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Black History Series

Black History Series Part V -- Racial violence in North Georgia 1900-1930

 By Dr. Kathleen Thompson

This article is the fifth in a series devoted to the history of the Black residents of Pickens County. Dr. Kathleen Thompson has completed extensive research including archives and library investigation, interviews of local residents and searches of early newspapers. This project has and continues to be made possible by the Pickens Arts and Cultural Alliance and grants from the Georgia Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Led or misled by their leadership, cities and communities make choices. In the following historical narrative the choice was between hate and tolerance.  This is the story of two communities, each taking a different path, each with differing outcomes.

Cumming, Ga. (1902-1912)

Hidden in the bottom of his parents’ wagon, eight-year-old Olin Collins was terrified and had been since the troubles started weeks ago. Whitecappers and Klansmen had vowed to drive out every Negro family in Forsyth County. They had burned houses and shot into homes during the reign of terror.  At night Olin and his brother Clarence laid under quilts, eyes wide open, waiting, worried and frightened.

His mother and father loved their home. They had a chicken house and hens who laid eggs, and it was Olin’s job to collect the eggs. The farm was a nice place and none of them wanted to leave. They were a peaceable family, troubling no one. Then, late at night, shots were fired into a neighbor’s home. Days later another friend’s house was dynamited and set afire. Nightly his parents fretted over what to do. Nightly he and Clarence lay in bed, close enough to the kitchen that if they strained they could hear their parent’s worried discussions. Finally George and Katie Collins felt they had no choice. For the sake of their children they had to leave, not in a few days, but tomorrow.

That morning Papa told Olin and Clarence to collect their clothes and a few toys. Mama tied the items in a blanket and placed it in the bottom of their wagon. George and Katherine chose a few pieces of furniture and necessities, all that they could put on the wagon and still make a speedy exit. No time or chance to sell the house. The horses were hitched and they began the most terrifying journey of Olin’s whole life.

Olin and Clarence lay down in the bottom of the wagon.  Before they were hidden Papa said, “Now boys, no matter what, don’t make a sound. Y’all hear, not a sound, no matter what happens to us.” “Yes Papa,” they returned, wondering if they could do that should trouble come. Then Mama pulled the blanket over them and Papa began piling furniture atop.  Olin knew he would never see their house again.

Heading out they took a road west. The boys could hear the muffled voices of their parents.  “Please George hurry up, make the horses go faster,” Katie would implore. “I’m going as fast as I can,” George Collins replied, fear evident to Olin from the tone of his daddy’s voice. When they arrived in Cherokee County they were refugees, people without a home or jobs. They were not alone. A newspaper account from that year described refugee camps along the road between Cumming and Gainesville. On all of the roads leading out of Cumming Black refugee families camped in groups for protection. Dazed and shocked they were unsure of what to do next.

Things did get better. George Collins was hired as Colonel Sam Tate’s chauffeur. It is not known how they met, if Sam Tate met and hired George or George came to Tate and applied for a job. Either way, the family moved to Tate and lived in a company house built for them not far from the Pink Marble Mansion. Olin would grow up safely in Tate where he eventually became chauffeur to Luke Tate and later ran “The Stand,” a community store in Smoky Hollow.

The searing memory of fleeing Cumming never left Olin Collins. It was so painful he was unable to describe the events to his children. When all but one of his children were in college, married or had moved away, a reporter from the Pickens Progress called on him. He asked Olin Collins to tell the story of their troubles in Forsyth County. Fear and pain made that impossible. “I can’t,” he replied.  But when the reporter left he told the story, only once, to daughter Emma Julia Collins and never spoke of it again.  Emma Julia Collins Washington still remembers the day her father shared his story. “I cried when he told me.”

The results of the censuses from1910 and 1920 show the extent of the forced removal of blacks from Forsyth County.  The 1910 census reported that Forsyth County had a total population of 10,839 residents; and of these residents 1,098 were black, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the county’s population. In the 1920 census, a total of 30 blacks were reported to reside in Forsyth County. That accounted for less than .3 percent of the total population. By 1930 the number was 17. The Collins family and others who fled to Pickens County never went back.

What happened to the property of families like the Collins who lost their homes? Cox Newspapers reporter Elliot Jaspin traced land deeds and tax rolls back to 1912. “He found proof that the majority of the property owned by the banished African Americans was never sold, but instead taken by their white neighbors. Called adverse possession, this process is partly statutory and partly common law and involves the legal acquisition of a title to a property without having to pay for it. In the case of the land in Forsyth County, white residents simply held the property belonging to black residents following their banishment. In the state of Georgia, the period of adverse possession is seven years. After this period of time, whites legally owned the land.”                                      www.pbs.org

By Contrast, Tate, Ga.

