Local History: Monica's Story

Monica Thomas, who integrated the Dade school system all by her 11-year-old lonesome.

There’s an old saying that “History is something that happens to someone else.” Maybe that is why some people don’t take an interest in history. They are more involved in what is happening to them, not someone else. We’re more likely to be interested in events which happened in our state, in our county, in our community, than what happens around the world.

In 1954, a year before I was born, the Supreme Court of the United States made a landmark decision in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. That decision said that separate educational facilities for black and white students were “inherently unequal.” This was the decision that would cause American schools to be integrated. The Court did not specify a plan for this, but said it should happen “with all deliberate speed.”

We all studied this in U.S. History class, even though many may have forgotten it soon after. As an education major, I heard much more about it than most. The purpose of this article is not to rehash that U.S. history lesson, but to make it a local history lesson. This is the story about the integration of one school in Dade County by one very brave little girl.

Evidently, in many parts of the country “all deliberate speed” was more deliberate than speedy. For Dade County, it was 12 years. So the order to integrate schools that was given in 1954, the year before I was born, was actually implemented when I was in the sixth grade.

When I was in the sixth grade, I didn’t understand the significance of the history that was being made at Rising Fawn Elementary School and at the same time at North Dade Elementary School and Dade High. Over the years, I put events together, and came to realize just how significant it was and how much my friend and others had to go through to get an education.

What was it like for black students in Dade County before schools were integrated in 1966? Well, up until 1954, they all went to a one-room school that was also a church in the Hooker community. Ironically, the same year the Supreme Court ordered schools to be integrated they got a new building with two classrooms and an office. This was for grades 1-8. Black high school students from Dade County went to Howard High in Chattanooga and Dade County paid their tuition and transportation to go there.

There is a picture in one of the Dade County History books of the students at the Hooker School taken in 1964. There are about 21 students in grades 1-8. There were two teachers at the Hooker School in the 1960s, Frank Hill and Maxine Roberts. These names will be familiar to many because these teachers integrated the teaching staff in Dade County at the same time their students were integrating the student population.

Mrs. Roberts taught at North Dade and then Dade Elementary. I remember teachers I worked with pulling strings to get their kids in her class because they thought so highly of her. Frank Hill was on staff at Dade High and then Dade Middle School. He was my P.E. teacher in high school and my colleague when I first started my teaching career at Dade Middle School.

He started out as Mr. Hill, then for some reason became Professor Hill, then Fessor Hill, and finally, just Fessor. For many of us, at that time in our lives, Fessor may have been the only black man that we knew. And he knew us. He knew who our brothers and sisters and cousins were, who our parents were and who lived where. He never lived in Dade County, but he sure knew Dade County.

The school for black students was in the Hooker community because that is where all the black students lived, except for one-- the one who became my friend, the one who integrated a school all by herself—Monica Thomas. Monica lived on Highway 11 south of Rising Fawn, near the Alabama state line. She lived with her aunt and uncle, Milt and Doris Little, whom she called Mama and Daddy. I never really knew why she lived with them. I knew that her “real Mama” lived in Detroit and she sometimes went to visit her in the summers. She had brothers and sisters, but she alone lived in Rising Fawn. I think her daddy worked for their neighbor, Clark Byers. Monica’s mama worked for people in the community doing laundry and cleaning. I’ve talked to some people who knew Monica long before I did because she would come with her mama to their houses when she did their washing and ironing. They remember playing with her.

If you know your Dade County geography, you know that Hooker and Rising Fawn are on opposite ends of the county. So where does a little black girl living in Rising Fawn go to school? Rising Fawn Elementary School, the school I went to along with all the children my age and Monica’s age, was about three miles from her house, but of course, she wasn’t allowed to go there. So what did she do?

She went to the Hooker School. But how did she get there? Her parents did not have a vehicle. On weekends, Monica and her mama went to Chattanooga (I guess they rode the bus) and spent the weekend there with friends or relatives and attended church, which was a big part of their lives. I never thought of it before, but I guess they did their shopping there.

She used to regale me with stories about their church services, which lasted for hours. It seemed that the morning service lasted until about 2:00. Then they went home and ate and soon came back for the evening service. She often referred to the Usher Board at their church. I was puzzled by this, because although we both went to Baptist churches, mine had no Usher Board. She explained that when the sisters of the church got the spirit and started shouting, they sometimes passed out in the aisle and it was the job of the Usher Board to pick them up. At least that’s how she saw it at age 11.

