The civil rights movement feels like it happened centuries ago to today’s ETSU students, but in reality, the university enrolled its first black student 60 years ago when the university was known as East Tennessee State College.
Eugene Caruthers, a local teacher, earned his master’s degree in administration in 1957. A year later, four more black students enrolled, officially integrating ETSC.
On Monday, three of those students returned to ETSU to be honored during a ceremony to rededicate the fountain and historical marker that was erected in their honor in 2013.
The fountain and historical marker are located in Borchuck Plaza in front of of the Sherrod Library. Although the event is a part of this year’s Civility Week, administrators and students hope that a rededication ceremony will raise awareness to the purpose of the fountain, which is often the target of reoccurring pranks.
The three of the five students in attendance were Elizabeth Crawford, George Nichols and Mary Luellen Owens Wagner along with the late Clarence McKinney’s son.
After a presentation of the colors by ETSU’s Army ROTC color guard, Dorothy Drinkard-Hawkshawe, director of African American studies, welcomed a crowd of roughly 100 people to the ceremony.
Before the honored guests spoke, Nicholas Fasanello, a member of the board of student advisors for the multicultural center, read a statement of purpose and the ETSU Gospel Choir sang a hymn in a capella.
Several students took turns reading the biographies of each honoree before they approached the podium to say a few words.
Nichols was the second person to speak. Although ETSC allowed him to enroll in classes, most student organizations were still segregated. Nichols was the first African American to be accepted into the college’s marching band along with being the first African American to be commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant from the ETSC ROTC program.
“This [the fountain and dedication] is the last thing any of us thought would happen back then,” Nichols said.
Crawford and Wagner nodded their heads from the front row before he continued to speak.
“Today I realize that any discomfort we felt, was not felt in vain,” Nichols said.
Those five students, all graduates of Langston High School, were not aware of the impact they were about to make on not only the college but also the region in 1956 and 1958.
“We stood on the shoulders of giants,” Nichols said, referring to his teachers at Langston High School and Thurgood Marshall. “You never know when someone will stand on your shoulders.”
After Nichols finished his speech, Wagner’s biography was read before she reflected on that day and how peaceful their integration was during a time of violence and chaos at other schools across the country.
“I didn’t plan to come to college here,” she said, “but the college opened the door to us. We rode in George’s [Nichols] car, noticed there wasn’t any security or commotion and walked right up to register. No one bothered us.”
After Wagner spoke, Phillippi Baptist Church member, Tracy Haynes recited Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from memory before ETSU’s Pure Praise group sang one last gospel song.
Mary Jordan, from the Office of Equity and Diversity, presented Crawford, Nichols, Wagner and McKinney’s son with a framed print of the fountain before closing the ceremony.
Attendees left the ceremony with a better understanding of the university’s history, the country’s history and the opportunity to meet a few of ETSU’s own “giants.”