When Nashville's black teachers first learned of the 17 May 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision, some like Lillie Bowman felt excited and believed black children would no longer have to attend schools that lacked curricular choices and adequate materials. Others, however, such as Dorothy Crippens, welcomed the ruling outlawing racial segregation in public schools, but doubted if integration would ever happen. If Nashville's teachers were skeptical about the impact of Brown, some were also concerned about being fired. Almost a month later, on 10 June 1954, the Nashville branch of the NAACP vowed to protect teachers' jobs when it submitted a document from the Atlanta branch to the Nashville City Board of Education, which stated: "The fullest resources of the association, including the legal staff, the research staff, and educational specialists on the staff will be utilized to insure that there will be no discrimination against teachers as a result of integration." (1) Despite their fears, Nashville's African American teachers supported desegregation and its promise of a better education for black children. They were "Negroes first, and teachers second." (2) Whether these teachers looked upon Brown with anticipation, fear, or indifference, they resigned themselves to their new fate. As Lillian Dunn Thomas stated when she heard about the decision, "it didn't matter to me." (3) She was a teacher and she would continue to do her job.
While officials in many southern states expressed outrage at the Brown decision and implemented evasive measures, Tennessee's politicians responded to the ruling in a manner ranging from disgust to reluctant acceptance with Nashville's Mayor Ben West, publicly stating, "All of our citizens are entitled to the opportunity of an education and I am sure our Board of Education will protect all in this right." (4) While his response seemed to reassure those who favored integration, as in many other southern school systems, Nashville's school officials responded to the Brown decision with inactivity and avoidance. Although known as the "Athens of the South," Nashville with a population of approximately 174,000 citizens, including more than 58,000 African Americans, was still a racially segregated city. After the local NAACP filed suit against the local Board of Education in 1955, the Federal court forced the board to develop a program for desegregation, which in 1957 was known as the Nashville Plan. This gradual one-grade-per-year program was so successful in delaying public school desegregation that school officials in other cities such as Dallas and Houston later adopted the plan. (5)
In the initial years after the Brown decision, the school board allocated funding to construct new black schools, remodel older ones, and hire more black teachers. In an ironic twist, the decision, which declared segregated black schools inherently unequal, helped to strengthen and improve them. Public school systems in southern towns and cities soon began to construct state-of-the-art buildings for African American students. While supporting the Nashville NAACP's legal battles to end school segregation, the city's African American teachers and administrators worked to provide a positive environment for students by fighting to obtain better facilities and materials in segregated schools. In the early 1960s, when Nashville's black college and high school students set out to sit-in or march for social justice, black teachers were often the ones who took them to protest meetings and nervously waited to drive them home safely. By further analyzing the powerful impact of African American teachers on their students' educational experiences and the black community, we can explain why some black Nashvillians continued to work to maintain equalized educational facilities and retain their black teachers, while fighting for school desegregation.
While the images of black children attempting to integrate public schools are most familiar, ironically, in Nashville white parents were the first to test the Brown decision and to defy the now overturned 1901 school segregation law prohibiting persons from teaching or attending schools with persons of another race. (6) After two white Fisk University professors, Lee Lorch and Robert Remper, sent requests in June to the school board to register their children at a black elementary school, the board notified them that it would be discussed at an undetermined date. So on 7 September 1954, the two academics proceeded to register their children at all-black Pearl Elementary School. Lorch's friend, Principal M. E. Tipton, reluctantly refused to allow the children to enroll. (7) Long-time civil rights activists, these academics also participated in other human rights causes. Lorch, a state vice-president of the NAACP, argued that he and Rempfer wanted to show "an atmosphere of peaceful compliance with the Brown decision and to show that there was white support for it." (8) The school board dismissed the request by their lawyer, Z. Alexander Looby, to allow the Lorch and Rempfer children to attend Pearl Elementary and refused to discuss the issue of desegregation. The school board members later argued that they denied Looby's October 1954 request to allow the white children to enroll in a black school because they did not want to implement a plan prior to the decision of the Supreme Court in Brown II. The veteran civil rights lawyer responded by stating that he was going to have to "take other steps." (9)