A report in the Atlanta Constitution indicates that in 1902 Pickens County experienced attacks on their Black residents (see accompanying article). These racially motivated crimes provoked a very different response from the leadership of the Georgia Marble Company whose workforce was 15 percent Black. Tate was not incorporated and lacked a mayor or police chief. The Marble Company and Colonel Sam Tate were responsible for all aspects of safety for the town, thus their response was the “official” one.

It is clear in the accompanying article in the Atlanta Constitution (1902) that the leadership of the Tate community chose a different course, one in which the protection of their Black residents was paramount. Based on the dates and church records, Mt. Calvary Baptist Church may have been the church that was burned. This would have been the two-story building that preceded the current building. The Marble Company provided a replacement for the destroyed building.

The story of Colonel Sam’s response to racial attacks is best described in Stephen Griffith’s Book (see accompanying article). Not only did Sam Tate decry the attacks, but he provided a way to protect the Black families of Tate.  In no uncertain terms he stood up to injustice.  The outcome was quite different than in other Georgia communities of the time that experienced racial unrest. The mob of Whitecappers from Dawson County never arrived and Tate continued to be a place where Black people could live and work.

No Black citizens were forced to leave Tate, moreover refugees from the violence in Cumming were taken in. Willie Mae Weaver recalled that several refugee families fled from Cumming to Tate. “They didn’t have relatives here, they were just getting away. They got jobs at the marble quarries and stayed. None of those families are left now, they have drifted away.” Roderick Moore of Jasper explained that his Aunt Lillie Mae and Uncle John Knox fled from Cumming and came to Jasper where they had family.

Racial Attacks Spread

The first third of the 20th Century in North Georgia were traumatic ones for Black citizens, punctuated by period of violence and Black displacement. Atlanta Constitution Dec. 8, 1915, Two More Blazes in Cherokee County Add to Reign of Fear, Canton, GA., – “Today’s fires bring the total number of conflagrations in Cherokee within the past three days to nine. Believing there is a campaign to drive them from the county, the Negroes of this section are in a panic and many have left for other communities.” In Cobb County, the Gainesville News reported on Oct. 16, 1912, that notices were posted reading “Hurry up Niggers and leve this town if you don’t leve you will wish you hadder got out.” At the end of December 1912, under a headline that read “Georgia In Terror Of Night Riders,” The New York Times reported that “an organized effort is being made to drive every negro out of North Georgia counties.”

Jasper and Ball Ground

There is an account of heroism that was told to me by Rev. Charles Walker during a visit at his home in 2009. Unfortunately, I failed to ask him the date of the events or how he knew the story. Rev. Walker related the story during a conversation about the events in Cumming in 1912, so I assumed the narrative dated from that time.

Since his passing I have tried with no success to locate someone who could corroborate the story. With this in mind I will share his story. If anyone has heard about the events from a source other than Rev. Walker or has any other information, please contact me via e-mail or phone.

Racial unrest spread from Forsyth County and became a problem in Canton and Ball Ground. Not only were Whitecappers harassing their local Black residents, but some wanted to “cleanse” adjacent communities of their Black population. A group of vigilantes and Klan members were organizing a night run to Jasper where they would run the towns Black residents attempt to intimidate.

Word of the plans reached Jasper and terrified local Black families. Jasper’s Black population was considerably smaller than that of Tate, consisting of only four or five families. Several of the families worked for or knew Mrs. Julia Roach Howell. She lived on Main Street next to today’s Pickens Progress offices. After she was widowed she lived in the house on Main Street alone for 45 years. To help her she employed several Black workers. After her death the Howell home was torn down and replaced by today’s parking lot.

Julia Howell is said to have chosen to shelter the frightened Black families in her home.  Moreover, she sent a message to the angry mob that was forming in Ball Ground. The message was simple, direct and firm. “If you want to harm our Black families you will have to come here and shoot me first.” You see, Mrs. Julia Howell was White and the vigilantes were not going to harm an elderly, prominent widow.

