Thelma Dillard had top-notch teachers during her years at Ballard-Hudson Senior High School, but the facilities and resources there were a different story.
The school was still segregated when she attended in the early 1960s, and she learned from raggedy textbooks and worn chairs handed down from the white schools in town.
“We wanted equal assets, and we wanted to be treated equal,” said Dillard, an educator for 44 years and a current Bibb County school board member. “We wanted to have the resources that everybody else had. It was all about equal treatment under the law.”
The Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” But like many other places across the country, Bibb County didn’t see real change in its public schools until years later.
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The journey to full integration was long and contentious, met by resistance from the school board and parts of the community at every turn. This story — which is part of a yearlong series by the Center for Collaborative Journalism exploring the resegregation of Bibb County schools — recaps that history, from the painful past to the uncertain future.
A second Brown vs. Board decision, in 1955, ordered states to move toward full desegregation with “all deliberate speed,” but it gave no specific time frame, said Doug Thompson, an associate professor of history and Southern studies at Mercer University. Despite petitions from Macon’s NAACP chapter and black residents, the Bibb County school board took no action toward desegregation until forced to in 1964, according to Telegraph archives.
“States, because they control education, had the ability to figure out ways to maneuver around what looked like a constitutional mandate in Brown,” Thompson said.
But the seeds of change had been planted in Macon by civil rights activists such as William Randall and the Bivins family. Single mother Hester Bivins taught her seven children that it was their duty and responsibility to help others, even if it meant making sacrifices, said Dillard, one of her daughters.
One episode in particular “triggered the civil rights fire” in Dillard. She boarded a city bus one day with her brother Bert, her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother was trying to gather money for the fare, and the white driver grew impatient. He yelled at her and started the bus so abruptly that she tumbled to the floor.
“My grandmother, so humble, kind, meek and loving, I can hear her now when she said, ‘It’s OK, I’m used to it,’” Dillard said. “That is one of the most painful things that happened in my life. “I’m thinking, ‘She’s used to being treated like this? How do you get used to this?’ This was abuse.”
Hester Bivins and her older children worked the bus boycotts in Macon, and Dillard and Bert Bivins organized the Youth NAACP. In 1963, Bert Bivins — now a Macon-Bibb County commissioner — became the first black person to attend a white Bibb County public school when he enrolled in an adult education class at Dudley Hughes Vocational School. It took a letter to the U.S. attorney general to get the school board to admit him, but members still wouldn’t budge on countywide integration, Dillard said.
Middle Georgia’s first desegregation lawsuit, Shirley Bivins vs. Board of Education, in 1963 took Macon’s grassroots movement to the next level, Thompson said. Hester Bivins filed on behalf of her daughter, and the court ruled in their favor.
The next year, U.S. District Judge William Bootle ordered the school board to begin desegregation efforts, and the board came up with a plan for gradual integration, according to Telegraph archives.
Sixteen black seniors enrolled in previously all-white Lanier, Miller and Willingham high schools in the fall of 1964. Milton Madison transferred from Peter G. Appling High School to Lanier.
“The first year (at Lanier), we just had been trained and taught so strongly concerning the violence, how we were supposed to avoid any kind of (fight),” said Madison, who later graduated from Mercer University and has had careers in marketing and pastoral work. “It was sort of scary, but every day (for the first couple weeks), they wouldn’t let us off the bus to go into class until they rang the bell and the other kids had gotten settled in class. We went to class with the policeman and with a minister.”
He called it the “best of times and the worst of times.” He knew the majority of the students and teachers didn’t want him there, but he forged good relationships too. He immediately noticed a difference in the resources from his old school, where worn out books and supplies were the norm.
Charles Roberts, on the other hand, was recruited to be one of the first black students to go to Lanier, but he decided to stay put at Appling, which was built in the late 1950s for black students.
“Someone else might have looked at it like you have a chance to do something historic,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up my senior year and everything that goes along with it.”
As one of the first black students to attend Miller High School, Shirley Bivins never felt like she belonged, Dillard said. She was so unhappy that she tried to get kicked out of school a few times. Some of the other transfers chose to go back to their original schools.
“(Shirley) was never glad that she went,” Dillard said. “I think it had some effect on her life, in terms of depression. I don’t think she could ever get it completely out of her thoughts and mind.”
After being ordered to integrate the district on all levels in 1965, the school board created a “freedom of choice” plan allowing students to transfer to any school. However, it had little effect on the racial breakdown of the schools. In 1969, just 25 percent of the black student population was in 38 previously all-white schools, according to Telegraph archives.
It wasn’t until 1970 that the the district finally became an integrated system through court orders. Several of the county’s all-black and all-white schools — including girls and boys schools — were merged into three complexes: Central, Northeast and Southwest.
