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Geneva Washington, now Geneva Howard, made history 50 years ago when she walked through the doors of Anderson High on the first day of school.
“At the time, I didn’t think about it,” Howard, one of the first black students to attend Anderson High School. “At the time, I knew it was something we had to do.”
Howard was one of about 16 African-American students from Lawrenceburg who attended the high school in the fall of 1963, the first year the school was integrated.
Some, like Howard, came straight to Anderson High — now the Christian Academy of Lawrenceburg on Main Street — from an all-black grade school on Lincoln Street.
Others, like Robert Brown, transferred from the Lincoln Institute, all-black boarding school in Simpsonville.
Robert spent his freshman year at the Lincoln Institute for the 1962-1963 school year. He made friends and got straight A’s.
But Robert, a country boy who liked to hunt quail and rabbits and go fishing, missed home. He missed Lawrenceburg.
“For a 13-year-old, it wasn’t a real good experience, as far as I was concerned,” Robert said, citing the school’s restrictive boarding school structure.
The Institute told you when to go to bed, when lights needed to be out for the night, he said.
Attending Anderson High School would give him the same opportunity as everyone else, Robert said — to be home with his family.
“I just wanted to be home,” he said. “The other kids, the white kids, had that freedom and we didn’t. I envied them for that.”
So Robert said he, along with fellow Lincoln Institute students Robert James and William Bean, approached Anderson County Superintendent Andrew Bird in the spring of 1963 about attending Anderson High School.
“He accepted everything we said, and he said it was fine with them, but [Brown, James and Bean] were going to have trouble,” he said.
Then the following year, integration was instituted. The Anderson County Board of Education stopped paying partial tuition for black students to attend the Lincoln Institute, Robert said, so a few of Robert’s classmates had no choice but to join him at Anderson High.
“After the first day, I guess it took a whole week to really adjust,” Robert, a member of the Class of 1966, said.
His brother Victor, a proud 1959 graduate of Lincoln Institute, needed to adjust to the fact that Robert would be his only brother who wouldn’t graduate from Lincoln.
“I was disappointed [Robert] didn’t complete Lincoln Institute because I knew what a great experience it was,” Victor said.
At one time, Victor said, he could have been the first of his family to attend Anderson High, not his brother.
Victor said former Superintendent Emma Ward had actually approached Lincoln Institute President Whitney Young Sr. during the 1956-1957 school year about inviting black Lawrenceburg students to attend the high school.
The landmark ruling, Brown vs. the Board of Education, had passed a few years earlier in 1954, Victor said, effectively ending the need for “separate but equal” schools for whites and blacks.
“[Ward] felt like we had a legal right to [attend Anderson High],” Victor said when asked why he thought Ward offered to accept black students prior to integration.
Victor said Young Sr. gathered about 15-20 Anderson County kids in the Lincoln Institute’s gymnasium, and asked the students what they thought about Ward’s proposal.
All of the Anderson County students, Victor said, chose to stay at Lincoln.
Victor said he has no regrets about attending the Lincoln Institute instead of Anderson High.
But one day, Victor sat on the school bus on the beginning of his 30-mile trip to school just as he passed Anderson High School on Main Street and watched high school students just hanging out around the front of the building.
“Why do I have to leave town to go to high school and they get to stay home?” Victor Brown recalled asking himself. “I guess I just didn’t want to leave home. I felt like it was totally unfair.”
“Growing up in a segregated society, you just accept what was,” he continued. “You accepted the status quo, you didn’t question it. You did what you had to do.”
The new status quo, for Victor’s brother Robert, was finally being able to attend school in his own hometown, being able to sit at lunch with friends from Lincoln Institute and new, white friends from Anderson High.
“Most of the kids from Lincoln [Institute] went out for football and most sports, we made friends pretty quickly [at Anderson High], too,” Robert, 66, said.
Robert said he never experienced any picketing or yelling like other protests against integration he saw on the news.
He said in his junior year the principal even excused black students who wanted to visit the Lincoln Institute (which officially held its final graduation in 1966) for the school’s annual May Day celebration.
“I think about all the trouble a lot of places had that integrated, ours was quietly done,” Robert said of the country’s relatively peaceful transition into integration. “I think a lot of it is due to the attitudes of the people going to Lawrenceburg, had a lot of respect for each other.”
Henry Frazier, who said he took over as high school principal midway through 1963, said he didn’t remember any problems occurring because of integrating white and black Anderson County students.
“I think everything went smoothly,” Frazier, who replaced former principal Jim Boyd, said.
Boyd, who served as principal at Anderson High from 1958 through the fall of 1963, agreed.
“We had no problem whatsoever,” Boyd said. “They fit into the school system rather well.”
Geneva Howard said she couldn’t speak for the rest of her classmates, but she didn’t experience too many problems as a black student at Anderson High, other than a few exceptions.
One white classmate used to make snide, racist asides to some of the black students during class, Howard said.
Three or four students reported the white student to Principal Jim Boyd, who “jumped right on it,” Howard said, and told the white student his behavior would not be tolerated.
A similar incident happened during Principal Henry Frazier’s tenure, and he handled it the same way, Howard noted.
Another incident involved a substitute teacher at Anderson High.
Howard said she had heard stories about the substitute in question, that the teacher was known for making racist comments about students.
Howard then experienced it firsthand when the teacher used the children’s rhyme “Eeny meeny miney mo” to include the phrase “catch the [derogatory slur for black woman] by the toe” during class.
Students laughed, and Howard said she laughed with them.
“I just kind of laughed, too,” she said, adding she let the incident slide without reporting it to the principal or staff. “It just shows her ignorance.”
In the 50 years since Howard started high school, not all problems about race have been solved, she said, and racism has and will rear its head.
“We’ve come a long ways, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.
Howard said she doesn’t really talk about integration at length with her children or grandchildren, but has showed them the Anderson County landmark where it happened.
When Howard’s daughter was little, she said, she made sure to point out Anderson High to her while they drove through Lawrenceburg.
Later, she did the same for her grandchild, giving a drive-by glimpse of where grandma was a part of history just by walking through the door.