The decision came down from the Walton County Board of Education on May 25, 1968, and landed with an almighty thud: Walton County schools would desegregate. Completely.
The school system had made a half-hearted attempt at integration in 1964. It passed a freedom of choice plan, saying any student could go to any school, regardless of the color of their skin. But it maintained two separate systems.
The plan appeased state and federal authorities for a little while, but it did very little to put black and white kids in the same classrooms. Three years later, fewer than 10% of black students attended an integrated school in Walton County.
In February of 1968, those authorities noticed. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare told the school system that its efforts had not done enough to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
On top of that, several local citizens and teachers had filed a suit against the system in the Fifth District Court of Appeals, asking for an elimination of the dual school system.
The board caved in May.
“It was the feeling of the Board that this local tax money could be used more effectively in improving educational programs than in fighting a case in Federal Court when it is obvious that the case could not be won,” Superintendent of Schools Garfield Wilson said.
Over the course of the summer, and with the prodding of Judge W.A. Bootle at the District Court, the board developed a plan to unify Walton’s schools by the fall.
Elementary schools combined. But, for one more year, high schools remained separate.
It was much harder to reformulate a high school system and schedule than an elementary system, the board told Bootle. He agreed, and Carver High School stayed open and separate from Monroe Area High School for one final year.
So it was not until the 1969-70 school year that Walton County had, for the first time, a completely integrated school system.
That was 50 years ago.
In honor of this milestone, we have compiled the stories, in their own words, of people who were part of the process that reshaped education and much more here in Walton County in the years leading up to 1969.
There were a handful of black students who did cross over and attend Monroe Area High School before 1969. There were administrators who had to make difficult and unpopular decisions. There were teachers too, who had to make the transition.
All struggled. But each played a part in ushering a new, more just era in Walton County.
Dorcas Jernigan, one of the first two black students, along with Sallie Mae Robertson, to integrate Monroe Area High School in 1965:
Growing up, I realized early on, or I recognized, segregation. Any time you ventured out of your neighborhood, if you went shopping, downtown. I saw how my mother was treated when she was shopping. If she was making a purchase, she’d have to wait on all the white people were waited on before they waited on her.
And that just struck me, like, “What is going on?” And I was the kind of kid who pretty much said what I thought and I said, “Well you were here first. Why can’t you get waited on next?” And she would tell me “It’s OK, just be patient.”
There were businesses, like Brooks Bakery, that was a place we’d love to go, for cookies, donuts. And we would go in there as kids, we would walk downtown. We’d venture down there and we couldn’t get waited on until all the white customers were waited on. It infuriated me but there was nothing I could do about it. If I wanted the cookies, I’d just have to wait.
I had a couple friends, we would talk about it, but it was just the way it was. I think it made everybody angry, but what could you do, besides getting angry?
Billy Murray, who crossed over to Monroe Area High School the year after Jernigan:
The street that I lived on was Jackson Street. And we could sit on our front porch and we could see the white boys and girls on their bikes or walking along the road to go down to the recreation center and go swimming.
And, black kids were not allowed to swim in the same swimming pools as white kids. I believe that was when I realized there was a difference. I believe I was 5 or 6 when I realized there was a distinct difference.
Olia Pitts was a teacher in the school system when integration happened. She worked at Good Hope Elementary before, but moved to Monroe Elementary afterward:
Of course there was a big difference between the black and white schools.
The whites were given opportunities blacks were not. Whites were allowed to have what they wanted. For instance, books. We didn’t have what we needed to teach the children. We had what the white folk left. They were allowed to go in to get what they wanted, new or used, and we would be allowed to go the next day and pick up what they would have left. And they would have left only torn, ragged, whatever.
And the ones that we did get were abused and the students when they got their hands on them, they got books that the white students had been allowed to write in, and of course you now what they would write because they knew where they were going. They didn’t want them because they were getting new ones, so we had to use what they didn’t particularly want or we had to make our own.
Most of the times we would purchase ourselves with the few pennies we had and try to make something that was presentable to the children instead of the trash we were given.
We weren’t buying books, we were buying material construction paper, scissors and stuff like that to make lessons that were presentable to them, trying not to give them the trash we got, because that's what it was.
Jernigan: Then in the early ’60s people were getting fed up. And it wasn’t just here in Monroe. It was everywhere. So there was some civil unrest in the town. And the kids had started sit-ins in the restaurants, lunch counters, they were getting arrested and it was just news all over the place. And I remember thinking it was about time somebody does something instead of just saying, “That’s just the way it is.”
I was excited, but I was too young to get involved.