A second story about racially motivated harassment and violence dates to a later period, sometime in the 1930s, and was related to me by Coach Roy Cowart. Roy grew up in Ball Ground where his father ran a sawmill. His dad, Harold Cowart, was acquainted with, and a friend of, a sawmill worker by the name of Velpo Smith. Velpo had moved to Georgia from Alabama. The two families lived near each other on the road to Nelson in Cherokee County.  Problems started developing with threats by local rabble rousers that they would run all of the Black residents out of Ball Ground. Dynamiting homes was one of the planned acts of violence that Harold Cowart heard about. Concerned about Velpo, he went to him and advised that he move out of Ball Ground. In fact, shortly after the warning, Black homes were damaged by dynamite.

That advice was taken by Velpo Smith who quickly moved to Jasper. His name is familiar to many older residents here in Pickens County. Velpo was the “Go to” man for the Black community. If there were problems or news needing to be gotten out, Velpo would be contacted and he would get the word to Jasper’s Black residents and the Black leadership in Tate.

In Conclusion

Choices made by individuals and communities in Pickens County have shaped the character of the place. In Forsyth County, the Collins family met violence and hatred. At Tate they were able to lead a peaceful,  productive and respected life. Why? Because Colonel Sam Tate made a choice and his community stood by him.  Harold Cowart chose to warn Velpo Smith. In Jasper Velpo filled a leadership role as a well known and respected man. No community is without hatred or misdeeds. Even so, Pickens County residents can be proud of the choices made by those who lived here during difficult times.

References:

U.S. Census Bureau, 1910.  Reports by States, With Statistics for Counties, Cities and Other Civil Divisions:  Alabama-Montana, Vol. II, Washington DC, 1913.

U.S. Census Bureau, 1920.  Composition and Characteristics of the Population by States, Vol. III, Washington DC, 1922.

James D. Williams, “The Long, Sad Road to Cumming, Georgia,” Crisis Magazine. March (1987): 12-21.

Robert S. Davis, The Story of the Georgia Marble Dynasty, Georgia Historical Quarterly, Fall 2005

Elliot Jaspin, Buried in Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, Perseus Book Group, NY, 2009, Forsyth County, Chapter 7: 1912

Text from: The Many Facets of Tate by Stephen Griffeth, 1998, Wolfe Publishing, Pages 186-187

(Mr. Griffith has passed away, but I spoke to his sister.  She said he was a close friend of Col. Sam and that when Sam was an older man, Steve often visited with hours of conversation ensuing. So this would be an account given by Sam to Steve Griffeth.)

On one occasion, Dawson and Forsyth counties became very violent toward the black people. Several black people were lynched and their schools, churches and homes were burned. Soon you could not find a black person anywhere near these areas.

There were black people in Pickens County. In fact, many were employed by The Georgia Marble Company. There were signs posted on the premises of the company, stating that all blacks people must be gone within 24 hours. They did not leave, and many are still here today. They are still here because Colonel Sam said they could stay.

Colonel Sam called his workmen (1,030) together and showed them the signs that had been posted and then talked with them. He spoke very softly and said: “I want to say to you men that when the black people leave Pickens County, I will be going with them because they are law-abiding, humble, inoffensive and hard-working citizens of our community. The black people have done nothing to harm anyone and their lives and their freedom is as sacred to them as it is to the white person. They shall not be driven from their homes and their jobs. I want each white who is here to stand by me in protecting our friends. And if any of you agree with the mob, I want you to say so and prepare to leave Tate immediately. I expect you my friends, neighbors and workmen to keep your eyes an ears open and let me know what is going on.”

That afternoon, the citizens of Tate learned that the mob was organizing and expected to enter Pickens County through what is known as the “shut-in.” This is where Long Swamp Creek flows between two mountains which are very close together, located just above Nelson. “Give me a hundred pounds of dynamite and I’ll fill the pass of minced meat when they come,” said one man. He received the dynamite.

It was reported that the mob had sympathizers in Pickens County. But with two dozen military rifles and a hand-picked group of men, the citizens could not stop the uprising. The rifles arrived from Atlanta but neither the dynamite or rifles were used. Sam Tate’s word was enough. His word had been the law for about twenty years in his domain were about five thousand folk looked for help and guidance and his words were always quietly spoken. This is the story of a benevolent despot who showed the people he cared for them and would protect them.

