Mark and I often talk about the common threads that seem to weave through our travels. We come across the same people or events as we move through the different states and regions. This was true while staying in Clinton, Tennessee, a small town that has the Green McAdoo Cultural Center with important events related to Civil Rights. The town of Clinton shares similarities to the city of Little Rock as they both had high schools dealing with issues of desegregation that made headline news. Somehow I thought that Little Rock Central High School was the first to become desegregated since so much news focus was on the events here in 1957. Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is one of my favorite attractions since we have been traveling. I was very moved by this site and all that the “Little Rock Nine” suffered during the desegregation process. But in the town of Clinton, twelve black students suffered similar trials in 1956, a year before the Little Rock Nine. They were the first students to desegregate a state supported high school in the south.
The events in Clinton are portrayed in this museum, the former Green McAdoo Elementary School for black students. The building that houses the museum shares a common thread not only with Little Rock but also the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site we visited in Topeka, Kansas. At this site we viewed exhibits in a former segregated elementary school for black students about the landmark Supreme Court case of 1954 which led to the order that schools be desegregated in the South. Below is a photo of the museum building.
This is a small museum but a powerful one. To commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the first desegregation, twelve life size bronze statues of the first students were created. The statues are in front of the museum looking down on the town, a significant location because the students would have walked down this hill from their homes to reach their new high school. Life size bronze statues of the Little Rock Nine were also created, another common thread. They are located next to the Arkansas Capital building and I have a photo of them in a previous blog.
Although the Little Rock Nine experienced protests from their city and state from the beginning, the “Clinton 12” were able to begin desegregation peacefully. For the most part, the community as well as the state of Tennessee were cooperative with the process as they wanted to follow the “law of the land.” This changed when a group came to town stirring up the citizens with anti-integration information. This was mostly fueled by one man, John Kasper, a white supremacist from New Jersey. During that first week of desegregation, violence erupted with threats to the students and some of the townspeople that supported the students. National Guard troops were called into the city to keep order. In the photo above take note of the clock on the wall in the top righthand corner with the time of 4:22. I will talk more about that later in this post.
One of the most ardent supporters was a man named Paul Turner, the white minister of the local Baptist Church. He was severely beaten after escorting the twelve students to school. Later in his church with his bruised face he preached a sermon called, “There is no color line at the cross.”
The high school principal, Mr Brittain was also threatened including demands that he resign from his job. He reported that he would do so if he received less than 51% of the student vote. The high school voted unanimously that he remain. Many felt it was the positive leadership of Jerry Shattuck, president of the student council and captain of the football team that set the tone for the students. He is pictured below second from the left.
In retaliation, white supremacists bombed the high school in 1958, with three bombs destroying the building. Luckily the bombings occurred during the early morning hours when no one was present. The clock that I first mentioned in the photo above is from the high school and it stopped at the time of the first bombing, 4:22 a.m. The identity of the bomber was never discovered. An empty elementary school in the nearby town of Oak Ridge was refurbished so the Clinton High School students could still attend school until the high school was rebuilt.
The museum features a wall of original letters, cards and telegrams received in Clinton from all over the world. It was very disheartening to read many of the letters against the desegregation. The mindset of people from that time period and the language used about the black community was shocking to say the least. But there were also letters of support and encouragement.
On May 17, 1957, Bobby Cain was the first black male student to graduate from a desegregated public high school. Bobby was reported to say: “It’s been a rough year and I wouldn’t want to go through it again. But I’m not sorry that I went to Clinton High School.” The following year, Gail Epps became the first female graduate. She is pictured with Bobby above.
After seeing the museum, I wanted to visit a few of the places around town that also had some significance. Mt. Sinai Baptist Church located up the hill from the museum became a place of refuge for the African American community during the hostilities. Families living in fear for their lives camped out in this building. Worship services are still held here.
Hoskins Rexall Drug Store has been a popular fixture in town for 88 years. People love to come eat lunch here or have an ice cream treat at the old fashioned counter lined with many stools or in one of the booths. Medical supplies and gift items can be purchased as well as prescriptions filled. The store still has the same glass cases where merchandise is displayed. It is one of those old fashioned places that is seldom seen in today’s modern world. But a newspaper photo on display at the museum from 1956 showed a more troubling time for Hoskins. The National Guard can be seen wearing gas masks and holding drawn bayonets in front of the store where a mob had gathered.
I walked over to see the rebuilt high school where the students attended during desegregation. It is now Clinton Middle School with a sign noting the struggle that students faced during that monumental time.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for my next post on a fun day in the city of Memphis.