May 24 marked the anniversary of an important milestone in Georgia High School Association history.
It was on that day in 1966 that the organization voted to admit all-black schools.
A May 26, 1966 Associated Press article from the Palm Beach Post (Fla.) and one the same date from the Rome News-Tribune provided details of the change.
Ten Atlanta schools and four from Savannah had applied for membership in the GHSA when the league held its annual meeting in Thomaston.
The 14 had been members of the Georgia Interscholastic Association. The schools admitted to the GHSA in 1966 were Savannah’s Beach, Johnson, St. Pius X and Tompkins. From the Atlanta area were Archer, Carver, Drexel, Hamilton, Harper, Howard, Price, South Fulton, Turner and Washington. Drexel and St. Pius X were both private Catholic schools (Drexel, oddly enough, was swallowed up by DeKalb County’s St. Pius X in 1967).
These were the first all-black schools in the GHSA, but some integration had taken place earlier. Barely a year after Atlanta’s high schools opened their doors to African-American students, January 1963’s Southern School News had a report on the integration of sports teams.
Whether by agreement or a GHSA ruling, no athletes were playing varsity level sports during the 1962-63 school year. Southern School News said that two athletes, John Henry Carter and Grady Davis were playing B-team basketball at Grady. Clemsey Wood was playing B-team hoops at Brown.
Integration was met with mixed results.
Decatur High, it said, cancelled a B-team game against Grady rather than face black athletes. Druid Hills and St. Pius X (DeKalb) had no issues and played on, as did Smith and West Fulton.
Wood told Southern School News that he believed his teammates had accepted him.
Bert Johnston, who coached Brown’s B-team admitted there was hostility during games.
“[A]s far as I can determine the boys on the team have accepted him. Of course, there has been some reaction from the spectators at other schools, but that’s to be expected.”
An African-American athlete also initially joined the Marist swim team, but found the travel to early morning practice too trying, according to athletic director Rev. William Seli.
Several other schools were gradually integrating and some systems with a small black population, such as Murray County, had completely integrated by the time of the applications.
Though powerful on a local level, the admittance of the 14 in May 1966 was a much bigger step. Now schools were playing not just one or two athletes that had changed schools, but entire teams rooted in identities.
In 1966, GHSA leader Sam Burke was apparently puzzled by what to do with the schools. Reclassification had taken place the previous fall. Regions were settled, schedules were settled.
Burke proposed a new region, 7-AAA, entirely filled with the applicants.
Though brutal for travel, it was not that much of a stretch for the 14 schools. Even at its largest, the GIA had only a single region for its largest schools, though it was subdivided.
The GHSA executive committee overruled Burke’s decision about a single region. The choice was left up to the schools.
All 14 schools were placed in a region for the 1966-67 season.
Region 2-AAA became the home of Beach, Johnson and Tompkins.
Region 3-AAA took on Archer, Harper, Howard, Price, South Fulton, Turner and Washington.
Carver went to Region 3-AA, while St. Pius X went to 2-A and Hamilton went to 4-A. For its one year in the GHSA, Drexel was in Region 8-C.
The ex-GIA members ultimately played a lot of each other in 1966 as figuring out a solution to region standings was not an easy fix. Basketball proved much better, with both Carver and Beach taking state boys titles. Beach walloped South Fulton in the AAA championship game and South Fulton and Turner also made the state tournament field.
A year later, the list grew even more.
Josey and Lucy Laney joined the league at the beginning of the school year. Carver (Columbus) and Spencer came over that December, after the GIA football season ended. The GHSA was even getting smaller public schools, such as Blakeney of Waynesboro.
Others filtered in in 1968. Had total integration not been pushed for 1970 by the Supreme Court, some deep southern Georgia smaller schools were also considering the jump.
Excelsior, based in Rochelle, had gotten the OK from Burke to join in 1970, according to principal Eddie Daniels.
Wilcox County High received all of Excelsior’s students in 1970. Had Excelsior continued, the November 6, 1969 Wilcox County Chronicle said they had at least temporarily been placed in Region 1-C, with Unadilla, Wheeler County, Vienna, Randolph County, Terrell County and Albany private school Deerfield.
The mass of schools leaving had a detrimental effect on the GIA.
Thirty-one high schools jumped to the GHSA or closed between 1966 and 1968, based on differences in the GIA region lists archived at the GHSA office.
At its peak, the GIA had four basketball classifications – AA, A, B and C. In its final year of operation, it was down to AA and A.
On November 12, 1969, The Atlanta Constitution reported that the league would disband in 1970. Burke said the GHSA was receiving applications, which would have included Excelsior’s.
The Constitution said the GIA was encouraging its schools to go to the GHSA if they thought they would have athletics in 1970-71.