Opening Doors: 60 Years After Brown v. Board of Education

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Opening Doors: 60 Years After Brown v. Board of Education

This year, the Metro Spirit is celebrating its 25th anniversary. As part of that celebration, the paper has decided to look back at some of its previous stories, including its feature about the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. This story, which was originally published in 2004, but has been updated, includes an extensive interview with the late Georgia Court of Appeals Judge and former civil rights attorney John H. Ruffin Jr.

Sixty years ago this week, Americans learned the world is not always simply black and white, sometimes it’s Brown.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that school segregation was unconstitutional because “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

This decision overturned the court’s previous “equal, but separate” ruling in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson and desegregation across the nation was ordered to begin.

In 1954, 17 states and the District of Columbia had segregated public school systems. Georgia was one of those states, and like many areas in the Deep South, change did not come easily.

“There is that opening line, ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times,’” the late Georgia Court of Appeals Judge and former civil rights attorney John H. Ruffin Jr. told the Metro Spirit in May 2004, quoting from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” “I think that best describes how it was back then. Segregation was a way of life at that time and we knew it was going to be a difficult road ahead. “But the mandate of Brown was clear. Things had to change.”

While the Supreme Court clearly ruled state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment, many cities across this country, including Augusta, resisted implementing integration.

“The school system had done absolutely nothing to prepare itself, nor the community,” Ruffin said in 2004, sitting in his office in Atlanta. “So, we knew we were moving into an area that required caution, common sense and, most of all, determination.”

 

kids in the class

 

Dr. James Carter III, a local historian and former director of minority affairs at the Medical College of Georgia, remembered when the Supreme Court announced its verdict.

“When Brown came down, I was in the eleventh grade at Lucy Laney High School and it was all over the news the next morning,” Carter told the Metro Spirit in 2004. “We used to watch the old ‘Today’ show every morning and I can remember all they were talking about was the Brown decision and what an impact it was going to have on the country.”

Like many black students in Augusta, Carter said he was not celebrating the possibility of having to attend a historically white high school.

“We feared that we would not be allowed to finish at Laney and that we would be shipped off to Richmond Academy,” Carter said. “I wanted to finish at Laney. I wanted my class ring from Laney. But little did I know, it would take 11 years after Brown before the first black student would attend Richmond Academy.

“From 1954 to 1965, the Richmond County Board of Education fiercely fought against complying with Brown. In fact, Augusta simply ignored it.”

Richmond County’s defiance was largely supported across the state.

In the 1950s, many extreme segregationists were in power throughout Georgia and many school boards deeply resented the Supreme Court’s ruling.

According to Donald L. Grant’s book, “The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia,” many politicians throughout Georgia nicknamed May 17, 1954 as “Black Monday.”

In fact, shortly after the Brown decision, then-Gov. Herman Talmadge, a one-time staunch segregationist, reportedly predicted “blood will run in Atlanta’s streets.”

A few months later, state lawmakers voted to make it a felony to teach a mixed racial class or use tax money for integrated schools. By 1955, the Supreme Court specifically instructed states to begin desegregating schools at “all deliberate speed.”

The Georgia Legislature responded by calling for the impeachment of the Supreme Court justices.

At the same time, several Augustans were also letting it be known that they did not support desegregation.

“Six weeks after the Brown decision, six people in Augusta asked the superior court for a charter for their new organization, the National Association for the Preservation of the White Race,” Grant wrote. “(Also) White Citizens’ Council and similar groups like the Georgia States’ Rights Council were organized to nullify the Brown decision. Roy V. Harris, publisher of the Augusta Courier and four-time speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, helped organize the first statewide meeting of the council in Augusta in December 1954.

“While the council was nicknamed ‘the white collar Klan,’ with some justification, the middle-class segregationists in councils shied away from Klan terrorism.”

As resistance to the Brown decision mounted, Carter said black schools in Richmond County were continuing to suffer from poor funding and ill-equipped facilities.

“There were obvious imbalances in the way the school system worked,” Carter said in 2004. “For example, Lucy Laney had a biology laboratory and a chemistry laboratory that had nothing but desks in them.

“I know because my mother was a chemistry teacher. And she had to go to the local pharmacist to get them to donate chemicals for her classes’ experimentations. Then, the parents raised money to buy the equipment like test tubes and Bunsen burners.”

In comparison, Richmond Academy’s biology lab was fully equipped, Carter said.

As the years passed and Richmond County continued to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling, members of the black community realized action needed to be taken to force Augusta schools to comply, Ruffin recalled back in 2004.

“The Supreme Court left integration of the schools up to the discretion of the local boards without any timetable,” Ruffin said in 2004. “It was completely open-ended. And as a result of the open-endedness, it allowed those persons who were opposed to desegregation to galvanize their efforts.”

 

Judge-John-H.-Ruffin-wide

 The late Georgia Court of Appeals Judge John H. Ruffin Jr.

Finally, by the early 1960s, Ruffin said, Augusta’s chapter of the NAACP, headed by the late Rev. C.S. Hamilton of Tabernacle Baptist Church, went before the Richmond County Board of Education and requested it abide by the Supreme Court’s order.

