WALKING INTO HISTORY (part 2)
The Beginning of School Desegregation in Nashville
A Narrative by John Egerton
A late-night thunderstorm swept across the city, leaving the air dense with humidity, and Monday dawned gray and sultry as Kasper and his followers emerged from the gloom to take up their stations at three schools north of downtown and three more east of the Cumberland River. The special police units were soon in place around the same schools.
It was principally at these six—Buena Vista, Jones, and Fehr on the north side and Bailey, Caldwell, and Glenn on the east—that public attention was focused, due in part to extensive advance coverage by the city’s newspapers. Two more elementary schools also were desegregated that morning—Clemons, south of downtown, and Hattie Cotton, to the northeast—but they had not been listed in the papers and thus drew no sign-waving protesters.
Each of these eight schools had its own distinctive set of circumstances to address. To get a clear picture of the Nashville scene in a larger context on that first day of historic change here, it is useful to review the opening-day activity at these schools, one by one. The eight had several things in common: All were elementary schools in working-class neighborhoods, serving white children in grades 1 through 6 (no kindergarten or pre-school programs were provided in the city then). They were selected for change because African-American families with first-grade children were known to live within their zones, closer to them than to the nearest black schools.
Buena Vista. The three first-graders who desegregated Buena Vista School, in the 1500 block of Ninth Avenue North—Erroll Groves, Ethel Mai Carr, and Patricia Guthrie—had all visited the school with their parents in late August for early registration. A few whites had been clustered outside on the front sidewalk that day, passing out pro-segregation handbills, but there were no disturbances. Two weeks later, a far different scene unfolded.
“I was young myself, in my early twenties,” recalled Iridell Groves, Erroll’s mother, fifty years later, “and it really wasn’t that big of a deal to me. We just lived around the corner from the school, and some of these little white kids, they were our neighbors. Erroll played with them. I guess I couldn’t understand why if they played together, they couldn’t go to school together.
“So that first morning, after my husband went to work, I got out some new clothes I had bought for my son—blue jeans and a Roy Rogers shirt—and I got dressed up too, wanted us to look nice, and we started out. Well, we rounded the corner down there, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on— all these people hollering, waving signs, calling us names and everything. I held his hand real tight and kept walking, up the steps and past everybody and straight in the door. And as soon as we got inside, people were waiting there, talking nice to us, telling us everything was going to be all right.”
Close behind Mrs. Groves and her son came the Carr and Guthrie parents with their children. All made it safely inside the school, with the noisy crowd of about a hundred protesters hounding them along the sidewalk. John Kasper put in a brief appearance to stir up the assembly, but most of the agitation was the work of Fred Stroud, who thundered doom and damnation upon the heads of all who failed to heed his segregationist message. The presence of several photographers and news reporters lent an air of drama to the scene, and for their benefit the demonstrators waved their signs to pulsing, vociferous bursts of indignation. But the police were out in force too, and at the sight of them, the crowd’s threatening behavior was edged with enough caution to keep even the most foolhardy from physical contact.
Jones. Half a mile north along Ninth Avenue, a similar encounter was taking place in front of Jones School, where four black first-graders, three of whom had pre-registered, arrived with their parents and other adult escorts.
Barbara Jean Watson, Marvin Moore, Charles Edward Battles, and the newest child, Cecil Ray Jr., were not attacked physically, but the protesters were loud and abusive—some crowding the sidewalk, others riding past in cars emblazoned with KKK signs, Bible quotations, Confederate flags, and other messages. (The same vehicles were also seen cruising around Buena Vista and Fehr, the third North Nashville school, as well as in East Nashville, during the day.)
As the morning wore on, the crowd at Jones was aroused by a grand-motherly white woman who refused to give her name but mesmerized her listeners with spellbinding oratory. She exhorted the parents to go into the school and remove their children, and about a dozen promptly did so, giving unexpected energy to a boycott strategy that Kasper had advocated and all the active pro-segregation groups in the city seemed to support. As with those at Buena Vista, all the black parents and their first-graders at Jones managed to walk safely to and from school that day, a bit shaken but unharmed.
