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'To be treated like you weren't human' | Chester County school board member reflects on the front lines of integration

Maggie James was one of just a few dozen Black students to integrate Chester County Schools in 1965.

CHESTER COUNTY, S.C. — This year marks 69 years since the segregation of children in public schools was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Despite the landmark supreme court decision, it would take decades for schools in the Carolinas to follow the law. 

In Chester County, it took about 11 years. 

Maggie James’ memories of this time are those of pain. 

"To have endured nobody talking to you all day," James said. "Nobody even acting like you're irrelevant and to then to be treated like you weren't human." 

James was one of just a few dozen Black students to integrate Chester County Schools in 1965.

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"Our parents were sent a form asking if they wanted to transfer us to, you know, the white school," James said. 

Moving from the all-Black schools meant having a cafeteria, lockers, a gym, and even new books.

However, James said she underestimated the trauma she would face. 

"Some of the students thought we were animals, they would make fun of our faces of our features, you know, my mouth, my nose, my lips," James said. 

The backlash was swift and lasted for years. 

"We didn't talk about making history," James said. "All I knew was that we had made this choice." 

It's a choice that would lead her to the It's a choice that would lead her to the Chester County School District’s Board of Trustees meeting room. 

"I am the longest serving school board member, I think ever -- 27 years," James said. 

James was the first Black female elected to the Chester County Board of School Trustees in March 1993.

The eighth-grade student at the mercy of others is now the one making decisions to impact hundreds of students. 

"I was determined that I was going to be a part when the decisions were being made," James said. 

She would later go on to serve as vice chair and then chairwoman, becoming the first Black female to ever hold the office and the second Black person in nearly 45 years to have held the title. 

"I would have never imagined this little cinnamon-colored Black girl to come as far as I have come," James said. 

She said now, there’s a new battle to fight for fairness in school and it's a lack of school funding. 

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"It's almost like instead of going forward, they want to go back and not provide the services, the education, the tools, what they need, what the students need to go forward," James said. 

More than 50 years after integrating local schools James continues to make a difference. 

"To now sit on a board, and be a part of a district that used to not provide the educational background of things that I needed when I was growing up, and to sit now at the top, it is -- it is overwhelming," James said. 

It's also a full-circle moment. 

Contact Shamarria Morrison at smorrison@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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