Fifty Years of Firsts: Reflections from the College’s first African-American graduate, Nathaniel Owens

Nathaniel Owens and Lynetta Owens at their home in 1993.

By Klarke Stricklen
Staff Writer

The story of Nathaniel Owens—the college’s first African-American graduate—is one of trailblazing legacy. A legacy that is not widely known but one from which myself and countless other Black students have reaped great benefits. As a writer and student researcher, I did not anticipate that by the time I would be able to finish this article our nation would be in the midst of a global pandemic, or that Mr. Owens’ story would be a timely narrative of trial and triumph.

This article is the first of many dedicated to exploring the history of the first generations of Black students who entered the college, and more importantly, it is for the purpose of creating a platform for these alumni to tell their own stories. This has been a difficult undertaking, not for a lack of motivation, but out of concern about the best way to relay their stories.

It is my hope that Nathaniel Owens’ story will be shared beyond this newspaper and enter into various formal spaces, gaining greater recognition within the University for generations to come. It was a privilege to interview Mr. Owens. In honor of his 50th Anniversary as the college’s first African-American graduate, our conversation explored and reflected on what it actually means to be the “first.”

Nathaniel Owens in his law office in Anniston, Alabama in 2008. Photo courtesy of The Anniston Star.

Nathaniel “Bubba” Owens was born in Hartsville, Tennessee in 1948 to Davis and Mamie Owens. As the second oldest of four, Owens recalls spending a great deal of his childhood with his Aunt Mary,  who coined his nickname “Bubba.”  Owens vividly recalls the sweet smells of “Aunt Mary’s pastries” and attributes them to whetting his appreciation for life. His appreciation for food and its power to bring people together along with Aunt Mary’s guidance taught him the importance of life and faith.

Owens’s extended family lived on plots of farmland that his Aunt Mary and Uncle Arthur owned independently, where they grew crops and raised animals for food. Despite living in a small town whose African American population either farmed tobacco or worked in a factory,  Owens’s father, a Korean War Veteran and Tennessee State University graduate, worked as an English teacher, a coach at the town’s Black school, and an architect.

His mother, a hairdresser, worked in a local shop until Owens’s father and Owens built the family a larger home that incorporated a beauty shop for his mother. Both parents instilled a strong appreciation for education and hard work in the family. Owens further added that his father, a strong and respected man in the community, taught him how to turn a bad situation or decision into good through perseverance. He would later apply these lessons in academic and career settings.

As a tenth-grader in high school, Owens recalls working at Reece’s Grocery in Hartsville; the job allowed him to meet and engage with local community members. In particular, Owens remembers the high school’s principal, the Superintendent of Hartsville’s school district, and Coach Satterfield, the football coach frequenting the store.

His relationship with Coach Satterfield grew and after some time, Coach Satterfield offered Owens a job surveying tobacco field projects, making Owens the first African-American to be taught the system in his county and have his own unit. This meant Owens was certified to measure land and could visit landowners who grew tobacco. He was tasked with drawing the measurements of the crop land and sending them to the county for review. Later on, during the summer of 1965––famous for the historic Civil Rights activity in the country––Owen’s relationship with Coach Scatterfield led to him integrating the school’s football practice.

Owens practiced with the team for the entire summer, and in the fall, he integrated the local white public high school. He recalled his first day at school as one of the most difficult experiences he’d ever had in his life and remembered with great detail being called into the Principal’s office for a conversation he’d never forget: “Mr. Jackson, the principal, called me into his office, and he said, ‘Nathaniel’. I said, ‘Yes, sir?’ And he said, ‘There’s been a complaint filed against you being allowed to participate in athletics at the school this year. That complaint says you have not moved any closer to this school than the school you attended before. The rules say you have to sit out for a year before you can participate.’”

Owens said he struggled to breathe and then calmly asked, “Well is there a class I can attend during the sixth period?” 

According to Owens, Mr. Jackson hurried to find a class schedule and suggested a French course for Owens to take. The course would later make Owens the recipient of an academic scholarship that required at least one year of foreign language to qualify as a candidate. For the remainder of that year, Coach Satterfield not only provided Owens with a kicking tee but made sure that Owens was able to practice with a football each evening, despite not being allowed to practice with the rest of the team. By the next year, Owens was able to play with the team, and they remained undefeated during the regular season.

By 1966, Owens looked toward continuing his education and athletic career in college. After visiting the University of Tennessee Knoxville, Owens recalls Coach Satterfield informing him that Coach Moore and Coach Majors from Sewanee wanted him to visit the campus. After traveling to Murfreesboro with the Mayor’s wife, Owens then caught a bus up to Sewanee and was admitted the same day on a Saturday afternoon. “Change is a hard thing to do,” said Owens.  “This is not in defense of the University or just life in general but to make things change, something has to have enough influence to push it past the things that have prevented it in the past.” Later, Owens discovered that the influence in question was a donor who threatened to pull funding unless the University integrated the college.

The Honorary Nathanial Owens in 1977.

Owens matriculated into the college in the fall of 1967 but arrived on campus during the summer of his freshman year. He began football practice shortly after being admitted and remembered immediately meeting  Sewanee’s Coach Horace Moore and the athletic trainer John Kennerly. Talking about his integration of the college’s football team, Owens remarked, “Camaraderie comes easily when you’re wearing the same jersey. That’s how you win games.”

Owens recalled being well known as “Bubba” by his teammates and many classmates, a name that would be the guiding force to keep him enrolled at the University. Owens vividly remembered being inducted into The Order of the Gownsmen, now The Order of the Gown, and utilizing it as an opportunity to be a part of the larger campus, including his participation in writing a constitution that allowed dormitories to be a part of the governing of the student body.

By 1970, many changes had transformed the University, including the matriculation of women into the college. Even with these changes, by the time Owens graduated there was only a small population of African-American students in the college, and they were all men. Owens graduated from the University with honors and a Bachelors of Arts in English.

After graduating from the University, Owens entered into a summer program for Black students at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The program allocated free tuition for one year at Emory’s law school if the students were able to complete a summer’s worth of law school curriculum. Owens later recalled hearing that the program was implemented to prove that African-Americans could not manage its law school curriculum.

Despite these sentiments, Owens along with a friend from Tuskegee University, Henry Lewis Gills, completed the grueling summer course work and entered the school in the fall of 1970. Even in the Black Mecca, as Atlanta was known to many African-Americans, life was full of trials and few triumphs. Owens remembered law school as a trying and difficult period where he learned to take one day at a time.

Soon, he was studying for the Georgia Bar and discovered that African-American attorneys who took the bar exam for the first time in Georgia hardly ever passed. As President of the Emory Black Bar Association, he led the team in a suit against the Georgia Bar. These actions would cause many of the students to be blacklisted from the Georgia Bar, including Owens.

Nathaniel Owens at Fort McClellan in 1974-75.

Not long after, Owens would be drafted into the Vietnam War, where he served at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama. There he would pass the Alabama Bar and soon become the first full-time African-American Assistant District Attorney for Calhoun County, Alabama and later the first African-American District Court Judge in 1979. 

Today, Nathaniel Owens is retired and happily married to his wife Lynetta Owens. The two have five children and live in Anniston, Alabama.

Toward the end of our conversation, Owens reflected on what it means to be the “first”: “I’m first because someone else could be next.”

A timely sentiment as we embrace the University’s first African-American Vice-Chancellor. 

2 comments

  1. I will never forget Bubba, he was a heck of a football player, a gentlemen, scholar and has done a lot for this town ,. his people. I am prould to say that I knew him.

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