Negroes Are Frightened, Atlanta Constitution, page 7, March 26, 1902

Lawlessness in Tate, Ga, Causes Citizen Uneasiness

Efforts to Stop Trouble

Oscar Bane Tells What Has Been Done to Suppress Whitecap Outbreak

The residents of Tate, Ga, Have been very much agitated of late over repeated acts of lawlessness that have been perpetrated on the Negroes of that community. Many good laborers have been driven away from the town and the marble companies have had trouble in holding others to there work. Oscar F. Bane president of the Georgia Marble Company was in Atlanta yesterday on business. Upon being asked by representative of The Constitution concerning the trouble and what steps were being taken to suppress it he said:

“We all deprecate the recent violence and will join Dr George B. Tate and Colonel Sam Tate in their effort to break up the gang of whitecappers that have lately been terrorizing the Negroes of our community. It is probable that an organized and determined effort will be put on foot shortly with the view of subduing the mob of mischief-makers.

“A few days ago a Negro church was burned in Tate, as was also the Negro school house, and when the novelty of public destruction had worn away the mob put dynamite under several Negro cabins and tried to blow them up. Many of the colored population in our section are very much alarmed and many are afraid to venture out after nightfall, many having recently been rocked by crowds of white men and boys

“Negroes employed in the rubbing beds and as truck men at the marble quarries have become so wrought up they threaten to leave the community. The Georgia Marble Company, Blue Ridge Marble Company, George B. Sickles & Co., the Marble Hill Quarry Company and the Southern Marble Company have been put to no little inconvenience on account of the paralysis that has struck their negro laborers, and are anxious to break up the gang of white cappers and put a stop to the outlawry. It is probable that a reward will be offered for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the recent violence. The sentiment of the better class of white people in Pickens County is opposed to the violence visited upon the Negroes.

“No reason can be ascribed for the acts of lawlessness except malicious mischief, as the negroes are in the main quiet, law-abiding citizens who lives peacefully in their homes and some of them have been working in there quarries for fifteen years. They in Atlanta doing work so that white men would form, so this does not account violence inflicted upon them.”

Black History Series Part VI -- Segregation

 By  Dr. Kathleen Thompson

This article is the sixth in a series devoted to the history of the Black residents of Pickens County. Dr. Kathleen Thompson has completed extensive research including; archives and library investigation, interviews of local residents and searches of early newspapers. This project has and continues to be made possible by the Pickens Arts and Cultural Alliance, and grants from the Georgia Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

(Author’s note: During this series I have used the term Black for people of color. Additionally, I have avoided African-American as many local Black residents are not partial to the term. Today colored or Negro is often perceived as racist. While visiting a Black cemetery in Blue Ridge a reporter was offended that a new plaque said Padgett Chapel Colored School.  We explained that this was the actual legal name of the school.  Because this article involves the segregation years I will use the descriptors, colored and Negro, as these terms are accurate to the era.)

Segregation

Racial segregation is characterized by separation of people of different races in daily life when both are doing equal tasks. Segregation may be de jure (Latin, meaning “by law”) - mandated by law - or de facto (also Latin, meaning “in fact”).  De facto segregation can occur when members of different races strongly prefer to associate and do business with members of their own race.            - New World Encyclopedia

Jim Crow Laws in the South: The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities, with a supposedly “separate but equal” status for black Americans. De jure mainly applied to the Southern United States. Northern segregation was generally de facto, from blacks predominately living in urban ghettos. - Wikipedia

The name “Jim Crow” refers to a minstrel character popular in the 1820s and 1830s, but it is unknown how the term came to describe the form of racial segregation and discrimination that prevailed in the American South during the first half of the twentieth century. New Georgia Encyclopedia

North vs. South

I grew up in the mountains of New York State where there were no Jim Crow laws.  In reality segregation was practiced, but in less obvious ways. My family and I lived in a small town ten miles from the city of Utica, New York. We had no Black residents, nor did any other surrounding town. All of the Black people lived in one large ghetto in the city and we never saw them, except from a speeding car.

I was a junior in high school in 1960 when a professional social worker, Mr. Richardson, moved his family from Detroit, Mi., to our part of New York and attempted to purchase a home in Whitesboro. He held a master’s degree and directed a settlement house in the nearby city of Utica.  We lived in the village of Whitesboro where blue collar workers had homes. On the hill, above town, was a subdivision populated by those whose dads were professionals. Mr. Richardson made an offer on a home up on the hill. There were no Jim Crow laws to prevent this occurrence. Most of  the subdivision dads put up $1,000 a piece and brought the house for slightly more than Mr. Richardson’s offer. All quite legal, all quite racist. In the end Mr. Richardson bought a home for his family further out of town. Seems farmers as neighbors were less racist. Or maybe they had less money. Of course there were no other houses close by the Richardson’s home.

