When East Tennessee State College was desegregated in the 1950s there was no violence, no protests, no blocking of doors, nothing that made the news like at other Southern colleges and universities where black students were beginning to seek higher education.
That lack of conflict is likely why there is little record of the enrollment of Eugene Caruthers in ETSC’s graduate school in January 1956, or the enrollments of undergraduates Elizabeth Watkins Crawford, Clarence McKinney, George L. Nichols and Mary Luellen Owens Wagner in August 1958.
“None of that type of action was exhibited when Dr. Caruthers came and when those other students followed behind him in 1958,” said Angela Radford Lewis, associate dean for ETSU’s College of Education. “It was perfect history but got hid because it was not sensational history. And that’s one of the things that ETSU prides itself on, that, you know, these students were able to enroll without any violence or hostility.”
There may not have been much of a record at the time, but soon there will be a permanent memorial to those five students. Preston Construction is building a water fountain at the plaza in front of the Charles C. Sherrod Library intended to commemorate the university’s desegregation. ETSC became a university in 1963.
The fountain is scheduled to be completed in October.
The students may not have faced physical barriers to enrollment but still had hurdles to overcome being the first black students and being in the minority, Lewis said. There were some hostile comments from time to time but it was for the most part a peaceful time.
Some of those first black students detailed their experiences in a university panel discussion in January 2011 as part of the school’s centennial celebration.
“It’s really compelling, their stories on how they bonded together and how they met and in a certain location so they could kind of support one another and so forth,” Lewis said.
That panel discussion sparked the interest of some current African American students who inquired about a way to memorialize those pioneering students.
A committee was formed to look into the request and it was decided a fountain to commemorate their contributions would be appropriate. A historical marker with details of the desegregation of ETSU also will be placed in front of the library.
The $172,000 fountain was designed by Carol R. Johnson Associates and is being built by Preston Construction. The fountain will have five granite stones emerging from the water. Five points will extend across the plaza from the base of the fountain in the manner of a star. Each “ray” of the star will have one of the five students’ names inscribed on it.
A dedication ceremony will be held after the fountain is completed. Those who can make it from those first black students will be asked to return to campus for the dedication. A repeat of the panel discussion from January 2011 may be held in conjunction with the dedication, Lewis said.
Caruthers, who was principal at Langston High School, Johnson City’s school for black students until the city school system’s desegregation in 1965, has died.
In 1954, ETSC adopted the rules of compliance stemming from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against racial segregation. When Caruthers enrolled two years later, he may have been one of the first black students in Tennessee to enter higher education at a public school that had traditionally been for white students.
Lewis said these first five students were pioneers because they basically paved the way for more African Americans to enroll at ETSU.
She said the school is making progress but there is still more to do to increase diversity on campus. According to enrollment figures from fall 2011, 5.56 percent of ETSU students were African American. That is a little more than 800 students out of a student body that at the time was around 15,000.
“And I’m hopeful and optimistic that we will continue to strive, continue to recruit and provide support to help African American students not only want to come to ETSU but once they get here be successful and complete a degree at ETSU,” Lewis said.