The gender changes made the challenges of integration even more difficult, and people had a lot of anxiety — and animosity — over the new school names, said Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Gary Bechtel, who grew up in south Macon and was a school board member for 12 years.
Joe McDaniel graduated from the all-boys Willingham High School in 1964, and afterward he saw the school transition to Southwest High as a coach and teacher there.
“(1970) was a difficult year,” said McDaniel, now a pastor at Musella Baptist Church. “It was my take that black kids really wanted to be at Ballard and white kids really wanted to be at Willingham. With the stroke of a pen, all that history and tradition went down the drain. ... There was some disruption, but that wasn’t a 1970 thing alone. It just seemed to be magnified that first year.”
Roberts, who attended Mercer University two years after it integrated, taught math at the all-boys Lanier High in 1969, when about 10 percent of the student body was black, he said. He was the second black teacher on staff there. The drama came the next year when the school was restructured as Central High.
“To be honest, I don’t think that the (administrators) at the time were all that welcoming to the black students. They had these preconceived notions about what these black students might do,” said Roberts, who taught at Northeast for five years upon returning to Macon in 2001 and has been an associate professor of math for Mercer’s Penfield College for 16 years. “They thought that black students coming from black schools were not very smart.”
Macon never had a national-scale “flash point” civil rights moment, but there were a lot of organized activities, Thompson said. The Bivins vs. Board case was significant, Macon had a very active NAACP, and Martin Luther King Jr. visited the city for assemblies.
The biggest incident was when Sam Oni, Mercer’s first black student, was denied entrance into Tattnall Square Baptist Church in 1966. In contrast, First Baptist Church of Christ had created an open-door policy welcoming all races.
“There are attempts to bring about desegregation, but the problem is it’s a cultural way of life, and whites tended to think more culturally than they did legally,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to deal with that cultural sense of ... superiority, that my children should not be put in a place with someone who might be their inferior.”
In response to integration orders in 1970, about 1,500 people protested outside Bootle’s home, and more than 4,000 whites rallied at the Macon Coliseum and then Porter Stadium.
“Normal day-to-day segregation existed,” Bechtel said. “You had an atmosphere in the community that really had not evolved as it should have, and then you throw in (the school desegregation order). It was very difficult for everybody to come to grips with it. It was a lack of leadership. It was a lack of understanding.”
“White flight” began in the late 1960s as white residents increasingly realized that public school integration was inevitable. Several new private schools sprang up in Macon, including Tattnall Square Academy, First Presbyterian Day School, Central Fellowship Christian Academy and Windsor Academy.
“Any change that comes about, there’s often going to be resistance, no matter what it is. That’s the nature of human beings. They don’t want to change,” Dillard said.
In 1970, the number of Bibb private schools doubled to 12. By the fall of 1973, just three years after total integration, white flight left the public school system predominantly black for the first time in its history. The number of private schools peaked at 23 by the late 1980s.
There was “clearly an explosion” of private schools, Thompson said. “There seems to be a push to have private education in order to not have to worry about what happens in the public school system in relationship to these federal orders.”
It was a “fear of the unknown” for some parents who chose private schools, McDaniel said. They had concerns about their children’s academic, athletic and social opportunities, as well as the size of the new public schools. At the time Southwest was created, it was one of the largest school complexes in the country.
“Many people didn’t know how to deal with it and didn’t want to deal with it, and the private schools coming up at the time offered alternatives that were never needed before,” Bechtel said. “There was a demand based on uncertainty and a supply that was filled.”
Bechtel went to Rice Elementary for first grade and Burghard Elementary until the fifth grade, but then his parents’ uncertainties about integration prompted them to enroll him at Tattnall Square Academy. He went there until the eighth grade, then later graduated from River North Academy, another private school, in 1978.
Bechtel’s wife attended First Presbyterian Day School, which opened in 1970, but the couple decided to send their children to public school after looking back on their own school experiences.
“We live in a diverse, multicultural world, and we thought it was healthier for our children to go to public schools, and we thought they would get a better education,” Bechtel said. “We think we made the right decision in that we immersed them in an environment that I feel is more like what they’ll experience in life.”
Where we are today
Fast forward nearly 50 years, and many of the county’s schools have, in effect, become resegregated.
“It is couched under the idea of choice,” Thompson said. “It’s almost in the water that there’s an assumption about the poor quality of the schools. What you’re willing to do is take a risk on the elementary schools, but by the middle schools and high schools, you’re moving out. You’re going to the private system or you’re opting into” alternative programs such as Central High’s International Baccalaureate program.
A January article by Mercer’s Center for Collaborative Journalism detailed how the school system’s racial distribution has changed over the past two decades. Now, 30 schools have a majority-black population, while five schools have a white majority. The number of white students attending Bibb public schools has decreased by more than 40 percent over the last 20 years, while the number of black students is nearly unchanged.
