Fifty years in the making

MC honors students who reintegrated school

The notation is startling in its brevity.

Thumbing through the 1954 Maryville College yearbook, Shirley Carr-Clowney reaches the part about the school’s decision to reintegrate that fall.

“In 1954,” it reads, “six blacks were enrolled in Maryville College.”

“Period,” Carr-Clowney said. “No names.”

It took 53 years for a U.S. Supreme Court decision to effectively strike down a Tennessee law prohibiting Maryville College from enrolling black students. Maryville moved fast after the landmark, 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, that fall readmitting black students for the first time since the Tennessee Education Act of 1901 had forced the school to discontinue the practice.

Maryville, which had accepted students regardless of race since its inception, had been the sole target of the 1901 law. When Queen Elizabeth Crossing, Freeman Wyche, Louise Hill Gilmore, Nancy Smith Wright, Leo Valentine and Carr-Clowney enrolled in the fall of 1954, Maryville became the first college in the state to desegregate its classrooms.

During homecoming ceremonies last week, Maryville brought five of the first students back to campus for a day of celebration.

“I think it was long overdue,” Maryville College president Gerald Gibson said. “Everybody thought it was just an inspiring and touching event to see those students back after half a century.”

Valentine is deceased, making last Saturday’s festivities all the more poignant. Had Carr-Clowney not acted more than a year ago, working with Maryville administrators to stage a reunion of the five surviving students, all of their names could very well have been lost to history. For the female students, such an omission would have been especially significant.

Maryville had a history of African American males enrolling and receiving degrees from the school prior to the 1901 law. Nine received degrees in the 1880s. Until Crossing, Gilmore, Wright and Carr-Clowney arrived, the school had never enrolled an African American female.

“Louise, Queen, Nancy Smith and I were the first black women to be enrolled,” Carr-Clowney said.

In 1960, Wright became the first African American woman to graduate.

The Supreme Court’s Brown decision has handed down in May of 1954. Right away, Maryville College and community leaders put in place plans to enroll black students that fall. High schools in Blount County would remain segregated for another decade.

Carr-Clowney had been valedictorian at all-black Charles M. Hall School in Alcoa. Along with Gilmore and Crossing, she had a scholarship to predominantly-black Knoxville College waiting. Instead, she, Gilmore and Crossing chose Maryville College.

“We were approached by several people to apply, so we did,” she said.

The racial climate of the times withstanding, Carr-Clowney said she doesn’t remember any trepidation about the move.

“I don’t remember being particularly nervous about it or having any apprehensions,” she said. “My dad was really strong about it.”

Maryville’s other students welcomed them, Carr-Clowney said. Faculty and administrators went out of their way, Gilmore said, to help. Gilmore said she remembers one Maryville professor fondly to this day.

“She would be waiting for me when I got off the bus and give me a ride to campus,” she said.

To suggest their stay was without incident, however, is to ignore the realities of life for African Americans in East Tennessee in the 1950s. A cross was burned on the Maryville campus their first year. Throughout their stay, Maryville resisted pressure from benefactors, some who withheld giving to the college, in an attempt to persuade the school to change its mind.

Maryville remained firm, a fact Gibson said he hopes isn’t lost on the Africa American students enrolled there this fall. It’s why the reunion meant so much.

“One of the things I thought was very important about it is it gave examples to our African American students of today of what their college has stood for,” Gibson said.

Athletics are a big part of college life, and, at Maryville, it’s no different. Sports teams reflect the school’s diversity these days. In 1954, there was only Wyche, who joined the school’s cross country team after enrolling.

As with the academic side of things, Maryville’s runners went to great lengths to ensure Wyche felt like a teammate. When Georgia Tech sent word to the college that the latter’s team would not be welcome in Atlanta with Wyche on the squad, the Scots and coach Ken Johnson chose not to go.

“I kind of felt bad for the team,” Wyche said. “I said, ‘Look, you guys go ahead and run.’ It’s a mixed feeling. You feel like they’re going to miss something because you are there.”

Wyche left Maryville after a year to reenlist in the Air Force. Changing duty stations over the years, he’d lost the athletic letter for his college sweater. At last week’s reunion, Maryville athletics director Kandis Schram presented Wyche with a brand new one, enclosed in a glass case.

“It was such an awesome story,” Schram said.

After two years at Maryville, Crossing went on to become a licensed practical nurse. Wyche would become a minister. Gilmore married and raised four children and four stepchildren. Maryville College’s influence on her would be far-reaching, with her son, Trent, later following her there, receiving his degree in 1985.

“That surprised me when he went there,” Gilmore said. “I was so proud.”

Wright would received a Masters of Social Work from the University of Pittsburg after leaving Maryville, later teaching and serving as an academic advisor at the University of Tennessee.

The Nancy Smith Wright Award at Maryville is awarded each year to the student organization which best serves the college in promoting unity and a sense of community. It’s an interesting twist, considering the social isolation Wright endured at Maryville.

Gilmore and Carr-Clowney roomed together. Crossing lived at home.

“Nancy could not have a roommate because there weren’t anymore black students,” Carr-Clowney said.

Carr-Clowney would earn a bachelors from Tennessee A&I after two years at Maryville, later studying at Rutgers before teaching school for 30 years.

It’s difficult to describe just how much last weekend meant, Gilmore said.

“I really loved it,” she said. “It was long overdue for us.”

Carr-Clowney came across the yearbook entry researching a book she’s writing.

“What I want to do is chronicle life for African Americans in Appalachia and Blount County,” she said. “If our generation doesn’t do it, our history will be lost or glossed over. I’ve learned of black people making significant contributions to Blount County.”

None more so than six students who enrolled at Maryville College 54 years ago to alter the course of history, then wait patiently as years went by before the world would learn their names.

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