The high school students from up on the hill and in town found out by overhearing adult conversations. Students from all income brackets were informed and were outraged. The Richardsons had a daughter my age. The girls in the junior class made a point of welcoming Fern more warmly than that usually accorded for new students. Her younger brother was a freshman, a good-looking boy who played football. He was eventually elected president of his class. The first moral of this story is that generations can change.  The second is this: if anyone tells you the North was less racist than the South, send them to me.

Segregation in Georgia

In the 1890s, Georgia and other southern states passed a wide variety of Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation or separation in public facilities and effectively codified the region’s tradition of white supremacy. - New Georgia Encyclopedia

In fact such restrictions were written into the Georgia statutes by legislators on multiple occasions as seen below.

School segregation: 1872, 1877, 1895, 1845, 1957

Transportation, trains, buses etc: 1870, 1891, 1895, 1931, 1935 and 1858

Interracial marriage was strictly forbidden: 1865, 1926

Separate prisons: 1865, 1908

Separate mental institutions: 1935

Segregation in

Pickens County

The Pickens County Courthouse and other public government facilities had separate bathrooms and water fountains for Black and White residents.  At the train depot and bus station races sat in divided waiting areas, and once on the train or bus Black travelers were aware of where they should sit. A local Black man recalled, “At the train depot we mostly stood outside the station. Once on the train there was a ‘colored car’ that we were required to sit in when we rode.” Willie Mae Weaver remembers that before integration Black residents did not serve on juries.

Private facilities, such as restaurants, usually had signs identifying divided facilities. In the case of food, Black residents were expected to pick up their food orders from the back door of Jasper restaurants. “Most of the time we didn’t eat out,” a long-time Jasper woman explained to me. There was one restaurant in Jasper where the sympathetic owner felt the need to create a dining area for Black residents. Champion’s Cafe had an area in the back with two or three tables for “colored” diners.

Movie theaters were very popular to both Black and White citizens, especially children and teens. Black people sat in what was referred to as the “colored balcony.” The movie theater on Main Street in Jasper had a colored balcony. In Tate the stage was converted to a movie theater on Friday and Saturday nights and in the summers movies also ran on Monday and Tuesday nights. The movie theater at Tate School existed from the late 1920s to 1951. There was a colored balcony for kids and adults alike. In fact, the balcony at Tate School still exists, as well as the steps going to the balcony. White churches in Tate, Talking Rock, Jasper and other communities also had colored balconies. This was most common in the era of slavery, before Black citizens were able to build their own churches.

Race Relations

During Segregation

As I write I suspect I have made this system of restriction in Pickens County appear to be very harsh and rigid, a system to be resented. But based on my interviews with Black residents, the opposite is true. No one, Black or White, questioned the legality of such laws. Over and over I was told that segregation was just the way things were. “We knew our place and really no one felt a need to challenge the rules. It was just the way things were. When I was raised you did what you were told, what was expected. That was true for both Black and White people.” Emma Julia Washington explained.  During the 1940s and 50s people in general were more accepting of race restrictions and seldom thought about it, much less questioned these practices. “It wasn’t an issue,” explained a Preston Roach Senior, now in his 80s. “You had no choice, and you took a lot of things in stride,” wife Mary Ann Roach added. “That was all we knew, it didn’t bother me.”  Their son, now in his 50s further explained, “We played together and fished and hunted with our White friends. We had White friends before integration.” Another Black resident told me, “We played with White kids at our house and we played at their homes.” According to those that lived here at that time of segregation violence towards colored residents was rare, and both races treated each other with mutual respect.

As a former Yankee, and a person who participated in protests of racism while I lived in Atlanta (1966-1970), I find such an attitude almost incomprehensible. For those with the same reaction, I would point you out two possible explanations. A description of segregation in the New Georgia Encyclopedia seems to fit Pickens County. “While the experience of Jim Crow was no less harsh in rural areas, it did lack the rigidity that characterized urban segregation. “Rural Georgia remained a largely pre-modern society, making many features of segregation unnecessary or even problematic.”

In Pickens County, especially in Tate, there was another, possibly more significant, influence.  Colonel Sam Tate was known to treat the Black community with care and concerns, making sure all were provided for. “He was stern, but he cared for Blacks just like the Whites,” Willie Mae Weaver explained. “Colonel Sam had a lot to do with how people were treated here.” The view that Sam’s attitudes toward Black residents influenced the behaviors of others was something that I was told by several lifetime residents of Tate. “He set a standard and we followed his example in our own behavior,” a White resident stated.

