On April 4, 1968, about 5 p.m., I was attending a faculty meeting headed by W. A. Bourne, principal of Tech High at 1266 Poplar Avenue, when my husband called the school and asked to speak with Mr. Bourne. He reported that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated at the Lorraine Motel and that several areas of downtown Memphis had been set ablaze.
Mr. Bourne indicated that he was close enough to hear the emergency vehicles responding to the history-making events occurring a few blocks away on a main street of Memphis, Tennessee. He announced his intention to dismiss his staff immediately.
Mr. Bourne dismissed the teacher professional development training session and told us to go home immediately. As I walked out the side door to where my Plymouth was parked on Claybrook Street, I looked up at the sky and saw black smoke clouds. The sounds of the sirens were deafening; traffic was snarled. Tech High was located about 15-20 blocks from where the assassination took place. The whole city was in a state of chaos and panic!
Not just a few buildings were burning, but whole sections had been set afire. To say I was scared and uneasy as I worked my way across traffic trying to head east is an understatement.
I recalled that in the morning newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, I had read about the visit of Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis. He had come to settle a strike in the city’s sanitation department.
I remembered how concerned my Mother was, back in Savannah, TN, my hometown, and the excitement among those in the small community, when the grandson of a resident came to town and announced he was going to compile a history about his African American ancestors, Alex and Queen Haley, who were buried on a hillside one block from my childhood home. Week after week, there would be new information in the Savannah Courier, our local newspaper.
All of my life I had heard about one section of Savannah, Tennessee, called Stringtown (the location of the black population that had served their white masters in antebellum homes as domestics). The other section of Savannah referred to as Newtown (was the location of the black population who had worked in the fields and who were referred to as “Fieldhands).” The African American population that had grown up just across town from me had escaped my awareness and the good impression of events on our main street--but apparently, there had been much that I had missed.
Soon the book Roots would be published and I would learn even more about the African Americans who lived in Savannah and elsewhere.
As I drove home from Tech High, my mind was racing. First I was thinking of my family. I was thinking of how dangerous it was for me to be driving during this period of violence, anger, and danger. Whoever was responsible for the assassination and for setting the fires, were, no doubt, darting through streets trying to get away from police.
I also thought about the day in assembly at Tech when Mr. Bourne had announced that the first black student, Willie Walker, would be enrolled with our previously all-white student body. He stated that the Memphis Board of Education had chosen Tech High for the initial integration of the city-wide system, and that he did not expect to have any trouble in school; he was confident that the student body would accept the new students. We had not disappointed him. Carolyn Elliott, English teacher, became one of Willie Walker’s first teachers at Tech High when he was assigned to her 3rd period English class.
As I drew closer to our home and the noise of the sirens faded, I recalled the year that Mr. Bourne had selected me to teach the first vocational education class at Tech. The State Department of Education had vocational funds allocated to help high school students with training for job placement after graduation. Within this Vocational Office Occupations class, Board supervised by Ed French, I taught advanced typing, business English, and office machines.
During my eight years at Tech, I felt the love that radiated from my students. I knew the annual yearbook of 1968 was dedicated to me and to Mrs. Edna Norwood. I was proud of the accomplishments of my homeroom: first place in PTA membership drive; first place in PTA attendance at open house; second place in Thanksgiving Basket Drive; third place in Christmas Basket Drive; and seven winners in the Hall of Fame.
As fleeting thoughts raced through my mind about so many persons and events during my time at Tech High, I recalled being in my second floor English class in November 1963, when Mrs. Martin, Librarian, came to my door and informed me that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and was dead. It seemed that my life had come full circle in one important area. I had lived a somewhat sheltered life in a small town, Savannah, Tennessee; had attended the leading teachers’ college, George Peabody at Nashville, Tennessee, (now known as the Vanderbilt Peabody College); and I had not experienced nor known much about living in the deprived conditions that so many faced daily.
In this time of civil unrest, I could see in my rearview mirror the smoke, flames, and images of parts of the city of Memphis on fire. I knew that after working in the inner city and teaching in a school where there had been successful integration of races, I had a better understanding of the confusion that was occurring in our downtown than many people who lived on the outskirts of Memphis or who were hearing about the burning of the city on national television. Certainly, a whole race of people had their hopes dashed on this day.
For weeks the city was under curfew. This was a time of extreme unrest in our city. Nightly, we watched the evening news and saw images of the gutted, charred buildings in the downtown areas of Memphis.
Finally, I was safe at my home with my son Barry and Drexel. The remainder of the night and for several weeks we listened to the worldwide news regarding the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the history-making events which occurred in Memphis, Tennessee, in the spring of 1968.
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