Celebrating the first five

60 years after five African American students became the first Black students in Athens to attend then all-white schools, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) hosted a panel discussion at the Vernon Payne Meeting Hall on Sept. 17. 

Moderated by WUGA radio host Alexia Ridley, the panel of five former CCSD students discussed their groundbreaking experiences during the height of segregation in 1963.

“It (leading the panel) was exciting and a little nerve wracking. I have to admit I was a bit nervous because you want to do this justice. These students took on a Herculean task and I wanted to get it right,” Ridley said.

Agnes Green, Bonnie Hampton, Scott Michael Killian and sisters Wilucia Green and Marjorie Green from Clarke County transferred to three previously all-white schools in the area: Athens High School (now Clarke Central), Clarke County Junior High School and Chase St. Elementary School. 

“I described (during the panel) this parting of the waters, people were standing on the side looking at us, but nobody approached us to be friendly. For us it was a new experience, the damage was a new experience, because they had never had Black children in their school. So it was a unique experience for everybody,” Dr. Agnes Green, who attended Clarke County Junior High School, said.

While the experience was hard for the students emotionally, it was also dangerous. Throughout the early stages of school integration, hateful and violent actions were taken against African Americans, both adults and children, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Transfering from a segregated area to a world where they were often seen as “other” was difficult.  

“I had never experienced hatred before,” Dr. Agnes Green said. “When you live in a place where people look like you, you might get mad with your friends and things like that, but nobody dislikes you because of the color of your skin.”

The students faced bullying and harassment throughout their time at these schools. 

“You had people putting their hands in your face, taunting you the entire time, calling you names,” Bonnie Hampton, Clarke County Junior High School, said. 

For Dr. Agnes Green the bullying became too much and she decided to only stay for one year. 

“I didn’t want to experience it (the hatred) anymore. So I told them I did not want to continue, just one year was enough,” Dr. Agnes Green said.

Entering these new schools was about more than the five students and the Athens-Clarke County community. The national civil rights movement as a whole was significantly impacted by similar bravery. One example that affected Hampton came when she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  

“I recall him taking my hand and talking to me, holding my hand in the palm of his hand, and he told me that what we were doing was so important for our race. Then he asked that question ‘Are you afraid?’ I remember telling him, ‘No, no I wasn’t afraid,’” Hampton said.

The panel began with a speech from Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz and Superintendent Dr. Robbie Hooker expressed his gratitude to the trailblazers and the audience for attending this powerful event. 

APPRECIATING THE PAST : Marjorie and Wilucia Green (left to right), surrounded by their family members, accept awards presented to them at a panel discussion hosted by ASALH on Sept. 17. As children presented with the challenge of integrating CCSD public schools in 1963, they were aware that this was their responsibility to do what we did, which was not an option,” Marjorie Green said. Photo by Isabella Morgan.

“It didn’t matter if you went to a school with white people or Black people, the most important thing is brain matter between the ears. And that’s what will make you successful and do well in life,” Dr. Agnes Green said. 

The program ended with ASALH awarding the five panelists with plaques for all they have endured in addition to the lives they have affected. After the event concluded, guests walked to the Taylor-Grady House for an open reception.

During the discussion when Ridley asked each of the individuals if they would do it all over again, all five vocalized that they would. 

“Yes, I would do it again because it would come back sooner or later,” Killian, Chase St. Elementary, said.