The administration, staff and coaches handled it well.  They had a feel for what was right. There was certain stuff that they weren’t going to allow.”

In the fall of 1965 to the late 1960s when the teams traveled to schools that could involve possible racial problems, a police escort was arranged as a precaution. Another issue was getting a meal for the team. In some counties there were restaurant owners who would refuse to serve anyone who was Black or just close the restaurant when they saw there were Blacks to be served. To avoid this situation the coaches or administrators contacted restaurants ahead and arranged to stop and eat at accepting places.

Racial tensions still existed in Forsyth County during the 1960s and 1970s. Lawton Baggs was teaching in the county in the late ’60s and recalled that there were several homes on the lake sold to Black professionals. A local realtor was accused of doing the transactions and harassed by the racist element.  It got so bad that the realtor put an ad in the newspaper to deny the accusations. It was in such a racially charged atmosphere that the students and coaches played.

By 1970 the Pickens High Football Team included seven Black A-team members, three more on the B-squad, two cheerleaders, two band members and under the Dragon mascot costume was Sandra Pye, another Black student. Coach Roy Cowart explained, “In the early years of integration there was always some tension before games when we played all White communities. Not for what our kids would do, but emotions run high during games and we were concerned for a potential incident, particularly from the stands. We asked our players to be level headed in both football and basketball.” Fred Anderson added, “Coach Enis was good to the Black kids and (Assistant) Coach Qualls was like a father to me. Color didn’t matter, they played their best players.”

Fred Anderson played for Pickens High School in the 1970 game against Forsyth County and remembers the game. “We dressed on the bus to avoid any situations. Some people in the crowd would shout racial slurs. At one point the Forsyth coach hollered to the quarterback, ‘Catch that Damn Nigger’ to which the boy responded, ‘Which one coach?’” As in earlier Forsyth away games Coach Enis planned to leave quickly.  They went directly from the field to the bus. “After beating Forsyth 20-0, it was best to get out of town quickly,” Fred recalled.

Gilmer County was a traditional rival for Pickens.  red Anderson contends that the racial slurs and tension was as bad as at Forsyth. “When we arrived there would be signs in the stands and on the field house, ‘Kill the Coons.’” The final score for the 1969 game was Pickens 27 and Gilmer 0.  “It’s easier to ignore racial remarks when you know your going to beat the other team.

1971-1972 was Fred Anderson’s senior year. He set school records in rushing yards (4,632), single game rushing yards (337), scoring (320 points) and touchdowns (49). He was named Player of the Week in the State of Georgia three times and to the Georgia Prep Honor Roll 7 times. In the AAA classification Fred was All-State Georgia in 1970, 1971 and 1972. His total offense in 1970 of 7,480 yards was a region record. The University of Southern Mississippi provided Fred Anderson with a full four-year football scholarship. Fred graduated after playing for four years.

Rickey Benson was the first Black student to get a basketball scholarship. After graduation in 1975 he played for Gaston State College in Alabama.

The times they are a changing

Michael Collins entered the 9th grade as one of 12 students who integrated Pickens High School in 1965. By the time he was a senior in 1968-69, segregation, integration and race were non-issues for students.  Michael was elected class president, captain of the football team and Student Body president. Several of his former teachers testified to his leadership skills. “Ask him about the student lunchroom walkout he stopped,” one former teacher told me.

“We called it the Great Lasagna Revolt,” Michael recalled. “Every Friday lasagna was served in the lunchroom and students complained.  Someone said we should walk out and I casually agreed. To my surprise the students were actually going to walk out. The principal called me in his office and asked what I knew and if I could stop the demonstration. I knew I had to talk to the kids. We didn’t walk out, but the administration was fair and listened. After that we got a variety of selections on Fridays.”

The most telling indicator of a reversal of attitudes and behavior was in 1967 when Michael was arrested for using the wrong bathroom. He and a group of eight or so White friends were going to the movie in Jasper. They arrived early and decided to walk on to the Welcome Junction Grill. This was a high school hang out before and after movies. There were two inside bathrooms and two outside and on that day only the outside ladies room worked.  The owner told Michael he could use that bathroom. He had been there many times before and knew the management well. “Everyone used that bathroom.  It was like today’s Uni-sex bathrooms,” Michael explained.

