The 1950s were a time of upheaval in Georgia.
At the beginning of the decade, community schools were widespread, though there was little money and little to offer students beyond the school being local. Consolidations came to improve standards and with them, plenty of protests about the schools leaving the communities.
By the middle of the decade, many of these debates had subsided, with only a few major ones – Tennille’s objection of losing their high school to Sandersville and Oglethorpe versus Montezuma, for example – still on the table.
But there were other crises.
In 1954, Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, was decided. Effectively considered the end of separate but equal racial policies, the battle was just beginning.
No integration of schools happened in Georgia until 1961, the University of Georgia that January, and a handful of Atlanta public schools for the 1961-62 school year, but that did not mean that the state’s ears were not pinned back years before then.
Mere months after Brown was decided, Georgia voters approved Amendment 4, which would shut down public school systems if integration happened. Everyone became more sensitive to potential racial matters.
The Georgia Board of Education took note, too.
A July 1955 resolution of the Georgia Board, said according to the Waynesboro newspaper, The True Citizen, “that any teacher who taught a mixed class or reported, condoned or encouraged such action, would have his license revoked ‘forever.'”
In October 1956, Colleen Wiggins, a teacher at Bethesda High School in Gwinnett County, was put through a hearing after being accused of being a supporter of integration.
Five months previous, Wiggins was pressed into discussing integration by her students. It was not the first time she was asked to do so, but after several female students showed her an article about the fairness of segregation and begged her opinion, she gave it.
Seven children went home that day and told their parents that Wiggins was in favor of integration, after she admitted she would have no issue teaching black students if Bethesda was to integrate. That was enough for them to complain, which was also enough to put Wiggins’ job in jeopardy.
Wiggins had a local hearing, which led to another hearing requested by the State Board of Education.
Thirteen of 18 female students in the class signed a petition that stated , “We feel she did not teach integration but just gave her opinion.”
The student petition also said Wiggins did not advocate the mixing of races.
Wiggins also had much community support, with a number of petitions signed in her favor. One contained 400 signatures. A petition against her, introduced by Joseph E. Cheeley, an attorney representing those against her, had 124 signatures.
Ultimately Wiggins got to keep her job. In 2000, she talked about the incident to The Palm Beach Post (Fla.).
The Bethesda incident was not the only instance of heightened tensions. Eighteen months after it happened came another school issue, this time in the southern part of the state.
The possibility of southern integration took a giant leap forward in 1957.
On September 25, 1957, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was integrated. Little Rock’s integration, which featured a showdown between Governor Orval Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhower, as well as the intervention of federal troops, was more than enough to make other southern states fearful.
That December, Georgia had an integration incident on its hands.
Prominent Lanier County citizen Whit Jackson died in December 1957 (the 1940 United States census said he was employed as a barber). His tombstone, on Find A Grave, lists his date of death as December 15.
Jackson’s demise was a big enough event that many in Lanier County, whose county population hovered around 5,100, wanted to attend the funeral. That included several educators.
Evidently not having an automated bell system, Lanier County’s white school (all grades were housed on the same grounds), told teachers to let the students out a few minutes early so the teachers could attend the service.
All apparently did so, save for one fourth grade teacher, Minnie Baskin.
Writing in the Lanier County News in a paid advertisement on February 6, 1958, Baskin described what happened next:
“Busy teaching the class, I let the time slip up on me and accidentally let my class out a few minutes after the other classes had gotten out.
“All the children except three boys were able to stop their buses, or were carried to catch them, but these boys were ‘bus left.'”
Two lived in town and Baskin said she got them home. Exactly how is confusing, as what set up the incident was that Baskin discovered she had a flat tire. Regardless of mode of transportation, there was a third child still at school.
Taking this child home was more difficult. He lived in the Knight community, some miles away from Lakeland.
Knowing that all of the business houses were closed for Mr. Jackson’s funeral and that it would take some time to get the tire fixed, I began to really worry about getting the children home, when about that time I saw a school bus coming and stopped it.
It turned out to be a negro school bus, but [the student] told me that it went almost to his house. I told the driver my plight and asked him if he would take [him] home. Then I asked [the student] if he thought it would be all right. He said, “Yes’um, I reckon so.”
