Alvin D. Jackson: The story of one of Statesboro High School’s first African-American graduates

Noelle Walker

Photo courtesy of Alvin D. Jackson.

There were a lot of things going on in the South at that time, including the Civil Rights Act of ‘64, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Death of Emmett Till.

All of this news concerned Alvin D. Jackson, a native of the Willow Hill community near Portal, Georgia.

“As a young lad, all of that is circulating in your mind,” Jackson said,” all [of] these things that were the antecedent of me going to that school.”

Jackson was one of the first African American students to graduate from Statesboro High School.  He was a part of the group that integrated into the school by taking advantage of the Freedom of Choice initiative, a nationwide public policy to integrate American schools.

“And then, looking at what was going on around the nation [and] seeing a lot of young people,” he said, “particularly youth, participating in the civil rights struggle and movement, that had a huge impact on me.”

Alvin Jackson (center) says his grandmother had this photo taken. It was taken after his mother died in a fire in 1952. Photo courtesy of Jackson.

Apprehensions about attending

Growing up, Jackson lived with his mother’s grandparents, because his mother had tragically died in a fire when he was only 17 months old. He described how his grandparents were apprehensive about his integrating into Statesboro High School.

According to him, they were born and grew up during the reconstruction era, so they thought about integration differently than he did. They were not necessarily in favor of integration because of violent, racist incidents that had happened in Bulloch County.

“They [the Klan members] came out, hooded, and intimidated and told the African Americans not to go to the polls to vote. So they burned a cross,” Jackson said.

In particular, his grandparents remembered the lynching of Paul Reed and Will Cato and a 1946 cross burning at the Willow Hill School.

“She vividly remembered the night riders coming down, and it was just a very frightening time for her,” Jackson said.

During the time of the night riders, the men would go out on the fields and lay on their stomachs with their guns, while the women would remain in the house with the children, Jackson said.

“She was sort of terrified of situations like that and really didn’t want to encourage that,” Jackson added.

The other incident, Jackson said, was the 1946 cross burning at the Willow Hill School, the community school established after the Civil War by former African-American slaves.

By that time, local African-Americans, much like individuals elsewhere, had faced years of voting challenges due to the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that upheld segregation laws. Those locals made plans to vote in 1946, which local Ku Klux Klan members discovered.

“They [the Klan members] came out, hooded, and intimidated and told the African Americans not to go to the polls to vote. So they burned a cross,” Jackson said. “They [his grandparents] feared some type of retribution if I would have gone to Statesboro High School or integrated the schools.”

While his grandfather cautioned him not to attend the high school, Jackson was determined because it is what he wanted to do.

“In my determination, they, I guess, agreed, even though it was very reluctant that I should do this,” Jackson said.

Jackson attended the Willow Hill school and William James High School for a year before he was able to attend Statesboro High School.

He admitted that, because of his residence in Portal at the time, he should have attended Portal High School.

“However, I was told that Statesboro High had the very best education in the county, and I wanted the best,” Jackson said.

He hitched rides at first, and eventually he went down to Florida to pick oranges one summer and made enough money to buy his own car.

Jackson said his situation at Statesboro High School taught him survival, perseverance and overcoming. “It also taught me, which I sort of had that background already coming from Willow Hill, these kind of schools in the community, they gave you a great sense of confidence who you were as a person that when I went there it certainly helped me to realize and focus on who I was.”

Alvin Jackson (above) went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in marine biology from Andrews University and a M.D. from Ohio State University. Photo courtesy of Jackson.

High School Experience

“I don’t know that I was ever afraid. I really don’t. You can’t be too afraid going to this unknown type situation,” Jackson said about what was going through his mind before he went to Statesboro High School.

“It was hurtful in the sense that we’re all human beings. We all had red blood. Why was this antagonism?” Jackson said.

Jackson went to Statesboro High School between 1965 and 1968. He attended the school during the first year Statesboro High School had a new building on Lester Road. Jackson was a part of the first group inaugurated the school and went all the way through to twelfth grade.

Everybody was all lined up, taunting and asking things like why they were coming to the school, Jackson recalled.

“It was hurtful in the sense that we’re all human beings. We all had red blood. Why was this antagonism?” Jackson said. “So I wasn’t afraid in that sense, and so my goal was to go and try to do and be as good as a student as I can.”

Jackson said there was a lot of stereotypes and prejudice at Statesboro High School.

“I never really personalized that. Because that was part of your survival. You had to do it that way … you had to always know not to become so angry about a situation that it becomes counterproductive because of the anger,” Jackson said. “I was always measured, always thought through approaches, always was important for me not to show fear, but also important for me to work very, very hard.”

Jackson recalls some of his experiences attending Statesboro High School: When they would go in the cafeteria to sit down and eat, everyone at that table would get up and leave to go find another space. When they’re backs were turned, a biscuit or something would be thrown at them.

