Given the panel that Marvin Nunnally assembled for his presentation on Sunday on African-American History in Oconee County, it was almost inevitable that school desegregation would become the focal point of much of the discussion.
The four female panel members all had links to Oconee County Schools as students, teachers, or the children of teachers.
The four speakers had different perspectives on the integration of the schools, with one panel member at one point turning to a teacher, who described the experience in mostly positive terms, and saying as a student her experience was quite different and negative.
Nunnally, the Economic Development Coordinator at Athens Technical College, began his presentation in the History Lecture Series at the Oconee County Library by telling his audience that the story of African-Americans in Oconee County they were about to hear was very incomplete.
To broaden the coverage just a bit, he asked one member of the audience to talk about the politics of the county.
And Nunnally, who is writing a history of Oconee County, took time to point out that the first African-American church in the county formed in 1864 outside Farmington.
Unstated throughout the session was the point that African-American History is and has been for a long time an integral part of the history of the county.
In his brief overview of the past and present of Oconee County at the front of his presentation, Nunnally said that the 2020 U.S. Census lists the population of Oconee County at more than 40,000. (The actual figure is 41,799.)
He said that 4.5 percent were African-American, or 1,897 individuals.
As the session progressed, Nunnally made the point that the number of African-Americans in the county has grown in recent years, but the number of members of other categories has increased even more.
In the 2010 Census, Oconee County had 1,635 persons classified as African-American, which was 5.0 percent of the population.
In 1900, Oconee County had 4,413 African-American residents, who made up 51.3 percent of the population, and that number increased to 5,162 in 1910.
The actual number of African-Americans in Oconee County dropped to 1,396 in 1960, 1,272 in 1970, 1,268 in 1980, and then increased to 1,315 in 1990.
Desegregation of Oconee County Schools in 1968 was when between 22.1 percent (1960) and 16.1 percent (1970) of the county’s population was African-American.
The meeting room at the Library was nearly full for the Sunday afternoon session, and the crowd remained throughout the two-hour session.
Nunnally, standing at the podium, first introduced the four women seated at the table to his right and then addressed his first question to Venolia Laster, who, with Nunnally, plays a leadership role at Bethel Baptist Church, 53 North Main Street, in Watkinsville.
“When you were a little girl, growing up in Oconee County, what was it like?” Nunnally asked.
Laster said she started her education in a small building behind Bethel Baptist Church before going to Rosenwald School when she was five years old. She then moved to E.D. Stroud School, from which she graduated in 1959.
After leaving Stroud, Laster went to Ft. Valley State College before returning to Oconee County, where she worked in the Oconee County Senior Center for 35 years.
Rosenwald and E.D. Stroud were on the site of what is now Colham Ferry Elementary School.
E.D. Stroud, now incorporated into Colham Ferry Elementary, was built in 1960 as a replacement for the Rosenwald School “as part of Georgia’s massive resistance to federally mandated school integration,” according to the historical marker on the site.
“We didn’t have buses,” Laster told Nunnally. “We walked to school. In fact, our teachers had to walk to school.”
When someone from the audience asked Laster if Rosenwald and Stroud were segregated, she showed surprise.
“By all means, yes,” she said.
Daughter Of Teachers
Nunnally next turned to Linda Davis, whose mother taught at three different Black schools in Oconee County, including at Rosenwald. Davis now represents District 3 on the Clarke County School District Board of Education.
Elder said her paternal grandfather, Anthony Elder, and paternal grandmother, Laura Elder, are buried in an Elder cemetery on SR 15 south of Watkinsville.
“A lot of my family is buried there,” she said. “But the Elders are huge in Oconee County. We actually are members of every Black church. It just depends on which church you were close to or which church you were in favor of.”
Davis said her father told her he attended a school with all of the grades in one building.
An audience member asked Davis if there were White teachers in the Black Schools.
She said there were not.
Nunnally turned next to Wilhelmina Bowels, his fifth grade teacher who also taught him in high school. Nunnally said he graduated from Oconee County High School in 1977.
Bowles, a native of Birmingham, Ala., said she came to Oconee County in 1964 after attending Miles College in a suburb of Birmingham.
“I participated in the Movement,” Bowles said, referring to the Civil Right Movement.
“The Movement was so very important,” she said. “We were taught that we were to take what we learned from the Movement and to go out and to do what we could to help make a difference.”
“So I was going to be a social worker, and I was going to go to New York,” she said. “But everybody kept saying you ought to be a teacher.”
After accepting a job in Oconee County and arriving in Athens, Bowles said, she visited Watkinsville, looking for a boarding house where she could live.
