Editor’s Note: This piece was written in 2009 on the 40th anniversary of the integration of Lanier Junior High School in Macon, Georgia.
I read with interest Tom Johnson’s (former head of CNN) plans for the Miller-Lanier 50th class reunion. Mr. Johnson invited the 1959 class at Ballard-Hudson to lunch. Fifty years ago this group could not sit together at the soda fountain in the old Davidson’s Department store in downtown Macon, Georgia.
It was such an unthinkable notion; no one would have bothered to daydream about it. The law prevented Negroes from sitting with white people in public. If the kids had such a thought, surely their parents would have rushed in and pointed out the social mores prohibiting it.
Thus Tom Johnson and his classmates left their youth behind and went off to college, family, and careers without knowing much about Negroes their age; save perhaps, kids of domestics, who worked in their homes or in some other menial jobs relegated to Negroes in 1959 Middle Georgia.
Johnson’s class reunion got me thinking about my own date with destiny. This past June marks the 40th anniversary of the Lanier class of 1969. This class was the first to see white boys and black boys go to school together for four consecutive years.
This experiment began in 1964, when Winifred Anderson and Vernon Pitts enrolled in Willingham and Lanier senior high schools respectively. Anderson, now a doctor and Pitts currently an attorney integrated the senior high schools as seniors. I watched them navigate their senior year with their heads held high. Little did I know I would be in their shoes a year later?
Yet, the 1969 classes at the formerly old white high schools validated the efficacy of integration. My class culminated the “freedom of choice” plan that permitted Negroes to attend Lanier-Miller, McEvoy-Willingham and later Smith-Lassiter high schools. In the good old days, the white high schools were segregated by sex, while the Negro schools were co-educational.
It was the first class that had been together for four years. It ended with several Negroes walking across the stage at the City Auditorium, in my case, with fist raised in the Black Power sign. Why not pump the right fist in the air? I had done what many said at my birth could not be done; I had just kicked Jim Crow in the seat of his pants.
During the spring of 1965, while completing my foray into the maze that 8th grade can be over at Ballard-Hudson Jr. High School, the principal, Robert Williams made an announcement. It came during last period science class.
“Judge Boottle,” he said, “had just ruled any Negro student could elect under a ‘freedom of choice’ plan to attend an all white high school.”
A light went off inside my head. I had day dreamed about wearing the blue and white colors of the Willingham Rams. These day dreams begin when my family moved to Bibb County in 1960 and I begin to read in the old Macon Telegraph about the football team at Willingham. I did not think it was possible. Yet I daydreamed about it. I held onto this doubt even after learning that Winifred Anderson had enrolled in Willingham and graduated with his class.
When the bell sounded announcing the close of another school day, I ran the half mile trek to my house, rushed into the house to see my mom. She was not inside the house. I found her in the back yard hanging cloths on the cloth line. Haplessly out of breathe, I blurted out Mr. Williams’ announcement and asked her if I could enroll in Willingham Jr. High School. Without blinking or pausing to think about it, mom said yes! I was on cloud nine.
Before I could shout for joy at a chance to attend Willingham, my brother 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. Mom said yes to integration, but we had to attend the same school. Gerald, a rising junior at Ballard-Hudson Sr. High School, had stayed behind at school a little longer and he and a group of friends had selected Lanier Sr. High. Thus, a Lanier Poet, I became.
That summer was the last summer my teammates on the Westside Braves coached by Rev. James Jackson, made me feel like a part of the team. It was perhaps one of my best summers at the bat. I have always kept stats and the record records a .411 batting average with no homers but double digit doubles. Something happen after I stepped foot on the Lanier campus. It was as if my childhood friends thought I was better than them or something weird like that. I felt isolated at school by the white students and isolated in the community when I returned home from school.
But that is getting ahead of the story. At summer’s end a local civic group sponsored a tutorial session in English and Math at Mercer University. I came under the tutelage of Mary Wilder who ran the tutorial program. I would later, as a journalist, cover Ms. Wilder’s exploits as a member of the Macon City Council and as Macon’s first female candidate for Macon Mayor.
Two days before the start of school in 1965 I visited with my grandmother at her cloth line. She gave me a sage piece of advice that I carry in my heart today: “No matter what they say about you, no matter what they do to you, get your education son; because once you got your education baby, no one can take that away from you.”
Though rebuke, scorned and stripped no man has ever been able to take away the things I have learned in school or life.
Yet neither Ms. Wilder nor granny could have possibly prepared me for the first day at Lanier Jr. High School.
Gerald and I dressed in silence that first day of school in 1965. If he was afraid, he hid it. His seeming courage emboldens me.
Mom labored in silence to serve a breakfast of bacon, grits, eggs and toast. She saw us off and quickly closed the door. She had just sent her only progenitors off to integrate the public school system in Bibb County. I have never asked her but I am sure she must have fallen on her knees and prayed.
Gerald and I walked up to Frank Everest’s house on Pio Nono Avenue, where the site of the Frank Johnson Recreation Center now stands. Frank had a car and when Mrs. Everest had blessed our journey Gerald, Frank, and I believe Tommy Miller and I piled into Frank’s car. We headed to school. Frank kept the group loose by telling jokes. We were laughing and unaware the history we were embarked upon.
Then we came to Henley Avenue and Napier. They let me out of the car as I was the only one going to the junior high campus. I walked down the street towards the horseshoe parking lot in front of the building. I saw from a distance what I perceived at first blush to be a welcoming committee. Boy was I wrong.
As I drew closer to the entrance, I discovered to my horror, they did not come out to welcome me on my first day at a new school. I began to discern the shouts of “two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.” I turned my sight away from the rage and anger emanating from this sea of white faces. My eyes looked away from the crowd, my mind blocking out the words of their shout.
A man came through the crowd. To this day I do not know who he was. I do not recall seeing him again. He greeted me and took me through this gullet and into the principal’s office. My first day at a new school and already I am being escorted to the principal’s office. I sat and waited.
No one spoke to me other than to initially ask for my name. “Harold Harvey,” I trembled and said. About five minutes later one by one the other black boys began to arrive and were brought into the room. In came Ernest “Sonny” Lester, Kenneth Nixon, Sylvester Royal, James Thomas, Larry Carson, Alvin Russell, Hamp Davis, James Mason and Carlton Haywood.
When the officials were able to clear the kids from the front of the school, we were each escorted to our respective home rooms. I was assigned to Mrs. Chapman.
Thus begin this social experiment to see if blacks and whites could en mass attend school together. After umpteenth racial slurs, a few fist fights, and a burned school building; we emerged 40 years ago from the turbulent 60’s and set our course for the advancement of race relations.
Tom Johnson’s journey has almost come full circle. It’s high time we get to know each other. Sitting down at lunch and enjoying a glass of sweet southern ice tea is an excellent way to let the good times roll.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round, Easier to obtain Than to Maintain: The Globalization of Civil Rights by Charles Steele, Jr.; and the host of Beyond the Law with Harold Michael Harvey. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.