[Published in website “Like the Dew,” October 6, 2019.]
Fifty years after my graduation from North Fulton High School, the pages of my 1969 “Hi-Ways” yearbook fill gaps in my mind better than any real memories. I look at my senior picture, a boy I barely recall with dark eyebrows and blond hair where I have little now. Next to me, in alphabetical order, is Ed Davenport. I didn’t know him.
But I do know that he was the first African-American to graduate from North Fulton in its long history as one of Atlanta’s best public high schools. (I also know, from my research in Southern literature, that the poet James Dickey and writer Flannery O’Connor both went there for at least one year in the 1930s – at the same time!)
The Class of ’69 recently held a 50th anniversary reunion. We met in a crowded bar scene in Brookhaven on a Friday night, had a Saturday tour of the handsome Depression-era school, now occupied by the private Atlanta International School, and met that night in a Hyatt-Regency ballroom just inside the Perimeter.
Something protected us in those years, being at that school at that time in history. We were covered by a gauzy veil, guarded against the Sixties except for the good music. We were oblivious, indifferent to the times and the changes going on. We held on to a good past, and a decent public education, up until the changes couldn’t be avoided. Then we graduated, and dispersed into the maelstrom.
My debate partner went the farthest for college, to Dartmouth, and now practices law in Atlanta. One top student became the U.S. Ambassador to Panama. Another became the first Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, adopting the role that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. created to clean up the Hudson River. The “Artful Dodger” to my “Oliver” in our senior play became the singer-band leader of the best blues band in Georgia, The League of Decency.
In the crowded ballroom Saturday night, I saw Ed Davenport. He was sitting at a small table with his Filipina wife, Dina, talking to another classmate. When my chance came, I sat at his table and we began to talk.
But how do I get his story? I didn’t know him 50 years ago. Across the civil rights history that I study more deeply the further I get from high school – the history we somehow didn’t see beyond our high school gauze – how could I interview him as if he were the embodiment of that history? It didn’t seem decent. But this was a happy enough greeting. Dina laughed a lot, and made me sign my senior picture in his yearbook. I thought of an opening.
“I actually studied this in grad school,” I told him, gently shifting to the sensitive subject of race. “We think of this one big history of the civil rights movement, with the usual heroes.” But really, I said, there are thousands of civil rights histories, most of them untold.
The first big wedge was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, aimed not at voting rights or grownup discrimination but at children in schools. That’s why every Southern state, every school district, and eventually every public school had its own civil rights story. We know about James Meredith at Ole Miss, and Ruby Bridges walking to school in New Orleans in that famous Norman Rockwell painting. But there are thousands of other “firsts.” And here was one, one of the last – oddly enough, 15 years after the Brown decision. Ed Davenport began to open up, and I began taking notes.
Did he live in Buckhead, a solidly white community that lost its battle against being annexed to Atlanta in 1950? No – he lived in Grove Park, about eight miles away in the west end of the city. He was getting in fights at West Fulton High, a previously all-white school in the middle of its troubled transition into an all-black school. Ed’s mother told the principal she wanted him out of that school.
The principal suggested more solidly black schools like Harper or Frederick Douglass. No, she demanded, he needs to go to North Fulton. But how did she know about the Buckhead mystique?
“My grandmama lived there, in Piney Grove,” Ed Davenport said. She’s buried there now, in a weed-slung graveyard that is the remnant of Piney Grove. Like the other small 19th century black communities squeezed out of Buckhead during the Jim Crow years, Piney Grove has disappeared. One of the streets used to be named for his grandmother’s family, West, he said. Her property was gobbled up for Georgia 400 and Piney Grove Baptist Church has been replaced by high-end canyons of condominiums.
Ed came to North Fulton as a junior. How did he get to school each day, from the other end of Atlanta? “I was 16, so I bought me a car.” What kind? A 1955 Chevrolet. How much did it cost? “I think it was $250,” he said.
Browsing through the yearbook, I asked about his teachers. “They were . . .mean!” he said. That was true, I thought, for some of them. Mean old maids from an older era, but dedicated. One of those that he remembered was Miss Plaster, a tough English teacher. Her meanness toward Ed Davenport had a particular edge to it. He remembers her asking him, when he came into class a little late, “What are you doing at this school?”
He went to the principal, Mr. Bryce, about Miss Plaster. In the mold of his mother’s example, he demanded that the principal get him out of Miss Plaster’s class. It worked.
“Mr. Chesna, he was a great guy,” Ed said. Joseph L. Chesna was white, or course – all of the teachers were white. But he wasn’t someone you would have if you were college-prep. He was the wood shop teacher.
We exchanged business cards, Ed and I. His card had the crisp Delta airline logo, his name and title, “Edward E. Davenport Sr., Base Maintenance Technician, RETIRED.” He lives in the exurban city of Douglasville. He and his wife enjoy the benefit of deep-discount Delta flights to other countries.
Soon, they will be flying to the Philippines to visit her family. Her family is not wealthy, he said, but when he visits them, they treat him like someone very special, a prince, an American. “That feels good.”