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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  • sue

    How great you could participate in this! Thanks for sharing your speech and memories. It is wonderful to have moments like this to look back on in our lives – to have been part of a H history moment. What a gift.

  • Jonathan

    Way to go, my brother. You represented our family well, and Papa would have loved what you said. As were you, I was called “a nigger lover,” but at the time I hadn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, and much of the insult sort of passed over me. I’d think to myself, well I LIKE black people, don’t know if I’d say I love them, but all right, never getting to the heart of the fear and the hate, especially of interracial, um, relations. On the other hand, when we integrated — I was in the fourth grade — I instantly lost my non-faculty brat friends, the kids called the bus students, because they took the bus to school as opposed to walking or riding a bike to school like the faculty offspring very frequently did. One day, that year, my erstwhile best friend among the bus students came up to me and asked me if I wanted to be best friends again, I perked up and said I very much did want to be best friends again. He said okay, then go over to [he pointed at one of the three black kids in the class] and tell him he’s a nigger. Of course, I couldn’t consider doing that for a moment, and we never were friends again. Fortunately, by the time I left Sewanee Public School after eighth grade, much of that had passed, and by that time, the two main leaders of the eighth grade were both African-American boys.

  • Robin Bates

    Wow, I didn’t know these stories at all, Jonathan. It’s worse than anything I had to go through (although of course not as bad as what the black students had to endure). Do you remember the names of the two 8th grade leaders? (I won’t publicly ask you the name of your “friend.”)

  • Jonathan Bates

    Wayne Palmer and his best friend, Willie June, whose last name I can’t remember. (I want to say it was his father who changed a tire for Mama one time when she had a flat driving up the Mountain, saying as he started helping her, “your boy’s friends with mine, isn’t he,” and then refusing any payment for helping her.)

    We had a split class, so Wayne was sort of the leader of my classroom, and Willie June was the leader of his, a leadership based on moral authority, charisma, and most of all, athletic prowess. When we had inter-class basketball games, Wayne vs. Willie June was the main attraction, as it was in softball or anything else.

    Nothing showed their position more than a day that two female bus students had a titanic fight on the playground, with wild punching, scratching, and biting. In a measure of the still sort of Elizabethan world of rural Tennesse, one of them was supposedly doomed by her parents to marry the brother of the other in an arranged marriage to consolidate family property . In the cheerfully sadistic way of kids, most of us just stood watching — some egging them on of course. Wayne and Willie June watched for a few minutes, and then began to understand this was getting out of hand. Each one just casually, almost matter of factly grabbed a girl and pulled them apart. When they thought things had calmed down, they let them go, whereupon the girls instantly just started in again. Didn’t say a word, just went right back at each other. So Wayne and June pulled them apart again, and hung on to them until things calmed down or recess was over, I don’t remember which.

    As you know, since the girls were bus students, in the bad old days, black boys handling white girls, no matter what the reason, could have led to very VERY bad repercussions. However, such was the stature of the two boys that not only did no one do anything — as far as I was aware — but there was a sense that this was the proper solution; the right people had settled things down.

    However, a down side of desegregation, the sort of thing Richard Rodriguez used to write about as a Latino whose education ended up creating barriers for him with his parents, was that in 1998, I ran into Willie June. We were glad to see each other, and had a nice talk, although he told me he’d had a tough life. But one of the things he said was that he had been perfectly happy at the Kennerly School, and wished we had never desegregated.

  • Meg

    Great stories. Rather wish I had lived in Sewanee then. Your families were brave – who knew they were also trend-setters!

  • Robin,
    Thank you for posting this! It was so wonderful to hear you speak and
    hear what you had to say. Your Dad would have been proud of you if he had
    lived a bit longer, but as it was, I am sure that he was beaming from his
    current abode as you spoke. I know that Phoebe was/is proud of you.

  • Carla

    Thanks so much for writing a heartfelt narrative! I was born in Sewanee, but my Dad was career military so we moved often; yet my brothers & I spent every summer in Sewanee with our relatives (mid to late 1960’s0). My grandmother’s brother-in law was John Kennerly (yep, the one & only); for decades he and my great aunt were educators in Franklin County.

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks so much, Carla. I love how John Kennerly, an African American, has become a legendary figure in Sewanee history, with a street named after him. That street, incidentally, runs by the Sewanee graveyard, which used to be segregated until the president of the college ordered the wall to come down.

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