While Arkansas’ Little Rock Nine at Central High School got the lion’s share of media notoriety during the early school desegregation era, the story of Clinton High School is no less courageous or remarkable. by Cassandra Teague-Walker
Special to the Tri-State Defender
Tennessee has many historic sites nestled amongst its majestic mountains, toe-tapping music centers and lazy streams. Any number of them are of particular interest to African Americans whose ancestors gathered at these locales to march for civil rights and against Jim Crow.
In the field of public education, no site may of greater importance than Clinton. While Arkansas’ Little Rock Nine at Central High School got the lion’s share of media notoriety during the early school desegregation era, the story of Clinton High School is no less courageous or remarkable.
|Green McAdoo Cultural Center in Clinton, Tenn. (Courtesy photo)|
The Ritz, built in World War II, closed in 1987, but was restored and reopened in 2000. Both the Ritz and the Hoskins Drugstore are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Before I take you any farther, let me share a bit of the history. In 1950, African American parents challenged the inequity of the school system, especially the lack of secondary education for blacks in Anderson County. On December 5, 1950, a group of citizens filed a lawsuit which became known as McSwain et al. v. County Board of Education of Anderson County, Tennessee (104 F. Supp. 1861, 1952). When the McSwain case was heard on February 13, 1952, in the U.S. District Court of Knoxville, Judge Robert L. Taylor presiding, local citizens were represented by a powerful group of African American attorneys including Z. Alexander Looby and Avon N. Williams of Nashville who would later gain great fame from their role in the Nashville Civil Rights struggle.
Thurgood Marshall of the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York City also was a key player in this case. His involvement underscores the importance of these events to the NAACP.
In his ruling announced on April 26, 1952, Federal District Judge Taylor ruled against the citizens and upheld the position of the county school board. The legal environment suddenly changed on May 17, 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was unequal and struck down the separate but equal foundation of Jim Crow segregation. Two-and-one-half weeks later, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, reversed Taylor’s 1952 ruling and returned McSwain et al. v. County Board of Education of Anderson County to federal district court.
On January 4, 1956, Federal District Judge Robert L. Taylor ordered the Anderson County School Board to end segregation by no later than the fall term of 1956. Once the ruling requiring integration became the law of the land, most Clinton residents accepted it. Registration of 12 African American students took place without incident on August 20, 1956.
On August 27, 1956, the “Clinton Twelve” attended classes at Clinton High School for the first time, becoming the first African-Americans to desegregate a state-supported public school in the Southeast. While the first day of classes occurred without incident, pro-segregation forces arrived in Clinton the following week. Riots broke out in early September, and Governor Frank G. Clement decided to station National Guard units in Clinton.
On May 17, 1957, exactly three years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Bobby Cain graduated from Clinton High School and became the first African American graduate of a state-supported, public integrated high school in the south. The following spring of 1958, Gail Ann Epps became the first African American female to graduate from a public integrated high school in Tennessee.
The Clinton 12, Cain, Epps, Jo Ann Allen Crozier Boyce, Anna Theresser Caswell, Maurice Soles, Alfred Williams, Minnie Ann Dickey Jones, William (Billy) Robert Latham, Robert Thacker, Alvah Jay McSwain Lambert, Regina Turner Smith, and Ronald Gordon “Poochie” Hayden, left their mark on the world at a young age.
The 50th anniversary of these events was commemorated on August 26, 2006 with the opening of the Green McAdoo Cultural Center. At the Museum, guests can view a 1950s period classroom where Ms. Theresa Blair discusses the “Jim Crow” era in the South, the rights of her students, and desegregation of Clinton High School.
Follow the chronologically detailed story in life-size pictures with dramatic narrative. Interactive screens will allow visitors to see the Clinton 12 and others, and hear their recollections and reflections from interviews by Keith McDaniel, producer of Clinton 12: A Documentary, narrated by James Earl Jones.
In the Epilogue Room, guests can read biographies of the Clinton 12 and others and watch the CBS broadcast of See It Now, entitled Clinton and the Law, narrated and produced by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly in January 1957, and a short sequel from CBS Reports which aired nationally in 1962.
The Green McAdoo Cultural Center is located at 101 School Street [P.O. Box 1214] in Clinton TN 37717-1214. Call 865-463-6500. Hours: Tuesday thru Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Group Tours can be arranged for Mondays by calling the Museum or the Community Center at 865-457-0642. Admission is free, donations are appreciated.