When he came out a city policeman stopped Michael and asked why he was using the ladies room. The officer did not believe him and took Collins to the squad car. A friend saw him being taken, and Michael called, “I’m going to jail, call my Mama!” The owner tried to tell the police that he gave permission with no acknowledgement by the officer.

This may have been racist on the part of the officer, but the reaction of the White friends was unconditional. They called others and walked and drove over to the city jail. Before long a crowd had gathered. When Emma Julia and her husband Velpo Smith arrived, the crowd of teens was growing and it was all White. Velpo asked the group to go home, but they would not leave their friend in jail. “A few had bats. They got there before me and shouted that if the police didn’t let me go, they would get me out. They were hoppin-mad,” remembered Michael.

When Emma Julia and Velpo entered, the police officer refused to tell what the charge was or to allow Michael to bond out to his parents. The officer insisted he must stay in jail.  Velpo quietly reminded them that the crowd outside had refused to leave when he asked them to do so, and that they would guarantee Michael would be back on Monday to see the judge.

The deputy considered the crowd outside and allowed Michael to go home with his parents. As soon as they walked out, the crowd of students cheered and promptly disbanded. On Monday the case was dismissed and the officer reprimanded. Not only was Michael a leader of an almost all White student body, but his fellow White students were threatening violence, not against him, but in a misguided attempt to protect Michael.

A story that occurred while Michael was attending Reinhardt College makes a similar point about change and really tugged at my heart. Michael and two Reinhardt College classmates made an auto trip to Roswell, Georgia. One friend was Black and the other White,  raised in McCaysville, a town with no Black residents and which was known for anti-Black sentiments by the residents. In was a cold winter night when they had car trouble and to make it worse the Black companion had develop a stomach sickness.  They stopped at a store and asked if the boy could rest a bit.  “Ain’t no nigger sitting here,” the owner snarled. By the time the tow truck arrived the Black student was even sicker. A kinder man, the tow driver put the boy in his cab to warm him.  On the way back to the college the White student asked if this sort of thing happened often.  “Often enough,” Michael replied. With tears of anger and empathy streaming he answered, “It just isn’t right.” Indeed every generation is capable of change.

Civil Rights Act, 1964

This act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities and made employment discrimination illegal. This document was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. www.ourdocuments.gov

Integration in the community

Integration in Pickens County lacked drama. Signs for separate water fountains and bathrooms were removed without event or comment. In the courthouse there were a set of White bathrooms on the first floor, and another smaller set of bathrooms labeled “Colored” in the basement. The basement rooms lacked a window, had a concrete floor and facilities of lesser quality. Upstairs the “White” bathrooms had windows, tile floors and better equipment.  After the signs went down residents of both races could choose between upscale, or downstairs.  The sign on the separate “Colored” entrance to the courthouse was taken down.

Signs designating the colored section at the train station were removed and separate seating abolished. Leila Brown was the first Black to serve on a Grand Jury and the first Black representative to the state teacher’s organization from Pickens County. Change happened with acceptance by the community.

Michael Collins recalled his first meal in a previously all White restaurant. “It was after a football game and a friend’s dad  took me out to dinner with his family after a game. He looked at me and said, ‘Gus, you’re eating in town with us and your going in the front door.’ Nothing happened; it wasn’t a Civil Rights action. Things changed, not in a dramatic way, they just kind of rotated in place.” That statement seems to describe community integration in Pickens County, it happened with a minimum of fuss and no protests.

The 1960s were years of racial turmoil in much of the South often characterized by anger and violence. In Pickens County the transition from segregation to integration went more smoothly aided by community acceptance and an abhorrence of conflict.

Acceptance and respect between races was a long standing tradition in Pickens County dating back to the era of Colonel Sam Tate. “I have always been treated well by White neighbors,” explained Preston Roach Sr. In a Facebook conversation recalling school integration Peggy Kendrick affirmed, “I’m glad that I lived in Pickens County (during integration) not elsewhere.”

References:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, www.ourdocuments.gov

The Civil Rights Movement, New Georgia Encyclopedia

Interviews, Michael Collins, Myra Denson, Lawton Baggs, Roy Cowart, Michael Collins,             2010, by Kathy Thompson, Maxine Moore, 2009

Group Interview, May 2010, Fred Anderson’s home, Tate

Pickens County Board of Education, minutes Board meetings July, 1965

Letter from the US Education, Department and student transfer records

Pickens High School Yearbooks, 1964-66 through 1972-73

Pickens Progress, articles related to desegregation, 1965-1866

Pickens County, Georgia, Heritage, 1853-1995

You many contact Dr. Thompson at 706-633-3865 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Comments, feedback and new information are welcome.

Photo Caption: The first three Black graduates of Pickens High School were Reginald (Reggie) Chatman, Ronnie Johnson and Roderick (Ronnie) Moore. Reginald Chatman passed away in 2004, his wife Vivian still lives in Pickens County. Ronnie Johnson lives and works in Atlanta. Roderick Moore resides in Jasper.

Integration in the Schools and Community

By Dr. Kathleen Thompson

This project has been made possible by the Pickens Arts and Cultural Alliance, and grants from the Georgia Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Integration in the Schools

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, (1954), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and White students unconstitutional. As a result, segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This ruling paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement.                                    Wikipedia                                                New Orleans, Louisiana, William Fridz Elementary School,1960:

Driving up to the school in the US Marshall’s car, six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges could see the gathering and actually thought it was Mardi Gras. “There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of behavior goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras,” Ruby recalled later. As soon as Bridges entered the school, White parents went in and brought their own children out. All of the teachers refused to teach where a Black child was enrolled. The school system hired Barbara Henry from Boston, Ma., to teach Bridges, and for over a year Mrs. Henry taught her alone as if she were teaching a whole class. Every morning as Bridges walked to school, one woman would shout, “I’m going to posin your food Nigger!” Ruby was frightened by the threat but was afraid to tell her parents.  Instead she would only eat food in sealed bags, items like potato chips. A psychologist, Robert Coles, who befriended the family, got Ruby to talk about her fears. Reassured, she again ate cooked foods. Ruby was driven to school for a year by federal marshalls who escorted her inside the school to her teacher.  In the afternoon the marshalls took Ruby home. The abusive crowds lasted for months.

Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier and we’re all very proud of her.” In her own writing Ruby continued the story in her memoirs, “Militant segregationists, as the news called them, took to the streets in protest, and riots erupted all over the city. My parents shielded me as best they could, but I knew problems had come to our family because I was going to the White school. My father was fired from his job. The White owners of a grocery store told us not to shop there anymore. Even my grandparents in Mississippi suffered. The owner of the land they’d sharecropped for 25 years said everyone knew it was their granddaughter causing trouble in New Orleans and asked them to move.”

Pickens High School, Jasper, Georgia, August, 1965:

Twelve high school students and three elementary children were the first to integrate the Pickens County School System.  As a precaution, the bus that brought the students that first day had a police escort provided by the county sheriff. The first day went so smoothly that the escort was deemed unnecessary and discontinued. Myrna Denson remembered, ”By noon we knew there would be no problems.”

School Integration

comes to Georgia

The journey from the first Supreme Court integration decision in 1954 to actual  integration was a long one. Many White Georgians resisted integration and advocated closing schools rather than abiding by the court’s decision. Promises to prevent the desegregation of public schools became a hallmark of the administrations of three Georgia governors during the decade of the 1950s: Herman Talmadge, Marvin Griffin and Ernest Vandiver.  Under Talmadge’s leadership, the state passed legislation requiring that public schools be closed and converted to private schools rather than submit to court-ordered desegregation. The Georgia legislature also adopted a constitutional amendment forcing the governor to cut off state funding to any school that desegregated. (Atlanta in the Civil Rights Movement at www.atlantahighered.org)

Governor Ernest Vandiver, Jr. was forced to decide between closing public schools or complying with a federal order to desegregate them.  He formed a special committee chaired by Atlanta attorney John A. Sibley to conduct public hearings on the issue. The committee was known as the Sibley Commission. In 10 hearings held across the state during March 1960, Sibley allowed witnesses to state their choice of two options: continuing massive resistance at the expense of the school system or amending state law to allow token integration while keeping segregation largely intact.