Nephew Steven Tate was also known for his respectful treatment of Black residents and employees. Preston Roach, Sr., who worked for Steve Tate, remembers that, “He was caring toward his Black employees and neighbors. Steve Tate bought a car for my family and treated all of us well. When Preston Jr. was born in the hospital, Mr. Tate came by, visited, and paid the bill.”

The Impact of Segregation on Black Residents

It would be easy to assume, and correct for some places and individuals, that segregation made Negroes feel inferior. But Emma Julia Washington and Willie Mae Weaver were quick to rid me of that view about Pickens’s County’s Black residents who lived and worked during segregation. Emma Julia explained, “We were raised to obey, but we were also raised to believe we were as good as Whites. Our parents taught us self respect and that we were as good as anybody. They also taught us to respect others as the Bible teaches.” “There was a sense of harmony here, of mutual respect between Black and White citizens,” Willie Mae Weaver declared softly.

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights movement passed over Pickens County.  There were no protests or sit-ins, no NAACP or CORE meetings. Fred Anderson remembered when Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated.  “A mean kid on the bus said to me “Well, your king is dead.”  Fred stopped to laugh then explained, “We knew more about President Kennedy than Martin Luther King. The grown-ups really admired President Kennedy.” Fred was not disrespecting King’s contributions but acknowledging that the racial battles were fought in other places. The events seemed to take place a long way from Pickens County, despite the fact that Atlanta isn’t so far removed physically. “This was a more naive place,” Fred concluded.  The conflicts and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King would impact Pickens County residents, Black and White. Transformation happened as the country changed its’ laws and beliefs about the rights of Black and minority citizens.

Changes in the Laws

1963: The city of Atlanta passed an ordinance which repealed all city ordinances “which required the separation of persons because of race, color or creed in public transportation, recreation, entertainment and other facilities.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub. L. No. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241, enacted July 2, 1964) was a landmark piece of legislation in the United States that outlawed major forms of discrimination against blacks and women, including racial segregation. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. - Wikipedia

References

Pickens County, Georgia, Heritage, 1853-1995

Fred Anderson, interview, 2010, April

Preston Roach, Sr., Mary Ann Roach and Preston Roach Jr. interview, 2011, May

Willie May Weaver, interview, 2011

Kathy Thompson will be traveling to New York City next week. As a result the next article will appear Nov. 2. The topic is Integration in the Schools and Community.

Black History Series Part IV --A Proud Musical Tradition

The 1940s quartet, the Tate City Spirituals, (l-r): O. J. Crowder (bass), Corneilus Rucker (baritone), James Pitts (tenor) and Henry Lee Gunn (leader).

 

 

By Dr. Kathleen Thompson

[This article is the seventh in a series devoted to the history of the Black residents of Pickens County. Dr. Kathleen Thompson has completed extensive research and interviews in order to write this series. This project has and continues to be made possible by the Pickens Arts and Cultural Alliance, and grants from the Georgia Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.]

In quartets and trios, Black residents past and present, have expressed their deep faith by sharing the gospel in song. The Pickens community has nurtured, listened to with pleasure, and appreciated this African-American tradition of singing spirituals.

 

Early Musical Groups

The local tradition began with Cornelius Rucker. He was a member of Pilgrim Church in Nelson, but directed the choir at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Tate. The multi talented Cornelius could sing all parts, but usually sang bass and baritone. The original quartet was organized by Rucker and consisted of Mr. Glover Green, James Pitts, Henry Lee Gunn, and Cornelius Rucker.

In the early 1940s the Georgia Marble Company and Colonel Sam Tate sponsored the quartet. Later the Brookshire Tire Company in Atlanta supported the group. During the 1940s they sang on the local radio every two weeks.

Later in the 1940s another groups formed. Sometimes they sang as a quartet using various combinations of members, and at other times they all performed together.  The members included Mr. Preston Roach Sr. as lead singer, Truman Roach as baritone, Will Rucker, Cornelius Rucker as bass, T. J. McClure, Anna Mackey, and Earstene (Teen) Mackey. Later Mr. James Pitts sang tenor.  During these years Melvin Bryant and James Howell also sang.  Mr. James Anderson accompanied them on the guitar.

