Author discusses children’s book on 1960’s school integration
By Jason A. Smith
John Harris said he hopes his recent book, about desegregation of a local school, will send a message about the importance of compassion and empathy – a message that he believes remains today.
Author John Harris (from left) was welcomed Saturday by Amanda Beck, president of the Genealogical Society of Henry and Clayton Counties, to discuss Harris' book about the desegregation of Fairview Elementary School in the 1960’s. Photo by Jason A. Smith
“I think it’s crucial,” he said. “We’re certainly hearing more these days about acts that aren’t as compassionate as you’d like them to be. Certainly, they’re not the only ones, and there’s a lot of compassion and a lot of love going around as well. But, I think the more we can be reminded that it’s better to be compassionate to others – especially others who aren’t like you – I think the better we’ll be as a community and society.”
Harris, on Saturday, visited the Genealogical Society of Henry and Clayton Counties in McDonough, to discuss his 2016 children’s book, Mr. Tuck and the 13 Heroes. The book, explained Harris, tells the fact-based account of Brooks Tuck, who served as principal of Fairview Elementary School in the 1960s.
“He was a principal during the time that the school – in fact, the schools in all the counties – was desegregated,” said Harris. “He volunteered for his school to be the first one, and it was unpopular, as you might imagine, but it was the right thing to do, and he did it. He had some wonderful stories to tell about that time, and this book is a children’s book that tells one of those stories.”
Harris, a native of North Carolina, moved to Atlanta when he was eight years old and attended DeKalb County schools. He currently lives in Greenville, S.C., and teaches mathematics at Furman University.
Harris wrote the children’s book with assistance from his daughter Sophie, who is its illustrator. He acknowledged that he is not a historian, and that is not personally acquainted with the first 13 black students to attend Fairview Elementary.
Still, he said his friendship with Tuck led him to learn more about how the school was desegregated.
“Mr. Tuck was not one to brag,” said Harris. “He often didn’t like people telling stories about this time because he did not want to be seen as the hero of the story. He always thought it was the children themselves who were the heroes. However, when I mentioned the idea to him about having a children’s book to tell this story, and how important it was for the children of this generation to hear about the struggles and also the compassion of the people at that time, he thought it was a good idea.”
Harris said Tuck’s desire to integrate Fairview Elementary did not come without controversy. He cited conversations with the principal, who died several years ago, about the “mixed” mood in Henry County at that time regarding integration.
“There were many people that were not in favor of desegregating schools, and that was true here too,” said Harris. “From what he said, there were many people who did not treat him well, or his family, for being willing to open his school. However, he also, I think, would say that there were many people that did support him. So, it wasn’t just him against the world. There was a core group of people that also understood the importance of compassion and the equal rights of education.”
Harris hopes sharing the book locally will help him to connect with people who were living in Henry County in the 1960s, including the 13 students at the forefront of integration at Fairview Elementary.
Mary Cloud, of McDonough, attended Henry County Training School, with other black students prior to integration. She described Harris’ presentation as “educational” for her.
“I didn’t know there was a Fairview School in Stockbridge, first of all,” said Cloud. “The things that went on there ... back in the fifties was not a time that I was learning a lot. Our parents didn’t teach us all that stuff about schools and what they’re doing. We didn’t have papers to read. We had them, but we didn’t read them. So it was kind of educational to me to learn about what happened in the past that I, maybe, should have known about and didn’t.”
Amanda Beck, president of the Genealogical Society, applauded Harris’ efforts to tell Tuck’s story.
“I think it’s important to keep that history so that we don’t forget, because we still struggle in this country with issues of race,” said Beck. “I think it’s a good lesson for all of us to know that children can be braver and more open than adults.”