Vacation Bible School in 1968 with members of both Friendship Baptist with Rev. Dargan, center, and the Jasper First Baptist with Rev. Charles Walker, at right.
By Bill Cagle, Thelma Cagle, Karen Benson, Lynette Bridges, Justin Davis, Andrea Johnson
A letter from Frances Keppel, US Commissioner of Education, dated July 19, 1965 was received by M. T. McMurrain, superintendent of the Pickens County Board of Education, informing him that the most recent submittal of a proposal for desegregation of Pickens County schools had been approved. With Pickens County schools set to open in a month, there was little time to prepare for integration.
The proposal allowed the Black students and teachers to voluntarily integrate in 1965. Tri-City School, the school for Black students located in Smoky Hollow (currently Head Start), would remain open for one more year. In 1966, Tri-City would close, and all schools in the county would be integrated.
According to Dr. Kathleen Thompson’s article, “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.”
“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.”
The article continued, “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.’
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 student’s 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.”
Lynette Bridges was beginning her senior year when she transferred to Pickens High School. She had already been playing in the PHS band before school integration, due to a prior agreement between PHS and Tri-City School. Upon arrival at PHS, she noted the difference in the quality of school supplies and facilities. When asked if she was behind in any subjects when she got to PHS, she said she had great teachers at Tri-City. As a result, she had no academic problems when she transferred. Tri-City School, established by Col. Sam Tate, employed teachers who were recruited from excellent colleges.
“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.”
Karen McClure Benson said her parents volunteered for her to attend Jasper Elementary School, which was closer to her home. As the only Black child in the third grade, she missed her friends and teachers at Tri-City. It was painful being asked by White children if her skin was dirty, or if her blood was red.
Race relations were not perfect in Pickens County, but there was a spirit of tolerance that neighboring counties had yet to embrace. Perhaps that lack of tolerance was most apparent at athletic events in neighboring counties. On game nights in the early 70s, Karen Benson, a PHS cheerleader, remembers being escorted on and off the bus by two Black male athletes. Coaches and parents would coordinate travel to prevent potential conflicts or harassment upon arrival of the bus. Racial slurs shouted by fans of the opposing counties were intended to offend PHS Black athletes. But they offended White coaches, teammates, and Pickens fans, as well.
According to Dr. Thompson’s research, “in 1967, only 22% 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.” Integration applied to teachers and support positions, as well. Tri-City teachers such as Leila Brown, Willie Mae Weaver, Harriet White, and Aileen Prince continued their teaching careers at Tate Elementary and Pickens High School. Clyde Davis, Justin Davis’ grandfather, drove a bus and worked in bus maintenance.
“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.”
The community’s willingness to work together promoted peaceful race relations. In Thompson’s Part 6 Historic Black Churches, she described an account from the early 60s in which Jasper First Baptist members accompanied members of Friendship Baptist’s building committee to a White owned sawmill in a neighboring county. Their concern was that the Black committee members receive fair treatment by the White sawmill owners. In that same article, she wrote “It was during a conversation with Reverend Charles Walker that he shared the special relationship between Jasper First Baptist and Friendship Baptist Church…I had come across a photo of Rev. Walker, and two of his church members at a Vacation Bible School at Friendship Baptist Church in 1968. Rev. James Dargan, pastor of Friendship is seen in the center of the photo. That would be two years after school integration. I asked how long First Baptist did a separate Bible School at Friendship. ‘Not long after that we decided that the Black children should come to Jasper First, after all we are all the same,’ he replied.”
The third and final article will explore how changes in the county’s economics have affected race relations and how examples of cooperation from the past can serve as guides to nurturing positive race relations for the future. Learn more about the history of race relations in Pickens County at www.pickensprogressonline.com/2015/news/black-history-in-pickens-county.