Truman Roach recalled another group that performed in the 1950s and 60s, during the era of segregation. The group included Truman,  James Franklin (Chester) Roach, Glover Green, and Cornelius Rucker.  Preston Roach Jr. remembers the clear clear, strong voice of Robert Allen Williams singing in various groups.

In addition to performing locally all of these groups sang in churches, and at events in Blue Ridge, Monticello, Canton, and other communities.  All had ceased performing in the 1970s.              The tradition was picked many years later by Preston Roach Sr., Robert McClure, and Truman Roach.

The Mount Calvary Trio

Mt. Calvary Church has been the centerpoint for all the groups past and present. Mr. Cornelius Rucker was the Choir Director at the church and all of the members of the earlier groups sang at the church.

Today’s trio members are also long time choir members at Mt. Calvary. Preston Roach sings (lead), Truman Roach (tenor), and Robert McClure (bass) comprise the trio. Truman and Preston are brothers and Robert a double first cousin to the Roaches.

In 1993 all three were reminiscing about the earlier trios and began to harmonize on songs they remembered from the days of Deacon Rucker.

As other members of the church heard those songs, requests were made to the three to perform at the church services.  Before long they not only sang as a trio at Calvary, but began to be invited to other churches, including White churches, funerals, and public events.

Today if you attend Red Cross events, activities at the Tate Gym, attend the Senior Center or visit the nursing home, you will likely have heard the group.  They have also sung on ETC-3 Television.

The group usually performs a capella creating a unique sound that harkens back to a long tradition of unaccompanied Negro Spirituals from the days of slavery.  If the harmonies in this type of music remind you of Barbershop quartet music it is because the earliest groups singing in the Barbershop style of music were African Americans.

Asked why they sing and perform, all three members of the Trio testified to their pleasure at being able to share their faith, and to God’s generosity toward them as individuals and as a group.

Truman described his experiences, “I love to sing and have been singing since I was small. In grammer school I was always given singing parts in school musicals. At Fort Valley State College I worked to improve my skills and joined the college choir.”

Brother Preston Roach explained, “Singing uplifts me and others. I can get down and without intent start humming.  Next thing I know and I’m feeling better. I get so much out of praising the Lord in song, it’s a blessing to be able to sing for others.”

“Anywhere, anytime, I’m 100 percent involved. When I was in Ohio I sung in my church choir and when I worked at Lockeed I joined their employee’s choir,” noted Robert McClure. “I love to give God praise in song.  I’m not much on talking, but singing about My Lord is a privilege.”

Indeed, it must be a privilege for the members of the trio to perform, but it is also a privilege and pleasure to listen.

References:

Stephen E. Griffeth, The Many Facets of Tate, Georgia, Wolfe Publishing, 1998

Interviews, 2010, Truman Roach, Preston Roach Jr. and Robert McClure

by Kathleen Thompson.

Black History Series Part VIII --Historic Black Schools in Pickens County

Pictured above, 1929, Pickens County Training School, Elementary.

 

By Dr. Kathleen Thompson

As was the case with many early schools, churches served a dual role, church on Sunday and school classes on weekdays. In the 1880s Friendship Baptist Church was organized and met in a two-story frame building which served both as a church and school. The Negro school in Nelson was housed in the same building that was used by Pilgrim Baptist Church.

In Tate, Colonel Sam and the Georgia Marble Company were responsible for all of the schools, Black and White.  The company provided the building, and had a boarding house where teachers resided. Sam was very concerned about the education of children in Tate. He was also very particular about his teachers and personally hired them.  Of course there were separate White and Negro boarding houses for single teachers.

Pickens County

Training School

The Pickens County Training School was provided by the Georgia Marble Company and located in the Upper Whippowill community between Tate and Nelson. The Head Start building is there today. The Training School provided an education for students in grades 1-11.  That high school ended after three years was the norm in Georgia until the early 1950s.  In 1950 the Pickens Training School was accredited with 6 teachers and had 130 students. The school was run by the Georgia Marble Company until 1954 when the Pickens County Board of Education took over responsibility for all Pickens County Schools.

Tri-Cities High School

In 1957 colored schools in Nelson and Jasper were consolidated with the Training School.  At that point the name changed to Tri-Cities High School or Tri-City Elementary. Consolidation meant that children from Nelson and Jasper were bused to school and that all of the Negro children attended the same school.  Tri-City operated for another ten years and was closed due to school integration in 1967.