“Most of our neighbors—the black ones or the white ones—didn’t want us to take Barbara Jean down there to Jones,” said Mary Louise Watson years later. “And we had people calling, saying if we did carry her, they would kidnap her or burn our house down or whatever. But my husband had talked to his cousin, who was a school principal, and he urged us to go on and do it, so we did. Once we had made up our minds, there was no turning back. It was scary, oh yes, plenty of times—but we never doubted it was the right thing to do. We went back the next day, even though some of the other black children and most of the white ones stayed at home.”
Fehr. A mile or so from Jones, on Fifth Avenue North, four children crossed the segregation line: two girls who had registered early—Linda McKinley and Rita Buchanan—and two boys who hadn’t, Charles Elbert Ridley and Willis Edgar Lewis Jr. A fifth child, Bobby Cabknor, had pre-registered but was not in attendance on opening day. The school census had indicated that eighteen black first-graders were living in the Fehr zone.
Twenty-one-year-old Grace McKinley and her daughter Linda lived with Mrs. McKinley’s parents and her invalid brother in a four-room house just around the corner and a block away from Fehr; the nearest all-black school, Elliott, was about a mile south, on Jefferson Street.
“I remember a lot about that morning,” said the mother (now Mrs. Grace Lillard), fifty years later. “I heard they had better books at Fehr, and it was a lot closer than Elliott, and when they said Linda could go there, I made up my mind to do it. So on the early registration day, this nice lady, Mrs. C. E. Hayes, came to the house and walked down there with us. Linda had a friend, Rita
Buchanan, who went too, her and her mother. There was some white people down there hollering, but they didn’t bother us.
“I never was afraid to stand up for my rights. The day school started, I got Rita up, we got dressed, ate something. We must have been nervous. My mama said, ‘Don’t go down there with an attitude,’ and I didn’t, but my daddy was walking right behind me—to help me stay calm, I guess. Rita went with us that morning. Her mother was afraid to go.”
When they turned the corner onto Garfield Street, a block from the school, they could see and hear the crowd: sign-waving demonstrators, police officers, curious neighbors (white and black), parents arriving with their children, school personnel, reporters and photographers—more than two hundred people in all. Having been warmed up by Kasper and Stroud, the protesters released a flood of epithets upon the mother and the two little girls; clutching their hands, she steered a path to the front door and entered.
“It was a lot calmer inside,” Mrs. Lillard recalled. “We never did have any trouble with the teachers or the principal. Some of the white parents were nice, too—but those women out in front, they were bad.” Two of the women were arrested that morning, and booked on charges of disorderly conduct.
When school was dismissed at noon, the girls and Linda’s mother tried to avoid the crowd by leaving through a side door, but rocks and bottles were thrown at them, and Mrs. Lillard struck back. Quickly, she was arrested and taken away to be charged, leaving the crying girls in the care of friends and family.
About half of the 370 white children expected at Fehr that morning did not come. The ones who did, white and black, may have wished not to be there themselves. Even the black custodian would have reasons for regret.
Returning to the building in late afternoon to take down the American flag, he was assaulted by a roving band of white bullies. Beaten and bloodied, the man ran for his life, leaving his car. The thugs promptly slashed its tires.
Bailey. Across the river but still not far from downtown Nashville, Bailey School on East Greenwood Avenue was one of three expecting black enrollees. One black girl, Era May Bailey, had been pre-registered for the first grade there. Several dozen white protesters waited for an hour past the opening for her to appear, and then left to join demonstrations at Caldwell and Glenn schools nearby. It was later reported that the Bailey child’s grandparents (her legal guardians), after being besieged with phoned threats against her life, had decided to enroll her elsewhere. (The same also happened in the case of Richard Rucker, who was pre-registered at Jones but never attended the school. Bobby Cabknor, who was pre-registered at Fehr but not present on opening day, did subsequently attend and finish the year there.)
