We have a story to tell here, there, everywhere

Friday, January 20, 2012

"We have a story to tell" was a theme for the African-American Heritage Society of Williamson County nearly a decade ago. On the Martin Luther King holiday this week, that phrase came to mind before the NAACP started marching east on West Commerce Street.

As they stepped to the street, it seemed appropriate to ask what it was like here during desegregation. The respondents may have abbreviated their replies because everybody was walking away, but a follow up question confirmed something learned in Murfreesboro during the 1990s.

Integration of public schools had an effect on the community, traditions and even the high stepping band's steps of the black training school. Ronald Washington of Murfreesboro remembers when: the school was smaller; teachers knew students' families, not just the parents and siblings; and the marching band's performance was something special with choreographed steps that rivaled a Broadway show's dance troupe. While enjoying such a band, some probably said the musicians sure had rhythm, a description that might be considered politically incorrect now. Integration led to the end of those steps at that school.

Asked what it was like to go to an all-black school before integration, Betty Davis Kelso said, "It was wonderful. I played basketball. I was in the choir... and had the leading role in one of the plays."

Her school, Jones, was bigger than my father's high school in Pennsylvania Dutch country where he played on several teams and was a member of more than a few clubs. There are approximately 800 students enrolled at Marshall County High School. There were some 2,000 at my high school. I left the band as soon as I could.

"I never got to attend an all-black high school," Rochelle Alexander told me.

She said she "never got to," so there's one of the stories to tell. When some folks complained that integration might hold back bright students in the school building used when integration was implemented, those folks didn't know what was being lost in their "brothers'" community.

Rochelle Alexander was asked on Monday what it was like for her growing up in Shelbyville.

"It was good," she said. She wasn't asked her age. "It was a nice little hometown community," Rochelle Alexander said of the town seen by some as where the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" was first played out in real life.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) is from Shelbyville and his father, Prentice Cooper, was a defense attorney for a black man accused in a criminal case similar to the one in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, produced as a movie with Gregory Peck. Jim and then-Congressman Bart Gordon celebrated Bedford County Mayor Eugene Ray's election in August 2006. He's the first black man in that office. Bedford's Courthouse burned in December 1934 when a mob couldn't get Prentice Cooper's client.

Things have changed and racism still exists, but as the Heritage Society said, there's a story to tell. In Franklin, there's talk of what life was like beyond the backyards of the Main Street mansions. Here, there's talk of black children playing with Confederate dollars. Now, there's a story to tell.

These views are the author's and not necessarily reflective of the Tribune's views.