Oral Histories of Racial Integration At Carson-Newman College
an Honors Thesis submitted by
in partial fulfillment for the degree
Bachelor of Arts with Honors
February 6, 2013
Project Advisor: Dr. Ray Dalton
In recent times, the Carson-Newman family has lost a number of important figures in its history. Both Patricia Crippins and Tony Mills, the first African-American graduate of the school and one of the first African-American athletes on campus respectively, have passed away in the last few years. These two are representative of so many others that helped make Carson-Newman University what it is today. As their lives are remembered and celebrated, their contributions to Carson-Newman’s heritage have also received much attention. Racial integration was an enormous step in the United States’ history, and it is important to preserve that history to teach future generations and honor the trailblazers of the past. The time to preserve that part of Carson-Newman’s history is now.
The aim of this project is to collect and share information about the integration of Carson-Newman College, now University, from the first-hand accounts of those who were present and involved. Each person interviewed recounts their memories of being at Carson-Newman during the 1960s, when racial barriers were first broken on campus. They speak from their perspective as a student, faculty or staff member, or community member. This method of collecting stories is meant to honor the people who built the legacy of Carson-Newman. Oral histories respectfully put the control of the story back in the hands of the pioneers of Carson-Newman's integration. This essay provides a contextual social history for those stories and interprets some of the information to conclude local implications for Carson-Newman College based on interviews. An explanation of methodology is also included.
HISTORICAL, POLITCAL, AND SOCIAL CONTEXT
Integration in higher education emerged in law schools as early as the 1930s (Sarratt 1966:125). According to the NAACP, their head legal counsel during the beginning of the desegregation effort was Charles Hamilton Houston. He “predicted that the states that practiced segregation could not afford to maintain black schools that were actually equal to those reserved for whites,” a significant concern following the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruling of “separate but equal” requirements for segregated facility (NAACP Legal History). The NAACP and their legal team launched a campaign with a strategy of challenging a state’s compliance with this standard as a means to initiate desegregation. Very few Southern states actually had law schools for blacks and many Southern states granted out-of-state tuition vouchers to African-Americans instead of admitting them to schools in-state (Sarratt 1966:125). Eventually the courts ruled that in fulfillment of the “separate but equal” mantra of Plessy v. Ferguson, a state must provide their own facilities for African-Americans rather than simply providing access to out-of-state facilities (Murray v. Maryland 1936). Similar cases were soon found in other states (Gaines v. Missouri 1938). In each case, non-white students were eventually admitted to the all-white institutions in the states in question.
In 1950, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Heman Sweatt in a case similar to the other state education equality cases. Its special significance is in the timeliness of the written decisions made in the Supreme Court. With the support of the NAACP, Sweatt had applied to University of Texas Law School and been offered a scholarship to attend an out-of-state law school instead (Burns). This was deemed unacceptable and state-level court rulings gave Texas six months to create an equal institution of law education for non-whites. When this did not materialize, the case reached the Supreme Court where it produced an important ruling at the national level:
Chief Justice Fred Vinson wrote the Court’s opinion in which ‘the University of Texas Law School possess to a far greater degree those qualities which are incapable of objective measurements but which make for greatness in a law school. Such qualities to name but a few, include reputation of the faculty, experience of the administration, position and influence of the alumni, standing in the community, tradition and prestige.’ (Sarratt 1966:126)
This case set the stage for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). Chief Justice Vinson’s words make the opinions of the Supreme Court very clear on the issue of segregated education. They all but declare that separate, by definition, is not equal. The Chief Justice even references the case in the court’s opinion on Brown v. Board of Education (1954) saying that the case found “that a segregated law school for Negroes could not provide them with equal educational opportunities” (La Morte 1990:302).