Despite Sibley’s efforts to minimize support for resistance, 60 percent of witnesses favored total segregation. On April 28, 1960, Sibley, ignoring the results of the hearings, presented the commission’s report to state leaders, in which he recommended accepting Hooper’s (Federal district judge) decision while offering several measures that would allow schools to remain largely segregated. Before the legislature had a chance to vote a new crisis (Integration at the University of Georgia) forced Vandiver to make a decision regarding segregation.  Choosing to avoid further confrontation with the federal government, Vandiver introduced a bill that repealed cutoff funds laws for both the university and public schools.  The bill passed on Jan. 31, and the Atlanta school system officially desegregated the following autumn of 1962 (New Georgia Encyclopedia).

In 1967, only 22 percent of the Black students in the 17 southern states were in integrated schools. In Pickens County full integration was achieved by the fall of 1966.  By comparison; Atlanta 1962, Savannah, Brunswick, and Athens 1963, Pickens County 1965-66, Gwinnett County 1966-68, Jasper County 1969 and Newton County 1970.

By 1969, the Georgia Board of Education accepted that school integration was inevitable. On Dec. 17, 1969, a ruling was agreed upon. Any county that refused to acknowledge the federal court order would lose state funding altogether. The order required that “dual school systems must be completely abolished” (New Georgia Encyclopedia).

The Pickens County Board of Education devises a plan

The Federal Government, in the form of the US Department of Education, required every school system in the United States to propose a desegregation plan. The Pickens County Board submitted a plan late in 1964, and another in the spring of 1965, both were rejected. School Superintendent M.T. McMurrain received a letter from Frances Keppel, US Commissioner of Education dated July 19, 1965. The third plan submitted was accepted. During the 1965-66 school year, Black students and teachers could voluntarily transfer and Tri-City School would continue to operate. But in the beginning of the 1966-67 school year, Tri-City would close and all of the schools in the county would be integrated.

Choosing, now or next year

For the 1965-66 school year, Black families had to make a choice, remain at Tri-City for one more year or have the children be the first to integrate.  All of the former students I interviewed explained that the decision was made by their parents with no input from them. “In that era, students did what they were told,” JoAnn Bridges stated. “I don’t like change and wanted to wait, but kids then were obedient. My mother said, ‘It will be the best for us,’ and I accepted that.” While the students did what they was expected, the decision to wait or go now was a difficult one for parents. Emma Washington recalls that choice, “I said wait a year, but my father, Olin Collins, felt sooner was better. He volunteered to be sure the children got to school, so I signed the papers for Sandra and Michael to transfer.”  Michael Collins told of his family’s decision, “It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t asked. I was obedient and trusted my family’s decisions.”

First Black students

to integrate

Seniors: Reginald Chatman, Ronald Johnson and Roderick Moore. Juniors, grade 11: Deborah Humphrey. Sophomores, grade 10: Jackie Morgan, Pam Moore, Annie Kate Mackey, JoAnn Bridges and Robert Pitts. Freshman, grade 9: Faye Chatman and Michael Collins. 8th grade: Melvin Nelson Bridges. Jasper Elementary: Brena Farrow, grade 4, Karen McClure, grade 3, and Sandra Collins, grade 2. (Source; Pickens Board of Education records, cross checked with PHS 1966 yearbook.)

How would integration go, a community wonders?

Pickens County parents and school personnel knew of the violence in other places including in nearby Alabama’s cities: Little Rock, Birmingham and Selma. There were a few die hard segregationists who called Board of Education members to voice their opposition. By and large the emotions for adults were anxiety and concern for everyone’s safety. Parents, Black and White, worried and fretted. People knew that violence was not the Pickens County way, but the potential for smaller problems was there.  There was a discussion at the August 3, 1965, Board of Education meeting, but the board records in that era provided no details of any discussions, only an agenda.