In the midst of controversy emerging over the Supreme Court's 1955 Brown II ruling, which stated that public schools should be desegregated "with all deliberate speed," Nashville's Board of Education suddenly became responsible for engineering social change. (10) A day after the Supreme Court's decision, School Superintendent William Bass suggested that the nine-member appointed board of education set up a committee to study the issue. The board subsequently designated a four-member instruction committee, which excluded lawyer Coyness Ennix, the only African American board member. The committee held numerous meetings with university scholars, black and white teachers' associations, and PTAs, to collect data. The committee also studied school desegregation plans from other states. (11)
Ignoring Nashville NAACP President M. W. Day's request for the board to comply with the wishes of several parents who had signed a petition requesting that their children be allowed to attend formerly segregated schools, the committee issued a report on 11 August 1955 stating "that it would not be in the best interest of the schools to undertake implementation of the court's decision during the school year 1955-56. There are too many unresolved problems for this course of action to be initiated now." (12) The committee argued that it could not move on the issue of school desegregation until it could conduct extensive studies, which included taking a complete census of existing school facilities, determining the age-grade distribution of the city's school-age children, changing the athletic policy, altering the school curricula, selecting teachers to work in integrated schools, and developing an orientation plan for teachers and principals. (13) Although the school board proposed these studies, it was in no hurry to begin the desegregation process. In essence, this represented a stalling tactic until the committee could determine a way to meet the white community's demands to prevent desegregation, while still adhering to the law. The board encountered enormous pressure from white parents, community members, state and local government officials, and the press to avoid desegregation and to maintain the dual school system. Consequently, it did nothing. (14)
Attorney Looby's threat to take other measures reflected the NAACP's frustration with the board's delaying tactics. After identifying black parents who lived in areas close to white schools on 1 September 1955, the NAACP sent 10th grader Robert Kelley, the son of barber Alfred Z. Kelley, and twenty other senior and junior high school and elementary students to enroll in all-white schools near their homes. (15) The Kelley family lived on Gallatin Road, which was within walking distance to all-white East High School, but Robert had to travel across town to attend all-black Pearl High School. Although the Supreme Court ruled that legally segregated schools by race violated the Constitution, William H. Oliver, East High School principal who became school superintendent in 1958, told Robert Kelley and six other black students that the school board prohibited him from enrolling any African Americans. Robert Kelley recalled his views about that day with understatement: "Like the beginning of any new school year for students our age, we were excited and anxious--but on that particular morning, unsure of what to expect. I remember specifically arriving at East High and seeing the large crowd of concerned persons; some were not too amicable." (16) Alfred Shaw, a former high school math and science teacher, who also served as one of the plaintiffs, vividly recalled that day. "As we walked into East High School, students ran out of their classrooms and started yelling and screaming 'Niggers You Don't Belong Here, Get Out!' and the teachers did nothing. I was very afraid. I was sort of relieved that they didn't let us in. We didn't know what would have happened to us." (17)
The rebuffed students, Alfred Kelley, and the lawyers retreated through the jeering crowd. After the younger children also failed in their attempt to gain admittance to white elementary and junior high schools, the NAACP's lawyers Thurgood Marshall, Looby, and his law partner, Avon Williams, filed a class action suit Robert W. Kelley v. Board of Education of Nashville on 23 September 1955. (18) An active member of the NAACP, Alfred Kelley allowed his child to serve as a plaintiff because, as a business owner, he did not fear white economic retaliation. Shaw's parents and the other plaintiffs' names would not be disclosed in order to protect their jobs. The class action suit involved twenty black children and the Rempfer's two children, Jean and Richard, who now wished to go to Pearl Elementary and Washington Junior High Schools. (19)
After the NAACP filed suit against the Nashville school board, it increased its efforts to improve the black public schools. Previously, the board had refused the black community's requests to build new schools because it argued that the "threat of desegregation may make black schools obsolete." (20) Now, faced with a local legal challenge, the board switched gears in an effort to appease African Americans who sought better educational facilities. In 1955, the board approved the funding to construct the new Wharton Junior High School. The black residents in the neighborhood north of Jefferson Street between 11th Avenue North and 18th Avenue North, where Wharton was to be located, had been lobbying for a new junior high school for years. (21)
Although the effort to secure more funding for black public schools contradicted the NAACP's goals, the Brown decision and its threat of desegregation gave the black community power, whether it resulted in total desegregation or in improved facilities. Nashville's black community supported the desegregation efforts of the NAACP, while also seizing the …