My Town’s Desegregation Battles

Joan Balfour Payne, "New Home for Billy"

Joan Balfour Payne, “New Home for Billy”

Martin Luther King Day

Yesterday the town of my childhood witnessed a meaningful anniversary. Fifty years ago, in 1963-64, I was a child plaintiff in a case where four white families and four black families in Sewanee, Tennessee sued the Franklin County Board of Education for failure to comply with the Brown v Board of Education ruling. It was a tense time, especially for the black families, as the KKK was still active and had a long and bloody history in Franklin County. This time, however, the forces of justice prevailed as we won our suit. Sewanee Elementary School invited several of the plaintiffs, two white and three black, to share memories and to watch as a roadside commemoration sign was unveiled (pictured below). 

It was a tremendously emotional occasion. The auditorium of my old school was packed so that the crowd overflowed into the hall. I saw classmates I hadn’t seen in 45 years, and several of those giving presentations had to hold back tears. An important moment for me was meeting Ronnie Staten, the lone black student in my seventh grade class.

Ronnie was alone because there wasn’t room enough for all the black students until the second year of integration. (The Sewanee community had to raise the money to build four extra classrooms, which it did in an extraordinary fund-raising drive.) I gained a new insight into a moment I have never forgotten from something that Ronnie’s sister Pam said.

When a bully in the class called Ronnie the n-word, Ronnie responded with a smile. That response deflated the bully—I still see the air going out of him like a leaking balloon—and I learned from Pam that their mother Sarah had instructed her children to respond that way. Sarah wanted them to focus on the good in people, not the bad. Her belief in the power of love paid dividends that day.

It wouldn’t necessarily have worked everywhere, and I learned that those students who went to school in Sewanee (Sewanee being a college town) had an easier time of it than those who attended school “in the valley.” Juliette Larkins, whose mother Emma Hill helped various Sewanee families with housecleaning but who didn’t live up on the Sewanee mountain, told how KKK members had been on the bus on her first day of school. (Luckily she didn’t learn of them as being such until later.) In her spirited and fascinating talk, Juliette quoted from the The Merchant of Venice,  “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

I told Ronnie about a book that the Appalachian author May Justus had written about the desegregation case. Since May learned some of the details from my father—the book is dedicated to me and my brothers—I can confidently say that that she probably had Ronnie and me specifically in mind when she wrote the book. Here’s an excerpt that captures the anxieties of African American students entering newly integrated schools:

Lennie said nothing. Somehow he was a little afraid in this fine new school. It all seemed to strange to him. Most of the faces about him were friendly—Miss Baker’s and those of the children—but they were white faces.

“There are so many of them,” said Lennie, “and only one of me.”Yes, Lennie was the only Negro boy in the room.

“This,” Lennie’s father explained, “is an integrated school.”

“What does integrated mean?” Lennie asked.

“This means it is a school where Negro children and white children study and pay together,” the father explained.

“Yes,” said the teacher. “There are other Negro children in the school, but you are the only one in this room.”

The book goes on to show Lennie finding one white friend and that friend opening the way to other friends. This isn’t exactly what happened in my case as I was not the most social of classmates. While I reached out to Ronnie on the first day, ultimately he found his own way to  the basketball games that the other boys played.

In my own speech, I mentioned Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. Here are my comments:

Sometimes we live in times of small “h” history and sometimes we live in times of big “H” history. During the events that we are celebrating today, America was living through big H history, a time when history’s arc bent dramatically towards justice after decades of inaction and even regression. As kids, however, we didn’t understand what was going on. I was 11 and then 12 and it’s only now, looking back, that I can fully appreciate how this lawsuit, and how we as plaintiffs, were a significant part of big H history.

I want to first acknowledge my father Scott Bates, who would have loved being here but who died this past August. He talked a lot about this period and of the immense respect he had for Johnny Fowler [head of the local NAACP] and Emma Hill and Sarah Staten [two of the black parents in the suit]. I remember once taking books designed to instill black pride to Kennerly School [the all-black Sewanee school], especially two biographies, one on George Washington Carver and the other on Harriet Tubman, both of which I read before we dropped them off. I also remember him reading Huckleberry Finn to me and my brothers. The famous scene where Huck decides to save his friend Jim—even if he’ll go to hell for doing it—was very important to me, letting me know that I should stand up for what was right, even if everyone around was saying something else. My father also read us To Kill a Mockingbird and I remember identifying deeply with Scout Finch, especially when she is called a “nigger lover” because I was called that word as well. I looked up to my father as my moral guide the way that she looks up to Atticus.  

I have two vivid memories of the trial that I want to share. One was seeing Sarah Staten, the other my father, being badgered on the witness stand by the lawyer defending the Franklin County School System. The lawyer was arguing for separate-but-equal and Sarah was saying that there was no equal because the kids at Kennerly weren’t getting algebra. The lawyer said that the students at Sewanee Public School weren’t getting algebra either but I knew the seventh grade math teacher Mrs. Goldfinch had told us we would be studying algebra later in the year. I mentioned this to Mrs. Goodstein [one of the white parents bringing suit] in the back of the courtroom and suddenly there was talk about putting me on the witness stand. But it didn’t happen. 

I remember the defense lawyer saying to my father, “are you associated with that communist school Highlander?” and our lawyer Avon Williams jumping up to object and the objection being sustained. My father afterwards told me he was disappointed that he didn’t get to answer. Always the professor, he wanted to explain what Highlander was all about.

Today when I teach, part of me is still amazed that my white and black students just take it for granted that they all belong in the classroom together. Growing up as a child, I didn’t think such mixing would ever happen and now my students see it as natural. That’s what our lawsuit was all about: we helped to make the impossible become natural.

deseg sign


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