For students the impending arrival of Black classmates at Pickens High School evoked a combination of curiosity and discomfort that comes with major changes. Worry is not the teen way.

First Day, Pickens

High School

The morning of the first day of school teachers and administrators always arrive early. The principal of Pickens High School that day was new to the job. While Bill Hasty was a seasoned administrator from Cherokee County, this was his first year at Pickens High School. He had been a principal at an all-White school in Ball Ground and had no prior experience with integrating a school.  Myrna Denson was also a first year secretary in the front office.  Coach Roy Cowart recalled that this was his initial teaching position.  On top of that he and Kathy had their first child just a week earlier.

Concern for the changes and the day’s events hung in the air, but no one discussed it. Surprisingly there were no special faculty meetings to talk about how to handle integration. Nor do former faculty members remember any lengthy discussion about the coming Black students at the meeting the day before school began. Opening day would be business as usual.

While parents and faculty might have felt anxiety, the White students were more curious than worried.  Gail Baldwin was in the 10th grade, “It didn’t bother me, but it was different.”  Another student at that time said that at first the Black students seemed exotic but, “Within a day or two they blended in and weren’t any different than us.”

The Black students arrived by bus but with a police escort. Myrna observed that no Black parents drove their children to school and all arrived by bus. The sheriff’s deputies did not walk in with the Black students but lingered awhile outside just to be sure they were not needed.  They would not be called upon the next day.

Myrna Denson remembers the day vividly, “We were scared to death, and so I expect were the Black students. None of us acknowledged our fears but stayed calm, and that helped.  After they arrived and went on to homeroom we all relaxed.  By afternoon we knew the Tri-City students would fit right in.”

The Black students’ respectful attitude was a key factor in how smoothly the day progressed. Teacher Mary Jane Griffith explained that, “I am not sure if the students were hand picked or not, but you could not have chosen better.  The three senior boys were excellent students and most polite.” Myrna Denson remarked that, “I was only 25 and the Black students treated me with great respect. It was, Yes Ma’am, and No Ma’am.”  Both Myrna and Mary Jane agreed the faculty at Tri-City High School and the students’ parents had instilled the qualities of discipline, hard work, self respect and respect for others in the arriving students. In reciprocation, Roderick Moore described his White teachers, “They were fair and treated us with respect.”

There were of course a few remarks by rude White students.  JoAnn Bridges recalled being called a “chocolate drop” by two boys on the bus and crying, as well as spitballs being sent her way by a mean White boy.  JoAnn also remembers that White classmates Claudia Miller and Melba Bryant were friendly and welcoming from the first day. Another White girl remarked to her, “I thought you’d be different but you’re the same as us.” Michael Collins described his first day at PHS as “pretty smooth.” Taken as a whole the first day and subsequent days went well.

In the afternoon of the first day, Maxine Moore asked Frances Chatman  how she was doing. Frances was the mother of Reginald and Faye who were transferring from Tri-City to Pickens High. Frances replied that she had worried and prayed all day and stayed on the other end of town to try and keep from being so nervous. By their afternoon conversation it was apparent to the whole community that there would be no trouble and that the day went smoothly at school. Roderick Moore described his feelings that day, “My parents were worried and scared but I wasn’t. I knew that whatever happened those of us from Tri-City would be together.”

Jasper Elementary School

With just three Black students and much younger children, integration was far less dramatic. Still the small number of Black students made it harder for them to feel the solidarity and security that the high students felt. Karen McClure Benson recalls being asked several times, “Is your blood red?” A White student, Paul Hamnac, remembered, “I was in the fourth grade. It was a big thing for my parents. Not so much for me. Somehow I knew people all wanted the same thing.”

The Second Year

At the July 1966 meeting, the Board of Education officially closed Tri-City School and transferred approximately 90 student in grades 1-12, as well as teachers into other schools.  Leila Brown was principal at Tri-City before and during integration, and is credited as being a “Stabilizing liaison between the Black and White communities during this critical period” (Pickens County, Georgia, Heritage, 1853-1995).

