Oak Ridge, TN. Sixty-Five years ago this September, 85 brave and dedicated young African American students entered all-white classrooms in the Oak Ridge High School and the Robertsville Junior High School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in an historic school system desegregation.
Although not the first public school desegregation in the nation, this was the very first public school desegregation in the Southeast. As such, it challenged the racist and sometimes dangerous Jim Crow culture. This desegregation stands as an important milestone in American civil rights history.
A series of exciting events are planned throughout the anniversary school year to celebrate the 65th anniversary and honor the amazing Oak Ridge-85
students. The events will be held in conjunction with the Oak Ridge
schools. The first group of anniversary events will occur around the actual anniversary date, September 6th. Public participation in the initial activities, while a priority, has unfortunately had to be scaled back, due to
Things begin on Friday, September 4th, when students at the Oak Ridge
High School and Robertsville Junior High School will get the opportunity
to see and hear four of the original Oak Ridge-85 students. The students include Mr. Larry Gipson, Ms. Emma McCaskill, Ms. Mary Ellen Mahone Bohanon, and Ms. Margret Strickland Guinn.
Ms. Bohanon and Ms. Guinn were amongst the first African Americans to graduate from the Oak Ridge High School in the Class of 1956.
Mr. Gipson is the grandfather of former Wildcat basketball record holder Quinche Dowdell.
Ms. McCaskill is the mother of the first African American head football coach at Oak Ridge High School, Stanton Stevens.
Ms. Bohanon is the mother of Craig Freeman, a recent inductee into the Oak Ridge Sports Hall of Fame. He was starting tailback on the 1975 Oak Ridge High School State Championship football team.
Ms. Guinn was married to the late Fred Guinn who was one of the first two African American members on the Oak Ridge High School basketball team. Ms. Guinn is the grandmother of former Lady Wildcat Jada Guinn, Travis Guinn (former Wildcat Basketball player), and Kel Slater (current Wildcat basketball player).
Attendance at the Friday presentations will be open to school students, only.
Two celebration activities are planned for the anniversary date, Sunday, September 6th, 2020. The first is an outdoor worship service at 3 pm to give thanks and honor the Oak Ridge-85 students. The second activity is an online virtual anniversary celebration kickoff at 7 pm.
The worship service will be held at 3 pm at the former site of the Scarboro School (next to Oak Valley Baptist Church, 194 Hampton Rd in Oak Ridge, 37830). The distinguished civil rights leader, Reverend Doctor Harold Middlebrook, will be the keynote speaker. The theme of Middlebrook’s remarks will be “The Importance of School Desegregation to America. “ Social distancing and masks will be required for the service.
The Reverend Doctor Middlebrook was a friend of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King and at one time served as the youth minister at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where both King and his father held pastorates. In 1986, he founded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Commission of Greater Knoxville which he chaired until 2000. Dr. Middlebrook has appeared in several films on the civil rights movement.
The virtual anniversary celebration kickoff will begin at 7 pm in conjunction with the Oak Ridge school system. The celebration event will feature music and presentations to honor the Oak Ridge-85 students and unveil two bronze commemorative plaques which will be hung in the Oak Ridge High School and Robertsville Middle School.
As the first public school desegregation in the Southeast, the 1955 Oak Ridge school desegregation was closely studied by other public school systems throughout the South.
Back in 1955, the Tennessee State Constitution—consistent with other Southern State Constitutions—forbid the teaching of so-called “mixed classes.” That meant that school teachers and administrators who stepped forward to teach classes containing both white and black students faced very-real economic threats plus the potential loss of their teaching licenses (and possibly even worse from the Jim Crow culture.)
“The wonderful courage of the Oak Ridge-85 students, their parents, and teachers helped our nation at a pivotal time,” said Ms. Rose Weaver, African American Historian and Co-Chair of this year’s Anniversary Committee. “They were dedicated American pioneers in the finest sense of the words.”
“School desegregation has allowed a new group of highly-talented and creative Americans to help our nation face the very-challenging problems in the future,” said Martin McBride, Ph.D., Co-Chair of the Anniversary Committee. “We have all benefited from that.”
Ms. Weaver is an African American historian and Dr. McBride is a retired Department of Energy Site Manager. In February, the Oak Ridge City Council named them to head the committee to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the historic first public school desegregation in the Southeast.
For further information, please contact Martin McBride at 865-482-5386 or Rose Weaver at (865) 924-2987 or email them at [email protected]