“It was kind of dark,” she said. “I’m coming from Birmingham. We didn’t have a whole lot of lights, but we had lights. So I said I’ll just take what you’ve got in Athens.”
She commuted to Oconee County from Athens and taught her first two years at Stroud.
Daughter Of The Principal
Linda Scotland Fair, the fourth speaker, said she was six months old when she moved to Oconee County for her father to take a job as an agriculture teacher.
At the time, she said, a cannery was located where the administrative offices for Oconee County Schools currently are located on School Street in Watkinsville.
“There were certain days that Black people could work at the cannery,” she said. There were certain days that White people could work at the cannery. But that, too, came to an end because people were working together, they were farming.”
“It was more of a family type situation, though we still had segregation,” she said. “People worked together. It was a community thing.”
“People worked together in spite of segregation to a certain point,” she said.
She was a senior in high school at Stroud in 1965-66, she said, where her father had become the principal, the year before Oconee County Schools were integrated.
Fair went to Ft. Valley State College and the University of Georgia and got her first teaching job in Oconee County, where she taught for 33 years.
“I feel like Oconee County is a rich county,” Fair said. “It has a lot of history. There is a lot of good. There is a lot of bad. That is the human part of us.”
Bowels turned the conversation back to the integration of Oconee County Schools in 1967-68.
“We did not have a great big ado,” she said. “The faculties worked together. When we came over from E.D. Stroud and the other schools and were integrated into the faculties, we all met together and talked.”
“We worked together to make sure that everything was peaceful and that everybody learned how to respect each other,” she said. “That was one of the biggest things. Was learning how to respect each other.”
“It all depends on how you show respect for each other,” she continued. “The faculties blended together. We can’t say that everybody was lovey-dovey. We blended together.”
A member of the audience pointed out that the Supreme Court Decision rejecting segregation in public education was handed down in 1954, and Bowles and others were talking about integration in Oconee County in 1967-68.
“How do you reconcile that difference?” the member of the audience asked.
“Please understand once again, you are in the deep south,” Nunnally said. “There was a resistance, sir, with regard to wanting to integrate.”
Nunnally said during segregation one or two buses “picked up all of the Black kids and brought them to Rosenwald or E.D. Stroud.”
Nunnally said one of those buses was driven by “Mr. Jones” and “his bus was probably one of the raggediest buses that there was. But he was a mechanic also, so he made it work.”
“Because Oconee County would not, did not, provide him with an adequate bus to pick up our children,” Nunnally said. “And there were a lot of students that were walking to school. They had to walk to school.”
“Things were not equal,” Nunnally said. “And people were resistant. And people were trying to change the law. And you were still fighting with Jim Crow. Jim Crow Law. You were still fighting with it.”
Davis said she integrated middle school in Clarke County and “That experience for me was relatively traumatic in that I left an environment where I had nurturing teachers that cared about me to teachers that often ignored me.”
|Bowels And Davis|
“You just didn’t feel like you were connected necessarily,” Davis said. “So the beauty of that is that our connectedness to our community made all of the difference in the world to me.”
“I don’t know that there was much hatred spewed at anybody,” she said. “But there was isolation.”
“We never saw each other in classes,” Davis said of the other Black students in the school. “We might see each other in home room. But they managed to keep us separated throughout the entire day. That was traumatic.”
Teachers may have had the wherewithal to have those conversations,” Davis said, turning to Bowels.
“The children,” she said, “the parents made the decisions for them with the encouragement of organizations that we will stand behind you.”
“I certainly have total love and respect for all of the teachers because we couldn’t have survived without that,” she said.
Of the isolation, she said, students are still experiencing that today.
Fair responded to the sense of isolation.
“Part of the time, I was the only Black teacher also in that school,” Fair said. “Starting out, you always felt, to be honest with you about it, that you always had to do twice as good as the person right next door to you.”
“I’ve had a bunch of parents during that time, they would walk up and say, ‘Oh, what school did you go to? Why are you here? Your eyes are not as dark as they should be. Are you mixed?’ Fair said. “I’ve had all of that happen to me.”
“In terms of the way things were, I’m so happy to hear that it is not like that any more to a certain point,” Fair said. “None of us should ever be judged by our color.”
“None of us should be concerned with well I live in a trailer or I live in a mansion. That’s not what is going to get us,” she said. “And we cannot live in this world alone. It is very important that we try to get along with each other.”
Marvin Nunnally asked his cousin, Rev. Joseph Nunnally, to come forward from the audience and respond to the question: “Why have we not had as many African Americans to be successful in this county” in politics.