Caldwell. A jeering crowd of more than a hundred white protesters met three black children and their parents as they approached Caldwell School on Meridian Street. None of the three had registered earlier, but the school census indicated that thirteen black first-graders lived within the zone, and at the sight of three of them, the restless crowd was soon transformed into a mob. A policeman and a black parent were struck with rocks, the parents and children were spat upon and cursed, and soon after they entered the building, the mob rushed in too, and went rampaging from room to room in search of the black families. The police detail, momentarily caught off guard, quickly pursued and routed the marauders, detaining several of them.
The three children, meanwhile, were sheltered in the principal’s office, where it was determined that their transfer papers to Caldwell were not in order. The principal, Jack Stanfill, helped the distraught families leave the building by the back door, but they were pursued to their cars, and police again had to step in. Stanfill, saying he intended “to keep personalities out of this,” refused to divulge the applicants’ names.
Glenn. If there was one school above all the others where both pro-and anti-desegregation forces expected trouble, it was probably Glenn, on Cleveland Street in East Nashville. The census indicated that twenty-five black six-year-olds lived in the zone. Kasper, fearing disaster for his side if many or all of the children enrolled, spent more time at Glenn than anywhere else that morning, rallying and firing up the ragtag army of more than two hundred demonstrators and trouble-makers massed there. “We’ve got to defy this thing!” he shouted. “They don’t have enough jails to hold all of us!” Waiting feverishly for the blacks to arrive, they were a mob in the making, goading the stoic police detail and threatening a full-blown boycott.
Finally, right at 8 o’clock, three black children appeared with their parents. Two—Jacqueline Griffith and Lajuanda Street—had registered early; the third, Sinclair Lee Jr., was there for the first time. They were roughly jostled as they threaded through the milling mob, and when a policeman cleared a path for them, his effort was met with cries of outrage. “I would turn in my uniform before I’d do what you’re doing!” one man told the officer. Another protester shouted to Superintendent Bass, “What about our states’ rights?” He replied calmly, “We lost those at Appomattox in 1865.”
Once inside the building, the three families were hospitably received, though registration of the Lee child was deferred for lack of final transfer documents (he subsequently was enrolled elsewhere). In retaliation, frustrated whites began to withdraw their children, and by noon more than eighty had exited. All told, roughly half of Glenn’s expected enrollment of 500 was absent on the first day of school.
Clemons. Another 500 white students were projected for Emma Clemons School on Twelfth Avenue South, together with just four black first-graders—and none of those four had registered early. The white opposition decided, based on these figures, that there was no need to send protesters there—and, curiously, so did the local newspapers and the relatively new medium of television, with its limited news-gathering capacity.
No one paid much notice, then, as six-year-old Joy Smith, holding the hand of her father, Kelly Miller Smith—pastor of one of Nashville’s most historic black churches, First Baptist Capitol Hill, and president of the local NAACP chapter—walked up the steps at Clemons and into the venerable building where she was to receive the first six years of her education. There were no incidents. At home that evening, Joy’s father, after fending off several anonymous and threatening calls, warily answered one more and, to his surprise, heard a familiar voice: “Reverend Smith, this is Ben West. I just wanted to be sure that you and your family are all right.”
Cotton. One more school was desegregated that morning: Hattie Cotton, on West Greenwood Avenue, northeast of the city center. No black children had pre-registered, but a few were known to live nearby. One of them, Patricia Watson, appeared that morning with her mother to be enrolled, and quietly joined a first-grade class. Not a single white demonstrator had been there when she entered, but word spread during the morning, and several carloads of men drove up, waiting for the noontime dismissal.
Margaret Cate, the principal at Cotton, observed a few odd occurrences during the morning: first, enrollment was close to the expected total of about four hundred, but more than twenty mothers came in one by one and quietly withdrew their children; then, cars with segregationist banners and symbols were seen driving slowly around the school; and finally, when classes were dismissed, several cars full of men were parked around the driveway entrance. Minutes earlier, a taxi had pulled up near the cars, and then driven away.
When most of the children were gone, Miss Cate saw that no one had come for Patricia Watson. “I decided to take the child home in my own car,” she later told police. “As I paused before backing into the street, one of the men standing beside the car verbally protested my transporting a Negro child.”