Private schools are not required to report the racial breakdown of their student body, but the journalism center has requested those figures from Macon’s largest private schools and is awaiting response.
“The plethora of private schools has led us to where we are in terms of our demographics as it relates to public schools,” Bechtel said. “Our public schools often get a black eye because of the success of these (private) schools. (Public schools) oftentimes don’t get the real comprehensive look that they deserve.”
The school system is more than 70 percent minority, so racially concentrated areas can’t really be avoided, he said. Much of the school district’s growth has seeped into private schools, home schools and charter schools, rather than public schools.
“We cannot determine where people live, where they reside and where they send their children to school,” Dillard said. “Because of that, we can’t change those numbers. Those kids have been removed from our schools through private schools, and now you have the uprise of charter schools who are still pulling them away from the system.
“What we have to do now is make our schools great, make sure our schools are equal. We have to have equity in our schools.”
How we got here: A timeline of Bibb County school integration
- May 17, 1954: The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
- Dec. 9, 1954: A group of black residents and the local NAACP petition the Bibb County school board to voluntarily integrate the school system.
- Aug. 25, 1955: Black residents ask the school board again to voluntarily desegregate. The board promises to form a committee to study desegregation, but no action ever comes from that committee. (It’s not clear if the committee was ever formed.)
- March 14, 1963: Black residents ask the board a final time for voluntary desegregation.
- June 13, 1963: The school board approves Bert Bivins’ admission to an adult education course at Dudley Hughes Vocational School, making him the first black student to enter an all-white public school.
- July 30, 1963: The school board approves a resolution refusing to desegregate Bibb County public schools and vows to continue its present separate systems.
- Aug. 14, 1963: A group of black parents file suit against the school board, seeking to integrate the public schools.
- Jan. 24, 1964: U.S. District Judge William Bootle orders the school board to begin work toward eliminating the separate school systems.
- Feb. 24, 1964: The school board responds with a plan that calls for integrating the schools beginning in the 12th grade and working down toward the first grade, with a target date for total integration by the 1972-1973 school year — nine years later.
- April 3, 1964: The black plaintiffs file their own desegregation plan.
- April 27, 1964: The federal court approves the school board’s plan.
- Sept. 1, 1964: Sixteen black students become the first to attend previously all-white high schools, enrolling at Lanier, Miller and Willingham.
- March 25, 1965: The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals orders integration on all levels of the school system.
- April 28, 1965: Bootle approves an updated desegregation plan for Bibb schools.
- April 25, 1967: Bootle orders speedup of desegregation. The number of black students in previously all-white Bibb schools is up from 505 in 1966 to 1,555 in 1967. By the end of the next school year, that number almost doubles.
- June 29, 1967: A freedom-of-choice plan is ordered for the public schools.
- May 27, 1968: The Supreme Court finds freedom-of-choice plans inadequate in Green vs. New Kent County (Virginia) school board.
- Dec. 1, 1969: The 5th Circuit orders the school system to integrate by September 1970.
- Jan. 14, 1970: The Supreme Court orders the school system integrated by Feb. 1. That same night, about 1,500 white students and adults march on Bootle’s home in protest.
- Jan. 18, 1970: A rally at the Macon Coliseum draws about 4,000 white residents protesting court-ordered integration.
- Jan. 21, 1970: Bootle reaffirms the school board's freedom-of-choice plan, saying there is evidence the system is integrated.
- Jan. 30, 1970: A massive transfer of teachers within the system sends black teachers to white schools and white teachers to black schools.
- Feb. 5, 1970: The 5th Circuit reverses Bootle, ordering a total unitary school system by Feb. 16.
- Feb. 14, 1970: Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox vows to suspend the state’s compulsory attendance laws for Bibb schools so students won’t have to attend newly integrated schools.
- Feb. 15, 1970: Another rally against court-ordered desegregation draws about 4,000 white residents to Porter Stadium. Ronnie Thompson, Macon's mayor at the time, joins Maddox at the protest.
- Feb. 16, 1970: About 5,500 public school students transfer under the integration plan. About 500 students fail to report.
- Feb. 23, 1970: A group of white parents block the entrance to Morgan Elementary School and virtually shut down the school, protesting the transfer of black students from Pleasant Grove School, which was closed.
- Feb. 24, 1970: Bootle threatens to hold in contempt anyone who resists or interferes with the integration plan.
- Feb. 27, 1970: Despite Bootle’s order, 31 families sue the school board to block integration. The courts later disallow the complaint.
- June 1, 1970: Junior and senior high schools in the Bibb system are merged into a unified system.
- Aug. 31, 1970: The school system opens its first full year as a unitary, integrated system.
Source: Telegraph archives