For as long as we have been taking our award-winning fifth-grade civil rights journey, students have asked, “When did USN integrate?”
All I knew to answer was, “Dr. Durnan would know; we need to talk to him.”
Thanks to USN Archivist Jenny Winston, we had the privilege of hearing from two alumnae from the era, Cassandra Teague Walker and Sandra Liles on Friday, March 2. From the Peabody Demonstration School Class of 1967, they are best friends to this day. Here is their story.
In 1957, after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that separate but equal schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional, the Tennessee State legislature decreed that state schools needed to integrate “with all deliberate speed.” Since Peabody College desegregated in 1963, Walker’s family took a chance along with other black families and applied to Peabody’s Demonstration School. They received a letter stating that PDS was not accepting African Americans and they should apply next year. And they did. PDS desegregated in the 1964-1965 school year.
"The summer before — Freedom Summer and the summer of the passage of the Civil Rights Act — lots of work was done to prepare faculty, students, and parents to ensure acceptance,” Walker informed students.
Then USN Director W.J. McCharen accepted four African-American students to the ninth grade, being an entrance year.
“Two by two, that is two girls and two boys, to avoid any social problems. It was after all the '60s,” continued Walker. “We had plenty of parental support, as well as support from the black community.”
Their experience was so different than the treacherous experience of the Little Rock Nine in 1957-1958 at Central High School. In fact, Walker delighted in telling the children that she held dual citizenship, as a member of PDS and Pearl High School, then located in the now Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School, even serving on the latter's prom committee.
“Just as you do now, I had friends from outside my school," she said.
Walker stated, “When I walked up those PDS steps in 1964, desegregation had just been put into law. The law had changed but what about hearts and minds? I had friends when I graduated. It was a great experience and others feel the same way. I was never afraid.”
In fact, Liles told the children, “We were friends from the very beginning. We were all just classmates. If there was any discomfort, I wasn’t aware.”
Liles went on to explain that in her opinion Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley was the main reason integration happened in Metro Nashville Public Schools with little violence.
"He said, ‘We’re gonna do this thing in Nashville,’” she recalled. Hattie Cotton Elementary School was the target of a destructive bombing shortly after admitting its first African-American student in 1957. Ben West was the mayor at that time.
Walker is proud of how Nashville handled desegregation—both women made a point to state strongly that PDS was completely different from any other Nashville school, “always such an incredible melting pot,” they said. Not to say that there weren’t drawbacks. For instance, Walker reported that she couldn’t go to many white neighborhoods to visit friends. She also talked to the children about being "the other."
“You will always have at some point the experience of being the other,” she wisely shared with them.
Thanks to the tireless work of Social Studies Teacher Connie Fink, the fifth grade spent an entire day this week visiting not only the State Archives to examine primary documents of Nashville’s black history but also experienced Jefferson Street at its best.
Walker informed the children, “We had everything we needed on Jefferson Street.” Stay tuned for that part of our journey.