“We didn’t expect the board to comply,” Ruffin told the Metro Spirit in 2004. “We knew we would have to take legal action. So, we had to find some plaintiffs for a lawsuit against the board.

“We didn’t need persons who were timid. We needed persons who would be able to withstand the pressure.”

The Fight for Education

In 1964, Willie and Gladys Acree knew the difficulties of living in a segregated society.

The couple worked tirelessly each day to raise their five children in a modest home on Branch Street near the Turpin Hill neighborhood.

“It was always my husband’s prayer that God would let his children get an education because he did not get one,” Gladys Acree told the Metro Spirit in 2004, sitting in her living room surrounded by several family photos. “And I knew my children couldn’t have gotten by with what I got by on because I only went through high school. And high school, at that time, only went through the eleventh grade.

“So, we both wanted something better for our children.”

However, the Acrees differed on what kind of education they wanted for their children.

Willie Acree was determined that his children should receive instruction in an integrated school, where he believed they would have a better opportunity to learn. Gladys Acree was convinced that her children should stay in a segregated system, but force the Richmond County Board of Education to better fund Augusta’s black schools.

“In the black schools, we didn’t have any white students but our children learned quite a bit because the teachers cared about our kids,” Gladys Acree said. “It wasn’t about race, it was about learning.”

Gladys Acree was concerned that if the students were integrated, racial tension within the schools would interfere with her children’s education. Because, as a child growing up in rural Georgia, she remembered how insensitive some of the white students could be to the black children.

“I had to walk to school – six miles in the morning and six miles in the afternoon,” Gladys Acree said in 2004. “And the white children would have buses to ride and each day, as they would pass by, they’d throw spit balls at us. It was rough.

“Back then, we didn’t worry about it. We were used to it. But I didn’t want to see that kind of thing happen to my children.”

But Gladys Acree’s second oldest son, Robert, was already challenging Augusta’s segregation laws.

“We lived in Turpin Hill and, because we had one car and my dad drove it to work, we utilized public transportation a lot,” said Robert Acree by phone from his office in Charlotte, N.C. where he is now a housing consultant. “Well, I spent more time moving from the back of the bus to the front of the bus because I refused to sit in the back of the bus. So, my parents would find me in jail more often than not because the drivers would always call the police.”

Robert Acree, then a senior at Lucy Laney High School and vice president of Augusta’s NAACP youth chapter, also ran into some trouble with local citizens when he attempted to eat at H.L. Green’s lunch counter in downtown.

“I was beaten by many citizens of Augusta who would drag us from lunch counters and take us outside,” Robert Acree said. “But we had no fear back then because we were there for a greater calling.”

Acree v. Board of Education of Richmond County

In 1964, Ruffin approached the Acree family about allowing him to add Robert Acree’s name to a lawsuit he was filing against the Richmond County Board of Education to force the school system to comply with Brown v. Board of Education.

“My dad agreed because he and my mom always kept our family enlightened to the fact that Augusta could be a better place without segregation,” Robert Acree said in 2004.

Ruffin told the Metro Spirit that he filed the discrimination lawsuit against the school board to force Richmond County to integrate schools, not because he thought black teachers were providing students with a poor education, but because the black schools were terribly underfunded.

“We didn’t take the position that black students couldn’t learn without white students. We knew black students could learn,” Ruffin said in 2004. “What was happening was, the money the board of education was spending was going to the white schools and not being properly divided between all the schools in Richmond County, both black and white.

“So, we filed the lawsuit because we thought that the better education would be were the money was.”

 

integration photo

 

While the segregated system was clearly unfair, Robert Acree said the black community was definitely blessed with quality teachers.

“Basically, black schools took the brunt of whatever the white schools didn’t want. We got their leftovers, in terms of supplies,” Robert Acree said. “But the good part about the situation was we had the most dedicated teachers back then.

“Those teachers knew that segregation existed and they knew that the system was unfair, but desegregation was not a goal for them. Shaping the minds of black children was their primary goal.”

The 1964 lawsuit, Acree v. Board of Education of Richmond County resulted in a 1972 desegregation order by the U.S. District Court for the board to integrate schools through a number of conditions such as providing a racially balanced, certified staff and equal educational opportunities throughout the school system.

Ruffin said the school board’s initial response to the order actually hurt local black students’ opportunity for a quality education.

“What happened was, the good black teachers, for the most part, were taken out of the black schools and sent to white schools,” Ruffin said. “But most inexperienced white teachers were sent to the black schools. And the best white teachers stayed at the white schools.

“That was a very horrific burden for black kids to bear. And as I look back upon Acree, that was almost unforgivable.”

It also became common practice that white teachers were told their positions in black schools were only temporary.

“Some white teachers were sent into the black schools with the understanding that, ‘If you agreed to stay here a year, we’ll transfer you,’” Ruffin said in 2004. “It created a lot of turmoil in the system.”

The 1972 order eventually resulted in massive busing requirements in order to ensure that schools were properly integrated.

