Bibb school integration ‘like invading somebody’s home,' trailblazer recalls

Former students recall events of 50 years ago

jkovac@macon.comAugust 30, 2014 

  • 16 trailblazers

    Here are the 16 students who integrated the Bibb County school system on Sept. 1, 1964:

    Miller Senior High School:
    • Pearlie Mae Mathews
    • Cynthia Worthy
    • Maggie Oliver
    • Barbara Ann Foster
    • Sandra Norwood
    • Vivian Stewart
    • Elizabeth Johnson
    • Geraldine Mason
    • Samaria Mitcham

    Lanier Senior High School:
    • Milton Madison
    • Vernon Pitts
    • Joe Heggs Jr.
    • William Harvey
    • Reuben Ford
    • Isadore Shines

    Willingham High School
    • Wilfred Anderson

    Source: The Macon Telegraph

The morning the girls integrated the Bibb County schools, there was still a virtual mountain to climb.

Steps.

Twenty-two of them.

They peaked at the wooden front doors of the all-girls’ Miller Senior High School, a castle of brown brick and ornate concrete lording over Montpelier Avenue.

Half a decade later, a few blocks to the east, Interstate 75 would shove through. But on that morning in September 1964, in the heart of a neighborhood between Pio Nono Avenue and the Mercer University campus, Miller High was a crossroads.

Two cars wheeled up to a curb in the curved driveway out front. Nine black girls emerged, a walkway in front them. It was 80 paces from door to curb, those 22 steps included, an invisible barrier to be breached.

“The walkway seemed like it was endless,” one of the girls, Maggie Oliver McGarity, said recently. “For me, it was a very daunting and overwhelming walk up those steps.”

That first day of school in 1964, McGarity and the girls, along with seven black boys at other schools, became the first group of African-Americans to attend classes at Macon’s formerly all-white public schools.

They were 16 black faces in a school system of roughly 34,000 whites.

It was Sept. 1, a Tuesday.

“Racial barriers will fall here today,” a front page article in that day’s Telegraph began.

The next day, beneath the headline “Schools In Bibb Quietly Integrate,” the newspaper quoted Superintendent Julius L. Gholson: “The first day of the transition period went smoothly, according to plan.”

There were, however, no interviews with or comments from the black students -- all of them 12th-graders -- or parents, or white students or teachers.

What transpired at Lanier High, where six black boys enrolled, was described in a way that made the proceeding sound like a military maneuver.

“No incidents or disorder were reported,” the newspaper story said, noting that FBI agents and traffic cops were on hand. “White students entered Lanier Senior High School quickly and quietly as they arrived without congregating outside the building, apparently in compliance with advance instructions. Promptly at 8:40 a.m. after all white students were in the school, two cars pulled up to the steps in front of the school on Holt Avenue and three Negro boys got out of each vehicle.”

“I guess I was one of those boys,” then-student Vernon Pitts recalled the other day. “I guess we were like the canaries in the mine, to see how things went.”

‘WHAT I SAW IS COURAGE’

Sometimes history is made and surprisingly little is done to record it.

In Macon in that racially charged time, more was made about there not being riots than there was about what the students themselves, black or white, thought about going to school together.

Or what it was like.

An editorial in The Telegraph on Sept. 2, 1964 -- after the first day of school -- lauded the way locals “accepted the transition with the calmness, dignity and good sense of law-abiding citizens.”

“We do not mean to imply that Bibb’s problems are over and done with,” the editorial went on. “Nor do we mean to make this county seem proud and boastful because it passed yesterday’s crucial test. ... (But) Macon deserves commendation. This community did its duty under the law.”

Of those 16 black students enrolled that first day, a handful would not finish the year. Some, for whatever reason, returned to their previous schools.

“The hate was there without the violence,” said Thelma Dillard, whose brother Bert Bivins III, a year earlier, had been the first black student to attend a class at a white Bibb high school. “Even after they integrated, they were not accepted.”

A few years ago, Dillard, a former teacher, city councilwoman and NAACP leader, spent months trying to catch up with and research members of that first class of black graduates from Miller High.

