Atlanta is home to many landmarks of the civil rights movement – some well-known while others are buildings, parks and streets that we may pass every day without recognition.
is one of those landmarks. But for some adults who attended the school during the 1970s when it played a part in the desegregation of the DeKalb County School System, Medlock Elementary is alive with memory.
The memories are particularly bittersweet because the school will close in May as part of the system’s redistricting plan.
Perched on a rise on a quiet block in a postwar neighborhood where Medlock Road meets Wood Trail Lane, the school’s low brick façade and recessed entrance recall hundreds of elementary schools nationwide, all constructed to accommodate the baby boomer generation. It was built in 1955, a year after the historic Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.
On an August morning in 1969, Medlock Elementary’s all-white population met its first black students who had traveled about 15 minutes on a bus into a neighborhood where they had never ventured before. As the children on the bus peered through the windows, deep uncertainty sank their spirits. Two weeks earlier the DeKalb County School System had abruptly informed the community of Scottdale its longtime elementary school would close, and its students would be distributed among the , Indian Creek, and Medlock elementary schools.
“We told the children, ‘Please don’t argue or fight about it,’” said Myra Haynes, whose son Eric entered second grade at Medlock Elementary. “But they were miserable, and they cried on the bus.”
Standing outside Medlock Elementary that long ago morning, 8-year-old Julie Phair was among the white students who watched the buses arrive.
“They lost their school,” her teacher told the class as the teary children climbed down.
In 1969, black students constituted about 5 percent of the 74,741 students in the DeKalb County School System. They were concentrated in five elementary schools and two high schools located in the southern part of the county.
DeKalb and other districts had long resisted school integration by putting in place “freedom of choice” and “equalization” plans, which the U.S. Supreme Court rejected in successive decisions. In June 1969, the federal courts assumed supervision of the county's schools and immediately ordered the district to close its all-black schools–including the Scottdale neighborhood’s Robert Shaw–and bus them to previously all-white schools.
Under federal supervision between 1969 and 1992, the DeKalb County School System effectively integrated its schools, but many whites reacted by moving away and abandoning the public schools. By 2000 the schools were just 12 percent white, Princeton University Professor Kevin M. Kruse wrote in his book, White Flight, in 2005.
The transition to Medlock Elementary proved difficult. The new students found themselves working harder, Myra Haynes said; and some teachers were harder on them too. A few were mean, Eric Haynes said – especially the teacher who insisted black students sit near the window in the winter when cold drafts blew into the classroom.
Black students' parents tried to intervene when their children reported discrimination but felt shaky in this new territory. Corporal punishment was still legal in the Georgia public schools, and many children–white and black–were paddled in the boiler room.
Eric Haynes said he believed his time in the boiler room was excessive. His mother told him, “Remember, you’re here for an education.”
“I never felt comfortable at Medlock,” he said.
His experience at Druid Hills High School was “a little better.” But he deliberately sought out black colleges.
Although several black and white Medlock Elementary students of that era have stayed in touch, social interaction remained circumscribed until they reached high school. For Julie Phair Rhame, the scene of the buses is indelible. From that moment she traces her commitment to creating opportunity through the public schools. Now a Decatur school board member, Rhame promoted mentoring and partnership during her work in communications at Georgia Tech, the DeKalb County School System and other places.
If parents and students, past and present, feel sadness about Medlock Elementary closing, there is also irony. During the last two decades Medlock Elementary has flourished with considerable variety in its enrollment. It is 6 percent Hispanic, 45 percent black, 23 percent white and more than 20 percent Asian and Indian with 55 nationalities represented.
“We’re a richly diverse school, and we’re the better for it,” PTA President Tommy Houseworth said several months ago.
Further, Medlock Elementary's principals have included two beloved black educators. The first, Sandra Walker, led the school between 1991 and 1995. Principal Fred Hammond has been there since 2004. That would have been unimaginable in 1969.
Thus in the space and time of this small DeKalb County school, we may remember the afflictions of the past and pay tribute to the present.