Some of the first African-American students to attend the formerly all-white Cross Keys High School in the 1960s will be honored Jan. 18 at the city of Brookhaven’s first Martin Luther King Jr. Day event.
“It is, to my mind, long overdue,” said City Councilwoman Linley Jones, who is joining with residents to organize the event at Lynwood Park Community Center—the former elementary and high school in Brookhaven’s historic African-American community that the students attended before desegregation.
Jones said the dinner program honoring “our integrators” will feature two former students speaking, an informal panel discussion and a city proclamation honoring the students “for their role in the Civil Rights movement in Brookhaven.”
That role at Cross Keys—which became infamous for a massive brawl between black and white students in 1968—could be terrifying and dangerous. Barbara Shaw, one of the first 17 Lynwood Park students to attend formerly all-white DeKalb County schools, said she was “afraid to death” when her father, Peter Scott Sr., decided she would attend Cross Keys for a better education.
“Every day, it was a fight, a racial-type fight,” recalled Shaw, who still lives in Lynwood Park and will speak at the MLK Day event.
DeKalb school desegregation began in 1967 under a “freedom of choice” plan that allowed students of any race to choose to attend any school. In practice, that meant some black students attending white schools, which often had better funding and facilities. Shaw was 15 years old when she entered Cross Keys as an eighth grader.
“It was the time [activists] were saying ‘black power’ and ‘white power’ and all that craziness,” Shaw said.
She recalled white students threatening her and her friends one day as they congregated around a hallway pay phone that was a popular hang-out spot. “Some Caucasian guys came up and said, ‘You guys are talking about black power. We’ll show you white power.’… They had sticks. They came toward us.”
As for the education, “it all depends on who the teachers were,” Shaw said, adding that she and some other students believe they were sometimes unfairly flunked in their best subjects. “We all think it was racial,” she said.
Jones said that every time she speaks with Shaw and her classmates, “I hear another story that’s just bone-chilling.”
Shaw witnessed the May 1968 brawl at Cross Keys, which led several African-American parents to sue the school district. DeKalb fully desegregated its schools the following year and the Lynwood Park school was closed.
Shaw laments the school’s closure as a loss to Lynwood Park, a historic African-American community dating to the 1930s. Her family moved there in 1954, when she was 2. She remembers it as a small neighborhood with a sense of community, and parents who worked at places like the Peachtree Golf Club or the GM plant in Doraville.
Some of that community is fading, and Shaw is among the residents working to get a historical marker placed in the neighborhood. But Lynwood Park is still vibrant, Shaw said, noting the annual community reunion held in May.
She’d like the wider past—and present—of Lynwood Park to be part of the MLK Day discussion. She has invited some famous former residents to the event, including Steve Wallace, a former NFL star for San Francisco’s Super Bowl teams of the 1980s; his brother, the comedian George Wallace; and Mel Pender, a runner who won a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics.
“My pet peeve is, a lot of people who have moved out…they always say, ‘Lynwood Park is gone,’” Shaw said. “I say, ‘It’s not gone.’”
The MLK Day event will be held at 5 p.m. on Jan. 18 at the Lynwood Community Center, 3360 Osborne Road. Tickets are $10 and are available at the community center. For more information, call 404-637-0534.