Fran Kinchen recalls her high school alma mater, Wilson High School, was a safe place. One of the two all-black schools in Tift County prior to desegregation, the schools were loved by their students.
"We learned, we had fun," she said. "There weren't any bad times that I can remember." She added that students frequently won awards and scholarships for academic achievements, and recognition in district and state competitions. The school's football team, the Tigers, was led to victory by Arthur Mott, and there was also an active PTA, and band and booster clubs.
When the option to move to the white schools became available, Kinchen said a few students in 1968 decided to move to Tift County High School…then a few more in 1969. And in 1970, "that was our last class," she said.
Kinchen chose to stay at Wilson.
"It was scary. It was the fear of not knowing how we would be received," she said. "We had been segregated all of our lives and it was all we had ever known."
Students weren't the only ones who were afraid. Kinchen said parents were also fearful.
But beyond the fear was a love for their school. Kinchen said this dedication to their school was the biggest motivation to stay. There was little the white school could offer them that they didn't already have.
"I remember the books," she said. "They had new books. We used to get all their old books with the pages torn out."
Overall, Kinchen recalled, there were very few problems when the schools combined. But she also remembers during that time, "I don't recall having a white friend." The town and all of the activities were divided by the railroad tracks, and she lived on the south side of those tracks.
Kinchen said the public areas were segregated, and there were few, if any, restaurants for blacks.
"I never remember going in and sitting in a restaurant," she said. White teenagers hung out at The Varsity, and black students were only allowed to pick up food at the side or back door.
"We were allowed go to Shady Lane and hang out," she recalled.
But there was no shortage of things to do. "We had our own fun things to do. We had our own prom, graduation ceremonies and other activities. We didn't do anything with white students," she said.
Kinchen said she and her peers walked to school, and she remembers the white students yelling horrible names at them from the buses, and throwing debris at them.
"Some scary moments, but we as blacks had learned to endure the harassment and name calling," she said.
Children in her community often had to miss school in order to work in the fields to help their families.
"Working in the fields – that's how we got our school clothes. We picked cotton, gathered tobacco. Those were the only jobs we could do," she said.
After Kinchen graduated from high school, she attended Thomas Area Technical School and majored in Secretarial Science, a choice she says her mother wasn't very pleased with. Her mother had wanted her to be a nurse.
But Kinchen had helped Pearline Johnson with cleaning a local bank, and had become fascinated with the big desks and offices. She went on to get a job as a secretary to the Evening Director at Thomas Tech-Walton Division, until she moved back to Tifton in 1972.
It was at that time Kinchen was faced with another choice. There were no options for a black secretary in the white businesses in Tifton, and after several disappointments, she applied for a position at the Rural Development Center. She took the entry test and typed more than 90 words per minute with only three mistakes. Her skills got her the job. Dr. David Bedell and two other specialists hired her as their secretary. Bedell became a father figure for her as the years went by, guiding her in her career.
Kinchen later became the first black secretary to serve in all the offices, including president, of the Tiftarea National Secretaries Association. She also took on the challenge of running for office for the National Secretaries Association State Convention, and became the first black secretary to lead more than 20 professional secretary chapters in Georgia.
But she didn't stop there. She became the first black secretary to the Vice President of Academic Affairs, and later on, the first and only black secretary to the President at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.
"ABAC provided me with so many opportunities, and I will forever be grateful," she said, adding with a laugh, that she was often introduced as the "first black…"
Eventually, Kinchen retired – but only for six months. She joined the city of Tifton staff as promotion coordinator, and is currently director of the Leroy Rogers Senior Center. She's often asked if she will again retire.
"My answer is when I get ready. As long as I can work and help folks, that's what I'm going to do," she said. "My greatest joy is being able to help others, regardless of race. God has provided me with many skills and talent, so it's so easy to just do it."
Kinchen calls her work at Leroy Rogers a joy, because she assists so many people who are in need of the services offered there.
"We want to offer services to all citizens of the community, especially our seniors," she said. "The real satisfaction comes from making a difference in people's lives.”
Kinchen is also involved in her church, Springfield Baptist, where she's been a member for more than 50 years. She has served as program committee chair and finance secretary, and is currently church secretary and a Sunday school teacher.
She lives in Tifton and has two children, Regina Kinchen-Ovagha and Reginald Kinchen.
One of the most important choices you can make in your life, Kinchen said, is to make a difference in your community, no matter who you are, where you live or to what culture you belong.
"I believe that the world be so much better if we only care enough. Never, ever let culture or race keep you from dreaming big. Keep crossing the color lines. Keep fulfilling your dreams. And let the history of a great people empower you to be the great history makers of tomorrow," she said.
To contact editor Angye Morrison, call 382-4321.