South Natchez High School class of 1986 has first integrated reunion

Published 12:57 am Sunday, June 19, 2016

NATCHEZ — Gathered under the pavilion at Duncan Park looking back on the Colonels yearbook of 1986, a group of former South Natchez High School classmates talked about how they had had segregated dances and other events.

Those barriers continued to be held up for the 10-year reunion of the class. But for the 30th year, they decided to do something special — come together as an entire class.

“We didn’t know any better — that’s the way it had been done,” said Shelia Chatman of Missouri City, Texas. “But now we are older, and we know better so we can do better.”

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As Chatman announced that, the integrated group let out a loud applause. Mona Mayo Griffin, who is white, and Cassandra Washington, who is black, sat together at a picnic table looking at the yearbook commenting on friendships of years past.

“Cassandra and I, really a lot of us, have been together since the first grade,” said Griffin, who lives in Mobile, Ala. “I think this has been a long time coming.”

“I never expected we would have a reunion here together — we had separate proms and everything,” said Washington, who now lives in Dallas. “I’m glad it happened.”

“I think I’m going to cry again,” Griffin said, laughing it away. “These girls are like my sisters.”

Dale Vines of Canton, Ga., said he never thought about how the school events were segregated until someone mentioned it to him at the reunion.

“During school and after school, we were all together,” he said. “When we were kids, there was really no difference between us.

“We’re all people, and it’s great to be back together to hang out.”

Denzel Turner said the reunion was well worth the drive from Sugarland, Texas.

“I’m having an outstanding time,” he said. “We have a great turnout, and I’m glad we decided to make this happen.”

Chatman, one of the organizers, said this event has been many years in the making. It all started with a dinner between she and some of her classmates.

“When we were segregated, it was not our choice. We were just doing what we were told to do as children,” she said. “For the tenth-year reunion, we didn’t think twice about it and had separate events.

“We decided now that we should do this with the entire class.”

About 65 people came to the event including guests, and Chatman said she reached out to 150 people. She said more would be here this weekend, though, as they are allowing people who did not register.

“We had an emotional event (Thursday),” Chatman said. “We lost a classmate, Jennifer Matlock (Smith), she was one of the Colonels Ladies, the drill team.

“With her passing, other classmates changed their minds about coming. You never know if you will get a chance to see the people who you are close to again.”

The event started out Friday night with the group meeting up at the hotel and moving over to Bowie’s Tavern.

“We had a blast at Bowie’s,” said Maria Byrd of Natchez. “It was just wonderful how everyone was dancing together.”

On Saturday, the group gathered at Duncan Park and had a banquet at the House on Ellicott’s Hill. People were in town from as far away as Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas.

“Everything turned out nice,” Chatman said. “It has been a great turnout. Now, we are thinking about what to do next together as a class.”