Classmates From 1969 Honored As Trailblazers
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OAKLAND – More than five decades have passed since three Oakland students made history in the county as the first African American students to attend the Coffeeville High School in 1969.
“This group are considered trail blazers,” Oakland Mayor Riley Swearengen explained during their introduction at his town’s Juneteenth observance Saturday. “They were some of the smartest students in their class at Walker High School.”
Earnestine Allen Tolbert, Martree Horton-Meeks and Ollie Beth Brown Whiting shared that their decision was based on getting a better education when they left Walker High School after their sophomore year. They enrolled in Coffeeville under the Freedom of Choice plan adopted in the United States in 1965 to integrate schools in states that had segregated school systems. A total of 11 students at Walker High School filled out Freedom of Choices forms as their sophomore year came to an end. When school started there were only the three.
“Some people welcomed them and some did not,” Swearengen added before the ladies each briefly shared about their experience.
“We were the first three black people to attend Coffeeville High School before it was ordered to integrate,” Tolbert shared with the crowd.
“We didn’t think of ourselves as paving the way. But we know that we paved the way for a lot of students. It was a trying time and a scary time.”
“It was just that we wanted to get a better education,” Meeks added. “We wanted the same privileges that other people had. That is why we wanted to attend Coffeeville High.”
“My decision to go to Coffeevillee was to get a better education,” Whiting added. “There were things going on at our high school that we had no control over,” she added about leaving Walker High School.
Mayor Swearengen presented the ladies with the key to Oakland as the ceremony came to a close.
“It is a great thing to show them how much we love them in Yalobusha County for doing what they did,” the mayor added. “All three went on in their lives and were very successful in each endeavor.”
The weekend events that also included an event in Water Valley (see story on page 1) marked the first public recognition for the ladies. The 1969-1970 school year marked the final year for Walker High School, as integration occurred with the start of the 1970-1971 school year.