Event to recognize 50th Anniversary of school system’s desegregation
The Sewanee Civic Association will be hosting a gathering in downtown Sewanee on Sunday to mark the 50th anniversary of Franklin County School System’s desegregation.
This event will be one in a series of community-wide events surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Leading the SCA planning efforts have been Elizabeth Duncan, Planning committee co-chair Cameron Swallow, SCA president Susan Holmes, and Vice-president Kiki Beavers, with help from Frank and Barbara Hart, Barbara Schlichting and former Sewanee community member Marleen Varner.
According to Duncan, past president of the SCA and currently a member of its board of directors, the plans for the anniversary event have been in the works for some time now.
“Last spring, the Sewanee Civic Association began working on plans to honor the 50th anniversary as a tribute to the Sewanee community and eight local families who played a major role in the historic integration,” she said. “The work of Cameron Swallow in gathering the family members together and the historical work of Susan Holmes and Kiki Beavers in preparation for the historical was invaluable. It was truly a team effort.”
The gathering will be taking place at 2 p.m. Sunday at Sewanee Elementary School, and the public is invited to join in hearing presentations from surviving plaintiffs and their families. There will also be an unveiling ceremony of a historical marker and a reception will follow at the Otey Parish Memorial Church’s Brooks Hall.
Though she attended Sewanee Public School, now Sewanee Elementary, before desegregation occurred in Franklin County, Duncan said she shares an interest in the area’s past.
“I’m a Sewanee native and while I was too young to remember the actual desegregation, I attended Sewanee Public School in the mid to late 1960s and had several African-American friends in my class,” she said.
Duncan provided some background on how exactly desegregation came about in Franklin County and how it was pretty significant in comparison to the desegregation of other school systems throughout the United States.
“During the early to mid-60s, there were numerous lawsuits nationwide regarding desegregation,” she said. “However, the local suit was unique in that there were four black and four white families working together. For this reason the NAACP and its legal defense fund embraced the suit.
“Additionally, to further strengthen the case for integration, the Sewanee community banded together to provide funding for construction to enlarge the physical plant of the school, as well as facilitated a tutoring program to ensure that all students would thrive in the newly integrated public school.”
Then in 1964, the U.S. District Court issued an order to desegregate the schools and in August of that year, children began to be taught in the same classrooms, regardless of race.
To commemorate the occasion in Franklin County, the SCA recently approved a permanent and officially sanctioned Tennessee Historical Marker to be placed at Sewanee Elementary.
Duncan explained the process of obtaining the marker and how the group decided what it’d say.
“The marker and suggested text were endorsed in the first round of subcommittees in Nashville and approved by the state’s Historical Commission in October,” she said. “Linda Wynn, the assistant director for state programs for the Tennessee Historical Commission and a civil rights educator, indicated the uniqueness of the suit and suggested adding language to the marker as a highlight of its importance.”
Ohio-based Sewah Studios produced the marker and its installment on University Avenue in Sewanee is scheduled to occur early this week, just in time for the ceremony Sunday.
In addition to unveiling the marker, the SCA is excited to have members of the families that assisted in the integration of Franklin County’s schools be present to share their memories surrounding the historic event.
The two groups that bonded together to make history were the African-American families of Hill, Sisk, Staten and Turner and the white families of Bates, Cameron, Camp and Goodstein.
Robin Bates, Doug Cameron, Marvin Goodstein, Juliette Larkins and Sandra Turner Davis have all agreed to speak, as well as the University of the South’s Vice Chancellor John McCardell.
Also in attendance will be former president of the SCA, Felder Dorn, and the chair of the community fundraising effort, Charles Winters. Another possible guest at the event is former University of the South chaplain, the Very Rev. David B. Collins, dean emeritus of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta.
“His daughter Melissa, who was in the seventh grade at the time [of the school system’s desegregation], has begun working with Barbara Reid Bedford to have their entire class be there,” Duncan added.
Local school board officials, county and state dignitaries have been invited, along with SES principal Mike Maxon and others.
Sunday’s program will begin inside SES and everyone will later move outside for the marker’s unveiling and dedication by McCardell. At the conclusion, all will cross the street to enjoy a reception in Brooks Hall at Otey Parish.
To help give further insight into the desegregation and its importance, the following is a portion of a 1965 letter that Dorn, former Sewanee community member a fund-raiser for the public school expansion, wrote to the community regarding the addition to Sewanee Public School:
“Slightly over a year ago, our community was faced with a crisis in our public school,” Dorn’s letter states. “The Sewanee Public School was overcrowded, with some classes meeting in Claiborne Parish House across the highway; the Kennerly School was conceded to be an inadequate educational plant, in terms of physical facilities and because it provided only two teachers for eight grades. These problems were greatly intensified when a Federal court ordered a geographical zoning plan for desegregation. Sewanee’s response to this crisis was to offer to furnish adequate space for all pupils under one roof, by constructing four rooms on the Sewanee Public School.
“In order to accomplish this, Sewanee citizens devoted time and energy to negotiations, persuasions and solicitations’ contributed substantial sums of cash and/or made generous pledges to the building fund; and in the case of eighteen residents, made loans with no assurance of repayment but their faith in the community. The effort, excitement, and frustration of the initial fund drive, and the fact that the rooms were completed and occupied last November are now part of our community record.”
An article in the March 2, 1964 edition of the Chattanooga Times said, “Sewanee is believed to be the only community in the nation to dig into its own pockets to provide facilities making total school desegregation possible.”
For more information about the ceremony recognizing the 50th anniversary of desegregation in Franklin County, visit the SCA’s website at http://sewaneecivic.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/historical-marker-celebration/.