I think I was approached in the summer of ’64, when I was 13 years old, starting ninth grade that year. And I was approached, me and my parents, by Deacon Otis Smith (president of the local NAACP chapter) and some others about attending school.
Murray: I was told the schools were better equipped, as far as textbooks, facilities. For myself, when I went to college, I wanted to be a math major. My sophomore year, they didn’t have a math class on my schedule, and I was pretty upset about that. I don’t know exactly why I wasn't scheduled for those classes, but I wasn’t.
I felt my actions were something that should have occurred back in 1955 when schools were desegregated. Before I helped integrate Monroe Area High, I used to watch the news clippings of students trying to integrate the University of Georgia. There would be people out having rallies against the integration of the school by those black students. I felt like those folks had put their lives on the line and gone out and tried to force integration and the level they knew was just simply be in the particular space. And I felt just about the same way.
If you’ve got qualified students that are able to pass the courses and all that kind of stuff and they were black, you need to send them over to school to let people know that these folks are capable of learning. They should be given the best materials to succeed at being educated.
I felt like I was accepting to challenge to see whether or not you could do the work.
Jernigan: I was ready. I wanted to go. But my parents were more skeptical. But I was adamant that I wanted to go. And it was the first time I heard my parents talk about the Moore’s Ford lynchings. It was only about 18 years earlier, so it was fresh on their minds, but they never taught us anything about that.
And then when I heard them talk about it, it wasn’t for my ears, I was just eavesdropping because I wanted why they didn’t want me to go. They were concerned about the backlash, the probable, the possible backlash that they could face if I went to the school. And that’s when I heard my father saying something about the people they had lynched, and some people’s homes had been damaged, the KKK was burning crosses, that kind of stuff.
But they let me go.
It was the fall of ’65. One other girl, Sallie Robertson and I, attempted to enroll at Monroe Area Comprehensive High School. And everyone knew we were planning to do it, so we were escorted, my parents, police, and just a crowd of people. And I think the National Guard was there. I was just overwhelmed by all they people and why were they there?
So we got into the school and I know Dr. Clyde Pearce (the superintendent at the time) was there. And I think the principal was there, and they talked to us and told us they needed a little more time to prepare us, as well as the school. So they convinced us that we would wait until the second six weeks grading period, would be our first day there.
The first six-week grading period, we had meetings with the superintendent, the principal at Carver, we had IQ tests, grooming us to attend the school.
At the time I didn’t have any idea (why I was chosen.) But when I look back at it, I think, number one, I was smart. I was an A student. And number two, people probably thought I had, is “stamina” a good word? That I could survive, you know, in a hostile environment.
And I guess the third thing is that we accepted the challenge.
So we went back. I think it was kind of quiet this time. I just remember being escorted into my home class and being given a class schedule and showing me where the classes would be. And everything was pretty much OK.
Murray: I didn’t know anybody. So I didn’t conversate with anybody.
I called it “crawling the walls.” If I was going on the right-hand side, they would be as close to the opposite wall as they could, to be away from me. So I called them wall-crawlers.
Nobody spoke to me. I didn’t speak to anyone else. Only those folks who looked like me spoke to me. At lunch I usually sat by myself or with the other black kids who were there.
I felt like I had gone from one environment that was cordial and accepting to another environment that was hostile.
Jernigan: There were some students who were some bullies, some students who were angry we were there, and I could tell there were some teachers who were angry. Like, when we’re changing classes and all the teachers come to their doors and watch the traffic. Some of the kids would say horrible things. And they (the teachers) would just ignore it.
One thing, I’ll never ever forget. They had this little, well, they would have already rehearsed it. Somebody would say, “I smell a gar” and somebody would say “A ci-gar?” and somebody would say, “No, a ni-gar.”
And you know, some of the teachers would just ignore that. And I would look at those teachers, and I knew, they weren’t pleased that we were there.
And there were some teachers who were nice, who were professional, but they would pretend they didn’t see some of things that were going on.
I could tell the students who didn’t have a real problem with me being in the school. They were cordial. They were always pleasant. But they steered clear of friendship with me or just bonding with me, because they would be called nigger-lovers if they did.
There was one girl that befriended me, and I think she was called nigger-lover on several occasions. It just put them between a rock and hard place, and I understood that.
I just wanted people to know. We didn’t have tails. That’s some of the comments I would (hear). “Where’s her tail? Do you think it’s tucked into her underwear?” You know, stupid ignorant stuff like that.