The first principal was Mr. McCloud, followed by Mr. Archibald. The last principal was B.C. Brown. Professor Brown was murdered at an Atlanta restaurant while serving as principal. Due to the tragedy his wife, then a teacher and assistant principal at the school, took over as principal. Lena Brown became a legendary leader, at Tri City, and later for her leadership during integration. There were a number of teachers, including Mrs. Brown, Willie Mae Weaver and Mary Lois Roach Moore, who taught at Pickens County Training School, Tri-City, and Pickens High School or Tate Elementary.

Separate but Equal?

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  Written by Chief Justice Earl Warren who wrote the Opinion for Brown v. Board of Education.

The Supreme Court settled the question in 1954. But that begs a second question, Did the Pickens County Board of Education provide equal facilities, books and equipment to Black and White students alike? Yes and no. Teachers at Tri-City were excellent and the facility acceptable. But there were inequalities in other areas.

Textbooks were an issue mentioned in many of my interviews. Several former students recalled that the same hand me down Biology textbooks were used for three years of high school. When the children of  Emma Julia Collins Washington were attending Tri-City she was working for a local doctor. Emma Julia often helped the  family’s children study. She was shocked when she compared the textbooks used at Tri-City with those provided in White Schools. Texts used by her children were less advanced, out of date and ragged. Her son Michael Collins explained that science equipment was also lacking. “There was no gym,” he remembered. “We had a winning girls basketball team, but they practiced and played games outdoors. There was no baseball or football, only boys and girls basketball. When we transfered to Pickens High School during integration the differences between what we had at Tri-City were like night and day.”  Michael concluded, “At Tri-County we got a good basic eduction from intelligent teachers.  But what we received, compared to the White schools was not equal.”

Pickens Compared to Other Schools in North Georgia

While Black schooling in Pickens County lacked total equality, it substantially  better than what was provided in neighboring counties. Gilmer and Fannin County provided no high school for their Negro children. In 1976 I interviewed a former Fannin School Superintendent, Travis Guthrie, who explained the school board’s reasoning. In Blue Ridge there was a 1-8th grade school, the Blue Ridge Colored School at Mt. Calvary Church. In fact local resident Willie Mae Weaver taught at the school for her first two years as an educator.

No accommodations were made for Negro high school students in Fannin County until the late 1940s when the teacher at the Colored School pleaded that she had a female student who was brilliant and should be encouraged to attain more education. Rather than build on to the school or hire another teacher, the Board of Education devised a plan. The young woman could be driven daily to the Pickens County Training School in Tate. Given the conditions of roads, such a ride could easily be over two hours each way. Alternatively she could live with relatives that had a Negro school and the Fannin Board of Education would pay for her room and board. She, and others after her, chose to board with family. Mr. Guthrie added that he always attended the student’s graduation at the out-of-town schools they attended.

Having written and edited five books of history centered in Fannin County I have concluded that such ill treatment of children contributed to the decline of the Black population in Blue Ridge.  The 1900 census of Blue Ridge recorded 182 Black residents, or 15% of the town.  Over the years the community shrank to only a few when I interviewed resident in 1975. Long time resident Edna Dickey remembered that many families moved rather than send their high school students to live with relatives.

A high school education was not available to students in Gilmer County. For many years the Roberts family children, who lived near Ellijay, were driven to the Tri-City School by their father. All of the children graduated from Tri-City High School before integration.

Children from Ball Ground also attended the Pickens Training School and later Tri-City.  An arrangement was brokered between the Pickens County Board of Education and the Cherokee County Board whereby Cherokee paid Pickens to educate students who lived in Ball Ground rather than build a Negro school. A bus transported the Cherokee students to Tate.

Negro education in Pickens had flaws, but every child was provided an opportunity for an education from elementary to high school. Many Black students from Pickens attended college and achieved in fields like education and business.  Michael Collins went on and graduated from Reinhardt College. He recently retired as a detective with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department. A pastor for many years, he is continuing his ministry. I asked him, besides his parents, who influenced him growing up. The list was long, too long for this article. He included members of Calvary Baptist Church as well as teachers and coaches, White and Black. Michael was smart enough to observe inequality as a teen, and smart enough to appreciate the many people in the community that made his success possible.

References

Travis Guthrie, interview by Dr. Kathleen Thompson, 1976

Michael Collins, interview, 2011, October

Emma Julia Collins, interview, 2011, September

Pickens County, Georgia, Heritage, 1853-1995

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.