The year is 1968 in Athens, Georgia. It’s fall, and school is starting over again. It was late August and the air was cool and brisque.
Excitement and anxiety were the two emotions Izora Smith Jackson felt for her first day at Gainesville Elementary School.
She was excited because she would teach children to read, write and understand the world around them.
“The principal sat me down and said that I would be the first ´negra´ teacher and my response was, ‘If you could touch your knee and add grow together, then you could pronounce my race as negro,’” said Jackson.
She was anxious because she would be the first African-American woman to integrate in Gainesville Elementary.
Segregation began legally in 1896 after the Plessy v. Ferguson case, where a Creole black man, Homer Plessy, sued the state of Louisiana for arresting him for sitting in the white, first class section of a train cart. Due to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the decision of separated facilities for black and white people did not violate the 14th amendment, segregation was viewed as legal.
This decision allowed states to issue their own laws for segregation. “Separate but equal” became the slogan for facilities to justify discrimination for the next 58 years.
Being that she was born into segregation and discrimination, Jackson knew personally what hate looked and sounded like.
“They gave us used books with mold in them while the ‘white’ schools got the newer editions. Everything was used. They didn’t think blacks were worthy of an education. They didn’t care about us. We were second class citizens,” said Jackson.
Johnnie Lay Burks, who integrated Chase Street Elementary School in 1966 as a teacher, shared similar experiences during her childhood decades earlier.
“My life before integration was very good. My mother was my elementary principal, so education has always been important in my family. Colored schools had older buildings and used books that the white schools passed on. Pages were missing, science laboratories were limited or non-existent,” said Burks.
The Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court case and decision broke the race barrier by desegregating schools, starting with the elementary level in 1954.
On January 6, 1961, Georgia began integrating their schools starting with the University of Georgia. Georgia’s legal segregation ended around the early 1970s, and Jim Crow Laws began its downturn.
“Country schools in rural Georgia didn’t integrate until much later. I really don’t remember when they did. All black schools shut down, but the white ones remained open,” Jackson adds.
Former elementary school teachers in Clarke County had varying experiences with integration.
“Some people were afraid to have their kids in my classroom. Some people would pay people to move their kids out of my room. People would observe my class to see if I really knew what I was doing. I remember when the elementary supervisor observed and we had a reading test and I hadn’t checked them yet. When she asked to grade them, I said sure, and she was impressed that all the kids passed. All I thought was ‘at least I have a job’,” said Jackson.
Burks’ encounter with integration was more docile.
“The parents were receptive. They wanted a good teacher. at the end of the year, they told me the children really have been taught, and they wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Burks. “I wasn’t teaching half as hard at Chase Street [ Elementary] as I was at East Athens because there were economic deprivations in the East Athens community: poverty, lack of resources, and so forth. I had to make up that deficit.”
One thing that is common with these experiences of teaching was the joy and hope the women received and gave.
“I worked to help students grow and become the best they could be by helping them to focus on developing thinking, reading, math and process skills. I also helped them to develop character and to learn to dream,” says Burks.
“Integration was a challenge, but I grew up in a time where that was acceptable . . . I enjoyed teaching and observing young children grow and develop into bigger and better challenges. The career is priceless, and I enjoyed it for thirty-four years,” said Jackson.
Last September, Athens- Clarke County celebrated the 50th Anniversary of integration with an event honoring living and deceased teachers and faculty. The Golden Anniversary event featured stories from retirees about the trials the newly integrated county faced.
“I want the community to know that everybody isn’t bad, that we got children still trying to do somethings, and we need to reach out and touch them,” said Burks.
The event brought people from different states and varied ages to celebrate other cities and counties change in societal The three hour ceremony honored the men and women that helped shape the school system into what it has become today. Without those who pushed for equality, the school system would not be what it is currently.
Still, Burks believes changes must continue.
“I have no Idea what needs to happen, but I know that we cannot continue down the path we are on now. Parental involvement is a must. Socioeconomic divisions still exist. Clarke County still has a high poverty rate, and that has not changed in the last fifty years. The entire community must look at what needs to be done so that the school district can educate our children. We must have the board of education members of the future — millennials, and retire those long term members from the past.],” said Burks.