Murray: They called me “Liver Lips.” Nowadays people are very sensitive to the N-word. When I went to school, I was upset with the use of the N-word, except that the people I was around changed the pronunciation and spelling of the word to make it acceptable.
So instead of being called “n-i-g-g-e-r,” they called me “n-i-g-r-a.” And it was worse to me because they knew better, they knew what the word was. And it was the teachers. Several of the teachers, they would say “nigra” and to me that word was more harsh than the n-i-g-g-e-r word.
I felt like they knew what the correct the pronunciation of the correct word was, but they chose to insult you by using “nigra” instead of Negro or nigger.
It was a brief two years that I had to be in the environment. It was never to point where I was being confronted or bullied. There were some words, but no physical violence was ever cast my way.
I did get in a fight at one juncture with a white kid. To this day, I don’t know what really, really prompted that encounter. I think I was probably as much at fault as he was. Words were said in passing in the hallway, and that’s what triggered the encounter.
Jernigan: By the time I got to 10th grade, most of that foolishness had stopped. I think they saw they couldn’t bully me. It didn’t work on me. They never saw me broken. I didn’t fight with anybody. And there was only one girl who pushed me to the point I wanted to slap her. She wet my clothes in PE. My clothes were in my locker and she went and put water on them. And I know who did it, but I just put them back on.
I never really got angry with anybody, and I think the fact that my grades were good, that kind of shut everyone up. Because the ones doing all that crazy stuff were failing or close to failing. I know I gained their respect.
But I didn’t have any friends. And it was OK. I didn’t sit with anyone at lunch. I sat by myself. It was OK.
When I was a sophomore, some other kids came over. And three or four of them were my cousins. So in the sophomore class, we had five or six other kids who came over. So that made it better, socially anyway.
Murray: My senior English professor, his name was Bill Dawson. He challenged me in all kinds of ways. He was willing to discuss just about anything and give alternative viewpoints on stuff.
In one of my English classes there was a young lady who had to give a presentation to the class. Now you had your top students and you had your bottom students and some type of way scheduling had gotten messed up and you had two groups of students in one class. Mr. Dawson would give us, the top students, assignments outside of the classroom.
This particular day, this young lady said, “Well, I need to give my presentation with all the class. I can’t give my presentation unless we have all the class.”
She came up and she said her discussion topic was why the black kids came to their white school, and she was going to represent the white students and she wanted me to represent the black students. The entire classroom was white except for myself.
She said, “They had their school and we had our school, and why couldn’t they just stay at their school?”
I responded the best I could about some of the inadequacies about the black school and my desire to have certain courses to move on further in my education.
I'll never forget what Mr. Dawson said. He literally defended my position. He said that those of you who sit around Billy, on the one hand you don’t like him, but on the other hand, you’re copying his paper. And then he made the statement: “I despise bigotry in any form.”
I can’t believe to tell you how happy and glad I felt to have one of my teachers go to my defense against this prejudice and bigotry.
And she (the white student) didn’t have a response. She knew it was true.
Jernigan: I never got up in the morning and said I don’t want to go anymore. It was difficult, but it wasn’t too difficult. I think I had a mentality, or a mission, that I wanted white folks to know that we were not dumb, that we were smart people, and in a lot of cases, smarter than them. So I was committed.
And I don’t care what they did, and they never did anything really horrible, other than their words. I just kind of let it roll off me.
I just wanted everyone to know that we were human too. It never crossed my mind to go back (to Carver).
By the time I was a senior, and I guess it was a maturation process, and the fact that my grades were better than theirs. And just the way I handled myself.
Somebody wrote in my yearbook that I didn’t have a lot to say, but when I did, it was something that needed to be said. So I guess by my senior year, I had blended in somewhat. But it was always there, and it's still there.
Jenny Burke was the daughter of Garfield Wilson, the superintendent of schools who oversaw the 1968 decision to fully integrate the schools. She was in elementary school at the time:
Dad would be gone a lot and my mom would always say, “Your daddy is doing something very important. You’ll see him when he gets home.”
My mom and my dad were of course very involved in the community, being the superintendent of schools and all. But once he started integrating the schools, that all went away. My mom especially, she really suffered socially.
One night my father was in a board meeting and my mom and my sisters were at home. And then all the sudden my mom told us that we were going to eat hot dogs and have a picnic in the bathroom. She stretched the phone cord all the way from the hallway to the bathroom to have the phone in there.
Of course we all thought this was very fun and all to, you know, have a picnic in the bathroom. It wasn’t until years later that she told us it because a bunch of KKK members had shown up and were milling around the front yard. They shielded us from what was happening.