Many of them had moved away. One, Cynthia Worthy, now an Atlantan, went to work at Robins Air Force Base and later for the Federal Aviation Administration. Another, Barbara Ann Foster, became a teacher who taught in public schools and state prisons. Another, honor graduate Samaria Mitcham, was one of the first black women to attend Mercer University.

“What I saw is courage,” Dillard said. “It takes great courage for a kid that young to leave their classmates, to leave their comfort zone. So much courage.”

‘LIKE AN INVASION’

The black girls were told in no uncertain terms that not only would they not graduate from Miller, they could not graduate.

The Miller principal informed them of this herself.

Student Pearlie Toliver, whose last name then was Mathews, was summoned to the school office along with the other girls soon after they arrived.

“(The principal) told us flat-out we could not graduate from that school,” Toliver said last week.

“She said she was trying to help us. I will never forget this as long as I live. She said, ‘You girls are the cream of the crops in your schools, but you are three years behind the girls here and you cannot graduate.’”

When Toliver heard that, she was ready to jump ship back to her old school, the co-ed Ballard-Hudson.

“I wanted to graduate,” she said.

But her big brother, a father figure for her, said he wanted her to have the best education available. He told her, “If you can’t make it, then it wasn’t time for you to graduate.”

After that, Toliver recalled, “I just remember knowing that I had to make it. So that’s what we did.”

Toliver, 67, who grew up just south of downtown Macon near Hazel and Telfair streets, went on to Mercer University. She later became a vice president at a local bank and serves on the board of the Macon Housing Authority.

Looking back on her year at Miller High, she spoke of apprehension and, at times, being frightened.

“The fear of the unknown,” she said. “It was just an uncertain time. ... You did feel like you were invading somebody’s home or something. It was like an invasion. And therefore you had to constantly tell yourself, ‘You have a right to be here.’ ... I don’t know that I had all that courage or anything. I just wanted a good education.”

One of the things that stood out about the school had nothing to do with books. There was a smoking area. Toliver, who didn’t smoke, couldn’t believe it.

“We would never have thought of smoking at Ballard-Hudson,” she said.

Some teachers piled on the homework. Tons of it.

“To make sure we didn’t make it,” Toliver said.

She said the black girls thought that was the norm at white schools.

“So we just worked and worked,” Toliver said. “Until the white parents had to come in and say, ‘Our children have to have a life.’ So they eased things a little bit. But we didn’t know any better. It didn’t do anything but help us.”

A handful of teachers embraced her, she said. “They knew that it had to be difficult for us ... and made it is as comfortable as possible.”

Toliver said she and the other black girls didn’t make many social connections with the white kids.

“We were not trying to go there to make friends. We were there for an education. ... I wasn’t there to make a statement,” she said.

“There were some girls that you know did not want you there. ... And there were others who did go out of their way to speak or be nice. But all I remember doing is studying. ... It taught me how to let people be invisible. If they wanted to speak, I spoke. If they didn’t want to speak, I didn’t speak.”

One day when Toliver was sitting on a bench outside the school, a white girl who’d just moved to town from Mississippi came and sat beside her.

Toliver forgets her name now, but in Toliver’s government class, where Toliver excelled, the girl’s desk was in front of hers. When the teacher handed out graded papers, the girl would pass Toliver’s back.

On the bench that day, Toliver recalled, “She said to me, ‘I can’t say I understand how you feel, but the only colored person I’ve ever had any contact with was my maid.’ She said, ‘But I look at your grades and your grades are even better than mine sometimes.’”

‘WASN’T LIKE THE BERLIN WALL’

Vernon Pitts, one of the first half-dozen black boys to attend Lanier High, now known as Central High, later graduated law school at Emory University.

Pitts, 66, now the circuit public defender for Fulton County, was living in east Macon when he helped integrate Lanier.

His family had settled just north of Shurling Drive, off Clinton Road, near the bend that now swings past Northeast High.

“There were white neighbors there. ... It wasn’t like we never dealt with whites. It wasn’t like the Berlin Wall where we were on one side and they were on the other,” Pitts said.

One day he got a phone call informing him that as one of the top black students, he was a candidate to enroll at one of the previously all-white schools.

“There was some apprehension on the part of my father about it, but there wasn’t any real fear or anything of that nature,” Pitts said. “I kind of looked at it as something new, another challenge.”

