"We Will Be Ready Whenever They Are": African American Teachers' Responses to the Brown Decision and Public School Integration in Nashville, Tennessee, 1954-1966

Article excerpt

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. …