In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and America was engaged in the Cold War. Schools in Atlanta were segregated and a group of 5-year-olds was beginning kindergarten at Wesley Avenue Elementary.
Debra Moore said she and her classmates, who grew up in the Edgewood community in DeKalb, were the first generation of children to benefit from the Civil Rights Movement. She said many of them were also the first members of their families to attend college.
“We believe that despite any real or imagined circumstances that beset this group of kindergarteners, for the most part, we became and lived the American dream,” Moore said.
Moore, a retired DeKalb County teacher, said several members of her kindergarten class maintained close relationships with one another that began in 1956.
“After [we reflected] upon the sustained relationships, the idea for a celebration was born,” Moore said.
On Dec. 20, 2011, more than 18 former students from the Wesley Avenue kindergarten class of 1956 attended a dinner and dance to celebrate their accomplishments. It was also a chance for them to reminisce on how the lessons they learned at such a young age influenced them and helped shape their lives.
Geri Thomas, now Atlanta Market President for Bank of America Georgia, said she was living in a different world when she entered Anna Rogers’ class 55 years ago. She said she lived in a world where failure—regardless of social or economic background—was not an option.
“I don’t know if we so much saw it as a struggle, it was our reality. The expectations were very clear. We were in a segregated school environment and there was no thought that we wouldn’t be successful,” Thomas said.
Thomas said most of the students went to church with each other, walked to and from school together and attended the same middle school and high school; there was a very strong sense of community.
“At the time that we came up Atlanta was, and still is, the place to be for opportunities for African Americans, so even if you went away to school you came back,” Thomas said.
Moore explained that although class reunions typically serve as mile-markers highlighting the number of years since a specific education level, kindergarten is almost never included.
“Having traveled through most of the remaining elementary grades together, the social changes under way in the early 1960s also impacted the elementary years and beginning high school years,” Moore said.
Throughout their lives, the students of Rogers’ class experienced some of the most important moments in history: They were seventh graders when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; they were the first group of students to enter desegregated high school as eighth graders in Atlanta; they were juniors in high school when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
“It was about all of us turning 60 but it was also about us serving as a beacon to others,” Moore said.
Nelson Martin, a retired General Motors employee who worked at the plant in Doraville, told a story at the reunion about when he was asked to read something aloud to the teacher. When he was finished, she asked him if he comprehended it.
“I had to get to understanding what comprehend meant at that time, and it challenged me to continue to move forward and to take those school books home and study,” Martin said.
Many students in the class, including Thomas, Moore and Frida Patillo, said community involvement played a large role in their education, something they said is lacking in the lives of children today.
“Regardless of what your parents’ background was, and regardless of what people thought of you, home was very important,” Patillo said. “I knew that it was not acceptable for me to fail—that was not even an issue in my house. My parents expected me to succeed therefore I expected to succeed, and I tried to pass it off to my children.”
Moore said those life lessons, community involvement and great expectations were all they needed to go out into the world to be successful. The reunion gave them a chance to come together and see what each had accomplished since such a tumultuous era.
Without the foundation laid in Rogers’ classroom, Moore said the students would have never been able to become successful members of society such as educators, doctors, business owners and civic leaders.
“From five years old to 55 years later, everything we wanted to know we learned in kindergarten—that was our theme for the reunion. The common thread was and remains the kindergarten,” Moore said.