By Rory Sharrock
The history of the Clayton County school district dates back to the late 19th century, but for the majority of that period, the story was incomplete as Jim Crow and segregation ruled the land, denying several black residents the opportunity to receive a quality education.
However, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court made their landmark ruling in the case of Brown versus the Board of Education, deeming segregated schools as unconstitutional. The high court required all public education institutions nationwide to be integrated "with all deliberate speed," but the deliberation process didn't reach the coaching ranks in Clayton County until 14 years later in 1968, when then 33-year-old James Davis walked down the hallways at Jonesboro High School.
Forty years ago this summer, Davis left his job at all-black Fountain High School, where he taught physical education, coached football and baseball, only to step into the history books by becoming the first African American coach in Clayton County.
"We were waiting to see when they were going to integrate, but they never said anything about integration until they approached me about coming out to integrate the faculty and coaching staff at Jonesboro Senior High School," Davis said. "I didn't think it would have any significance at the time. But now, it makes me feel good because I made a large contribution to the athletic department and the school."
Davis resumed his role as a physical education teacher and worked on the sidelines for the jayvee football squad during the 1968 season under the leadership of former varsity head man Buddy Nix.
During his early days as an educator, black schools such as Fountain High were members of the Georgia Interscholastic Association. While they managed to serve their students, the amenities they had were like night-and-day in comparison to the schools of the Georgia High School Association. These institutions featured larger classrooms, updated text books, educational materials and athletic facilities.
Along with the educational disparities, coaches at GIA schools wore several hats, working with the girls and boys teams with little to show for it in terms of finances. However, after being hired at Jonesboro High School, Davis noticed an immediate increase in his paycheck, as he went from making $100 a year at Fountain, to bringing home an annual coaching salary of $1500 with the Cardinals.
"I was surprised and overwhelmed when I received my paycheck at Jonesboro compared to the paycheck I received at Fountain, but yet we were in the same school system. There were so many opportunities I had at Jonesboro that they never even thought about for Fountain," he said.
Despite the racial tension that was prevalent throughout the state, Davis sailed through calm seas during his first year at Jonesboro. He already had two years of head coaching experience on his resume from his days at Elm Street High School in the small town of Rockmart in Polk County, so the learning curve was small because of his previously established gridiron knowledge.
But at the time of Davis' hiring, there wasn't an opening on the varsity coaching staff and Nix thought his talents would be better served on the jayvee level. However, 1968 proved to be Nix's last year at Jonesboro as he took a position as linebacker's at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson, Tenn. the following season.
"I knew there was going to be a new coach, but I didn't know if it was going to be a coach on the present staff, or from another system, but I knew it wasn't going to be me, so with that in mind, I applied to the Atlanta school system."
From there, he left Clayton County in 1969 and joined the staff as a defensive backs coach at the recently integrated Murphy High School, which later changed its name to Graham High School.
Davis' career spanned througout the district, coaching and teaching in the Atlanta school system until his retirement in 1995.
This life-long Georgian and Clayton County history maker was raised in Atlanta, where he attended David T. Howard High School. Upon graduating in 1953, he enrolled at Morris Brown College and played football for the Wolverines. He later received his bachelor's in education in 1957.
He currently resides in southwest Atlanta with his wife Dorothy.