Letter documenting the struggle of two children's attempt to attend school
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In 1964, 9-year-old Edgar and 8-year-old Randy Williamson had never attended a day of school. The debate over their admittance stems from the fact that they are 1/16 or 1/32 African American. They are the great, great grandchildren of Newt Knight and Rachel, a slave owned by Knight's uncle. Newt Knight, the well-known figure behind the "Free State of Jones," was married when he met Rachel, and it is believed that he left his wife and lived with Rachel until her death.
Edgar and Randy Williamson's great, great grandmother was African American which meant that they were 1/16 African American. According to Mississippi law at the time, a person had to be less than 1/8 African American to be considered white. In the case of the Edgar and Randy, their mother, a direct descendant of Newt and Rachel, was listed as black on her birth certificate (She was 1/8 African American.) with Edgar and Randy as white (Their father was white). The people in Stringer, a community in Jasper County, considered the children to be African American since their mother was. Due to these beliefs, school officials at the white school in Stringer anticipated strong objections and possible violence if the children were admitted.
Edgar and Randy's mother and grandparents, all Knights, were determined to send their children to a white school since the children were, according to Mississippi law, white. As early as 1960, they had tried to enroll the children in the white school in Stringer, but had decided to withdraw the efforts until the mother, Louvenia Knight, had the race on her birth certificate changed to white. Louvenia Knight maintained that the race on her birth certificate was listed as "negro" by a person attempting to cause her harm. She claimed that she was actually 1/16 African American, Rachel was 1/2 African American, and that the children were 1/32.
The idea of sending the children to a black school was never entertained. The Williamsons were legally white and by law were required to attend a white school. For the children to attend an African American school would have violated Mississippi segregation laws.
In 1963, the children had still not been admitted to school. The Knight family was emphatic that the children should attend the white school in Stringer. Several options were offered to the family. Jasper County schools said that they would provide transportation for the boys to attend any other school besides Stringer, including Shady Grove in Jones County where cousins of the Williamsons with a similar racial background attended. It was also recommended that they sell their farm and move to another town/county that would allow the boys to enroll. The third option was to have someone home school the children at the expense of families in Stringer who volunteered to assist with the payment of someone to educate the children at home in order to keep them out of the school.
The children attempted to get into Shady Grove, but the school board rejected their application stating that even though the cousins attended school there, the Williamson case was too controversial to accept them. The family did not want to sell their farm since Stringer had been their home for years, and homeschooling was never explored.
In 1965, the children were admitted to the Stringer school with assistance from the Jasper County welfare office. The children enrolled in the first grade even though they were 10 and 11 years old. Their admittance to the school was without incident, and the children had developed friendships and were adjusting well to the new school.
The picture and letter found in this month's Item of the Month are found in the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission materials found in the Paul B. Johnson Family Papers (M191). The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was a state agency started in 1956 in response to the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education and was created to prohibit racial integration in the state. As governor of Mississippi from 1964-1968, Paul B. Johnson Jr. was copied on all Sovereignty Commission reports. The letter to the Johnson and Lieutenant Governor Carroll Gartin from Sovereignty Commission Director, Erle Johnston Jr, is a brief overview of the matter with the Williamson boys and their attempts to enroll in school. Additional information on this topic can be found in the Johnson Family Papers (M191) and in the Sovereignty Commission Online Digital Archive at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History.
If you would like to look at this collection or the materials, come by room 305 of McCain Library & Archives. For additional information, contact Jennifer Brannock at Jennifer.Brannock@usm.edu or 601.266.4347. To see more Items of the Month, click here.
Text by Jennifer Brannock, Special Collections Librarian