Recently I spoke with seven adults who transferred from Tri-City to other schools in 1966.  All agreed that there were no major problems, “just a little kid stuff.”  By then the novelty of new Black students had worn off. Michael Collins remembers that this was a somewhat harder change because the Tri-City students were losing their school.  “Some of the students resented the closing and weren’t eager to change schools. It wasn’t all or even most of the Black students, but pockets of resentment,” Michael explained. “As a whole, pretty much everybody got along,” he added.

An examination of yearbooks between 1965 and 1975 reveals Black students participating in a wide variety of school organizations and activities. The first year, with only 12 Black students, Black faces appear in photos of the Glee Club, Coed Y-Club and Letterman’s Club as well as on the basketball, football and track teams.

In addition to students, Miss Aileen Prince transferred from Tri-City High School. Miss Prince taught science for many years at Pickens High and is remembered as a liaison with the Black students, families and community. PHS Home Economics teacher Mary Jane Griffith explained that Miss. Prince later has a “Gentleman’s Club” for the young Black men at the school and was, “a positive influence on our Black students, boys and girls.” Roderick Moore described Miss. Prince as, “strict, kind, and a very good teacher.”

Integration at Head Start

The Pickens County Head Start, under the leadership of Betty Walker, was the first in the state to be integrated. Black teachers and teacher aides included Mary Louise Roach Moore, Mary Ann Roach, Willie Mae Weaver, Katyleen Mackey McClure and Carrie Jordan Bridges. During the time that Mary Ann Roach was at Head Start she finished her Bachelor’s degree in Education from Brenau University and taught for the school system for over 20 years.

Dan, possible break point if the article is too long

Sports, a Microcosm

of Change

While Pickens High School’s Black minority was small, surrounding counties had no Black student in their high schools or Black families in their communities. This included Fannin, Gilmer, Dawson and Forsyth counties. Cherokee County was one of the few rivals that had Black players. During the first year of integration, Ronnie Johnson and Reginald Chatman played end on the football team, and also were starters on the basketball team. Of the 10 teams played in football that year, at least eight would have been all-White.

The first football game in 1965 was against Forsyth County. Pickens lost  0-18. A loss meant less resentment and potential problems from Forsyth, but the tide would be turned by later teams.  Bill Sperling was the head football coach in 1965 to 1967.

Prior to the Forsyth/Pickens varsity football game in 1969, there was apprehension related to possible race issues. At the end of a close and hard fought game Michael Collins scored the winning touchdown. Coach Enis instructed him before the play that after he scored and Enis expected Michael to score, to go directly to the bus and “the rest of the team and coaches will be right behind you.” They left with a police escort that night and did not stop to eat until close to Pickens County.

Preston Roach, Jr. recalled the 1968 football game against Forsyth County held in Cumming. A drumming by Pickens at the 1967 game in Jasper added to the tension. Preston was one of three Black members of the band, and as such was seated in the stands during the game. “Tension was at a fever pitch. The administration, staff and coaches handled it well.  They had a feel for what was right. There was certain stuff that they weren’t going to allow.”

In the fall of 1965 to the late 1960s when the teams traveled to schools that could involve possible racial problems, a police escort was arranged as a precaution. Another issue was getting a meal for the team. In some counties there were restaurant owners who would refuse to serve anyone who was Black or just close the restaurant when they saw there were Blacks to be served. To avoid this situation the coaches or administrators contacted restaurants ahead and arranged to stop and eat at accepting places.

Racial tensions still existed in Forsyth County during the 1960s and 1970s. Lawton Baggs was teaching in the county in the late ’60s and recalled that there were several homes on the lake sold to Black professionals. A local realtor was accused of doing the transactions and harassed by the racist element.  It got so bad that the realtor put an ad in the newspaper to deny the accusations. It was in such a racially charged atmosphere that the students and coaches played.

