Remembering Brown v. Board of Education and My Date with Destiny
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States of America struck down the Plessy v. Ferguson case which permitted segregation based on race. Specifically, separating whites from Blacks in a type of class system that made Blacks second class citizens in the USA.
On this day, the first of two cases decided under Brown v. Topeka Board of Education was issued. The Court ruled “That to separate them [black children] from others of similar age and background would harm their minds and hearts in ways likely ever to be undone.”
When the Southern states did not obey this court order, the Supreme Court issued its second opinion in Brown on May 17, 1955, and ordered that the dual school systems should desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
It would be two years before I reached school age. When I did my mom enrolled me in a segregated Black only school. By the time I reached the third grade, I had scored higher than any kid in the county, including kids in the segregated white only school, on the Iowa Basic Skills Test. My high test score prompted the school board to have my mom take me to see a psychologist.
After a series of test, the psychologist concluded that my test scores mystified the white school board because the school I attended was inferior to the white-only school in the county.
The public school system in my hometown, as most school districts in the country, interpreted Brown’s “with all deliberate speed,” to mean ten years later.
In 1965, the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Georgia approved a “Freedom of Choice Plan.”
What follows is how I made history following the court approval of a plan to desegregate the Bibb County, Georgia public schools:
Following the principal’s announcement, I could not wait for the bell to sound the close of another school day. When it did, I ran the half mile trek to my home, rushed into the house to see my mom. She was not inside the house.
I dashed out of the house into the back yard where I found her hanging clothes on the clothesline. Wholly out of breath, I blurted out Mr. Williams’ announcement; then I asked her if I could enroll into Willingham Jr. High School. Without blinking or pausing to think about it, Mom said yes. I was on cloud nine.
Like a dream come true, something “hoped for but not seen,” the substance of countless daydreams. In this instance, what faith looked like was an opportunity to attend a previously all-white school.
Before I could shout for joy at a chance to attend Willingham Jr, High School, Gerald found us in the back yard. He had the look of excitement on his face and asked if he could enroll in Lanier Sr. High School.
While Mom said yes to her boys joining the move to integrate the public schools in Bibb County, she had one caveat tacked onto her permission: We had to attend the same school.
Gerald would be a rising junior in the next school term. His friends at Ballard-Hudson Sr. High lived closer to Lanier Sr. High School. They selected Lanier Sr. as their school of choice. I traded the blue and white for the orange and green. Instead of becoming a Ram, I became a Lanier Poet.
The following day, I notified Mr. Williams that I wanted to transfer to Lanier Jr. High School for Boys commencing the 1965–1966 school year. He said he would handle everything from there.
On Sunday morning, Rev. Key was pleased to learn that I would be transferring to Lanier. All total, Bethel C. M. E. Church sent twelve students to Lanier and Miller, the girl’s school.
Towards the end of the summer, a local civic group sponsored a tutorial session in English and math. My friend Sylvester Royal believed that the tutorials were remedial and resented having to take them. They were a repeat of English and math. Both courses drummed into us from our elementary school days and the junior high school year.
My English tutor was Mary Wilder. She was on the faculty at Mercer, which hosted the tutorial sessions.
Years later after college, I worked as a journalist for The Macon Courier. Wilder joined the Macon City Council. I had the distinct pleasure to cover her public career. She would later become the first woman to seek the office of Mayor of Macon.
Two days before the start of the 1965 school year, I visited with Granny. She was at the clothesline. There is something about those Harvey women and dispensing wisdom at the clothesline. I was nervous about my upcoming foray into the Promise of Brown. She gave me a sage piece of advice:
“No matter what they say about you, no matter what they do to you, get your education, son. Once you get your education baby, no one can take that away from you.”
No matter how much I took her advice to heart, Granny’s wisdom was not enough to prepare me for the first day at Lanier Jr. High School.
On the first day of school, Gerald and I dressed in silence. If he was afraid, he hid it. His seeming courage emboldened me. Mom labored in silence to serve a breakfast of bacon, grits, eggs, and toast. She saw us off and quickly closed the door.
Over time, I have learned she is quick at closing the door when guests leave. Quickly closing the door is Mom’s habit, even today when I go for a visit. Mom will see me to the door. “You better get back home before dark.” Then quickly close the door, hating to see me leave, but not wanting to show it or to wait in the emotion of separation until our next visit.
After she closed the front door, I am sure the realization sunk it, she had just sent her only progenies off to integrate the public-school system in Bibb County, Georgia. The two boys she sought to protect from racial prejudice in Roberta by moving them to Macon, were being sent off to a challenging and one could argue a dangerous environment.
