SES Students Revisit 1960s School Desegregation (Please note correction)

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Sewanee residents Robin Bates and Doug Cameron recently joined Sewanee Elementary School fifth-graders for a virtual conversation about the desegregation of the Franklin County Schools. As students at the time of the historic lawsuit leading to desegregation, Bates and Cameron offered a first-person perspective.

Setting the stage, the two men recounted stories from a very different time. Commenting on the significance of segregated drinking fountains and theaters, Cameron noted there was no bottled water and no watching movies on TV. Bates recounted how when alternate swimming days for African-American and whites became a problem at Lake O’Donnell, the white community built a segregated swimming pool for black residents use to keep them away from the lake.

Driving home awareness separate schools were not equal, Cameron pointed out the white Sewanee Public School had eight teachers, a gym, and cafeteria. The black Kennerly School had two teachers and two rooms. Both schools educated students through the eighth grade, but the black school offered no instruction in Algebra and other areas according to Bates.

After integration, to remedy inequal education practices, Otey Parish operated a summer school and afterschool study hall, Bates said. The flush toilets came as a surprise to African-American learners with no indoor plumbing at home. Cameron credited substandard wages for the substandard living conditions of many African-Americans.

The historic lawsuit, with eight Sewanee families as plaintiffs, four black and four white, was the first integrated group of plaintiffs in the South, Cameron noted. Bates told how Ronnie Staten, a black student from one of the plaintiff families responded to being called “the N word” by smiling at his tormenters. The nonviolent strategy recommended by Ronnie’s mother Sarah worked. “All the aggression went out of the bullies,” Bates observed.

Talking about how he and his brother dealt with harassment of his black friends, Cameron admitted, “We harassed them back. We were counter bullies. I feel bad about that.”

Significantly, the four black families named in the lawsuit were all from Sewanee. “Sewanee was a bit of a bubble,” Bates said. “The KKK wasn’t as active on the mountain.”

Cameron related the experiences of black Sewanee student Juliette Taylor during the early days of integration. Taylor was an elementary school basketball star, but required to change in a separate room. The Tracy City team refused to play the Sewanee team and forced them to get back on the bus. Facing even worse harassment in high school, Taylor moved to the north to live with her aunt and finished high school there.

Franklin County Director of Schools Stanley Bean offered additional insight about the difficult times. In fifth grade when desegregation took place, Bean went on to become a teacher and coach. The practice of playing Dixie after touchdowns and waving the Confederate flag led black team members to boycott a game, Bean said. The players ultimately rejoined the team. Head coach Red Roberts took down all the Confederate flags.

“Our students are also living in a time where there is unrest,” said fifth grade teacher Laura Beth Merrell. “What advice can you give them?”

“We need to listen to one another, to acknowledge other people are valid. People are not just their opinions, not one dimensional. You need to try understand the whole of who they are,” Cameron said. “Sometimes you need to confront anger with being kind and continuing to listen…to smile.”

Correction

In the Jan. 29, 2021 issue of the Messenger in the “SES Students Revisit 1960s School Desegregation” article, we inaccurately reported that all eight of the plaintiffs were from Sewanee. Not all of the four black family plaintiffs were from Sewanee.

Doug Cameron notes “All of the black plaintiffs in the desegregation lawsuit were not from Sewanee. Emma Hill (Juliette Taylor’s mom) was from Winchester, and her first experiences were at Clark Memorial. She was playing basketball for them when they were sent home from Tracy City.”

“Emma Hill was the most active in civil rights with the possible exception of Scott Bates. She would go to Birmingham to march each weekend, facing dogs and fire hoses from Jim Clark. A very brave woman.”

We regret the error.