But it was Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that finally refuted the Plessy v. Ferguson precedent of separate but equal educational standards. Tec¬¬hnically, “the case was based on segregation in elementary and secondary schools. Therefore, higher education was much slower in implementing the Supreme Court’s decision” (Litolff 2007:10). Regardless of this limitation, it ultimately provided a much needed “opportunity for citizens to challenge higher education” (Litolff 2007:10). The NAACP and the individuals they supported began to test the limits of the new ruling and enrolled African-American students in all-white colleges (Litolff 2007:11). Despite this push for change, it often took a court ruling to achieve equal admission in colleges:
the principle of the School Segregation Cases soon was extended to higher education…with one important difference: the Court declared the right of qualified Negroes to attend public colleges and universities to be immediate, whereas it gave local school boards time to make the transition to desegregation in elementary and secondary schools” (Sarratt 1966:126).
Therefore, there was the capacity for colleges and universities to integrate much faster than institutions of earlier education. However, the rulings generally only forced desegregation in public universities. Private schools like Carson-Newman College were left to the decisions of their own administrators and organizational leaders. The Tennessee Baptist Convention voted to leave the decision up to the individual colleges, such as Carson-Newman, starting in 1959 (“Trustee Vote to Accept Negroes” 1964:4). It was not until December 1963 that Carson-Newman College’s board of trustees voted to consider African-American applicants; this coming nearly a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and only months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This Civil Rights Act came about in the wake of a 1961 report by the Commission on Civil Rights which “demonstrated how a confusion between the legal questions settle[d] by Brown and the persistent educational problems of black students and black colleges hampered consideration of either issue” (Preer 1982:158). This report shifted the focus from individual black students crossing the race barrier to institutional discrimination. It also focused on many of the problems facing higher education, whereas elementary and secondary education had previously been in the spotlight. As it did come from a government commission, much of the discussion was reduced to discrimination related to allocation of funds (Preer 1982:161). Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 nudged private institutions towards antidiscrimination practices and shoved public universities in the same direction (Preer11982:67). The choice made by Carson-Newman’s trustees to integrate the school was very timely: arriving just as the issue of discrimination and integration in higher education came into the focus of the nation.
Even though the trustees made the final decision, Carson-Newman students were involved in the earliest moves towards integration on their campus. After 1954, across the United States “college students demonstrated sporadically against racial segregation and discrimination” because they felt it was time for integration and equality (Sarrett1966:137). While there are no surviving reports of organized demonstrations directly on Carson-Newman’s campus, there seems to have been some pressure from the student body. According to interviews conducted with Ann Bowen and others, there were students interested and actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement marching in other cities and participating in serious discussions about the issues in classes and at the homes of professors. As early as 1955, the Carson-Newman student-run newspaper The Orange and Blue published an article protesting discrimination against an African-American visitor.
The subject of the early article is simple: a student organization for future, full-time ministers had voted to invite a Princeton University graduate to speak at their annual dinner. Due to the color of their visitor’s skin, he was not allowed to eat in the main dining room. The organization’s student members voted to join him for dinner in the back of the cafeteria. The campus newspaper editorial shares that, although the students understood that the administration was following the established rules, they felt “that laws and rules are not always consistant [sic] in themselves or in the meaning of Christianity” (“It Happened Monday Night…” 1955:2). As Christian examples, these Carson-Newman students felt that their school should set an example of treating their brothers fairly.
When the trustees entered the final stages of allowing integration on campus, which had apparently “been under consideration for sometime[sic]” a survey was given to both students and faculty about their feelings on integration (C-N Board Institutes A Number Of Changes 1963:1). The survey given on December 6th and 9th of 1963 indicated that with the statement “I believe that Carson-Newman should integrate at the earliest possible registration period” 78.1% of students agreed. Further, to the statement “I would be willing to go to class with Negro students” 85.1% of students responded in agreement. In the non-student version of the survey, 97.1% of the faculty said that they did “believe [that] the principle of integration in school is sound” and 83.5% agreed that “Carson-Newman College is now ready for integration” (“Trustee Vote To Accept Negroes” 1964:9). These few, simple statistics show that by the time that Carson-Newman integrated, the people on campus were ready.
