Georgia McFerren, High School Activist
| Georgia McFerren |
High School Graduation 1970
". . . school, Monday through Friday,
marching on Saturday,
and church on Sunday . . ."
Today, Georgia McFerren is an energetic 57-year-old African
American woman, retired from 32 years of working with mentally
ill children for the Arlington Developmental Center in Shelby
County. She lives in the county in a trim, yellow-sided house with
black shutters, not too far from her younger sister by one year,
Eva. The McFerren sisters grew up in a family of 13 children,
farming on property owned by one of the few African American
landowners then, James Cartwright. This was to prove providential later, when many black sharecropper families were kicked out of their homes after they registered to vote. Many ended up living in what became known as Tent City. Georgia's was one of the few fortunate families who never lost their place to live during that period. Her father was a first cousin to John McFerren, one of the leaders in the events in Fayette County in the 1960s and 70s.
Despite the stability of their home, the girls endured their share of suffering. In 1965, Georgia was in the 8th grade and along with Lucy Hunt, Gloria Murrell, and Pearlie Gilchrist, was in the first class of black students to integrate Somerville Elementary School. By the time Georgia graduated in 1970, she noted, “there were nine black students out of 94 in my senior year—one boy and eight girls—but many of the white students had moved to the [Fayette] Academy.”
|Graduation Class, Fayette County High School, 1970|
Asked if there were any reason why the first black students were girls, she said she didn’t think so, but noted that the …”kids who did [integrate], did so because their parents wanted them to.” She said she also wanted to go so she could get a better education she suspected was to be had at the all-white school. And it was better, she remembers, “they offered psychology and sociology, and courses the other [black] school didn’t…the teachers informed more, they covered more information…we had a really good English teacher, Mrs. Hawkins, and we diagrammed more than just the subject and predicate, we diagrammed compound sentences and every part of speech, and that helped me a lot later in life.”
Although her mother was more visibly involved in the Movement than her father, both she and Eva gave their father much credit for “stay[ing] home and praying for us; he believed in the power of prayer.” And they felt that it helped them to bear up under the barrage of spitballs, name-calling, and even the mistreatment by some of the teachers, although they said most of the teachers treated them decently and their principal, Mr. Morton, “was a good one for the time.” When fighting broke out in the girls’ rest room, Ms. McFerren remembers with a chuckle, he removed the mirrors so they wouldn’t dawdle in there. However, one incident she and Eva cited happened to a younger sister, Gloria, who, in the first grade was made to face her desk in the opposite direction of all of the other children and to go to the rest room by herself. “She’d come home from school with her eyes kind of red like she’d been crying, but I didn’t know why.” Gloria McFerren is now a teacher at East Junior High, which says something for her ability to overcome treatment that could have left someone else more downtrodden.
Ms. McFerren’s life from the age of 14 to 17 was a set routine of “going to school Monday through Friday, marching on Saturday, church on Sunday, [church] meetings during the week, and staying up until 2:00 a.m. to get my schoolwork done...because I had to get it done…I was not going to be called on by the teacher and not have my work done, and I knew I wasn’t going to get the kind of help the white students got.”
She recalls that in about three years of marching, she only missed one Saturday to run an errand in town. Ironically, that night she was swooped up along with about 30 other young black students (26 males, another female), and a female white student worker, and put in jail. She said they were never told why they were jailed, no charges were ever made, nobody’s parents were notified, and they were held over two nights. She recalls when she was released she went home and “took a good, hot bath—it was nasty dirty in that cell,” and got up the next day to go to school. Another regular event during the marches was when the Fire Department would turn the hoses on the marchers. Ms. McFerren remembered,“the force of the water was so strong you couldn’t breathe if it hit you in the face…and they would just open [the hoses] up and let it go.” The marchers had to learn how to turn away, get down and bend over, protecting their heads and yet steadying their stances, so the force of water would neither go up their noses (causing a waterboarding effect) or knock them on the ground.
This level of commitment at such a young age seemed common among Georgia and her friends--they marched every Saturday for three years, a level of belief and tenacity that speaks of a maturity beyond that of many teenagers. Somewhat puzzled by my response, Georgia explains simply, “well, we really didn’t have much else to do out in the country back then.” Later she remarked that she didn’t know if given the chance to relive that part of her life, she would “do that again.” In some ways, she and her sister agree that things are now much better, but they also noted that the disparity between today’s public and private schools is not much changed from the way it was in the 60s.
Although taunting and abuse by the white children is widely known in this and earlier cases of school integration, Ms. McFerren and her sister noted with some sense of pain that some of the other African American children in the county “hated” them and mistreated them on the bus and in the neighborhood. During the interview, she couldn’t articulate why that was the case—“I blocked out a lot to get through those days”—but that unexpected rejection added to the sense of isolation felt by the black students who were attending the white school. They eventually started meeting regularly to share their experiences with each other and to give each other support. She reflected later that “children don’t know how to be that rude; you knew they were repeating what they heard at home.” Other than that, socializing with schoolmates was quite limited. She doesn’t remember any of the African American students belonging to the school clubs, although later, the boys played sports, especially football. They did all attend the prom, and as Georgia recalled it was “alright, I guess, yeah, it was okay.”
In the 40 years since, when Ms. McFerren has encountered the white students from Somerville, she said they might say, “oh, I remember you from high school,” but her unspoken response has always been, “oh, yeah, you think you remember me…” When I asked if they ever talk about those days, she quickly shook her head, “nah, no, we don’t talk about anything much.” Many of her generation of the Fayette County African American families moved out of the county to escape the racism and the deeply entrenched social behaviors and interrelations that permeated daily life. Although Georgia has never moved out of Fayette County, she swore she would never work there: “Things would always be the same working there.” Except for a short stint at a catalog outlet, she kept her promise.
After living in Wisconsin and Arizona for several years, Georgia’s sister Eva lives in Fayette County again. Coincidentally, she lives next to the white boy who sat behind her in school. Smiling, she pointed out, “he speaks to us.” I asked her if he was one of the students who was mean to her back then, and she said, “no, not really, but of course, he didn’t have any more than we did.”
Georgia McFerren has two grown up children, both sons—LaTourian McFerren, the eldest, living in Bristol, Virginia, and Courtney Grandberry in Fayette County, attending Tennessee State. When asked what she told her children about her experiences, she said, “they heard about it from me a lot. Now, of course, it’s [racial proportions] reversed at Fayette-Ware, and I told them … remember every person is a human being, and being the ‘only one’ in a classroom is not easy, and I can speak from my own experience. My parents instilled this in us kids—every person has the right to be treated like a human being.”