“I never asked the board for the students to be bused,” Ruffin said. “However, I never opposed it either because busing has been a part of education for years and therefore, busing is not intrinsically bad.”

During the course of the lawsuit, Ruffin said, some members of the white community were very vocal in their objection to the suit.

“I received a lot of threats, many of which were not communicated directly to me,” Ruffin said in 2004. “My secretary took most of the calls and she shielded me from them.

“But I don’t think you can work for civil rights and be afraid. To me, the mandate of Brown was clear and my responsibility was to make sure that it was followed in Augusta. My only fear was, I thought if I didn’t do it, it might not get done.”

Robert Acree believes Augusta has truly benefited as a result of his 1964 lawsuit. He’s only sorry that his father never lived to see Richmond County Schools integrated.

Willie Acree Sr. died in 1965, one year after the lawsuit was filed.

“My father would be elated,” Acree said. “He would be very, very happy to see what has happened in Augusta, knowing that we had a small, minute affect on what was going on in the city of Augusta.”

Willie Acree would also be pleased to hear that after his death, Gladys Acree made sure that all five of his children followed his advice and put education first.

“When my husband died, Frederick, my youngest, was 5 years old,” Gladys Acree said, adding that she took a job doing housework in order to support her family at the time. “I had to raise all the children with the help of God. And with God’s support, all of my children went to college. So, I’m real proud of them.”

And the Acree legacy continues.

In 2004, Traci Murry, Robert Acree’s niece, was in Augusta preparing for her upcoming May 17 graduation from Clarke Atlanta University where she will receive her master’s degree in business.

“I’m very proud of my family,” Murry said, sitting in her grandmother’s house. “That case has changed history in Augusta. But this city still has a long, long way to go. The schools are still segregated, especially in our downtown areas and that needs to change.”

“My goal is to eventually come back to Augusta and really take care of my community. Maybe even run for office,” Murry added, smiling. “So, my family is not done yet.”

The Past Always Returns

When Augustans look back at the city’s history, Carter, the local historian, said it’s no surprise that desegregation was such a battle in Richmond County.

Unbeknownst to many present day Augustans, one of the nation’s most monumental segregation cases, which resulted in decades of legalized discrimination against black students seeking a high school education, began in Richmond County.

The 1899 case of Cumming v. School Board of Richmond County first started when the school board agreed in 1880 to establish the first public black high school in Augusta called Ware High School, named after Atlanta University president Edmund Ware.

It was the only public high school for blacks in the entire state of Georgia.

“Up until then, Richmond County only had elementary schools for blacks,” Carter said in 2004. “So a bunch of black people got together and started to go to the board meetings in 1878 and petitioned the board to create a black high school.

“The board only did so on the condition that the blacks provided a building, totally outfitted with everything the school needed. So, the board said, ‘Well, we’ll send the teachers, but you get your own building.’”

 

kids photo

 

Even though the board already operated and funded two other public high schools – the Academy of Richmond County for white, young men, and the Tubman School for white, young ladies – the black community felt it had no choice but to agree with the board’s conditions.

Black citizens found a building for the new high school along Reynolds Street, where the former Georgia Golf & Gardens was located.

“So, in 1880, the school started,” Carter said in 2004. “They hired a man named Richard Wright, who is from Rome, Georgia to be principal. Richard Wright had been very well acquainted with Augusta because he and Lucy Laney were classmates at Atlanta University.”

The school thrived until 1895, when Wright was asked to go to Savannah to establish a school called the Georgia State Training School for Colored Youth, now known as Savannah State University.

“When Richard Wright left, they had a series of people who were assigned to go to Ware, but the school’s support began to dwindle because there were other private schools starting up, too,” Carter said. “For instance, Lucy Laney had started up the Haines Institute. And Charles T. Walker, founder of Tabernacle Baptist Church, had started the Walker Baptist Institute. Paine (College) had also started up a high school.”

With three private black high schools in the area, the board of education decided there was no need to continue to support Ware High School.

On July 10, 1897, the school board, citing the need for more black elementary schools, and claiming that the school system was suffering from a financial hardship, voted to close Ware High and use it’s funding to support black elementary schools in the area.

“Well, blacks got together and they sued the board of education,” Carter said. “And they went all the way to the Supreme Court.”

The lawyers for Augusta’s black plaintiffs argued that the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896 allowed states to establish racial segregation only if the accommodations and public facilities are equal.

“The local attorneys who defended the board said that blacks had the opportunity to go to school because they had private schools and the tuition wasn’t that expensive,” Carter said. “So therefore, the board said, ‘We don’t have to provide a school for you at all. You’ve got schools. Go to those.’”

The Supreme Court ruled in the board’s favor and Georgia’s only public black high school was forced to close its doors.

“So, for 40 years, from 1898 to the fall of 1937, there was no public high school in Augusta for black people,” Carter said.

Little did Augusta know that the outcome of the Cumming case would have a much greater impact across the country than simply closing one black high school.

“The Cumming case actually set the stage for Brown almost 50 years later because it dealt with the same issue,” Carter said in 2004. “That’s what makes the Cumming case so important. So, in celebrating Brown, we also celebrate Cumming.”

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