“I am the only person of color to run for political office in Oconee County and actually win,” Rev. Nunnally said. He said he ran for the Democratic Party nomination for a seat on the Board of Education in 1992.
“I was honored to win the Democratic primary,” he said. “I did not win the general election.”
“The South is different. It’s different. It’s different,” he said. “Some things have changed, but still there is a lot of hatred when it comes to the political aspects of things. There is still some people that their mind sets are so archaic in nature that it is really sad.”
Rev. Nunnally said he has been recruited recently to run for office again but so far has declined.
“I would like to begin to build a relationship with people so they will see the quality of who I am,” he said. “Not the skin color. Not the political party affiliation. But somebody who brings something to the table.”
Marvin Nunnally near the end of the two-hour session turned to the formation of Black churches in the county.
After Mt. Zion Baptist church formed in 1864 on Freeman Creek Road outside Farmington, he said, Walnut Grove Baptist Church began to hold services in 1865 on SR 15 south of Watkinsville.
Shady Grove Baptist Church on Mars Hill Road formed in 1867, he said, and the first Black Masonic Lodge was founded there on those same grounds.
Salem African Methodist Episcopalian Church Farmington formed on Salem Road in 1874, he said, and Hilsboro Baptist Church came in existence in 1875 in North High Shoals.
“A lot of these are family churches,” Nunnally said. “What happened is that some church would meet on first Sunday. Another church would meet on second Sunday. Third Sunday. Or Fourth Sunday. So you got a chance back in the day to rotate throughout the community and go to all of these different churches.”
Nunnally’s church, Bethel Baptist Church, formed in 1881, he said.
Nunnally said financing the Black churches was very difficult.
Most of those attending were share croppers, he said, as was the case with his grandparents.
“I’m not going to say that the owners of the farms were fair,” he said. “They were not.”
“They were not fair to my grandparents and others as well who worked all harvest season long doing stuff, and at the end of the year, ‘Well Mr. Nunnally, look like you in the red this year.’ They heard that time and time again.”
“Life was not fair,” Nunnally said. “But we learned a lot. And we survived. And I’m very, very proud of that.”
Nunnally gave each of the four women at the front of the room a chance to offer a closing comment.
“When I came to Oconee, the kids told me, asked me, if I was going to take them out to pick some cotton,” Bowles said. “It was the picture they had of all African Americans.”
“I told them, all African Americans do not pick cotton,” she said. “My daddy worked at U.S. Steel.”
“They want to take everything out of our history,” Bowles said. “In ordering a textbook once, one thing I had to tell a lady: Never would a grandchild of a slave teach about slavery as being just an economic system.”
“Those are things you have to watch,” Bowles said. “You have to include and teach your people about life. If you don’t know what happened, you can’t keep it from happening again.”
“I also would ask that we work diligently to tell the whole story,” Davis said. “I think that until we know and can honor and appreciate that, we are definitely operating at a deficit.”
“God put us here for a reason,” Laster said. “And that reason is we are here because we need each other. Somewhere along the way, we are going to need each other.”
“This has been an enlightening day,” Fair said. “I think not just for me, but for all of us.”
The video below is of the entire presentation on African-American History in Oconee County.
Ann Hollifield recorded the video.
Thanks for the recording and the reporting of much of the conversation. I'm glad the event was well attended! When I student taught in Oconee in 1991 I learned a lot about the dynamics between White students and Black students. And although there were those teachers who treated the students equally, there were definitely those teachers who did not.
The issue is centuries old and put to bed by most rational humans.
The term "racism" is incorrect as most people define it.
The correct words are "bigotry" and "prejudice," and I will argue strongly
that white bigots are unusual and are clearly castigated and avoided.
To quote Morgan Freeman's answer to Mike Wallace: "Stop talking about it!"
By the way, 1991 was 31 years ago. When will we let this history die?
Bigotry and prejudice do not appear out of thin air. They appear as a result of beliefs, and in this case it's racism.
Lee - I know you've had more than a full plate lately of reporting, so thank you for covering this important discussion of Oconee County history. These are stories and lessons that continually need to be told if they are part of our goal for a fair and equitable society.
Really, Bill, we should let "history" die or just the parts that make us uncomfortable? Citizens need to know history; both the great things humans have accomplished and the bad things humans inflicted on others. We need to be able to celebrate the good parts and vow not to repeat the bad parts, together as one country. It is valuable to discuss both. It is clear from the questions asked that citizens are interested in learning.
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