By 1970 the Pickens High Football Team included seven Black A-team members, three more on the B-squad, two cheerleaders, two band members and under the Dragon mascot costume was Sandra Pye, another Black student. Coach Roy Cowart explained, “In the early years of integration there was always some tension before games when we played all White communities. Not for what our kids would do, but emotions run high during games and we were concerned for a potential incident, particularly from the stands. We asked our players to be level headed in both football and basketball.” Fred Anderson added, “Coach Enis was good to the Black kids and (Assistant) Coach Qualls was like a father to me. Color didn’t matter, they played their best players.”

Fred Anderson played for Pickens High School in the 1970 game against Forsyth County and remembers the game. “We dressed on the bus to avoid any situations. Some people in the crowd would shout racial slurs. At one point the Forsyth coach hollered to the quarterback, ‘Catch that Damn Nigger’ to which the boy responded, ‘Which one coach?’” As in earlier Forsyth away games Coach Enis planned to leave quickly.  They went directly from the field to the bus. “After beating Forsyth 20-0, it was best to get out of town quickly,” Fred recalled.

Gilmer County was a traditional rival for Pickens.  red Anderson contends that the racial slurs and tension was as bad as at Forsyth. “When we arrived there would be signs in the stands and on the field house, ‘Kill the Coons.’” The final score for the 1969 game was Pickens 27 and Gilmer 0.  “It’s easier to ignore racial remarks when you know your going to beat the other team.

1971-1972 was Fred Anderson’s senior year. He set school records in rushing yards (4,632), single game rushing yards (337), scoring (320 points) and touchdowns (49). He was named Player of the Week in the State of Georgia three times and to the Georgia Prep Honor Roll 7 times. In the AAA classification Fred was All-State Georgia in 1970, 1971 and 1972. His total offense in 1970 of 7,480 yards was a region record. The University of Southern Mississippi provided Fred Anderson with a full four-year football scholarship. Fred graduated after playing for four years.

Rickey Benson was the first Black student to get a basketball scholarship. After graduation in 1975 he played for Gaston State College in Alabama.

The times they are a changing

Michael Collins entered the 9th grade as one of 12 students who integrated Pickens High School in 1965. By the time he was a senior in 1968-69, segregation, integration and race were non-issues for students.  Michael was elected class president, captain of the football team and Student Body president. Several of his former teachers testified to his leadership skills. “Ask him about the student lunchroom walkout he stopped,” one former teacher told me.

“We called it the Great Lasagna Revolt,” Michael recalled. “Every Friday lasagna was served in the lunchroom and students complained.  Someone said we should walk out and I casually agreed. To my surprise the students were actually going to walk out. The principal called me in his office and asked what I knew and if I could stop the demonstration. I knew I had to talk to the kids. We didn’t walk out, but the administration was fair and listened. After that we got a variety of selections on Fridays.”

The most telling indicator of a reversal of attitudes and behavior was in 1967 when Michael was arrested for using the wrong bathroom. He and a group of eight or so White friends were going to the movie in Jasper. They arrived early and decided to walk on to the Welcome Junction Grill. This was a high school hang out before and after movies. There were two inside bathrooms and two outside and on that day only the outside ladies room worked.  The owner told Michael he could use that bathroom. He had been there many times before and knew the management well. “Everyone used that bathroom.  It was like today’s Uni-sex bathrooms,” Michael explained.

When he came out a city policeman stopped Michael and asked why he was using the ladies room. The officer did not believe him and took Collins to the squad car. A friend saw him being taken, and Michael called, “I’m going to jail, call my Mama!” The owner tried to tell the police that he gave permission with no acknowledgement by the officer.

This may have been racist on the part of the officer, but the reaction of the White friends was unconditional. They called others and walked and drove over to the city jail. Before long a crowd had gathered. When Emma Julia and her husband Velpo Smith arrived, the crowd of teens was growing and it was all White. Velpo asked the group to go home, but they would not leave their friend in jail. “A few had bats. They got there before me and shouted that if the police didn’t let me go, they would get me out. They were hoppin-mad,” remembered Michael.

When Emma Julia and Velpo entered, the police officer refused to tell what the charge was or to allow Michael to bond out to his parents. The officer insisted he must stay in jail.  Velpo quietly reminded them that the crowd outside had refused to leave when he asked them to do so, and that they would guarantee Michael would be back on Monday to see the judge.