He isn’t sure, but he figures rising 12th-graders like him were chosen because officials sought to phase in integration. Perhaps seniors would be more mature.

“Of course the first day there was a lot of tension. ... You really didn’t know what to expect,” Pitts said.

The leaders at Lanier, a Junior ROTC stronghold, were largely no-nonsense disciplinarians. That made a difference for Pitts and the five other black students, he said, “in the way we were treated and the way things were handled.”

The scene was calmer than he expected.

“I’d seen things on TV about the crowds in places where they didn’t want kids to go to school, near riots in some places,” Pitts said.

He recalled only one “incident” in his time there. He did not elaborate.

Pitts played saxophone and marched in Lanier’s band, as he had done at Ballard-Hudson.

Being in the band at Lanier lent him the chance to interact with and even push some of the white students to excel both musically and academically.

“There was an air of competition there that I kind of didn’t expect,” Pitts said. “I think everybody thought that we were geniuses that were coming in, and they wanted to make sure that they did well.”

The first time the band marched into Porter Stadium for a football game, spectators, more than anything, seemed curious about his being there.

“I didn’t get a lot of catcalls. ... I think everybody was there to support the school,” Pitts said.

As for being a pioneer, that took a while to sink in.

“I knew it was a big thing, but ... we were there going to school just like we had always gone to school,” Pitts said. “But I really didn’t realize what a big thing it was until we had a parade downtown.”

Best he can remember it was the 1964 Christmas parade.

The eyes of a city were on him, this black kid in an otherwise all-white band.

Onlookers, some of them anyway, followed the band and cheered.

Then it dawned on him, Pitts said, “I was doing this for more than myself. It was for all the black people that I was representing.”

‘WE WERE VERY SHELTERED’

For Maggie Oliver McGarity, the hike into Miller High was unusual, but not just because she was one of the first nine black students to enter.

“There was nothing but girls,” she recalled. “It was unique.”

As for the racial barrier, she described crossing it as an emotional experience.

“But I think we were very sheltered and protected,” she said, “because Macon did not want to have the reputation that a lot of the Southern cities had with integrating.”

For her, the decision to attend the all-girls school as one of its first black students came after “a lot of encouragement.”

Black churches and families pushed their youths to excel, she said. Her mother thought attending would be a good idea. But McGarity said, “It was a very difficult decision for my father. ... You know, ‘I don’t want my child out there. I don’t want her to be hurt.’”

McGarity, 66, went to college at North Carolina A&T and studied business administration and education. She later taught before going into information technology at the Southern Co. in Atlanta.

Looking back on her senior year of high school, she said, “It helped me to know that there are a lot of things out there that may look daunting and overwhelming, but within you, you have the strength and the courage to move forward.”

‘I HAD A JOB TO DO’

Milton C. Madison has thought long about his first day at Lanier High, as well as the weeks and months after.

“I have played that over and over again in my head,” he said last week. “It was a bit fearful. ... It was a frightening situation. I never felt at ease and at home.”

Madison, 67, who went on to work in marketing for telephone companies and as a Pentecostal minister out West, returned to his home in east Macon in the late 1980s to care for his parents.

His days at Lanier, at least in the first few weeks, were uneventful. Then one day while he was in the lunch line, a white kid spit in his face. Madison didn’t retaliate.

“I was focused. I had a job to do, and that was to integrate the schools,” Madison said.

“It had been drilled in us so much about nonviolence, (that) no matter what happened to us or what they did to us, we weren’t supposed to do anything. We were supposed to keep it strictly nonviolent.”

He said the spitting encounter was a rare episode. Madison can’t remember the white kid’s name, but some years later the guy became an officer at a local bank.

“For some reason our paths crossed and he just told me to come down. He wanted me to have one of his credit cards,” Madison said. “He asked me what did I want the limit to be. I just said $500 or $1,000. I guess I could have asked for $5,000 or $10,000, but I didn’t know any better.”

Madison still considers himself a Lanier High man.

Even so, he hasn’t attended any Lanier Class of ’65 reunions.

He prefers going to the ones for Appling High, his former all-black school, which he attended through 11th grade.

“Despite that fact that I finished from Lanier,” Madison said, “they have included me.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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