This blog post was authored by Chris Bishop, a student in Professor Eckelmann Berghel’s HIST 3475: Modern Civil Rights Struggle class that curated an exhibit on display in the George Connor Special Collections Reading Room, located in room 439 of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Library in Spring 2019.
The landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka is one of the most significant Supreme Court rulings of the modern civil rights era. This 1954 ruling stated that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was unconstitutional because it violated the fourteenth amendment. The ground-breaking decision affected the entire nation, especially cities in the South, including Chattanooga. Many historical documents illustrate the impact the case had on the city and county’s schools. One such piece is a master’s dissertation titled A Survey of Opinion of White High School Sophomores in the Hamilton Co. (Tennessee) School System on Racial Integration of the Schools, researched and written in 1955 by Myra Bryant Millsaps, a student at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. The work begins with a detailed description of the Supreme Court’s ruling and how it began the process of integrating public schools. There is also a brief overview of the economic state of Hamilton Co. public schools in 1955. Millsaps highlights the various opinions of white high school sophomores on the racial integration of schools. These opinions represent the uncertainty and ambivalence many students felt after learning that integration would eventually come to their schools. For example, one student maintained, “I wouldn’t mind going to school with Negroes but I wouldn’t want to date them.” Another student noted, “I think that most fathers and mothers would object to having their children go to school with a Negro.” Students also explained their views through religious rhetoric, such as this student: “When God made the first white man, He wanted him to be white or He would have put him some other color. If He aimed for us to be put together with the Negroes, He would have made us the same color, therefore, I don’t want any Negro around me in any way.” However, some students also responded more positively: “We fought the Germans and Japanese in the last war and they can come to our schools. Why shouldn’t the Negro be able to come, when he fought for America?” Another progressively minded student noted, “I firmly believe there is no one person on the face of the earth any better than another because of his color. God made the Negro, as he did the white, from dust…There is no room in a Christian world for racial prejudice and discrimination of any kind.” The significance and importance of this document in the overall narrative of how this area was impacted by school integration cannot be overstated because it gives us insight into how those affected most, the students, really felt.
Another significant document addressing the integration of schools in Hamilton County is a booklet entitled Federally Supported Educational Programs. Of particular importance is the section on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Public Law 88-352 – Title IV, Inservice Preparation of Teachers for the Desegregation of Selected School Faculties Through the Implementation of Team Teaching. School integration was uncharted territory requiring training to prepare the personnel involved. The purpose of the program focused on “grants to school boards to pay, in whole or in part, the cost of giving teachers, and other school personnel, inservice training in dealing with problems incident to desegregation; and employing specialists to advise in these problems.” The cost of the program at the time amounted to $177,256 and was intended to cover grades 1 through 12. The project trained “a total of 44 teachers in 16 selected schools … assigned across racial lines.” The inservice workshops targeted participating principals and teachers, and project directors. A conference of participating teachers, principals, and teachers held at Brainerd High School on February 23, 1967, was regarded a success of faculty desegregation. This particular piece illustrates that many American schools, especially those in the South, Chattanooga and Hamilton County, were slow to fully integrate student bodies.