50 Years Ago: 9 Pioneers Integrate Atlanta Public Schools

Atlanta Public Schools celebrated a historical milestone last month.

On August 30th, 1961, nine brave students,  Thomas Franklin Welch, Madelyn Patricia Nix, Willie Jean Black, Donita Gaines, Arthur Simmons, Lawrence Jefferson,  Mary James McMullen, Martha Ann Holmes and Rosalyn Walton became the first African American students to attend several of APS’ all white high schools.

September 8, 1961, in a moving re-cap, Time Magazine reported:

Last week the moral siege of Atlanta (pop. 487,455) ended in spectacular fashion with the smoothest token school integration ever seen in the Deep South. Into four high schools marched nine Negro students without so much as a white catcall. Teachers were soon reporting “no hostility, no demonstrations, the most normal day we’ve ever had.” In the lunchrooms, white children began introducing themselves to Negro children. At Northside High, a biology class was duly impressed when Donita Gaines, a Negro, was the only student able to define the difference between anatomy and physiology. Said she crisply: “Physiology has to do with functions.”

In a later 1964 news story, Time Magazine would say, “The Atlanta decision was a gentle attempt to accelerate one of the South’s best-publicized plans for achieving integration without revolution.”

By May of 1961 300 transfer forms had been given to black students interested in transferring out of their high schools.  132 students actually applied.  Of those, 10 were chosen and 9 braved the press, onlookers and insults to integrate Atlanta’s all white high schools. 

Madelyn Nix, described in publications as a member of Atlanta’s black middle class, was a student at Booker T. Washington high school and  lived with her family on the campus of Morehouse College.  She would eventually be assigned to Brown High School.  Rebecca Dartt writes about her interview in the book “Women Activists in the Fight for Georgia School Desegregation, 1958-1961.

A representative from the board of education, a psychologist, and a lawyer were seated behind a table addressing Nix, who was directly across from them.  Part way through the interview the psychologist posed the following question to the young student: 

“You know Madelyn, you’ll be one of the very few Negro students going to Brown High and we cannot guarantee your safety.  How will you conduct yourself, say, if girls are waiting for you in the restroom?”

“They’ll probably say hello and that’s all,” she answered without hesitation.  Nix was looking on the bright side, but she wondered how the boys would answer the same question.

Darrt describes Nix’s fellow schoolmate, Tom Welch, as coming from a “solid working-class neighborhood.”  His father owned a local service station and had been vocal about wanting a better education for his son.  Darrt writes, “Welch, although successful in terms of the black community, wanted more for his son and to move up and out required better education than segregated schools offered.” 

In recent years Georgia State University historian Cliff Kuhn explained the significance of the peaceful desegregation of Atlanta’s schools to WABE reporter Steve Goss during this interview.  Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka had established the right for African American students to have equal opportunities in education, but it wasn’t until 1958, when a group of African American parents challenged the segregated school system in federal court that integration became a tangible reality for students of color in Atlanta.

Adding to the accolades for the students and the city, President Kennedy publicly congratulated residents during an evening address and asked other cities “to look closely at what Atlanta has done and to meet their responsibility……with courage, tolerance and above all, respect for the law.”

The students, staff and communities served by Atlanta Public Schools are humbled by the pioneers of our district who dared to take the bold steps that pioneered change and equity in public education. 

Thank you for your courage and we celebrate your fortitude.

2 thoughts on “50 Years Ago: 9 Pioneers Integrate Atlanta Public Schools

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  1. I am delighted to see this post. Madelyn Nix, Thomas Welch, Willie J. Black, and an additional student – Cleater Webb, who also integrated Brown High School, were my classmates at Booker T. Washington High School. Before the nine were selected, 76 students were tested and then tested again. I was among those who were tested. All of us were willing to go to the white schools in order to break down the walls of segregation: these nine students suffered racial insults daily. However, they perservered. We were dedicated to excellence and willing to participate in any way that we could because we wanted a better world for those yet unborn. While we recognize that there are students who are performing well academically, it saddens us to see how many of the students today under perform, are disruptive and seem not to care about their education today. They really need to know this history.

  2. Thank you for sharing this excellent moment in history. It would be nice to know the names of the others that also integrated the high schools. Do you have them available to share?

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