By Fred O. Smith Sr.
Sixty years after five African American children broke Clarke County’s racial barrier by enrolling in previously all-white public schools, the Athens community will pay tribute to these local heroes in a program entitled “Uncommon Valor: The Integration of Clarke County Public Schools in 1963.”
Sponsored by the Athens branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life & History (ASALH), the event will take place at 4 p.m. on Sept. 17 in the Vernon Payne Meeting Hall at the Clarke County School District (CCSD) headquarters (595 Prince Avenue). A reception will follow the program at the Taylor-Grady House. Both events are free and open to the publicc.
It was on September 2, 1963, more than nine years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that declared an end to segregated schools, that third-grader Scott Michael Killian enrolled at Chase Street Elementary School; Wilucia Green integrated Athens High School; and her sister Marjorie Green, Agnes Green (no relation) and Bonnie Hampton joined white students at the now-defunct Childs Street School (known at the time as Clarke County Junior High School).
The commemorative program is part of ASALH’s annual Founder’s Day celebration held each September and will include a panel discussion with all five of the former students.
Other special guests will include author/historian Michael L. Thurmond, Clarke County School Superintendent Dr. Robbie Hooker and Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz. The panel will be moderated by WUGA’s Alexia Ridley.
“It is past time that we, as a community, honor these heroes and their parents who sacrificed their safety and wellbeing for the promise of equal rights,” said Athens-ASALH president Dr. Sandy Martin. “We want them to know how much we appreciate them and their legacy.”
In the midst of the national Civil Rights Movement, these local students demonstrated uncommon valor in a time of highly charged racial tension and upheaval — replete with violence and threats of violence. That same month, September 1963, the Ku Klux Klan detonated a bomb that killed four little black girls in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on youth day. A few months earlier, on May 2, 1963, children had gathered at the church and began staging protests against segregation. Termed the “Children’s Crusade,” thousands of the youth demonstrators were blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers, attacked by police dogs, and arrested.
In June 1965, CCSD adopted a “Freedom of Choice” policy to meet the requirements of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that required the withholding of federal dollars to schools that practiced racial segregation. Many in the community supported the policy and the law; others opposed both, including local Klan members who protested in front of a business owned by the local school board president. There were frequent anti-segregation protests in Athens by African-Americans in the early 1960s, usually staged from Ebenezer Baptist Church West. A violent clash in 1964 between black protesters and the Ku Klux Klan over the Varsity restaurant's policy of segregation brought Broad Street traffic to a halt. Many of the demonstrators were jailed.
Nine days after the passage of the landmark 1964 law, Athens Klan members killed Lemuel Penn, a black Army Reserve officer who was Assistant Superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools. The decorated World War II Veteran and two fellow reservists, traveling through Athens from training at Fort Benning, were followed from near the UGA Arch and shot in nearby Madison County. The killers believed the men were civil rights workers because of their Washington, D.C. car tag. The other two reservists survived the attack.
Also, 1963 was the year of the March on Washington, the largest civil rights demonstration in history; more than a quarter million marchers gathered in the national capital to protest against bigotry.
By 1966, over 200 black students were attending the county’s previously all-white schools. The same year, the district assigned five black teachers to previously white schools and two white teachers to African American schools.
The five local students’ considerable feat took place seven years before the Clarke County school system ended segregation district-wide in 1970.
In addition to the Clarke County School District and Athens-Clarke County Unified Government, co-sponsors include Athens-Clarke NAACP, Athens Regional Library, Athens Historical Society, Radio Station WXAG, Athens Community Agenda, Lee Epting of Epting Events, Historic Athens, Hattie Whitehead and the Linnentown Project, Western Circuit District Attorney's Office of Deborah Gonzales, Madeline Van Dyck, and the Athens Area Black History Quiz Bowl.
Established in 1915 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, ASALH is the oldest and largest organization dedicated to the study and appreciation of African American history and culture. The association, operating as local, state, and international branches, fulfills its mission through education, research, and publishing.
Dr. Woodson in 1936 initiated the first celebration of Negro History Week which led to Black History Month. ASALH publishes the quarterly The Journal of African American History. The Journal, founded in 1916, is the oldest professional journal by and about African Americans.
Fred O.Smith Sr. is historian for the Athens branch of the Association for the Study of African Life and History. He and his wife Lee Eunice Smith founded the Athens Area Black History Quiz Bowl in 2013.