by Stephen Elliott
On Sunday, Jan 19, community members gathered at Sewanee Elementary School (SES) to celebrate the fiftieth Anniversary of the desegregation of the Franklin County Public School System.
A standing room only crowd heard from seven speakers originally involved in Hill et al. v. Board of Education of Franklin County, TN, et al., a lawsuit filed by four black families and four white families calling for the desegregation of Franklin County schools. The plaintiff families in the case, the Bates, Cameron, Camp, Goodstein, Hill, Sisk, Staten, and Turner families, were successful, resulting in the 1964 desegregation of the schools. The speakers included Marvin Goodstein, an original plaintiff in the case, along with Juliette Larkins, Robin Bates, Sandra Davis, and Pam Taylor, whose parents were part of the lawsuit on their behalf. Each was among the first to attend the newly integrated schools. Doug Cameron and Felder Dorn also spoke.
Goodstein said the primary obstacle to the integration of public schools at the time was “not from gun-toting Klansmen, but rather from the word ‘but,’” a claim that those in power would often qualify a tepid approval for integration with “but…” followed by arguing that there was no room for black students in the white schools or the black students would be too far behind in their education to succeed with their white peers. In 1964, the Sewanee Civic Association discredited both of these arguments by raising $50,000 for the construction of four additional classrooms at the elementary school and holding summer tutoring sessions at Otey Memorial Parish to make sure black students would be ready for their new school. Robin Bates, a son of an original plaintiff and white student at the elementary school during the time of integration, said that it is easy now to take for granted the normalcy of integrated schools, but what the lawsuit did was “help make the impossible become natural.”
Sandra Davis and Pam Taylor both highlighted the relative ease of integrating at Sewanee Elementary as compared to the experience elsewhere in the county. “Everybody treated us as if we were human beings,” said Taylor about her first day at Sewanee Elementary, a sentiment not shared by Juliette Taylor, who integrated elsewhere in the Franklin County system. Doug Cameron, son of an original plaintiff in the case and student at Sewanee Military Academy at the time, concluded the panel of speakers by inviting the crowd to join him in a singing of “Oh, Freedom,” a song often associated with the Civil Rights Movement.
After the speakers were finished, the crowd proceeded outside for the unveiling of the new historical marker commemorating the integration of the schools. At the unveiling, Vice-Chancellor John McCardell said, “when communities decide to act, and act together, great things can happen.” The marker can be seen on University Avenue in front of SES.