When the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision was handed down in 1954, most white people and school systems in the South viewed the notion of white and black students attending school together as nothing short of the apocalypse. In 1955, when Brown II said that desegregation had to occur “with all deliberate speed,” southern school districts took that language to mean that they could use all sorts of tactics to delay compliance. Even the use of federal marshals or the National Guard to protect black students seeking to enroll in “white schools” did not convince the majority of southern school districts to desegregate the public schools.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the filing of additional school desegregation cases by the federal government, many southern school districts grudgingly began to realize that doing nothing with respect to desegregation was no longer an option. My county, Meriwether County, Georgia (the home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Little White House) decided on a two-pronged response.
First, as was being done in so many counties in the South, the white parents decided to create a private school for their children. In the fall of 1967, Flint River Academy opened in Woodbury, Meriwether County, Georgia. The official dedication was done by none other than the Governor of the State of Georgia, Lester Maddox, who, prior to becoming Governor, had achieved hero status among segregationists when he and his supporters wielded ax handles as they turned away three black students who were seeking to be seated and served in his restaurant. In fact, that episode was largely responsible for the launching of his political career.
Second, since it was not possible, politically or financially, for all the white parents to send their children to Flint River Academy, the Meriwether County School Board’s official response to the mandate to desegregate the county’s public schools was to select a few black students to send to the “white” public schools in the county. (Of course, you could not send any precious little white students to the “colored” schools. And yes, they were still called “colored.”)
I was too young to appreciate all of the details of the “selection process.” I remember that it involved some degree of “choice” on the part of my mother, who felt that the experience would benefit me because I would be able to have the more up-to-date textbooks and newer equipment that were the province of the “white school.”
So in the fall of 1967, I was one of four black students who started attending Greenville High School, the all white public school in our town. Only girls were in our select group (because of course you would not want to send black boys to school with white girls). One little girl was in the 4th grade; I was in the 6th grade; another girl was in the 8th grade; and there was one girl in the 10th grade.
Because even the white schools in Meriwether County were not large enough to accommodate all the students, some classes had to be taught in buildings that were separate from the rest of the school. My 6th grade class fell into that category and so we were taught in a building called the “Tater House.” As a result, I did not see the other three black students during the school day.
I have many bad memories about my 6th grade year. Neither my teacher nor my classmates made me feel particularly welcomed.
I had always been a “teacher’s pet” before, but not with my sixth grade teacher. Although I eagerly raised my hand when questions were asked in class, my teacher refused to call on me. Apparently, I was invisible. I did not become visible until after we had taken some examinations and I scored higher than any of the other children in the class. At that point, my teacher started noticing me and gave me what I am sure she thought was a compliment when she said “You must not be a plain old colored person. You must have some Indian in you.”
Many of my classmates also did their part to show me how they felt about me being there. They found ways to constantly remind me that I was different, that I was an “other,” that I was not a part of them.
As awful as those interactions with my teacher and my classmates were, the worst time for me each day was when it was time to line up to go to the bathroom. (And yes, we did all line up to go to the bathroom. No individual bathroom trips for us). My white classmates would all run so that they could get in line before me so that their precious bottoms would not touch the seat after mine had done so. As if that collective action did not do enough to make me fully understand my status as an “other” or an “undesirable,” I was given the treat of hearing whispered (and not so whispered) conversations about how “colored people” or, depending on the cruelty of the whisperers, “n*****s” used the bathroom.
However, nothing that my classmates had said or done in the past (with respect to using the bathroom) prepared me for their ultimate insult. Since I was always the last one to use the bathroom, many of them would still be either inside the other stalls or washing their hands. I guess at some point they grew weary of wondering how “colored people” or “n*****s” used the bathroom and decided to see for themselves. Imagine the indignity I felt when, as I was sitting on the commode, I would look up and see several of my classmates looking over the walls of the stall so that they could see for themselves how I used the bathroom. That experience occurred more times than I care to remember and using the bathroom became so traumatic that I would often make myself not use the bathroom.
There were many times during that year when I wanted to go home to my mother and tell her what my classmates were doing. However, I knew how much she wanted me to have the benefit of the more up-to-date textbooks and newer equipment at the “white” school and I did not want to worry her. Also, I knew I had as much right to be at that school as they did and my fighting spirit would not let them run me away.
But no matter how strong my fighting spirit was, there were days when my fighting spirit needed some support. That support came in the form of a few of the little white girls who decided to sit with me at lunch, to play with me at recess time, to shield me from the white boys who took such delighting in disarranging my hair styles, and to stop the bathroom tyranny and voyeurism.
None of us had ever heard the word “ally” except in the context of studying about wars. However, those little girls did not need to use the word ally in order to practice allyship. In fact, they did not use a lot of words at all. Instead, they used their little bodies to perform acts of kindness, friendship, and support, acts for which they received no public recognition or acclaim. Perhaps we as adults can learn from their example.