Then I specifically told [him], “Now if you would rather not ride this bus, stay with me and I will take you home, but it might be late.” He said, “I’ll go with him.” He was not forced on the bus nor “put” on the bus, but rode it of his own free will.
The student made it home. However, his father was not pleased that it was a black school bus that brought him there.
Baskin said the father accused her of attempting to integrate the schools. Complaints built up and the Lanier County Board of Education told Baskin she could resign or be fired.
Lanier was worried about money, Baskin said.
“[Board members] were afraid that state funds to the school system would be cut off if I were allowed to continue to teach. I, of course, resigned.”
Baskin said she then thought her decision over.
I love America, Georgia and Lanier County and believe in the God-given Constitutionally guaranteed right of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. I also believe that it was not God’s intention that there be only one race and that the Supreme Court is wrong in attempting to enforce integration when God never intended it. I also believe that integration would do great harm to our public school system and to the people of both races. Certainly I have never advocated mixing of the races in any manner and all sensible people know this to be true.
I have gone along with keeping this thing quiet for the good of the schools, but as of this week I am out of a job and the means of making a living. Even though I would have been eligible for retirement in March, the law says that one must be teaching and in good standing upon reaching the retirement age to be eligible to retire, so now all I can do is draw back the money that I have paid into the teacher retirement system since it was begun.
Baskin, who was 64 years old, pushed to get her job back.
However, a hearing March 6, 1958 did not go in Baskin’s favor.
Baskin spoke for herself at the hearing, telling about the pressure put upon her to resign, most of it by Vice Chairman of the Board, John Crum. Crum and two other school officials, Board chairman Wallace Thigpen and Superintendent J.W. Threatte, visited her at her home January 17, 1958.
Crum, she said, compared the situation to Central High School, that Lakeland might turn into Little Rock with mob violence descending upon it.
With that situation being described to her, Baskin said she resigned. At the hearing, she said the decision was brought about by “mental duress.”
Other witnesses called to the stand affirmed Baskin was not in favor of integration. Her attorney, Fred Belcher, said she was not guilty as she did not intend to integrate.
Threatte testified that Baskin took her time in seeing the child’s family to attempt to smooth things over. He believed that caused much of the trouble. The child’s parents had talked to him the night of the incident, Threatte said.
Baskin had said the family signed a document “absolving her from all blame.”
Threatte said he respected Mr. and Mrs. Baskin, but was worried that funds may be cut off to the school system over the incident.
Thigpen also testified about the pressure that was put on the system by residents of the Knight section.
At the end of the hearing, the Lanier County Board of Education voted unanimously to not reinstate Baskin.
She planned to appeal to the State Board of Education, but that did not come to fruition. Lanier’s Board overturned its own decision April 8, reinstating Baskin as an educator.
Baskin died in 1971 at the age of 78, according to Find A Grave.
Not just white educators faced being fired if appearing to support integration.
In a meeting in Waynesboro in 1955, the Georgia Board of Education, issued a loyalty edict.
Black teachers who were currently members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), must resign by September 18, 1955 or face lifetime revocation of their teaching licenses.
Not surprisingly, that scared a few educators.
In May 1956, Jones County’s black teachers went on record as publicly supporting segregation.
“We were not a part of the 9,000 Negro teachers who went on record as advocators of integration,” their statement in the Jones County News said. They went on to praise the local board of education for “progress that has been made in Negro education in Jones County.” In 1955, as part of funds from the Minimum Foundation Program and State School Building Authority, three new black schools had been built.
(Later, in 1957, Jones County’s Board of Education and Superintendent W.E. Knox complained to the State Department of Education that Jones’ white schools were not on par with black schools. In 1955, the major white improvements were additions at Juliette, Griswold and Jones County High, whereas black citizens received three completely new schools.)
Sources: The News-Herald – Oct. 10, 1956; The Palm Beach Post – July 18, 2000; Lanier County News – Feb. 6, 1958, Mar. 6, 1958; Southern School News – April 1958, May 1958; Brunswick News – April 9, 1958; The True Citizen – Aug. 4, 1955; Jones County News – Nov. 13, 1953, May 4, 1956, Mar. 8, 1957.