Leah Ward Sears
Born 1955, Savannah
I was born in Germany while my father was stationed in Heidelberg. My father was transferred to Savannah, to Hunter Army Airfield Base, I think in 1966. I stayed in Savannah until I left for Cornell University in 1972. I went to college early, at sixteen. So I really feel like I’m from Savannah. That was the only home I’d ever known.
Sears in her Beach High School cap and gown;
photograph courtesy of Leah Ward Sears
My father was an Army officer, and my mother taught elementary school. This was during the time when children were born every year. So Mother had Tommy, her first child, in 1954. I was born in 1955, and then I have a brother who was born in December 1956, Michael.
In the early seventies, busing became a very hot issue. The white administration in Savannah decided, “Okay, we will integrate the schools. We will bus Jewish neighborhoods into the black schools.” I happened to live in a neighborhood that was predominantly Jewish. So I got on a bus with my Jewish friends and was bused to a black school my last year of high school. That was one of the reasons why I left early. I was very interested in getting a top-quality education, and all there were, were fights.
It was a time when white students would call you nigger and call you names and pull your hair and talk about the texture of your hair. So I took a lot of that. It was very, very difficult. And there really was no normal social outlet for me. I wasn’t invited to the prom. I wasn’t invited to the parties. [And at the black school] I was the black girl who had grown up among white people. I was fairly intelligent and I spoke odd, or so I was told at the time. Black kids can be cruel too.
I think my parents felt they were between a rock and a hard place [when they chose where in Savannah to live]. They could put us in the segregated schools where there would be people we’d be comfortable with but that were, at the time, getting the hand-me-downs. Or they could put us into the white schools that were quite frosty and cold. And it was a hard decision to make. Mother gets very upset, even at age eighty-one, wondering if they made the right decision. Did they put too much stress on us at such a young age? I don’t know the answer.
But it prepared me a lot for what I went through later. It taught me how to do your thing without being angry all the time. When I started sitting in courts where I was the only black or the only woman or the only black woman, that was not odd to me at all. I was very prepared. God just has a way of getting you where you need to be.
—As told to Betsy Riley
Leah Ward Sears became chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia in 2005, making her the first African American woman to become chief justice of any state supreme court. Appointed to the Georgia court by then Governor Zell Miller in 1992, she was its youngest and first female justice. Since retiring from the top post in 2009, Sears practices law in the Atlanta office of Schiff Hardin.