School Integrators Unsung Heroes No More, of Sorts
One year ago, this month, three of my high school friends, and I decided it was time to come from the shadows and discuss our role in integrating the Lanier Jr. High School for Boys in Macon, Georgia, during the 1965-66 school year. Our feat had gone unnoted then, and mostly unnoticed in the intervening 55 years.
Our research found no mention of our efforts in the local newspapers, but we did discover an article written a few years ago, extolling the opening of Central High School (formerly Lanier Sr. High School) in 1970 as the beginning of integrated public-school education in the county.
The article featured Virgil Adams, a prominent Black attorney in Macon, who said it was a smooth transition on opening day. It probably was for him. The fight to integrate the previous six years had not been a walk in the park. The first battle began during the 1964-65 schoolyear when four Black students entered Lanier Sr. High in the twelfth grade. For two weeks, the kids had to sit on the school bus until their white classmates had entered the school. Those four brave souls were followed the following year by other Black students in grades ten through twelve on the high school level.
Another article two years ago focused, as well it should, on the efforts of Mrs. Hester Bivins to integrate the Bibb County schools. She was the lead plaintiff in the school desegregation case that led to her oldest son, Bert Bivins, becoming the first Black student in the county to enroll in a previously all-white school.
Bert’s accomplishment after he returned from military service and enrolled in an electronics course at Dudley Hughes High School that served as a trade school for white students. Mrs. Bivins’ daughter, Shirley entered the Miller Jr. High School for Girls the same year as our group.
Her son James Bivins enrolled in Lanier Sr. High School the following year. Her daughter, Thelma, now Dr. Thelma Bivins Dillard, later served on the Macon City Council and currently serves on the Bibb County Board of Education.
Much of the work in integrating the public schools in Bibb County can be attributed to the will and determination of Mrs. Bivins to see that her children had the best education the county could provide.
What made the conquest of my friends and I significant is there had never been any Black boys enrolled in the history of Lanier Jr. High School until we strolled the halls in September 1965.
For us, it was like being on a hostile island with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide from the verbal and emotional abuse for being a pioneer for equality — the legal fight for our right to sit in a classroom at Lanier Jr. High School had been fought and won. Without the drama of a legal stand-off, we were left on our own to navigate the murky waters of school desegregation.
Perhaps, if there were no mention of it, other Black students would not get the notion that they too could attend a previously all-white school, simple enough, end of the integration experiment.
When we received notice for plans for the 50th Miller-Lanier Class Reunion (the white public schools were segregated by sex in addition to race), we knew we did not have many more years left to tell our story. The fantastic thing about our truth is we did not discuss it among ourselves as we made history at Lanier Jr. and Sr. High Schools. Daily, we got over the slights, emotional bruises, and occasional fistfight.
As we talked about hosting a symposium to discuss our history, we quickly discovered we each continued to suffer internally from those pains inflicted fifty-five years in the past.
With this discovery, we knew we had to go forth with a discussion of those years to free ourselves from decades of bearing the burden of our people, and we believed we could enable our white classmates to release any metaphysical guilt they had in treating us unjustly or their failure to render aid in the face of dehumanizing treatment.
We did not want to present a symposium with a theme that reflected everything was hunkey dory. We sought to bare our soul. Since our white classmates were in town for the class reunion, we hoped they would come and hear how they made us feel while we endeavored to make the white world more accepting of Black people. And many of them did come.
Also, we hoped the Black classmates we left at Ballard-Hudson Jr. High School would come in support of what we had done to enable them to move in heretofore white spaces without trepidation, none of them showed up for the symposium on Unsung Heroes: The Four Years That Made The Last Fifty Years Possible.
In 1965, our pioneering efforts were rejected by our Black peers who thought we had abandoned the race, trying to be white, trying to prove we were better than other Blacks.
Walking home from school, we walked through a white neighborhood to the taunts of drunken white twenty-something segregationists, but when we reached the Black community, and I had to walk down Pio Nono Avenue alone, I would be heckled by Black teens, scolding me for thinking I was better than them.
No one in our group thought we were better than any other Black person in our community. In an age when Jim Crow fought to maintain the status quo of white supremacy, we believed it was necessary to occupy white spaces to bring equality and justice to Black people.
Our white classmates, eager to learn, came out to hear how they made us feel, our Black peers did not, seemingly, not wanting to know how they made us feel being on that hostile island defending ourselves from the racial insensitivities from our white and black peers.
The hurt inflicted on Black people by Black people is real, people.
We selected the Tubman African American Museum, for obvious reasons, as our venue for the symposium. The Tubman, struggling to keep the doors open, understood the importance of this discussion, provided the facilities to us at no cost.
We submitted press releases to The Telegraph, WMAZ-TV, and Georgia Public Radio, but like that day in 1965, when we breached the threshold at Lanier Jr. High School, there were no reporters at the symposium to report on the fantastic stories told by the panelists.
Without funds to hire a videographer, those profound words that could heal the past and generations present, and yet unborn, live only in the hearts of the audience, fifty strong, and in the silent echoes reverberating off the walls of the Tubman.
Three members of the inaugural class of integrators were panelists, and a fourth member served as a moderator.
On the panel was Sylvester Royal. He put his Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp experience gained at Lanier Sr. High School to good use. He served his country honorably for 21 years in the United States Air Force. His job assignments were in the medical administration field.