One contributing factor to the preparedness of the faculty and the student body might be the Baptist influence on the school. While Baptists are often stereotyped as extreme conservatives, there were many in the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention who felt that improving race relations was imperative to maintaining peace and improving communities at the time. In the post-World-War-II era, “many Baptists felt that racism had been at the heart of [the war] and had to be overcome if a permanent peace was to be achieved” (Willis 2005:10). Perhaps even more relevant to the Carson-Newman story is the Southern Baptist emphasis on missions. World-wide missions required individuals to get to know people from different cultures on a personal level. This kind of experience educated Southern Baptist missionaries on the practical issue of race relations, and it soon became a moral issue (Willis 2005:4). They soon felt that racism was ethically wrong and the “Baptist missionary leadership believed that ignorance bred misunderstanding and racism” (Willis 2005:4). The work that these missions leaders put into spreading information about race relations had an impact on the education of Baptist institutions like Carson-Newman. The school’s own Kathleen Manley brought these kinds of missionary attitudes to campus from her many years spent in missions overseas. Willis finds that “[t]he Baptists’ insistence that young people were the key to Christian race relations in the future highlights the importance” of the race relations educational literature they produced (2005:7). Carson-Newman has always been a missions-minded campus and reflects such in its matching values. While these influences did not lead the school to be one of the earliest to integrate (it was in fact “the fourteenth Southern Baptist College to remove the racial barrier”) it did lead to an easier transition (“C-N Board Institutes A Number of Changes” 1963:1).
Jefferson City was also a place particularly well suited for integration, according this project’s recent interviews with community members. For one thing, Jefferson City is a small town. It is difficult to fully isolate parts of a community that is so small. It is true that in many cases, this closeness created friction and small Southern towns took advantage of their distance from accountability. Time after time, local authorities were either involved in racist activities or were unable to prevent act of hate. It seems that this was not the case in Jefferson City (see interview with John Burton). The smallness of this town may have forced the issue of race relations but the outcome was positive. Many of the earliest African American alumni of Carson-Newman College recall growing up on the same street as white families: playing with their children here in Jefferson City (see interviews with Mozianio Reliford, Ann Bowen, Mary Phipps). School and church were the only notable instances of segregation in many of their young lives. The Nelson Merry School for the African-American portion of Jefferson City provided an uncommonly good education. The teachers were well-trained and they cared about their students’ success. Graduates of Nelson Merry were taught in a way that prepared them to further their studies at any college (see Ann Bowen’s interview). When races interacted in the community, they did not have trouble communicating or finding common ground due to their similar educational backgrounds.
So the college was prepared for integration, as was the community, but the transition was not necessarily seamless. Sarratt observes that “[a]dmission to a predominately white college did not launch a Negro into the mainstream of student life” (1966:132). It was certainly not easy for everyone, but Carson-Newman had provided some advantages. It mirrored and intensified Jefferson City’s small town effect. At a large state school, the self-segregation of the student body was nearly inevitable. When Carson-Newman integrated, there was not much room for anyone to hide. Each student was bound to interact with races different from their own. Several of the first African-American students were commuters, especially children of college employees, and this contributed some level of social isolation. This is common in commuting students of any race. However, many of the first African-American students to integrate found their own way into student life at Carson-Newman.
When Carson-Newman College decided to integrate, they simply did. Perhaps it was due to the timing or the unique community situation, but whatever the reason, it was not a difficult transition overall. There were no riots or protests; everyone simply went to their classes. Nevertheless, individual experiences are not so consistent. Out of respect, it is important to remember the individual experience and honor that memory. Some people did have a wonderful experience at Carson-Newman, and some remember the struggles they and their families went through for their education. This project is meant to lend that respect to the alumni of Carson-Newman and the community members, while preserving their contribution to the school’s heritage.
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