The deputy considered the crowd outside and allowed Michael to go home with his parents. As soon as they walked out, the crowd of students cheered and promptly disbanded. On Monday the case was dismissed and the officer reprimanded. Not only was Michael a leader of an almost all White student body, but his fellow White students were threatening violence, not against him, but in a misguided attempt to protect Michael.

A story that occurred while Michael was attending Reinhardt College makes a similar point about change and really tugged at my heart. Michael and two Reinhardt College classmates made an auto trip to Roswell, Georgia. One friend was Black and the other White,  raised in McCaysville, a town with no Black residents and which was known for anti-Black sentiments by the residents. In was a cold winter night when they had car trouble and to make it worse the Black companion had develop a stomach sickness.  They stopped at a store and asked if the boy could rest a bit.  “Ain’t no nigger sitting here,” the owner snarled. By the time the tow truck arrived the Black student was even sicker. A kinder man, the tow driver put the boy in his cab to warm him.  On the way back to the college the White student asked if this sort of thing happened often.  “Often enough,” Michael replied. With tears of anger and empathy streaming he answered, “It just isn’t right.” Indeed every generation is capable of change.

Civil Rights Act, 1964

This act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities and made employment discrimination illegal. This document was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. www.ourdocuments.gov

Integration in the community

Integration in Pickens County lacked drama. Signs for separate water fountains and bathrooms were removed without event or comment. In the courthouse there were a set of White bathrooms on the first floor, and another smaller set of bathrooms labeled “Colored” in the basement. The basement rooms lacked a window, had a concrete floor and facilities of lesser quality. Upstairs the “White” bathrooms had windows, tile floors and better equipment.  After the signs went down residents of both races could choose between upscale, or downstairs.  The sign on the separate “Colored” entrance to the courthouse was taken down.

Signs designating the colored section at the train station were removed and separate seating abolished. Leila Brown was the first Black to serve on a Grand Jury and the first Black representative to the state teacher’s organization from Pickens County. Change happened with acceptance by the community.

Michael Collins recalled his first meal in a previously all White restaurant. “It was after a football game and a friend’s dad  took me out to dinner with his family after a game. He looked at me and said, ‘Gus, you’re eating in town with us and your going in the front door.’ Nothing happened; it wasn’t a Civil Rights action. Things changed, not in a dramatic way, they just kind of rotated in place.” That statement seems to describe community integration in Pickens County, it happened with a minimum of fuss and no protests.

The 1960s were years of racial turmoil in much of the South often characterized by anger and violence. In Pickens County the transition from segregation to integration went more smoothly aided by community acceptance and an abhorrence of conflict.

Acceptance and respect between races was a long standing tradition in Pickens County dating back to the era of Colonel Sam Tate. “I have always been treated well by White neighbors,” explained Preston Roach Sr. In a Facebook conversation recalling school integration Peggy Kendrick affirmed, “I’m glad that I lived in Pickens County (during integration) not elsewhere.”

References:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, www.ourdocuments.gov

The Civil Rights Movement, New Georgia Encyclopedia

Interviews, Michael Collins, Myra Denson, Lawton Baggs, Roy Cowart, Michael Collins,             2010, by Kathy Thompson, Maxine Moore, 2009

Group Interview, May 2010, Fred Anderson’s home, Tate

Pickens County Board of Education, minutes Board meetings July, 1965

Letter from the US Education, Department and student transfer records

Pickens High School Yearbooks, 1964-66 through 1972-73

Pickens Progress, articles related to desegregation, 1965-1866

Pickens County, Georgia, Heritage, 1853-1995

You many contact Dr. Thompson at 706-633-3865 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Comments, feedback and new information are welcome.

Photo Caption: The first three Black graduates of Pickens High School were Reginald (Reggie) Chatman, Ronnie Johnson and Roderick (Ronnie) Moore. Reginald Chatman passed away in 2004, his wife Vivian still lives in Pickens County. Ronnie Johnson lives and works in Atlanta. Roderick Moore resides in Jasper.