But back to my question: How did she get to the Hooker School? Every morning, very early in the morning, she caught the Greyhound bus at her home and rode it to Chattanooga. Frank Hill picked her up at the bus station and took her to the Hooker School. In the afternoon, this was reversed. Mr. Hill took her to the bus station in Chattanooga, and she rode the Greyhound bus to her home south of Rising Fawn. I was told that one time she fell asleep and rode the bus halfway to Birmingham before anyone realized she had not gotten off at her stop.

I didn’t know all this when I was in the sixth grade, and I’m not sure how old I was when I learned about it, but I was appalled. Can you imagine putting your first grader on a bus for a trip like this? And I don’t suppose Greyhound organized its schedule around her. There were many complaints when busing was implemented to desegregate schools, but think how many miles this little girl rode a bus each day—close to 100 miles, I would say.

For some reason, I remember some snippets of that first day of sixth grade at Rising Fawn School and what I remember centered around Monica. I remember getting to school that morning and as we were greeting our friends, I very clearly remember my friend Rose’s mother telling us to be nice to Monica because it would be hard for her coming to a new school where she didn’t know anyone. Actually, she did know a couple of people in our class. She already knew Pam Byers because she lived next door to Pam’s grandfather. She also knew a boy in our class who lived near her, but he wasn’t really keen on acknowledging that fact.

I don’t know if I was nice to her that day. I really don’t remember any interaction with her. Believe it or not, I could be shy around people I didn’t know. I do remember that by the end of the day, some older girls had befriended her and they were walking around the playground arm in arm with her.

Eventually, Monica and I became good friends. We were in the same grade, of course, but also, we rode the same bus. Our bus made two routes, morning and evening, and we were on the first route to get to school in the morning and the last to leave in the afternoon, so we had all that time to play together and get to know each other, plus the time on the bus.

And like many girls our age, we spent a lot of time on the phone. She used to give me hilarious blow-by-blow accounts of her mama watching Live Wrestling. She was quite a fan. Monica visited my house, although my grandfather raised his eyebrows about that. I remember Mama making her a birthday cake and decorating it and taking it to her house. I think the girls in our class were pretty nice to her, but the boys were kind of standoffish. I think they were deathly afraid that someone would accuse them of “liking” her. At least one teacher we had was uncomfortable with her. It was not overt, and I might not have noticed it, but she felt it.

If I had to use one word to describe her, I think it would be spunky. She was outgoing and fun to be around, but she wasn’t afraid to take up for herself and she had to. When someone called her a name or pretended she smelled bad or some other ridiculous thing, she told them off good. Maybe she had courage then, because she had already had to be very brave before, just to get to go to school.

We only went to school together for three years. We spent the sixth and seventh grades at Rising Fawn, where she remained the only black student to ever enroll there. In eighth grade, we went to Dade High, where she was reunited with her classmates from the Hooker School. Sometime after that, her daddy died and she and her mother moved to Chattanooga and she finished school there.

I sometimes ran into her shopping at Hill’s in Brainerd. She married and had two lively little boys and later adopted a little girl. I didn’t hear from her for a long time and then she started calling me occasionally. She would ask me about other people we went to school with and sometimes get a phone number for someone and the next time I saw them, they would tell me that she had called them. Her sons were grown then and in college, at least one of them playing college football. I guess they were able to go to school wherever their talents led them.

The last time I saw her was in 2004. Clark Byers had died and she came to the funeral home for the man she called “her white granddaddy.” I was very glad to see her and she looked good, but she told me she had some heart trouble as well as high blood pressure and diabetes.

One day the next year (2005) I was in my classroom at DCHS when the phone rang. It was our school secretary, Dianne Meeks, calling to tell me that Monica had died. Thank goodness it was during my planning period, because it was quite a shock. She had had a stroke on October 4, her 50th birthday, and died a few days later. I talked to several of our classmates who said she had called them during the last months of her life.

There are probably many other stories, both bad and good, about the desegregation of Dade County’s schools, but that’s how I saw it firsthand at age 11. I heard the stories about Dade High’s first black football player, Paul Mason, and how threats were made against him when Dade played Davis that year. His teammates looked out for him. It didn’t hurt that he was probably the best player they had. In 1970, Paul’s sister Jackie was voted Homecoming Queen at Dade High, just four years after she was first allowed to attend Dade Schools.

So that’s a little bit of local history that I observed. But I was just an observer. My friend Monica was the one who lived it.

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