In this school setting the racial tensions would be heightened by the resistance of whites to keep the status quo as it had been for centuries, whites perched atop the mountain, and Blacks in a subservient position down in the valley. I have never asked her, but I am sure after she closed the door behind us, she must have fallen on her knees and prayed.
In silence, not wishing to discuss what loomed ahead, Gerald and I walked up Pio Nono Avenue to Frank Everett’s house, which sat across the street from Bethel C. M. E. Church. The Everett home was on the site of what today is the Frank Johnson Recreation Center. Frank Everett had a car, and when Mrs. Everett had blessed our mission, Gerald, Frank, and I believe Tommy Miller, and I piled into Frank’s car.
We headed to school.
The three of them to Lanier Sr. High School, which had been integrated the previous year by three brave Black teenagers, and I to Lanier Jr. High School, which in its 41-year history had never educated a Black student.
We headed to school. Each of us tried not to talk about the obvious. Nobody mentioned the mission we were on as we rode into the history books. Frank, a fair complexioned Negro, with a tint of blond in his hair looked a great deal like Eddie Haskell, the character in the Leave It to Beaver television sitcom.
He was as obnoxious and as much the prankster as Eddie Haskell. Frank kept the group loose by telling jokes. We laughed hysterically. Seemingly unaware of the history we were creating with each rotation of the car wheels towards, if not our manifest destiny, then the manifest destiny of many thousands of Black people who had slaved in America since 1619.
Briskly, the laughter stopped. The wheels of Frank’s car stopped turning.
Frank pulled up to the stop sign at the corner of Henley Avenue and Napier Avenue. It was time to get out of the car and walk alone the remainder of the distance to Lanier Jr., while they drove onto the Lanier Senior campus.
Now alone, the gravity of the situation began to sink in; there was no turning back. The only option was full speed ahead to an unknown destiny as I walked down the street towards the horseshoe-shaped parking lot in front of the building. I saw from a distance what appeared to be a welcoming committee.
Was I wrong?
It was anything but a welcoming committee. With each step, I drew closer to the entrance. I discovered to my shock and horror; this crowd had not come out to welcome me on my first day at a new school. A few more steps and my ears began to discern the words to the roaring decibels radiating from this welcoming mob, “Two, four, six, eight; we don’t want to integrate.”
I had seen this mob mentality before, almost ten years to the day the hooded white men appeared outside our front door looking to lynch a Negro to discourage Negroes from getting the notion that the vote was for” colored people.” Remembering that Granny closed the door and shielded us from the hatred outside, I turned my sight away from the energetic rage and anger emanating from this sea of white faces.
I searched for a safe pathway inside the building. My eyes looked through the crowd, my mind blocked out the hatred, but my soul felt the hostility.
Brusquely, like Moses parting the Red Sea, a man pierced the crowd in half, slicing the decibels of their rhetoric. He greeted me and said:
We proceeded to walk through the middle of the crowd like the “Children of Israel” walking through the parted Red Sea, the waters raging on either side of us, but not a drop could touch us.
To this day, I do not know who this man was, what his position was, or who had him posted at the school. I did not see him again that day or any other day that first year at Lanier Jr. High School. This man took me to the principal’s office.
My first day at a new school, I have an escort to the principal’s office. Ironically, during the four years at Lanier, each time ordered to the principal’s office, it had to do with some threatened mob action against my person.
Like the time Sammy D., a future police officer, announced by writing on the blackboard, there would be a cross burning at Harold Harvey’s house around supper time. Or like the time I organized a Black History Week celebration and the white boys wanted to fight. We will get to that later in this tale.
Suffice it, for now, to say I sat in the principal’s office and waited.
No one spoke to me, except a woman, I think the school secretary, asked for my name. “Harold Harvey,” I trembled and said.
I was alone in this room for what seemed like an hour, but it was probably five to eight minutes. I could hear the shouts from the white boys outside the building.
Next, one by one the other Black boys began to arrive in this waiting room. In came Ernest “Sonny” Lester, Kenneth Nixon, Sylvester Royal, James Thomas, Larry Carson, Alvin Russell, Hamp Davis, James Mason, Carlton Haywood, and Lonnie Hicks. In the next several days, three other kids from the Pleasant Hill community joined us.
When the bell sounded to start the school day, the crowd dispersed, and each of the Black integrators was escorted to their respective homerooms under the promise of Brown while the curse of Plessy doubled down with resistance and interposition in the hallways.