There is an inevitability and a uniqueness about the class reunion: The mounting anticipation waiting to see the special someone, big spontaneous hugs, squeals at the sight of old best friends, that delayed recognition followed by remembered chants and nicknames.
There was the same ebullient atmosphere at The Rotunda in Santee on Saturday, Aug. 8. However, this was no ordinary school reunion. The arriving classmates -- 21 out of a total of 35 -- had all made history. They were individually unique and collectively extraordinary. Among those walking through the doors was a group known as the Elloree Seven. They made their mark in 1965, 50 years ago. The others, in reunion, some returning for the first time, had followed in the Seven’s footsteps. And by assembling once more, they were creating history again. For the first time in public, they were telling what it was like to be the first “colored” students chosen to bring an end to Elloree’s segregated school system. Their experiences would coalesce, as they were, for the Elloree School Integration Reunion.
Each put on the name tag that distinguished them from the other guests. Some were accompanied by family members, visibly proud by association. There were friends there, some as supportive as they had been when their classmates left the familiarity of Elloree Training School to sit in all-white classrooms. They knew, sometimes in more detail than families, what was being endured.
Ola Glover, now Randolph, attended. She integrated in the ninth grade in 1965 and graduated three years later. Her friend, who stayed at the Elloree Training School, was at the reunion. She introduced Ola, nodding her knowledge of her friend’s experience. They had stayed connected for 50 years. Their bond was visible.
Ola’s reaction to the reunion invitation was at first excitement, but then it brought back memories, “a lot of memories.”
“Three years of name-calling. I had no friends in the class except the other black students,” she said.
None of them participated in after-school activities. The school day was hard enough.
“The students were so cruel. And when they did something, the teachers would turn their heads like they didn’t see it.”
But, she says, she knew why she was doing it.
“Because once we opened the doors, we knew others were coming in.”
Ola said she was lucky there were two other African-American girls in her class because, by herself, “I don’t think I would have made it.”
“I was glad I made it. I survived. But we missed out on a lot of things like our senior prom, our class trip.”
She looked over at her friend, confirming, “We did do some things at the all-black school. So it wasn’t too boring for us.”
Ola said, with a laugh, that she graduated in ’68 and left in ’68, making a life for herself in Philadelphia. She attended the reunion with three grandsons. They have made return trips to Elloree. She wants them to know her home and her Southern heritage.
She shared some thoughts on race relations today. “I don’t think we’ve come far enough.” But then her face brightened. “But when we had a black president, I was real happy because you know they said that would never happen. I was really happy on that one.”
Does Ola know that she helped make that happen? Wasn’t it because she and the other Elloree Seven took those first steps into an all-white school, as did other small groups of African-American children throughout the South, who endured, often alone, and stayed? Perhaps her grandsons, self-confident and confident of her love, will come to appreciate their grandmother’s bravery and admire her for what she did, had to do when only a few years older than they.
Rodney Anderson was a youngster like Ola’s grandsons. As one of the Elloree Seven, he was the youngest, entering third grade by himself. He reflected on those early years, recalling the imperative from his father, Thomas Anderson.
“That to be successful, to have the best things in life, you had to go to the white schools.”
How much of that uncompromising message does an 8-year-old absorb? But like the others, Rodney would prove he was no ordinary third-grader.
“I never told my parents about the bullying. I devoted my time and energy to making the best grades. With no friends and no playtime, I could only focus. Recess was not a happy time. I got away from the name-calling.”
Rodney revealed his refuge.
“One technique I sometimes used was to go in the bathroom and close the stall door and hope they did not find me until the end-of-recess bell sounded."
His third-grade teacher was kind, he remembered. But there was only so much even the kindest teacher could prevent when she was not there.
Rodney’s third-grade teacher would be proud of him. He not only maintained A's, he graduated from Wofford College, entered the Army, earned a master's degree and an honorary doctorate. He distinguished himself, rising through the ranks to become a two-star general, retiring recently as Maj. Gen. Rodney Anderson.
Ola worked in insurance at General Electric, retiring to become a day-care provider, a profession she loves.
All of the Elloree Seven had successful careers: A teacher of mathematics was the career path for Jerona Elaine Anderson Williams. For 30 years, Dianne Zeigler Brown was a technology educator. Patricia Williams VanBuren worked for the government in the District of Columbia. Esser M. Shivers Sitton taught English and also was ordained as an elder and co-pastor. Alvin Bernard Williams joined the U.S. Army Dental Corps and retired to a private practice.
The history forged by these first 35 students was the theme and background for this reunion, which included an impressive slideshow documenting the founding of the town of Elloree, the evolution of the schools: Elloree Training School for African-Americans and Elloree Public and Elloree High School for white students. There was the history of both the White Citizens Council and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and their roles, respectively, against and for human rights.
What was most compelling, what made this event bring history to life in all its incontrovertible realities, were the school photographs of each of the 35. Those stoic poses, so traditional, so generic slowly being played on a screen representing so much more than a captured “schools days” picture for parents to hand out to family and friends.
If the fact was not obvious before, it was there, in these fresh young faces, one appearing after the other. These children were not the group of dignified, confident adults, in reunion, because it was they who withstood the backlash and resistance of racism, in whatever forms it was demonstrated. It was them, as children, present, day after day, for as many as five years. It was these boys and girls, faces captured in an instant, who lived out their school days as vulnerable and as silent as each image.
It’s what they had to do. Only they, sitting behind a desk on their own in a white classroom, could abolish this system of racism. They had to endure so that African-American children in the segregated South would finally have access to an equal education. Children were the only ones who could do that.
When the reunion reception was over, the gathering made its way to the dining area to begin the program. At the start, retired Maj. Gen. Rodney Anderson asked everyone to stand, place their right hand over their hearts for the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner." They not only complied, many who knew sang the words.
Thirty-five students in Elloree were the first in an integrated classroom to sing “for the land of the free and the home of the brave.” They were a part of the brave. They were singing their own song.