An education in cotton picking

White schools had once upon a time adjusted their schedules according to farming interests – rural schools in Murray and Gordon counties were rarities in that they were scheduling education around crops into the 1950s – but it was a practice that likely did not completely end across the state for black schools until total integration.

Counties handled the farming requirements in different ways. Some added the non-traditional Saturday to the calendars while others essentially went to a year-round schedule.

While black residents were rarely vocal in print about any misgivings they had about any part of the inequalities going on in their school systems, a letter in Waynesboro proved that not everyone was happy about the sacrifices the schools had to make.

In 1952, an article announcing the black school calendar caused an unnamed black reader to write editor Roy Chalker of The True Citizen. The writer was upset that the schools operated to serve farmers, who frequently employed black citizens … and their children to harvest the crops. Printed August 21, the letter said:

“Dear Mr. Chalker:

The article in a recent issue concerning the opening of Burke County schools is written every year around this time.

After reading the article, I regretted to think those who make school laws could be so hard as to demand that Negro teachers work on Saturdays, so as to make up time because they are not allowed to open on time. It seems a denial of human rights and liberties.

The reason, of course, is it serves the larger farm interests, in that crops are gathered by school children. It is a deplorable situation, which can be helped only when the hearts of the people who make these laws become clean. Until that time, the Negro children of Burke County, as well as the teachers, will suffer.

Another factor which deserves consideration is that teachers, in all probability, will be there on Saturdays disgusted and disheartened at the thought of being robbed of their weekend’s rest, which they most certainly deserve.

These teachers will have no spirit to do good jobs, thereby crippling the school children and retarding progressive education.

Very truly yours,
A Negro Reader”

A week later, Chalker responded in an editorial of his own. His tone did not seem overly sympathetic.

“It is perhaps unfortunate that “cotton picking” time does come in conflict with the first few days of school,” he said, “but we believe that the best possible arrangement has been to accommodate all concerned by the school officials. Teachers and students make up the time by attending on Saturdays for eleven out of the 36 Saturdays of the term.”

Those involved in picking cotton should consider themselves lucky, even.

Chalker said, “The contention of the Negro teacher that the arrangement is designed to “serve the large farm interests” is without foundation. Especially is this so when the farmers are paying $2. to $3. per hundred for cotton picking, and a good picker makes from $5 to $10 a day.”

Further, he said, the teachers should not whine. It would be nice for them to have weekends, but the schools do not exist for them; they exist for the students.

The year before the letter to Chalker, Burke had had to postpone the black school openings three weeks to September 24 because of a large cotton crop. Saturday classes again made up the time.

The practice was not limited to Burke County.

The Sparta Ishmaelite, in announcing that black schools were taking a two-week break September 12, 1963, said the local board of education figured it best. It was either that or heavy absenteeism.

In Johnson County, even two weeks were too short.

The break in 1955 ended after that period, but superintendent Bessie B. Martin said that while city school Dock Kemp was only missing 80 of its regular enrollment, that as many as 800-1,000 were still out across the county.

During a visit to Spring Hill School in 1950 as part of a survey of The Bulloch Herald, the paper noted that only 12 of 32 enrolled were present. Teacher Lula Lockwood said they were probably helping with cotton. Spring Hill was a typical African-American school of its era in that it was one room, but it lacked a proper schoolhouse, being held in the church by that name. Instead of desks, children sat in church pews. No buses served the school, meaning that a few children were walking as much as eight miles per day to attend.

During the same edition of The Herald, the response of “chopping cotton” was also given in reply to a high absentee rate at St. Paul School. One of its students walked six miles each way to attend school.

Dooly County had a slightly different solution in regards to its farming black students.

The September 20, 1956 edition of The Vienna News reported that like many systems, Dooly had delayed school openings for its rural black schools; the city-based Vienna High and Industrial opened September 3, but the others began September 17. Additionally, the News said, “the schedule has been set from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. so that cotton pickers can help on the farm.” This was expected to last several weeks.

Other counties pushed the start of school forwards instead of back.

Elbert County in 1951 opened its county schools – Elberton was a separate system at the time – on July 30. The term would last six weeks or two months. After the cotton was harvested, the winter term would begin. This system was said to be in place for years. Walton County also reported split terms in 1953, as did Madison County in 1954 (The Madisonian on July 15, 1954, reported the session was to start July 19 and to last two months). Oglethorpe County split sessions as well in the 1950s.

Pike County’s schools recessed September 6, 1955 for what The Pike County Journal described as “cotton picking vacation.” Their delay lasted even longer than usual as the county was finishing its building program under the Minimum Foundation Program and State School Building Authority. The buildings were finished, but equipment was not in yet, delaying the schools’ reopening to November 7. If the equipment was still not in, students would briefly have to return to their old schools.

Some of the split sessions and delays seemed to die out with the consolidation of rural schools during the Minimum Foundation Program, but a few systems were still altering their black schools’ calendar well in the 1960s.

Hancock County was still using delays into the mid-1960s. Decatur County, which was battling its rural white schools in an attempt at a county-wide high school during the decade, faced more problems in 1964.

The African-American Faceville Elementary burned March 28, 1964. Bainbridge’s Post-Searchlight on April 9 said that the students were “being transported to other schools in the vicinity which have the same calendar months. The calendar year for the colored schools in that section of the county is set up so that these students are released two weeks prior to those in other areas in the county.”

Faceville’s students were split amongst Fowlstown, Attapulgus Elementary and Attapulgus-Mount Moriah High. The school would not be rebuilt.

Sources: The True Citizen – Sept. 20, 1951, Aug. 21, 1952, Aug. 28, 1952; The Sparta Ishmaelite – Sept. 12, 1963; The Wrightsville Headlight – Oct. 13, 1955; The Bulloch Herald – May 25, 1950; The Vienna News – Sept. 20, 1956; The Elberton Star – July 27, 1951; The Madisonian – July 15, 1954; The Pike County Journal – Oct. 27, 1955; Post-Searchlight – April 9, 1964.

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Anniversary of GHSA admitting black schools

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.