After retiring from the Air Force, Royal served 24 years with the Georgia Department of Human Resources as Regional Director for the Northwest Region for the Division of Family and Children Services.
Royal earned an associate degree from Macon Junior College, a Bachelor of Business Administration Degree from Georgia College, and a Master of Science Degree in Management from Leslye College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Royal told the audience; he was encouraged by his grandmother to integrate Lanier Jr. High School. She wanted the best for him. When the stress of racial hostility reached its peak, Royal thought about returning to Ballard-Hudson High School.
“I felt if I went back to Ballard-Hudson, I would have let my grandmother down, so I stayed,” he said.
Panelist Carlton Haywood not only integrated Lanier Jr. High School for Boys, he was also the first Black man to sign a scholarship to play football at the University of South Carolina. After his freshman year, a knee injury ended his football career. Haywood graduated with a degree in accounting. He had plans to attend graduate school to become a Certified Public Accountant. His plans changed when the father of a friend offered him a career with the Ford Motor Company.
For the next 33 years, Haywood worked for Ford in various executive/managerial, financial, and sales marketing-related positions across many divisions of the company.
In 2007, Haywood retired from the Ford Motor Company. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Rescue Mission Foundation.
“I came out of what I thought at the time was a middle-class family. My father had a good job. We lived in a house and had some things, but when I got to Lanier Jr. High School, I realized I was poor. My white classmates had so much more than we had. And this is what racism does. It keeps one group poor and without resources,” Haywood said.
James “J. T.” Thomas was a three-sport letterman at Lanier Sr. High School. His athleticism earned him a full grant in aid scholarship to play football at Florida State University, making him the first African American football player at FSU, and the first African American football player to graduate from the university. In addition to earning a degree in business, Thomas received All-American honors.
In the 1973 National Football draft, Thomas was the number one pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. While a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers team, Thomas received All-Pro honors as a defensive back. He was a member of the Steel Curtain defense that won four Super Bowls during the 1970s and ‘80s.
During the offseason, Thomas put on a three-piece suit, picked up his briefcase, and worked as a sales representative and broker for Lincoln National Life, Prudential, and Research Underwriter Property and Casualty Company.
In 1983, Thomas hung up the cleats and opened Chin’s Rice Bowl, an oriental theme restaurant. For the next 26 years, Thomas owned Burger King and Applebee’s franchises.
Today he owns Black-N-Gold Cheesecake Company, a manufacturer of gourmet cheesecakes and is a licensee/operator of Crazy Mocha Coffee Company that operates coffee shops in Western Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Florida.
Thomas summed the symposium up this way, “As we know, ignorance is expensive. But I’m convinced from the many responses that we helped many to reconcile guilt, despair, and awaken a new consciousness about racism, inequity, and injustice.”
The panel was convened and moderated by this writer, the first Black student to arrive at Lanier Jr. High that first day of school in 1965. I went on to become a lawyer, a journalist, and the author of Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance.
Cheryl Cannon, a white woman who attended Miller High School, the girl school in the Lanier school district, remembered fondly engaging in girl’s talk with the Black girls who integrated Miller Jr. High in 1965.
“We got along well. We talked about what else, boys,” Cannon said.
Cannon now calls Charleston, South Carolina home. She worked in the airline industry for more than 30 years, mostly international flights to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She serves as a volunteer for the Mayor’s Homeless to Hope taskforce.
“I come into contact daily with young Black women who are so dismissive of me because I am white, they have no clue about my background in working for equality for Black people,” Cannon said.
“I am quick to stop them dead in their tracks and tell them that I am not your enemy,” Cannon said, explaining how her experience during the integration of Bibb County Schools impacted her life.
“ You all were so courageous to do what you did,” Ken Thrasher, a Certified Public Accountant in Atlanta, said.
“I’m a little ashamed that I lacked the courage to speak out when you guys received mistreated,” Thrasher revealed.
“You all were so brave,” Neil Skene, a legal scholar, and First Amendment expert offered, then confessed that he too wished he had spoken out against the unjust treatment we received.
Unsung heroes no more, sort of, despite a public event, the Black community did not turn out to honor their pioneering heroes. It is as if what we did was unimportant in the grand scheme of things. The absence of the news media poignantly makes this point. The previous stories bland and sterile as can be is about as much of the truth as the public is willing to accept. Missing is the story of how the hatred and resistance led our classmate Shirley Bivins, according to her sister Dr. Dillard, down a path to depression that she has not recovered.
White pain inflicted upon Black people is real, people.
No longer can we say it is a two-sided coin. There is no head or tail, the coin is the same on both sides. At least this has been our experience navigating both sides of the racial divide.
In February 2020, the community gets another chance to honor its unsung heroes as the Tubman will dedicate an exhibit to the Lanier Jr. High 13. Hopefully, the Bibb County Board of Education will get on board. One of its board members, Dr. Sundra Woodford, is the niece of our classmate, the late James Mason, and as previously noted, Dr. Thelma Bivins Dillard is now the matriarch of the Bivins family that led the push to integrate the school system is a member of the school board.
Unsung heroes no more, sort of, we think.
Harold Michael Harvey is the author of Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is a Past President of the Gate City Bar Association. He is the recipient of Gate City’s R. E. Thomas Civil Rights Award, which he received for his pro bono representation of Black college students arrested during Freaknik celebrations in the mid to late 1990s. An avid public speaker, contact him at email@example.com.