It would be hard for today’s youth to imagine a time when the color of one’s skin determined which school they would be allowed to attend.
But that was a fact of life in America before the Civil Rights Movement. Blacks attended “black schools” and whites attended “white schools.”
Today, Franklin County is able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of desegregation in its public school system.
In May 1965, the Franklin County School Board announced, as was required by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that it would begin desegregation of its schools.
The school board’s original plan was to desegregate only four grade levels during the first year – first, eighth, 10th and 12th – but school officials in Washington found that plan to be “insufficient.” The school board then submitted a new plan implementing the desegregation of all 12 grades.
In an August 1965 article in The Franklin News-Post, the school board released its plan for total desegregation. Parents would be given what was called “freedom of choice” in choosing the school their child would attend that fall.
“The purpose of the plan is to operate the schools in all respects without regard to race, color or national origin,” the plan read. “All 12 grades will be desegregated effective in the fall of 65. This freedom of choice means that parents may select now any school in the county, no matter whether it has been in the past white or Negro.”
The fall of 1965 saw the first black students to ever attend Franklin County High School.
While there were a number of underclassmen sprinkled throughout the school, only five black seniors elected to enroll in FCHS that year. They were Priscilla Coger, Joan Holland, Larry Holland, Lucy Witcher and Yvonne Wright.
“The principal of FCHS at that time was Bruce M. Kent, who oversaw the process, and skillfully so in my view,” said Ned Armstrong, a white member of the Class of 1966. “Across the United States, incidents of ugly violence had accompanied desegregation of the schools, but to my knowledge, no such disruptions took place here. I was a typical self-centered, 17-year-old and therefore oblivious to most of the events swirling about. It is important to recognize that attitudes were much different at that time, and a person with ‘liberal’ views then might be considered hopelessly racist by today’s standards.”
The lack of violent incidents in the county didn’t necessarily mean the transition was easy for black students.
Lucy (Witcher) Swain was enrolled in FCHS that year along with her brother, Sam, who was entering 10th grade.
“Our parents made us go,” said Swain. “I didn’t want to go to FCHS, not because I was afraid, but because it was senior year for me. I wanted to stay at my same school and do all the things kids got to do during senior year.”
Although it was a tough year, Swain said, they made it through.
“There was a little skepticism at first, but it wasn’t that bad at school,” Swain said. “I grew up around white people, so it wasn’t so bad for me. I stuck close to my brother. There was a lot of prejudice and racism from both whites and blacks, but we had to be stronger than that. You could even feel the prejudice from the teachers, but they tried to hide it and teach us all the same.”
There was, however, one reported name-calling incident involving five white and two black students that took place on a school bus that year.
The Franklin News-Post reported that, upon learning of the incident, school board members voted unanimously to charge school principals with taking proper action, “which could include suspension from school or denial of the privilege of riding a bus to and from school.”
Dr. Harold W. Ramsey, then superintendent of schools, said it was the only incident reported during the first week of the new desegregation plan.
“All in all, things are going very well,” he told school board members during a meeting in 1965.
“The school bus was the worst,” said Swain. “I never got in a fight at school and we made it through the day there. But on the bus, it was another story. It was only a 15-minute ride, but it was 15 minutes of hell. We did get some scars, but we learned a lot of lessons.”
Linda Edwards, who was a junior that year, was made to enroll in FCHS, along with three of her younger sisters.
“My parents said they couldn’t let my younger sisters go to that school without my protection,” said Edwards. “I had to protect them every single day.”
According to her recollection, more than one incident occurred on the school bus, and some incidents turned physical.
“On the bus, it was a fight every day just to sit down,” she said. “And then, I was sent to the principal’s office for fighting. There was no choir, band or sports for me because it took everything I had to get us all to school each day on that bus. And then we had to think all day about how we had to get back on the bus that afternoon.”
Edwards said she missed her school (Lee M. Waid) and the teachers there.
“We were coming from a place where teachers hugged us and loved us, to a place where we were thankful if the teacher didn’t call us the n-word,” she said. “I was told by one teacher that a (n-word) would never make an ‘A’ in her class. I felt like it was pointless to go to school and try my best because I wasn’t going to make an ‘A.’ I felt like a bodyguard every day instead of a student.”
The experience made Edwards who she is today, so she doesn’t complain too much, she said.
“I do laugh at the expression ‘freedom of choice,’ though, because it was not a choice, it was more of a responsibility to attend FCHS,” she said. “My parents knew that, but it took me a long while to appreciate it, not just for us, but for the entire African-American community.”
Reflecting back on that time, Kent praised one of the students in a letter written to Armstrong in 1999. In the letter, Kent remembered doubting the wisdom of Priscilla Coger and her parents for requesting that she be placed in college-preparatory classes.
“I granted her request because I was impressed by her appearance, her manner and her spoken command of the English language,” Kent wrote. “Students and teachers woke up to the fact that segregated schools are not and cannot be equal. Priscilla Coger’s progress caused me to lose about three-fourths of my racial bias. Her performance made a large dent in what remained of my own prejudice.”
Kent went on to mention his address to Lee M. Waid students that spring on what they could expect at FCHS.
“Much to my surprise, Mr. Lester (then principal of Lee M. Waid) introduced me to his students as the ‘Unsung Heroes of School Desegregation in Franklin County,’” Kent wrote. “In my heart, that compliment is the only memory that exceeds the naming of the Bruce M. Kent Track Field.”
The following school year saw the end of “Freedom of Choice,” as the courts deemed it “too limited.”
“I would have to say that that year was not a good one,” said Swain. “We survived it though. You could feel the hate. Hate is a tough and terrible thing.”
(Editor’s Note: The News-Post was unable to reach the other four courageous black students from Franklin County High School’s Class of 1966.)