Bolstered by a court ruling and protected by dozens of policemen, the black pupils and their parents walked through the gates of Potgietersrus primary school as a horde of journalists recorded the historic moment.
President Nelson Mandela's government hopes the case will set a national precedent to wipe out any other lingering examples of the old apartheid education system.
But some whites in this conservative Afrikaner town 180 miles north of Johannesburg appeared to reject change. Only about 20 of the almost 700 white pupils appeared yesterday, and glowering parents said they would try to set up their own school rather than have their children mix with blacks.
One man, shouting in Afrikaans, cursed journalists and called black pupils apes after his daughter burst into tears when converged on by reporters and cameramen.
The Northern Province Premier, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, plans talks with white leaders today to try to allay fears that ending whites-only education would prove harmful.
Mr Mandela, speaking in Cape Town, said he hoped the talks could prevent a split in the community. "We've got the court order, but we're dealing with children and we don't want to exercise our rights in such a way that the lives of the children are in jeopardy," he said.
For 10-year-old Thabang Thula, the change meant walking only three blocks to school instead of riding a bus across town to the impoverished black school she used to attend. "I was happy to go to school today," she said, asking why she should be prohibited from attending classes so near home.
Like many towns in rural South Africa, Potgietersrus was once a whites- only community with a nearby black township. Now a black mayor runs the town, which includes the old white section and the black township, and blacks such as Thula and her family have moved into formerly white areas.
Whites tried to maintain their hold on the state-subsidised primary school, blocking black children from enrolling. But, with the law behind them, three black families filed a court challenge backed by the provincial government and won. A Supreme Court ruling delivered last week and upheld on appeal on Wednesday called the school's admissions policy racist.
Afrikaners say that bringing blacks to their traditionally all-white schools will harm the quality of education and erode their culture, particularly the use of the Afrikaans language. Some fiercely oppose the mixing of races.
Many kept their children home yesterday, including Mof Erasmus, who watched the proceedings with a few other whites from about 100 yards down the road. "The presence of the police here is quite threatening, particularly for small children," he said, adding that some parents were talking about forming their own private school "where we have our children educated with Christian values, the things that we believe in, in our mother tongue. We feel that the character is going to be changed if we are flooded with children of other cultures."
While the constitution forbids racial discrimination, the white parents hope a private school established and financed by them could set its own admissions policy.Reuse content