published Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Upton: Being the first black student at high school

By Tabi Upton

She wasn't supposed to be the only black girl in Rossville High School that day. It was 1966, and Regina Word (her married name) was only 16 years old. Her father was the leader of the NAACP in North Georgia, and he had learned about schools that were open to desegregation in the area and had been encouraging families to take advantage of the new opportunities.

Word was one among many who had been commuting two hours each way by bus to Hill High, North Georgia's school for blacks at the time, and as she puts it: "I was tired of riding for that long every day.

"We lived in the country. I had chores to do

when I got home. School was out around 3 p.m., and we didn't get home till almost 5 p.m. After chores I had dinner and then I would start on my homework. You couldn't go anywhere or do anything or you'd be late getting your homework done.

"We were also getting the leftover materials that were years behind [the white schools]."

Rossville High was only eight miles from their house; Hill High was 27 miles away.

When no other black students appeared that morning to enter the school, her father looked at her and said, "You don't have to go and be there by yourself." He had encouraged her, but he would not force her.

Her resolve, though, was rock solid. "I want to do this, Daddy."

And so began the integration of schools in Rossville, Ga.

Word bravely entered the school, ignoring the barrage of taunts and shouts, racial slurs and threats.

"They pushed me in the halls, threw spitballs at me ... my faith in Jesus Christ is what kept me going," she says.

Word had been attending Cedine Bible Camp in the summer for years, where she had interacted with whites at a time when blacks and whites didn't mix socially. She also learned Bible verses that comforted her when things were especially difficult.

Her first task in Rossville High was to catch up.

"I was a B+ student at Hill High. I was a D student at Rossville High. I hadn't [been taught some of the subjects," she says. "By the second year I caught up, but it took a lot of work. A girl, Karen, befriended me and spent a lot of time working with me on my homework ... She took a lot of negativity for that. They called her a N-lover. The blacks called me an Oreo, black on the outside, white on the inside."

Despite the ridicule, the two are friends to this day, 43 years later.

"Our friendship took us through the deaths of our parents and the births of our children. She lives in South Carolina now, but we still keep in touch," Word reflects.

Word believed that the kids had been taught to be prejudiced, and in many ways could not be held totally responsible for their mindsets. Some believed some outlandish myths about blacks.

"They had actually been told that black people had tails. They would walk behind me looking for a tail. In 1966, these kids actually believed that," Word recalls.

Not content to simply study, Word took advantage of every opportunity held out to her at the school.

"I joined Teachers of America because I was thinking of becoming an elementary school teacher. I joined the library staff because I loved reading. I joined the choir because I loved to sing. I joined the Bible Club because I loved God's word. I went cave exploring. That's how I got known for the person that I was. It made a difference."

By the time Regina Word graduated, there were more than 12 other blacks in classes at Rossville High. She has returned for reunions and feels her experience was largely positive because of what she chose to make of it.

Many of her classmates have since apologized to her for their behavior toward her at that time. Her choice, she says, was not made just for herself, but also for those who were to come after her.

Tabi Upton is a freelance writer and therapist at CBI Counseling Center. Contact her at tabiupton@bellsouth.net.

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