“You know that everybody’s laughing about it. So we turned the whole situation into an offense,” Jackson said.

Jackson continued to say when they walked into the cafeteria, they would say something along the lines of “okay, what table do we want today?” Because they knew everyone was going to leave.

“That was sort of our way to fight back and deal with that,” Jackson said.

“Inside of me, I always wondered if something was going to happen. I really did think about that,” Alvin Jackson said.

He took Spanish, and he remembers his teacher said he was one of the best Spanish students she’d ever had.

He studied and maintained the language so thoroughly, that he actually tested out of some language classes in college.

“To this day, I use my Spanish and my patients are amazed that I’m still able to communicate rather formally in that language,” Jackson said.

Jackson also worked as a janitor after school, after going to the class all day as part of the work study. He said it was a little hard to go to school with all your colleagues, and at the end of the day to have to change clothes and be a janitor while the other students go out doing sports and all like that.

“We didn’t really have a lot of money, and so I had to be a part of the work studies … that was a little hard though,” Jackson said.

Jackson recalls one day he was walking after school and a group of white boys said, “There’s that N.” Jackson said the word was commonly used back then, and the group of boys sped their car up and said, “Let’s get him.” Jackson said he had always had a brick or big rock in his hands. He threw the brick and it made a dent in the car’s side. They said, “We’re going to kill you now,” and Jackson took off running, jumped over a fence and got away.

“When I came back to school, I was always wondering if there was going to be some form of retaliation,” Jackson said. “So, the retaliation was verbal and not physical because I always stood my ground … if you were to act intimidated, you would probably get in trouble with them.”

Jackson said that no one physically attacked him—it’s was always verbal. He thinks it’s because he demonstrated he wasn’t afraid of that.

“Inside of me, I always wondered if something was going to happen. I really did think about that,” Jackson said.

He also observed how teachers at the high school tended to assume that the African-American students were not as good students and would guide students toward what the teachers thought would make those students successful.

“There was a lot of assumptions made about African-Americans as students, that they probably weren’t as good a student, and I think that was reflective in the teachers who would try to steer us,” Jackson said.

Jackson said that while there, he was encouraged by a lot of teachers to focus on courses such as agriculture, but he wanted to study courses such as chemistry and biology.

“In their own heads, they [the teachers] wanted to make sure when they [the students] finished, that they would have something to do and be successful,“ Jackson said. “But, again, that was based on the assumption that they didn’t think they could handle it.”

So, Jackson decided to work and be the best students he could, despite the unfriendliness or biased attitudes.

In 2008, Jackson, along with several classmates, received a letter of apology from a white classmate, Jane Altman Page. A pdf of the letter is shown through the link below:

Letter from Jane Altman Page

“It really captures a lot of what we went through, but it looked at it from her perspective as a white person,” Jackson said. “I think for someone to reflect after all that time and say ‘you know, I’m sorry,’ that really touched me in a very special way.”

Post-secondary education

Jackson got into Beta Sigma Phi, and he said there was no scholarships when he graduated, explaining that the counselors did not provide opportunities. He went to Oakwood—a private college in Alabama.

“I remember studying really hard, and at the end of the first year I had the highest grade in the class,” Jackson said.

He was called to the president of the university’s office, and he said they’d been noticing Jackson and told him there was a scholarship to go to England. It was to spend his third year at a British university. Jackson explains that it was very competitive—students from all across the country applied for it. He ended up being one of two students chosen.

Jackson said he was able to choose which university he wanted to go to, and he chose the University of Keele, where he studied biology and chemistry.

“In England, which really opened so many doors for me in my mind … I was able to travel to Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Russia all of Scandinavia … I got a stipend in the scholarship and I saved every penny for travel,” Jackson said. “The train was my hotel.”

Jackson said he was able to see a lot of things and places. In England, he had a two month long holiday, with one month for Easter and one month for Christmas.

“This little rural boy from Bulloch County, Georgia, the Willow Hill Community, descendants of former slaves, going to Statesboro High School as that first group that integrated the school in ‘65 with the freedom of choice, through all those struggles, graduated, went to a small school in Alabama, got a scholarship to study in Europe,” Jackson said.

Jackson has a M.D. from Ohio State University and a B.S in Marine Biology through Andrews University at Friday Harbor.  He won the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leaders Award in 2001.

Reflecting on his experiences

“The whole history of African Americans in the United States from slavery days has been one of struggle trying to overcome. Always trying to overcome,” Jackson said.

Jackson said that Statesboro High school not only solidified his humanity, but it also taught him to be kind and how to treat people.

“When you’re in the situation yourself, you see the importance and the values of being good to people and the whole of what the American Dream was about, what the statue of liberty represented, and a lot of those things,” Jackson said.

Jackson said, “Part of the experience of Statesboro High School actually gave me drive. Rather than pushing me back, it pushed me forward. In looking at all the other struggles that students around the United States was having at that time, I found [it] very stimulating to continue to move forward.”