At the home, she learned that the mother, too frightened to walk back and meet her daughter inside the school, had called the taxi to pick her up. At dawn the next morning, Miss Cate’s phone rang at home. When she picked up the receiver, she heard a woman’s voice, cold and menacing: “Well, now you won’t be carrying the little nigger home any more!”
The Witching Hour
For a few hours after the half-day session had ended and Nashville’s first venture into school desegregation was an accomplished fact, the prevailing mood among parents and children, school personnel, city officials and the police was a profound sense of relief. With white rage simmering just beneath the surface on that sultry late-summer morning, voices of raw anger and hatred had spilled out into the streets. Sticks, stones and bottles had been hurled at a handful of African Americans seeking the full benefits and services of public education. They had been spat upon, cursed, threatened—but with quiet courage and admirable restraint, the parents and children had kept on walking. Miraculously, no blood had been spilled, and that alone seemed reason enough to pause and be grateful.
Mayor West, who was away from the city, called back to praise Chief Hosse and the police force for allowing orderly protest while protecting the children and preventing violence. The Parents School Preference Committee, having earlier harangued the mayor to defy the Supreme Court, chose this day to call on Governor Clement, demanding that he use national guard troops to block desegregation, as Governor Faubus was doing in Arkansas—but Clement firmly rebuffed them, as West had done earlier. Superintendent Bass expressed mild disappointment that attendance was down by about one-third in four of the six schools that were desegregated, but he applauded the efforts of school principals and teachers, the black families, and the police. Referring to the escalating conflict in Arkansas, he said, “We are caught in the backwash of . . . Little Rock, [which] has given the impression of possible victory to those who would like to defeat the Supreme Court decision.”
In their different ways, the leaders of Nashville were claiming progress— but not total victory—in the campaign to desegregate the schools. They were on the side of the law, but they knew that a great many whites, perhaps a majority, wanted to cling to segregation, and the most avid racists among them would continue to fight change with every weapon at their disposal. The first day of desegregation was over, but it was just one day in what was likely to be a long and bitter domestic war.
John Kasper was still in town to lead the segregationists’ offensive. The racists had lost every round in court, but Kasper was still their weapon of last resort. Kasper was the Bomb. They knew that he could not be trusted, but he had the skill to fire up a crowd as few men could. Through him, they might still build an underground army that could draw manpower and money from across the economic spectrum in Nashville and beyond; without him, their chances were slim—or nonexistent.
In the fading light that evening, about three hundred whites gathered on the steps of the War Memorial Building to witness another Kasper performance. He had vowed earlier that no black child would get past the iron curtain of segregation—but sixteen had done so, and a dozen of them were now permanently enrolled in their new schools. He had assured his followers that a white boycott of the system would shut it down, but that had not happened.
He could argue that the hole the government had poked in the solid wall of segregation was no bigger than the eye of a needle—only a handful of black first-graders out of 1,400 had squeezed through—but the slogans of defiance now echoed in his ears: “Not one, not now, not ever!”
Private worries also dogged the man. Rumors were circulating that his personal associations back East, far from signifying “white purity,” had been interracial and at times intimate. His earlier conviction in the federal court in Knoxville was still under appeal. His tolerance factor among Nashville law enforcement and court officials was nearing zero. And, perhaps worst of all for him, his money sources (none of them known publicly) were swiftly drying up as the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, the Citizens Councils, the Parents Committee for School Preference, and even the Ku Klux Klan began to distance themselves from him.
With what seemed like a mixture of confidence and desperation, Kasper stood before his audience that Monday evening and slowly heated his rhetoric to the boiling point. Using language laced with dehumanizing epithets and images of violence, he pressed once again the emotional buttons of defiance and menace that had always seemed to work for him in the past: communism, atheism, mongrelization, rape, mayhem. The crowd was on his leash, waiting to be led. He told them they had a constitutional right to carry weapons, and the time had come for them to arm themselves and get into the fight.
