Students at Paine College received a history lesson Wednesday on a court case that jump-started the fight to desegregate Richmond County schools.
The lesson continues today, as the school holds the second part of its 18th Annual Conference on the Black Experience.
The seminars focus on the social and legal impact of court cases that have affected blacks in Augusta, particularly the 1899 case of Cummings vs. the School Board of Richmond County.
On Wednesday, Judge John H. Ruffin, of the Georgia Court of Appeals, told an audience how the Cummings case was instigated.
Judge Ruffin also served as the plaintiff's attorney in the 1964 case Acree vs. the County Board of Education of Richmond County, -- which dealt with segregation.
The 1899 case started when the Richmond County Board of Education decided in 1897 to close the county's only black high school, while still charging taxes to black parents and still operating white schools -- Tubman and Hephzibah high schools.
"They said they were going to close Ware High because there were about 400 to 500 black elementary students turned away from common schools of Richmond County and only 60 black high school students," Judge Ruffin said. "The Richmond County Board of Education wanted to close Ware and make it into four separate elementary schools, under one roof. They thought it would be more feasible to educate these blacks in the elementary grades than to educate blacks on a high school level. Mostly because there were three black high schools privately operated."
The board's decision stirred up protest from the black community and within five days, 155 blacks signed a petition declaring the need for elementary and high schools for blacks.
"There was a petition filed in the Richmond County Superior Court, not to integrate the schools but to keep the money from being spent on white schools," Judge Ruffin said. "(The black parents) wanted black students exposed to the same education as whites."
The case reached the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that the school board's decision was more discriminatory toward females than blacks.
Judge Ruffin said the case started a series of other court cases, including the 1964 desegregation case that culminated in 1972 with an integration ruling by the U.S. District Court.
Gains have been made today in the school system, but it doesn't mean the gains can't be lost, Judge Ruffin said.
"You have to know your history so that you can understand what might happen again."
Bobby Donaldson, a Thurgood Marshall dissertation Fellow at Dartmouth College -- and a native Augustan -- carried the second part of Wednesday's session.
He discussed the social context of the Cummings case.
"The decision was very interesting because we lost the case," Mr. Donaldson said, "... A case that ensured the denial of equal educational opportunity for black Augustans, indeed for black Americans and generations to come."
The case, Mr. Donaldson said, was one episode of a long saga of oppression and subordination experienced by black Augustans.
"It was a saga rooted in slavery, a saga that continued with the failed promise of (congressional) reconstruction and a saga that we are still wrestling with today," Mr. Donaldson said.
"Reconstruction proved to be a bitter disappointment for many African-Americans," he said."To African-Americans, the Old South was a period that said African-Americans were intellectually impoverished, that black people were politically inept, that black people were socially inferior," Mr. Donaldson said. "What is ironic about this period is, out of the racism, violence and bigotry there emerged a new generation of black leaders who developed the skills and talent to withstand and challenge the color line."
That generation started with the plaintiffs in the 1899 case -- Joseph Cummings, James Harper and John Ladeveze, he said.
Iuyana Malone, a freshman from New Orleans, said the conference was interesting.
"I learned another milestone in black history," she said.