Murray: It’s been over 50 years since all this happened, and I’ve spoken to maybe three or four people in my class.
It’s sort of lonely, I guess, when I look back at my high school. I left the environment over at Carver and I still had friends and acquaintances that I would have liked to developed deeper. And in the other situation, going to Monroe Area High, I look at some of the experiences the other students had, and it was like a parallel environment. The school activities, the plays, being at such and such house, going to the Monroe Drug Store for a soda in the afternoon, those things I did not experience.
So it’s almost like you’re insulated by a bubble, where there’s all this stuff going on around you, but you’re not really a part of it. You should have been a part of this group over here, but they don’t like you all that much, they don’t associate with you, they don’t talk to you, they don’t interact with you, you’re insulated.
When I was in school, I wanted to be part of the yearbook staff. I was never told directly I could not, but my application to whoever was never acknowledged. So one of the things I did when I got to college, I was on the yearbook staff. I was part of the newspaper, plays, the band, a fraternity.
Burke: We were always told to say yes sir and yes ma’am to everyone, no matter what their skin color was. We had exchange students and foster kids live with us, all kinds of people.
It wasn’t so much about color as about every human being getting treated with respect. I know he possibly had to do some difficult things but it wasn’t doing it because he had to. He did it because he was an educator and believed everyone deserved equal treatment.
That was the first time I heard the word “nigger.” It was just us kids out playing in the yard, arguing over some game and one of them told me, ‘Well your daddy is a nigger lover. That’s what my daddy said.”
And then of course us going to our parents and telling them what they said and them telling us that’s a word you never use.
Murray: Usually I don’t feel like I did anything historic. I didn’t cause mountains to shake and rumble and explode. I was not met with undue hostilities, although there was some. I always felt like at any time, violence could have erupted around me. I always felt vulnerable. As if there was someone watching me to have the opportunity to do me harm. You sort of knew you weren’t wanted.
I guess I opted for the trail of least resistance, and survived as best I could, knowing what obstacles lay in front of me. Maybe I did cater to my teachers to get reaffirmation because I certainly didn’t get it from the kids who were copying my paper.
Burke: We were there three years and then his contract was not renewed. That meant they fired him. And then he was looking for a job for a while and then he got hired in Thomas County, where he desegregated the schools there too.
(After Thomasville): I think he was asked to do it again and my mom said, no more, please.
He was a change agent, and once you’ve made the change, people don’t always want you around anymore.
Pitts: It was a slow improvement because there were so many people who grew up in segregation and they kept doing what they were doing. But then there would be someone that would maybe call them or challenge them on what they were doing, that this is change and you’re going to have to change.
It changed slowly, and there have been lots of changes, but I wouldn’t say enough. That's the way it went.
After integration, there weren’t as many as there should have been. For a while after integration, they had to fight for positions, because teachers were allotted by number of students on the classroom and all that stuff.
They did use predominantly white teachers, and they would fall back on the black ones. So a lot of time your security in a position depended on whether they needed any more white teachers, or if they had used them all.
It hasn’t been an easy thing and it isn’t what people want it to be or tell you about it. But those that will tell you about it were from the outside looking in. So it wasn’t the easiest thing, and it still isn't.
Jernigan: I see other kids I went to school with around. They’re very nice. I don’t see any hint of race being an issue. It’s just like we were schoolmates.
I remember years and years ago, I was recognized at a banquet, it may have been an NAACP banquet. And I just didn’t see myself as someone who should be recognized for doing what I did.
Only recently have I looked at this and said, “I guess this was something historical.” It was the beginning of integration in this county. But I didn’t see it that way. I just wanted people to know. I just wanted to prove a point. But I’d do it again.”
With my going, and Sallie going, and the kids that came over the second year, it was like ice breaking. It was paving the way.
• Dorcas Jernigan attended Spelman College after graduation. She worked at the corporate level for Sears, and then doing legal advertising for a newspaper in DeKalb. Today she works part time at First African Baptist church and lives in Loganville.
• Garfield Wilson went on to work in the Thomas County schools, which he helped desegregate. Afterwards, he took a job with Florida Department of Education. He died in 2007.
• Jenny Burke earned a doctorate degree in industrial and organizational psychology from the University of South Florida. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, where she does robotics research for Boeing.
• Billy Murray went on to attend Clark College in Atlanta on a music scholarship. He later became an air traffic controller, and worked in aviation in Georgia for 37 years. He’s retired and lives in Lilburn.
• Olia Pitts taught in the Walton County school system for 51 years, retiring in 2001. She taught every age throughout her long tenure. She still lives in Monroe.