They moved across Charlotte Avenue to the steps of the State Capitol, with Kasper in the lead. “We say no peace!” he shouted. “We say, attack, attack, attack!” Then, brandishing a rope, the Jersey racist with his newly-acquired Southern accent closed with a final flourish: “This is Dixie! Who do they think they’re playing with? We’re the greatest race on the face of the earth! Let’s for once show what a white man can do!” Standing gaunt and grim-faced, Kasper absorbed the frenzied crowd’s deafening roar of approval. He looked for all the world like the leader of a lynch mob.
The throng began to thin out quickly when Kasper sent ten men out among them to take up a collection in their doffed hats. Minutes later, an effigy in blackface was seen swinging from a stoplight on Church Street, two blocks south of the capitol. “This could be you!” the sign on it read.
It was dark by then, and two miles to the north, another mob of four or five hundred was roaming the streets around Fehr School. Boldness crept in with the shadows, and soon the violence escalated. Two outbuildings in the back yard of Grace McKinley’s family on Sixth Avenue burst into flames. Crosses were torched outside the darkened houses of black families in the neighborhood. Young men hurled rocks at passing cars and vandalized more property. All of this happened in a few harrowing minutes of anarchy. When the police moved in, the perpetrators scattered and fled ahead of them like a flock of birds. An eerie silence hung in the night air. Later, remnants of the two mobs regrouped in small pockets around the city, their energy for marauding still not spent. From their midst came a whispered rumor that Fehr would be blown up at midnight.
The witching hour came and went, but there was no explosion. Then, half an hour later, a powerful dynamite blast shook the earth—not around Fehr but three miles to the east, at Hattie Cotton School, where Principal Margaret Cate, six-year-old Patricia Watson, and 139 white children had ended the first day of school twelve hours before.
The Turning Point
Joe Casey, a young patrolman in his fifth year on the force, got home after midnight from his twelve-hour shift in the Fehr School neighborhood. It had been a long day, and a rough night. As was his habit, he put away his hat and holster on the high shelf of the closet by the front door, where his pistol would be safely out of the sight and reach of his young children. Then, as he was walking through the living room toward the kitchen, an explosive shock-wave blew him like a wooden toy against the far wall.
A block away, billows of black smoke rolled up from the east wing of Hattie Cotton School. Casey retrieved his gun and dashed out the door. A light rain was falling as he and others from the neighborhood arrived at the scene. Soon a patrol car roared up, lights flashing, and then a siren announced the approach of a fire engine. Whoever had placed the explosives (probably a 100-stick case of dynamite, investigators later surmised) and ignited them from a safe distance had long since disappeared.
A stopped electric clock in the school had recorded the precise time of the blast—12:33. Less than ten minutes after that, two officers who had been on a stakeout to monitor Kasper’s movements entered his temporary residence on Scott Avenue, less than a mile from the bombed school. Armed with a warrant that he had sworn out earlier, based on Kasper’s Monday activities, Constable Floyd Peek and his partner rousted Kasper out of bed and took him to the downtown police station, where he was charged with disturbing the peace. A night court judge ordered him held without bond.
Chief Hosse, awakened within minutes of the Cotton blast, had given the order for Kasper to be picked up. On previous occasions, lawyers and bail bondsmen had managed to spring the gangly agitator from jail, but now a new strategy was in force: As soon as his bond was met for one charge, he was hit with another, and another—a total of four that Tuesday morning, the last being a ticket for parking his car in a restricted area. Throughout the week, Kasper was passed back and forth between state and local courtrooms and jails. One way or another, it became clear, he was going to remain behind bars for the time being.
Well over half of the city’s police officers were in the station when Hosse walked in at 6:30 for the morning roll call. “This has gotten beyond integration,” he said, anger rising in his voice. “These people who are following Kasper around have turned violent, blowing up our schools, destroying our property. The law must be enforced, regardless of who is violating it. We’ve got to get the job done! How many of you are ready to go out there and do it?” Every officer raised his hand.
