Following the 1954 Supreme Court mandate to end public school segregation, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that the public schools in Oak Ridge would participate in desegregation. In September of 1955, 85 students joined Oak Ridge High School and Robertsville Middle School. While not the first in the nation, that action was the first of its kind in the South. On January 6, 2020, the keynote session for teachers returning to Oak Ridge Schools had the pleasure of hosting Rose Weaver, Oak Ridge resident and historian, who moderated a panel of some of the original students from the group of 85. She hopes that these students can share in the kinds of recognition that the “Clinton 12,” who attended Clinton High School, received. Clinton High School was the first state-supported school in the South to desegregate after the 1954 Supreme Court mandate. Oak Ridge Schools were the first government-run schools to do so. The theme of the keynote presentation was an invitation to reflect, honor, and learn from our past.
Rose Weaver, who has created a traveling exhibit of this historical event, started the panel discussion with this thought, “We want ‘these teenagers’ to share their experiences… we want you to travel back in time to 1955 when these students came, and were part of the Oak Ridge Schools.” She introduced: L.C. Gipson and Alma McKinney Stevens, who started their freshman year together at Oak Ridge High School in 1955, Mary Ellen Mahone Bohanon, who was a 1956 graduate, Margaret Strickland Guinn, also a graduate in 1956, Emma McCaskill of Robertsville Junior High at that time, and Willie Golden, who was not a part of the original 85 students, but was the first black captain of the Oak Ridge High School basketball team.
Larry (L.C.) Gipson began by sharing his experience of being a student who was integrated from Scarboro High School to Oak Ridge High School. He was honest about the struggles, recalling that he could sometimes go all year without another black student in any one of his classes. “There were just a handful of us here.” Gipson and his classmates rode Bus #18 from Scarboro to and from school, and simply focused on getting credits to graduate. He regretfully reminisced that he and his friends could not go to the Wildcat Den or the swimming pool, and if he made friends with classmates during the day, he could not go into their homes or communities to visit them. He said Fred Brown (the same man for whom one of the newest dormitories at the University of Tennessee was named), was the only black teacher at ORHS at the time, and there were about four black cafeteria workers. He added that there were two black students who were first to be on the ORHS basketball team in the 1955-56 school year, Fred Guinn, and Lawrence Graham. Mr. Gipson’s closing thoughts were that although he didn’t participate in extra-curricular activities while in high school, as they were not his “thing,” he appreciated his start in Oak Ridge, as he found his “thing” later in life, which a quick Google search revealed to be very important cancer research.
Mary Ellen Mahone Bohanon reminisced about a counselor who was very kind, and was tuned into her family life. She was busy, had a large family, and recalls playing with her friends up and down the street. As a result of her time in our schools, she graduated and got her first job cleaning in the school district. From there, she did a lot of housekeeping, and ultimately landed a job with the facility that is now Ridgeview, from which she retired after 29 years of faithful service.
Margaret Strickland Guinn grew up in Alabama in an all-black community, and remembered being very uncomfortable coming to school in Oak Ridge, recalling that it was like being taken out of one world, and being put in another world. She said all the students went to school together, but the black students kept to themselves, essentially segregated within the school. She said as time went on, both black and white students kept in touch, and closed in saying, “With God’s help, we made it.”
Emma McCaskill remembered going to Robertsville Junior High in 1955. She said by the time she got to Robertsville, she was already familiar with many of the teachers due to her mother working at K-25, Y12, and her family’s involvement with various churches in the Oak Ridge community. Ms. McCaskill fondly recalled her homeroom teacher, Elizabeth Alexander, who was strict, but really nice. Emma said her time at Oak Ridge High School was overall positive, even better than at Robertsville, she learned a lot, enjoyed her classes, and got to spend time with her Scarboro neighborhood friends before school and in the cafeteria.
Willie Golden joined in the discussion saying that by the time he arrived, he had a larger goal than just attending school, or be tolerated by the school, he really wanted to be in school, to participate in school. He realized that foundation was built for him at Scarboro Elementary school, so he wanted to thank the teachers there, who laid that foundation and help him see that light. The next step for Mr. Golden was to participate in Basketball. He was the 9th grade captain at Robertsville, but he recalled he could only play home games, and not go to away games. He said, “I was limited in participation because of the color of my skin until the 60s.” Willie Golden was not only the first black captain of a team at ORHS, but of any team in an integrated high school in the state of Tennessee. Mr. Golden closed his remarks saying that over a brief span of time as captain of the basketball teams for Robertsville Junior High and Oak Ridge High School that ultimately, “I didn’t create history, history created me. I went from being judged by the color of my skin, to being judged by the content of my character.”
John Spratling, current 5th grade teacher and boys’ basketball coach at Robertsville Middle School, closed the panel by saying, “I am grateful for these panelists coming up here and telling their stories… I told them, ‘If you don’t tell us, we can’t grow from this, and we need to reflect and know our history.’” He continued, “I know we’re the Secret City, but this is not a secret anymore. We need to make sure that the Oak Ridge story continues.” With a thankful heart, and through a few tears, Coach Spratling stated, “I’m thankful for the sacrifice they made so that I could come in and be a coach. I remember the sacrifices of these people up here. They paved the way for us to do what we do in the Oak Ridge system…I am very thankful for the sacrifices they made for me.”
Press release written and submitted by Holly Cross