Unrest At Brainerd High 40 Years Ago

Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - by John Shearer
- photo by Wes Schultz

Forty years ago this month, one of the more unusual incidents in the history of the Chattanooga schools occurred.

At Brainerd High, several tense days of protests and demonstrations resulted after black students expressed their displeasure that Confederate symbols and songs were being used at the school.

It was typical of some of the other tensions playing out across the country as African-Americans were trying to enjoy their new full rights as American citizens, while many whites wanted to hold on to their Southern heritage they had always known.

However, it was painful from all perspectives nonetheless. Although no lives were lost, Chattanooga did lose a little of its innocence with the crisis.

The story that led to the 1969 tension actually began in 1960, when Brainerd High opened in the attractive, mid-century-style building still used today on its sprawling campus.

From the start, the school was known for drawing some top students. The whole Brainerd area at that time was considered a prime suburban area in which to live, and it was also the premier retail area away from downtown.

As other new Southern high schools – such as Knoxville West -- did in the first decade or two after World War II, Brainerd selected the nickname Rebels.

Throughout the 1960s, Brainerd continued as one of the top public schools in Chattanooga for producing college students.

By the fall of 1969, with an increasing number of black students beginning to attend the still mostly white Brainerd, the issue over the school’s Confederate symbols came to the forefront.

As the situation was described in detail in the Chattanooga Times at the time, principal Ray Coleman, who had formerly been the Brainerd football coach, began noticing that some of the black students expressed displeasure or walked out of the gym during the playing of “Dixie” at early pep rallies.

Although he said no black students or parents came to him to complain, he created a committee of black and white students to look at how to alleviate the fact that a number of black students found the playing of “Dixie” and the use of other Confederate symbols offensive.

On Friday, Oct. 3, the tension finally boiled over at the football game between Riverside and Brainerd. The black Brainerd students clinched their fists in a “Black Power” symbol while the Brainerd band played “Dixie” or when Confederate flags were flown.

The news reports said police had to intervene in the second half when some black students tried to take over the cheerleading platform, and when a fight broke out after the black students tried to reclaim their seats.

By the next week, a full-blown crisis had erupted at Brainerd High, and the entire Chattanooga community watched with concern.

On Wednesday, Oct. 8, hundreds of students walked out of class briefly, while that afternoon, a group of concerned parents attended a Chattanooga Board of Education meeting at Kirkman High to demand that order at the school be restored. A number of white parents also felt that their children were being physically threatened.

The situation was bad from all perspectives. James Mapp, who was chairman of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter and the father of a Brainerd student, said at the board gathering that a black girl had been partially paralyzed during the fight at the game Friday night.

However, he was trying to help solve the dilemma as well as bring attention to it.

He said that black and white parents needed to come together, as they had done the night before at another meeting at Brainerd High.

Assistant city schools Supt. Dr. C.C. Bond, who was black, said during a club speech that same day that the problems at Brainerd were rooted in a lack of communication between black and white people.

On Thursday, Oct. 10, Dr. John P. Hoover, president of the White Citizens Council, briefly paraded through the school grounds with several others and was asked to leave by Mr. Coleman.

That night, the Times reported that more than 100 cars driven by students and parents and other Chattanoogans drove through the Brainerd area waving Confederate flags. Flag-waving cars had also driven through the area the previous night.

The committee of students and others – which had been expanded and given an additional charge after the fight at the Brainerd-Riverside football game - came up with a list of compromises on which the student body was scheduled to vote the following Monday, Oct. 13. They included substituting the Confederate flag with a new school flag and replacing “Dixie” as the school’s fight song with a medley of songs that included “Dixie.” The Rebels nickname was to stay.

However, that Friday, new city schools Supt. Jack Lawrie, with the support of the school board, announced that the vote was canceled. His thinking was that the situation was too emotionally charged to be resolved with a student vote, and that the main emphasis should be on restoring and maintaining order.

Principal Coleman was reportedly shocked at the superintendent’s decision, the newspaper said.

That Saturday, Oct. 11, a Brainerd story that had been overshadowed came to the forefront – Brainerd had an outstanding football team under coach Pete Potter, the brother-in-law of Mr. Coleman.

In a game that was moved to Saturday afternoon for safety concerns, the Rebels defeated coach E.B. “Red” Etter’s tradition-rich Central squad, 14-0, at East Ridge High. The two coaches would later square off yearly as coaches of McCallie and Baylor.

Few, if any, black students were at the game, the news reports said, but Confederate flags were on display. That night, the situation turned even worse.

Some 500-600 white students and others gathered at Brainerd Village and elsewhere to parade and wave Confederate flags, while the newspaper said some young blacks were at the corner of Brainerd and Germantown roads throwing rocks. Some whites had also gathered at the Kroger at the intersection, but police were able to quell any serious problems.

Incidents had also taken place on Friday night, and the newspaper said that UTC students were even beginning to have conflicts regarding the Confederate flag about this time, no doubt sparked by the Brainerd situation.

Mayor A.L. “Chunk” Bender, who went without sleep much of Saturday night trying to help restore order with law enforcement officials and others, made a plea for civility.

A curfew was enacted for several days, and calm – if not complete resolution – soon returned to Brainerd High and elsewhere. Time eventually would pass, although the shock regarding the incident would remain.

Brainerd within a few years would become a predominantly black school and would later change its nickname to the Panthers after briefly calling itself the Rebel Panthers.

Forty years later, the incident remains as somewhat of a painful memory on the collective conscience of Chattanooga, which had admirably survived the civil rights struggles of the previous decade under Mayors Rudy Olgiati and Ralph Kelley with only minor problems. Unfortunately for the city, even more racially charged conflicts came in 1971 and 1980.

But the Brained incident does have a positive legacy in that the situation can still be studied thoroughly through old newspaper stories and memories, and people can learn how future conflicts can be resolved or prevented.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

- photo by Wes Schultz

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