One day, the whole world will know Peggy Miller’s story.
One day, hopefully, they’ll also know why they should, Alcoa High School government teacher Ken Brown says.
Miller was the only senior among 15 black students who launched integration at the high school in the fall of 1963. Bright, popular, she’d been a lock to be named homecoming queen had she stayed at Charles M. Hall School, the city’s all-black school. Instead, Miller took her seat in an Alcoa classroom that year, enduring taunts, insults and a sense of isolation that cut deeply.
After graduation, Miller never returned to the high school, never attending a single reunion.
Miller’s story is one of many retold in “Past Pain Towards An Equal Future: The Integration of Alcoa High School.” The soft-bound book, unveiled in ceremonies at the school on Tuesday, was a senior class project for Brown’s government class. In it, the stories of Miller, Dorothy Bennett, Charlotte Bradford, Gwendolyn Carr, Albert Davis, David Davis, Fred Henderson, Tanya Henderson, Ronnie Nunn, Delores Porter, James Prigmore, Tovaree Simpson, Betty, Janice and Rodney White are conveyed through the words of many who went to school with them.
Current students conducted all the interviews for the book, 61 in all, including four of the first 15 black students. Some interviewed talked of few problems experienced. Some went farther. Some, like LaTaya Reddick’s retelling of Miller’s story — through the words of her surviving brother, Ralph – are humbling.
“There are so many stories of courageous people in this,” Brown said. “People decided if they acted courageously, good things could happen.”
It’s why Peggy Miller-Hill decided to give up her senior year at Charles M. Hall and make a stand, he said. It’s why Alcoa city officials, at the urging of their aluminum company benefactors, brought about integration at Alcoa the way they did.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, declaring separate but equal public schools unconstitutional, was handed in 1954 by a unanimous, 9-0 decision. That withstanding, Southern schools were slow to integrate. When they did, there was often trouble.
Nearby Clinton High School, the first public school in Tennessee to integrate, was bombed after the first black students were admitted and had to be rebuilt. There were protests. A white pastor was beaten when he tried to escort those first black students to campus.
Alcoa wanted none of that. To that end, city officials and those in the know told no one what they were planning. When school opened that fall, they just did it.
“The fact that we were going to integrate was a very well-kept secret,” Steve Fugate, Class of 1965, said. “It was the best kept secret in my lifetime.”
The students who would integrate Alcoa were hand-picked by Hall community leaders. When they settled on whom those students would be, they, like city and aluminum company officials, told no one. Few of the teachers and administrators at Alcoa and Charles M. Hall had any idea what was pending.
“We didn’t know,” said long-time Alcoa guidance counselor Geraldine Upton, then an administrator at Hall. “We went to school that morning, and they told us we had been integrated.
“It was rough. It was rough for the kids who remained at Hall, and it was rough for those kids that came over (to Alcoa).”
The covert nature of the change is the thing he most found surprising, Alcoa senior Josh Henry said.
“That kind of shocked me,” he said. “You go to school one day, and all of your classmates are gone.”
“That way no one could protest it,” fellow senior Teri Upchurch said. “No one could make the students feel uncomfortable.”
Members of that year’s Alcoa football team were among the first to get any hint of the change. School that fall opened on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. The Tornadoes had played the season’s first game the previous Friday.
On the way home, the team bus stopped at an area restaurant for a meal. Before they disembarked, former Tornado coach Bill Bailey, long a proponent for integrating Alcoa schools, broke the news to the team.
“We got to practice on Tuesday, and they’re out for football,” Fugate said.
Albert and David would go on to become legends on Alcoa sports teams. Albert ran 65 yards for a touchdown the first time he carried the ball for the Tornadoes that season — on the first play of the game — against Everett. Many of the school and county rushing records he established still stand.
David hit the shot all kids dream of his senior season with the basketball Tornadoes, his fall-away jumper along the baseline at the end of the third overtime winning Alcoa the 1967 state championship.
David and Albert would both go on to play in the National Football League.
The success the former Hall athletes enjoyed at Alcoa helped, but there were struggles there as well. Upton, who worked part-time at both schools at the same time to ease in the transition, remembers one former Hall athlete who wasn’t happy with the arrangement at all.
An Alcoa coach would pick him up each morning and drive him to school. When they arrived, the coach would “put him out at the front door and drive around to the back door and wait for him because he knew he was coming,” she said.
The book includes both the good and bad times of integration at Alcoa, Upton said. Many of the friendships that eventually formed, even among the teachers, endure to this day.
“It didn’t take long to realize that people are just people,” she said. “We finally came to the conclusion that our primary purpose is to educate children.”
It would be wrong to say all the things those first 15 students endured at the school are over, Upton said.
“If I did that, I’d be telling you a lie,” she said.
“The world is getting smaller,” she added to students assembled Tuesday. “You’re going to have to step up.”
That, Brown said, is the book’s intent.
“When you start to realize in our society there have been some bad things done and we don’t take ownership of it, it’s bound to happen again,” he said.
The book’s biggest draw may be the diversity of those interviewed, Brown said. It’s gives current students a broad sweep of their school’s history.
“You come away with different perspectives of the same events,” he said. “They need to understand who they are and where they’re from. Read those stories, and it’s neat. And it’s needed right now.”
Students took an eager interest in the project, Brown said. It was gratifying, but the most fulfilling moment came from one of Tuesday’s speakers.
“Coach Fugate said to me, ‘Thank you. This is something we needed to do for a long time,’” he said.
Copies of the book, he said, can be obtained by contacting the high school office.