Oak Ridge is celebrating the 65th anniversary of its school desegregation this weekend.
“Sixty-five years ago this September, 85 brave and dedicated young African American students entered all-white classrooms in the Oak Ridge High School and the Robertsville Junior High School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in a historic school system desegregation,” organizers said in a press release.
It wasn’t the first public school desegregation in the nation, but organizers said it was the first public school desegregation in the Southeast.
“As such, it challenged the racist and sometimes dangerous Jim Crow culture,” the press release said. “This desegregation stands as an important milestone in American civil rights history.”
The anniversary events are being held with the Oak Ridge school system. Public participation in some events had to be scaled back because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The anniversary events started Friday, when students at Oak Ridge High School and Robertsville Junior High School (now Robertsville Middle School) were able to meet four of the original “Oak Ridge 85” students. Those students were Larry Gipson, Emma McCaskill, Mary Ellen Mahone Bohanon, and Margret Strickland Guinn.
Bohanon and Guinn were amongst the first African Americans to graduate from the Oak Ridge High School in the Class of 1956, the press release said.
Gipson is the grandfather of former Wildcat basketball record holder Quinche Dowdell. McCaskill is the mother of the first African American head football coach at Oak Ridge High School, Stanton Stevens.
Bohanon is the mother of Craig Freeman, a recent inductee into the Oak Ridge Sports Hall of Fame. He was starting tailback on the 1975 Oak Ridge High School state championship football team.
Guinn was married to the late Fred Guinn, who was one of the first two African American members on the Oak Ridge High School basketball team, the press release said. Guinn is the grandmother of former Lady Wildcat Jada Guinn, Travis Guinn (former Wildcat basketball player), and Kel Slater (current Wildcat basketball player).
Attendance at the Friday presentations was open only to school students.
There was a halftime ceremony for the Oak Ridge 85 during the Wildcats football game on Friday night on Blankenship Field.
Two celebration activities are planned for the anniversary date on Sunday, September 6. The first is an outdoor worship service at 3 p.m. to give thanks and honor the Oak Ridge 85 students. The second activity is an online virtual anniversary celebration kickoff at 7 p.m.
The worship service will be held at 3 p.m. at the former site of the Scarboro School, next to Oak Valley Baptist Church at 194 Hampton Road in Oak Ridge. The distinguished civil rights leader, Reverend Doctor Harold Middlebrook, will be the keynote speaker, the press release said. The theme of Middlebrook’s remarks will be “The Importance of School Desegregation to America.”
Social distancing and masks will be required for the service, the press release said.
Middlebrook was a friend of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King and at one time served as the youth minister at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where both King and his father held pastorates, the press release said. In 1986, he founded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Commission of Greater Knoxville, which he chaired until 2000. Middlebrook has appeared in several films on the civil rights movement.
The virtual anniversary celebration kickoff will begin at 7 p.m. in conjunction with the Oak Ridge school system. The celebration event will feature music and presentations to honor the Oak Ridge 85 students and unveil two bronze commemorative plaques that will be hung in Oak Ridge High School and Robertsville Middle School. The program will be available for real-time, online streaming at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dc4Wj3QteDM, organizers said.
As the first public school desegregation in the Southeast, the 1955 Oak Ridge school desegregation was closely studied by other public school systems throughout the South, the press release said.
In 1955, the Tennessee State Constitution—consistent with other southern state constitutions—forbid the teaching of so-called “mixed classes,” the press release said. That meant that school teachers and administrators who stepped forward to teach classes containing both white and black students faced economic threats plus the potential loss of their teaching licenses—and possibly even worse from the Jim Crow culture, the press release said.
“The wonderful courage of the Oak Ridge 85 students, their parents, and teachers helped our nation at a pivotal time,” said Rose Weaver, African American historian and co-chair of this year’s Anniversary Committee. “They were dedicated American pioneers in the finest sense of the words.”
“School desegregation has allowed a new group of highly-talented and creative Americans to help our nation face the very-challenging problems in the future,” said Martin McBride, co-chair of the Anniversary Committee. “We have all benefited from that.”
They said the desegregation was ordered by the headquarters office of the Atomic Energy Commission, a predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy, in January 1955. At the time, the federal government still owned and operated the city of Oak Ridge and its public schools, organizers said.
“Then on September 6, 1955, 85 brave young African American students challenged the entrenched (and sometimes dangerous) Jim Crow culture when they entered all-white classes at the Oak Ridge High School and Robertsville Junior High School,” they said. “The desegregation went smoothly and quietly. It was closely monitored by other schools throughout the South.”
Overall, desegregation went smoothly and quietly because of the students’ courage; the help of their parents, teachers, and school administrators; and community support and civil rights leadership from federal officials, according to a proclamation passed by Oak Ridge City Council in August.
Still, the proclamation said the students experienced racial epithets on school buildings, negative statements, stinging indignities, some fistfights, and the stress of having to attend classes where they were the only black students. Two Oak Ridge 85 students, Fred Guinn and Lawrence Graham, were the first black students on the Oak Ridge High School basketball team, but they could not play in some games because of objections from other teams, the proclamation said.
It said Scarboro community church ministers, parents, teachers, and the Scarboro School staff talked with students before the 1955-1956 school year to help them prepare for the “new journey they would take” and told the children that “nothing less than exemplary behavior would be expected.”
The press release said Weaver is an African American historian and McBride is a retired Department of Energy site manager. In February, the Oak Ridge City Council named them to head the committee to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the historic first public school desegregation in the Southeast.
For more information, call McBride at (865) 482-5386 or Weaver at (865) 924-2987 or email them at [email protected].