Maria Thompkins had no idea she was about to make history when she was getting ready to enroll in school Aug. 26, 1964.
She did wonder why she was dressed in her church clothes, a blue satin dress with white lace socks, just to start first grade. She also thought it was strange the newspaper stopped by her Bussey Road home to take her photo and that a crowd of people lined the sidewalk in front of Forest Hills Elementary School to watch her walk inside.
On that day in 1964, Thompkins, then Barbara Maria Gant, became the first black child to enroll in an all-white Richmond County school. It was 10 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, 60 years ago today, declared separate schools for black and white children unconstitutional and “inherently unequal.”
Like many districts across the segregated South, Richmond County school system officials ignored the ruling and some promised to be taken to jail before giving in to integrating classrooms.
But after a group of petitioners, represented by attorneys John H. Ruffin and Donald Hollowell, filed a court injunction to prevent segregated schools from opening in fall 1964, the Richmond County Board of Education ordered the first three grades to be open to all black and white students within the attendance zones.
Only 10 black children registered in white schools that year, but Thompkins, unbeknownst to her at the time, was the first.
“I really didn’t know I was doing anything different,” said Thompkins, 56. “My mother was very strong-willed, and it was her idea. She never let anything bad affect me. Momma never told me if any problems came up, and I didn’t know of any.”
Today, Thompkins works as the front office secretary of Lake Forest Hills Elementary, the school she attended the year it opened in 1969. She said she didn’t think about her mark on history much growing up or as she began working as an adult.
She doesn’t bring it up much to her colleagues or friends and just smiles when her students tell her they saw her photo hanging in the Augusta Museum of History during field trips.
“I was just going to school,” said Thompkins, who still lives in the house where she grew up on Bussey Road built by her father, a brick mason.
Thompkins said her memories of elementary school are happy – she joined a Girl Scout troop and had sleepovers with her classmates.
She remained one of the few black children to attend a white school even in 1965, when the Board of Education agreed to open grades one through six to both races.
The community still fought hard against integration, and in 1967, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare said the school board’s “freedom of choice” plan was insufficient.
Two years later, when
the department suggested school districts across Georgia pair schools and bus the children together, Gov. Lester Maddox said he’d rather let the air out of the tires of every school bus before agreeing to such a plan, according to historian Ed Cashin’s The Quest: A History of Public Education in Richmond County, Georgia.
In 1970, U.S. District Judge Alexander A. Lawrence ordered a biracial committee to come up with a plan for clustering schools in Richmond County. With school officials still stalling, Lawrence refused to let schools open in the fall of 1971 until a satisfactory plan was submitted, according to Cashin.
Real progress was not made until 1972, when Lawrence issued a desegregation order that specified a plan for clustering schools and busing white and black children to learn together.
After Thompkins graduated from the Academy of Richmond County, she spent two years in the Army, worked as a medical assistant, a beauty supply store manager, an AT&T worker and a substitute teacher before joining Lake Forest as its secretary in 2006.
She never married and never had kids, but she enjoys spoiling her nephews and traveling with her sisters. She sees the children at Lake Forest, who know her by name and run in the hallways to give her hugs, as her own.
Thompkins said she never asked family why her mother pushed for her to attend Forest Hills at such a turbulent time in Augusta. But looking back, she said she knows it was to achieve the best education possible, which she believes she did.
Although she rarely talks about it, it’s a proud history to bear.
“I’m blessed, I’m really blessed,” Thompkins said. “I’m pleased my mother decided to do that. She took charge, and I’m here today.”