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Georgia County Confronts Accusations of Segregation

May 13, 1993

LINCOLNTON, Ga. (AP) _ At first glance, the story of trouble on a school bus in rural Georgia has an eerie familiarity.

A black teen-ager violates social custom by riding in the front of the bus. She is harassed, and some blacks accuse the school system of segregating students. The school board accuses its lone black official of needlessly stirring up a controversy. The U.S. Justice Department intervenes.

If the conflict resembles the old script, the 1993 plot differs in key ways.

For one, the practice 17-year-old Maggie Stidom violated was a voluntary one accepted by young blacks and whites in this east Georgia town.

Black students say they sit at the back of the bus at their own insistence. When Ms. Stidom sat at the front, it wasn’t white students who condemned her, but fellow blacks who would sneer, ″Look at that white girl.″

And the school system can’t be labeled an ignorant backwater. Its high school won a National School of Excellence Award in 1987, and the elementary school recently picked up a Georgia School of Excellence award.

School officials boast that, after initial resistance from whites, the system moved through desegregation without great strife. In a highly unusual move at the time, a black man was appointed principal of the formerly all- white school, serving from 1971 until his retirement in 1984.

Unlike other districts where white parents abandoned public schools, whites have remained in Lincoln County. The county is 62 percent white and the school system 51 percent white.

″We’ve got a good school system and there are some things happening that are tearing people up,″ said B. Ficklen Guin, a longtime school administrator.

″It’s uncalled for. ... We came through integration pretty good and we finally got the point where we’re living together.″

Ms. Stidom’s mother, Margaret, agreed: ″This is the first time I’ve had to deal with anything like this.″

Before the dispute, Lincoln County was best known for its champion high school football team. The county, home to 8,800 people, all but shuts down Friday evening when the Red Devils play. The team is mostly black, but many of the fans are white.

Outside of athletics, however, black and white students tend to hang with their own group, congregating in the classroom, in the lunchroom, and on buses to and from school.

One morning last September, Ms. Stidom recalled, ″I just wanted to be different from everybody else, because everyone else - all the black students - would normally go to the back.″

At first she wondered what would happen to her. Then ″it became an everyday thing,″ she said, and she relaxed.

About a month later, she said, she was sliding over to her seat when the white bus driver’s grandson blurted out, ″Ain’t those kids supposed to sit in the back?″

Ms. Stidom accused the driver of racism; they shouted at each other the rest of the ride to school. The senior believes the driver should be forced to apologize. When her mother found out, she demanded the driver be fired.

School officials said it was a misunderstanding: The driver had been telling the child about students needing to sit in the back when seats up front were filled.

″In Lincoln County as far as I know, no driver has ever told a black child to sit at the back of the bus in my 25 years as transportation director,″ Guin said.

Though officials refused to fire her, they assigned the driver to a different route.

Some black parents were angry after a April 6 board meeting in which they say the Rev. Denise Freeman, the first black on the school board in four years, was repeatedly rebuffed by the four other board members when she tried to discuss bus-segregation allegations.

″They just pushed us aside,″ said one parent, Willie Glaze. ″They never would look into it.″

But while school officials say they have investigated complaints about the bus system and resolved them to their satisfaction, a Justice Department investigator plans to meet this week with students, parents and officials.

″If they are segregating the children, that’s within our mandate to look into it and find out what’s happening,″ said Bill Castro, a conciliation specialist at the department’s Community Relations Division.

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