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Posted: February 27, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Jackie Mattison blazed a cheerful trail

Photos by Brittany Thomas/

Jackie Mattison

In 1975, the student body at the University of Georgia looked nothing like it does today. It was almost exclusively white. And while things have changed over the years, whites still make up the majority.

For Jackie Mattison, that never mattered. Mattison, then Jackie Blackshear, is a physical education and health teacher at Newton High School, but in the 1970s, she was in the middle of racial integration and about to break a barrier.

Mattison went to the original Newton County High School in what's now Sharp Learning Center. The thing is, though, most black students went to Cousins High School. But Mattison was one of the select few who went to Newton County.

She recalls some problems here and there and, of course, when students at Cousins and the black community protested the closing of the black high school. But she was more focused on her future even if the present was a trying time.

"I don't remember it being that bad but there were some times when people would say things," Mattison said. "I just felt like I belonged. I really didn't think about it. I went to Newton because it was closer to my house. I had friends that went to Cousins, and I remember when they walked out in protest because the county was closing their school. But none of them ever really were upset at me because I didn't go there."

It was at Georgia where she forever left her mark. At the time, she didn't really see what she was doing as trailblazing. Looking back on it now, she knows she kicked down a wall for every other girl who would attend the university. In 1976, Mattison became the first black cheerleader at UGA.

Mattison never set out to be a cheerleader at Georgia. She was the Rams' mascot at Newton County and was adept at tumbling, but had no aspirations to get involved with cheerleading in college. When the gymnastics coach saw her ability, he urged her to try out.

"He told me I was light on my feet and should tryout," Mattison recalls. "He saw I could do the tumbles and was strong and could do those things the cheerleaders would do. But before that, I never thought about cheering at Georgia."

Mattison tried out for the team during her junior year but didn't make it. She had the ability. She was as good if not better than the other girls. The problem was each female cheerleader had a male partner to assist with lifts and such. And all the male cheerleaders were white.

"A white man touching a black girl in those days was taboo," she said. "When I tried out, we had to do this one lift where the guy tosses you up and you do a full twist then he catches you. But I kept bouncing out of my partners arms. Then I realized he was holding his arms out stiff on purpose. When you hold your arms like that, there's no give when you land so I would bounce off. I kept bouncing off and couldn't understand why. I knew I could land the flip. Then I figured it out."

Mattison was upset at not making the team. She vowed to forgo another shot at it the next year even though her heart told her she deserved to make the team. Then she met Ricky Bivens and he convinced her to give it another shot.

Bivens was also black. And after some convincing, Mattsion and her new partner tried out again and they scored better than anyone else. She made the team. She also tried out for and made the gymnastics team. All of a sudden, a small town black girl was making quite a name for herself.

Mattison spent one year as a cheerleader and said it was one of the best years in her life. She went on to take graduate level classes the next year and didn't return for another year on the cheerleading squad. Partly because she didn't think she was eligible and partly because she didn't want to go through the possibility of not making it again. Bivens begged and pleaded but Mattison didn't waver. Bivens found a new partner and went out again but didn't make it. To this day, it's perhaps the one regret Mattison has.

"I didn't want to go through the pain of not making the team again," she said. "We were good. Ricky and I were a great team. He really meant a lot to me at that time and I look back at it and I feel like I maybe should have done it with him again because without me, it wasn't the same."

She didn't stay in contact with Bivens after that year and later found out he died in the '80s. Looking back she has fond memories of those days and regrets not keeping in touch with her groundbreaking partner. She moved on and began a career as an educator and coach herself.

After two decades away from Covington, she returned six years ago where it all started. Mattison reflects on her time at the old Newton, where she encountered some resistance and was even devastated when one of her favorite teachers told her, "we didn't want you here to begin with". She learned tolerance then and has never wavered. She's quick to point out society isn't where it needs to be with race relations but it's a lot further than it once was.

Through it all, Mattison always felt like she belonged. She was close to her white teammates at Georgia and never harbored the anger some any of her contemporaries do to this day. She is quick to point out that she was against the racial inequalities seen in our nation's history and recognizes the need for those to be outspoken. She's also quick to forgive those who make mistakes.

"I remember when Martin Luther King died. I remember waking up my parents and telling them," Mattison said. "I really didn't know much about him but my dad said, 'this is going to be bad'. But my parents always taught us to know that we belonged and I think that helped growing up."

You can call Jackie Blackshear, now Coach Mattison at Newton, a trailblazer because she was. Just don't be surprised if she smiles shyly and prefers to politely tell you otherwise.

"Looking back at it, yes, I guess what I did was breaking down barriers," she said. "It's not something many people know about. I don't really tell anyone about it. But I guess it was special and I'm proud that I was able to do that for other girls to come."

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