Sixty years ago, ETSU was known as East Tennessee State College, the infamous steps of Rogers-Stout Hall did not exist and wouldn’t for another 11 years and Eugene Caruthers enrolled as ETSC’s first black student.
The college’s decision to integrate came two years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board decision that ruled segregation in public schools as unconstitutional.
Caruthers’ enrollment was announced in a short, front page article in the “Johnson City Press-Chronicle,” now known as the “Johnson City Press,” stating that he was a music and science teacher at Langston High School and he would be studying Psychology of the Exceptional Child and School Administration.
Two years later in 1958, Elizabeth Watkins Crawford, George L. Nichols, Mary Luellen Owens Wagner and Clarence McKinney enrolled as the college’s first black undergraduate students.
Getting lost among a sea of headlines describing bloody riots and hateful speeches, ETSC was able to desegregate quietly in both instances.
The college integrated in the middle of the Little Rock Crisis, where nine black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, were met with riots and violence upon their arrival at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. A year later, Little Rock was still making headlines.
In the weeks leading up to the black undergraduate students’ enrollment, Buford Ellington, future Governor of Tennessee, said, “I cannot believe it is in the best interest of all the people of our state that we mix our races in the public schools,” along the campaign trail.
An editorial by David Lawrence titled, “Tennesseans- Like Arkansas- Against Integration,” was featured in the “Johnson City Press-Chronicle” in August 1958.
Yet, ETSC was still able to integrate peacefully.
Today, a fountain and historical marker located in front of the Sherrod Library commemorates those five students.
Although the world today is quite different than it was 60 years ago, a similar civil rights movement is underway.
The headlines in 2016 feature instances of police brutality in routine traffic stops and GLAAD reports that transgender people of color made up 87 percent of transgender murder victims in 2011.
Sometimes racism is found in the more subtle form of micro aggressions such as saying, “You’re pretty for a black girl.”
With all of the issues in this country concerning race, it is easy to forget about the brave individuals across the country that faced hostility and violence upon entry to an all white school 50 to 60 years ago.
However, it is vital we all, no matter what skin color we have, do not forget the valiant work done by all of the people involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.