So in 1946, when she was in the 10th grade, Williams, who grew up in Flat Rock in Lithonia, dropped out of school.
Fast forward 63 years.
On Feb. 20, Williams, now a great-grandmother, was one of nine men and women ages 73 to 93 from the historic Flat Rock community who finally got their high school diplomas during a graduation ceremony at the Flat Rock Archives Black History Program at Arabia Mountain High School.
DeKalb School Board members Dr. Eugene Walker and Jay Cunningham handed out the diplomas to Williams and to Zella Bryant Guthrie, 93, of Decatur; Dorothy Sanders Lindsey, 82, of Lithonia; Thelma Wilson Roberts, 81, of Ellenwood; Bertha Sanders Clark, 76, of Lithonia; Eugene Nolden, 74, of Decatur; Alice Waits Bailey, 73, of Conyers; Lillian Walton Waites, 73, of Lithonia; and the late Johnny Waits Sr.
The graduation ceremony culminated a day of events attended by 500 people.
The events included tours of the Flat Rock Archives, a nonprofit museum that documents the history of the oldest African-American community in the county; the county’s oldest slave cemetery; and Lyon’s plantation, which once housed slaves.
Other activities included the unveiling of the documentary “Flat Rock – Where Home Is” by filmmaker Eddy Anderson and results of the community’s Slave Cemetery Mapping Project conducted by Georgia State University associate professor Jeffrey Glover of the archaeology department and his students.
Williams, who walked proudly across the stage to pick up her diploma, said she was thrilled to be part of such an event.
“It was the best feeling of my life,” said Williams, who dropped out of school to help her mother, Virgil Wise, who was raising six children on her own. She said her father, Joddie Wise, died when she was 5 years old, and she said things were tough for her family.
Johnny Waits Jr., co-founder and president of the Flat Rock Archives, said that African-Americans had to leave DeKalb County to attend high school in the 1940s.
“There were only two high schools for blacks,” he said. “You had to go to Washington High School in Atlanta or Lucy Laney High School in Augusta.”
While the diplomas handed out Feb. 20 were honorary, Waits said the nine men and women can actually be said to have been between the seventh grade and 11th grade, depending on the period.
“They completed the required courses,” he said. “They did as required by the county and the county gave them nothing, not a hello or bye.”
Williams said the graduation ceremony for the students of the Flat Rock community had been in the works for a year and she could barely wait for that day to come.
“I was determined that I was going to live to see this day,” Williams said.
Lillian Walton Waites, widow of Johnny Waits Sr., who was awarded his diploma posthumously, said they had no choice but to drop out of school in the 1940s.
“I had to pick cotton and corn,” she said, “and I found out that the Guthries and the Clarks had to do the same thing.”
Her husband died in 1976 at age 41 from stomach cancer. Their grandson, Jonathon Sullivan, accepted the award on his behalf.
Bailey, who left school in the 11th grade, said she was happy to finally get her diploma.
“I wanted to go back to school, but I never could,” she said, while her grand-cousin Antionette Waits helped her with her cap and gown. “It feels strange and real, real late, but it’s OK.”
Guthrie, the oldest student honored, was ecstatic as she waited to walk down the aisle.
“I like it,” said Guthrie. “Since they want to go through all the trouble and do that for us, I think it’s wonderful.”