Straight from the station house, police units fanned out to all eight of the schools on the desegregation list. They set up roadblocks to keep cruising cars at least a block away, and only parents with children would be allowed to walk past. A few Kasper brigades, hoping to gain momentum from the bombing and the current of fear arising from it, first encountered the barricades at about 7:15 at Caldwell School, where the only three black applicants had been denied admission the previous day. An aggressive band of about a hundred whites pressed up to the barricade, seemingly intent on generating a popular force that would keep the school all-white. Suddenly, they were encircled by motorcycle patrolmen, and a paddy wagon rolled up to receive any who chose to remain belligerent. Ten did; to the shocked cries of their families, they were subdued and driven away to jail. Those who remained grew quiet. No other disturbances were reported at any of the desegregated schools during the day.
In addition to Kasper, several other men suspected of involvement in the bombing had been picked up by 9 a.m. By the time school was out and the children had all gone home without incident, a total of thirty white males had been arrested and either released on bail or bound over, like Kasper, to face additional legal proceedings.
The segregationist strategy of using violence to generate more white resistance was having the opposite effect. Earlier, there had been a semblance of unity among the various groups—but some of them, apparently, were not willing to resort to violence, especially if it carried with it the danger of public exposure. It was one thing to be militantly opposed to racial equality, but it was something else altogether to commit violent acts—and face the personal consequences of doing so. Ironically, when the bomb went off, the open revolt of the racist forces was over.
During the morning, Criminal Court Judge Charles Gilbert showed deep indignation as he instructed the county grand jury to investigate the bombing and bring “the midnight assassins” to justice. Noting that he had “lived in this peaceful community most of my life,” Gilbert said he “never dreamed or imagined a horrible thing like this” could ever happen. The question at hand now, he told the jurors, “is not whether we are to have integration or segregation. The question now is, Are we to have a reign or terrorism and anarchy or are we to have law and order?”
The afternoon edition of the Nashville Banner displayed a front-page editorial by its arch-conservative publisher, James M. Stahlman, characterizing John Kasper as “a lawless renegade interloper” and “an uninvited evangel of mischief [who] has sown the malevolent seed for this harvest of terrorism.” Stahlman put up a $1,000 reward for information leading to prosecution of the dynamiters; the state and other parties soon boosted the amount to $7,000.
The Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, having previously worked hand in glove with Kasper, formally released its grip. One of its local officers, Jack Kershaw, said he might “join Mr. Stahlman in making a reward offer” and added, “Kasper is held up by the carpetbag press [The Tennessean, presumably] as being typical” of the white opposition to racial equality. But, said Kershaw emphatically, the New Jersey extremist “is not a symbol of Southern resistance.”
On Friday, Kasper was indicted by the Davidson County Grand Jury on a state charge of inciting a riot, and was bound over for trial in criminal court.
No one, it seemed, any longer wished to see him and his rebellious companions roaming free out in public. School officials asked Federal Judge William Miller—and Miller promptly agreed—to issue an order restraining twelve named individuals, Kasper foremost among them, from interfering in any way with desegregation in Nashville. The investigation into the bombing was proceeding in secrecy, with state and federal officials being called in by the city police to assist. Six men were in custody in connection with the crime.
Newspapers across the country, network television, and magazines such as Time and Newsweek gave Nashville even-handed but unwelcome exposure as “the other” trouble spot, along with Little Rock, in the South’s excruciating encounter with social reform. On the whole, the Tennessee capital came off looking reasonably good—especially in contrast to most other cities in the region, where school desegregation, even on a scale as modest as Nashville’s, was still a few years away. Nevertheless, a school bombing was certainly the wrong reason to be the talk of the nation—and, had it not been for Little Rock, the exposure might have been much more extensive.
The political miscalculation of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, a Democrat, and the inevitable response of President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, brought about a confrontation of historic proportions in 1957.
The century-old debate about national authority versus states’ rights—a conflict decided but not settled by the outcome of the Civil War—was renewed with vigor by Brown v. Board of Education, and all the battlefields to follow.
Little Rock was among the first. What began as a local issue quickly ballooned to state, national, and international proportions. Today, the Little Rock Nine— black students who faced the wrath of white mobs at Central High School—are remembered in the history books, on television, and in the movies. Type in “Little Rock Nine” on the search line of the Google website and you will find over 11 million sources listed.
But the sixteen black first-graders who were admitted to six previously all-white elementary schools in Nashville on September 9, 1957, did not long remain in the public eye. Eleven returned on the second day, after the bombing of Hattie Cotton, and eleven would remain in desegregated schools all year.
There would be no further disturbances. Before September ended, the heavy thunder of late-summer protest had given way to placid autumn schooldays unmarred by hot disputes over race. Even as the Little Rock crisis escalated to a high-stakes showdown, Nashville was learning that recovery from trauma, followed by limited success and a predictable normality, was not news and not history—it was just the way things were supposed to be. And so it happened that the little trailblazers of desegregation, along with their white classmates, eventually slipped quietly back into the anonymity of childhood.
A Long Road Ahead
On Tuesday, September 10, news of the bombing of Hattie Cotton kept Patricia Watson and all her classmates out of school for a week. Repairs to the building proceeded on a fast track, and classes resumed there on the 17th, but Patricia Watson had transferred by then to an all-black school.
At Clemons School on the 10th, Joy Smith was back, along with almost all of the 500 white students. By the time she finished the sixth grade there and moved on to high school, black enrollment had risen substantially.
Caldwell and Bailey schools remained segregated in 1957-58, but not for much longer. At Glenn, Lajuanda Street and Jacqueline Griffith returned the second day and most every day that year; fewer than a hundred white students were present on Tuesday, but within a week, the normal enrollment of 500 had been attained.
Barbara Jean Watson, Marvin Moore, Charles Battles and Cecil Ray Jr. went back to Jones the second day, and three of them remained all year. Erroll Groves and Ethel Mai Carr also returned to Buena Vista on Tuesday, and both would stay there all the way through the sixth grade.
At Fehr, perhaps the most buffeted by protest of all the schools, the three boys—Charles Ridley, Willis Lewis, and Bobby Cabknor—were in class on one or more days that week, but all of them, along with Rita Buchanan, one of the two black girls, eventually transferred. Only Linda Gail McKinley remained as a trailblazer at Fehr, staying four years. The pictures of her and her friend Rita, clinging to Linda’s mother, Grace McKinley, still capture the emotion and drama of those September days fifty years ago, when the courage of a handful of unsung heroes marked Nashville’s start along the rocky road up and out of legalized racial segregation.
One curious footnote from those initial days of challenge and response should be added. As the black children and their parents approached the schools each morning, a few well-dressed strangers—African-American men and women, for the most part, plus two or three whites—quietly fell in step behind them. They were not relatives, not even acquaintances of the families, but volunteers called in by several organizations: the local chapters of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality, the involuntarily segregated “Negro Parent-Teacher Association,” and a few churches. They walked with dignity in order to witness—simply put, to be present—and to lend moral support to the ones upon whom the burden of change was falling.
“It was something positive we could do,” recalled 92-year-old Johnetta Hayes modestly, a half-century on. Mrs. Hayes, who was later to serve as the first woman president of the NAACP in Nashville, was photographed with Grace McKinley on the day of early registration at Fehr School. Linda was between the two women, holding hands with them. They were all smiling warily as they walked toward the entrance.
The coming of school desegregation to this self-styled Athens of the South amounted to a small beginning, not an end in itself. There would be major conflicts and crises in the years ahead—most notably, the “cross-town busing” controversy of the 1970s. Kelley v. Board of Education, the lawsuit filed in Nashville in 1955, would not finally be settled until 1998. Even now, vestiges of the old inequities spawned by segregation still cast shadows in this city, across the South, and around the nation. The “more perfect Union” remains a work in progress.
But those are stories for another time and place. This one ends here, with eleven little six-year-old children and their parents having secured, by their courage and persistence (and with the support of others), the right to all the educational privileges freely made available to white children—and secured that right not just for themselves, but for all who follow them. Numerically, theirs was a small gain—but symbolically, it was immeasurable.
With the passage of time, accounts of their valor have faded, and the story of school desegregation in Nashville has slipped into the cobwebbed corners of history. But it is never too late to recover it and to remember the children, for the edification and inspiration of us all. The fewer who stand and deliver, the greater their contribution becomes.