John Shearer: The Brainerd High Crisis Of 50 Years Ago And The Road To Wholeness, Part 8 -- Lessons Learned

Friday, October 11, 2019 - by John Shearer

As the 1969-70 year at Brainerd High School concluded after news-making protests, name calling, and fights over the school’s Confederate symbols and “Dixie” fight song, almost all the students seemed to have been affected in some way.

Although many of the white student protesters claimed their resistance to the demands for change by the black students was over school pride and not prejudices, many would later say they began to understand as the years passed the black perspective.

Many black students would also be proud of their efforts to bring about positive change, although some would still not be interested in attending reunions with their mostly white fellow graduates over the years.

Before the long-term repercussions of what went on at Brainerd that year would begin to be discussed and analyzed, the immediate ramifications started to take hold. And in a city that along with the rest of the South and even the country was still struggling to reach wholeness among its people, the black students had won a small-but-important battle.

At a gathering of parents at the beginning of the 1970-71 school year, principal Billy Von Schaaf said that the school would have no more Confederate symbols, and that “Dixie” would be only one of several school songs and would no longer be the main pep song. The Rebels nickname would remain, however.

A contest to write a new school song was also held in the fall of 1970.

Around that same time, Chattanooga city schools official Dr. James Henry told one group that the school was dealing better with the problems of the past year. He also said that Brainerd PTA president Mack Cook and the Concerned Leaders for Urban Education were also helping make for a better school year.

Greg Walton, who was a black junior during the 1969-70 school year, recalled that the school had calmed down and returned mostly to normalcy in part through the help of the student leaders.

“The student government association was given the task of normalizing things,” he said. “It was among the students. They said that this is what they are telling us to do – to go back to your cells and say that this is what they want us to do and this is what we are going to do.”

He also recalled that the school increased the workload of the guidance counselor office.

“They pulled us into the guidance counselors and made sure we were on track (academically) and were not sidetracked,” Mr. Walton said. “It was so much easier to fight at school than to go to school and learn.”

According to records published in the local newspaper during the fall of 1970, Brainerd had 1,380 students, 200 of whom were black, in grades 10 through 12. During the volatile previous year, 160 of its 1,377 students were black.

As Brainerd High’s black population began to grow, officials also began to increase the black staff. A Mr. Frierson had come as a black guidance counselor during that time, and Alandres Horton had become the first black assistant principal at Brainerd in the fall of 1970.

Whether due to the natural population migration patterns of the city at that time or because of some factor like white flight to the farther suburbs, the black population at Brainerd High School continued to increase throughout the 1970s.

For a period during around the mid-1970s, the school had achieved that seemingly elusive state of being close to having an equal number of black and white students. It brought about an experience of deep cross-cultural immersion that not every high school student in Chattanooga at that time could say he or she was experiencing.

Even today, including at Brainerd, very few public high schools in Tennessee can say that their minority and white populations are each at least 35 or 40 percent.

As the 1980s arrived, however, the demographics were continuing to change. A glance at the 1982 Brainerd yearbook at the downtown library showed that, of the roughly 225 seniors in the graduating class, only around 25 – including valedictorian William Brownell -- were white.

That yearbook – which also featured Tim Smith and Kim Ballou as Mr. and Miss Brainerd High – pointed out that the 1981-82 school year was the first full year in which the school was known as the Panthers. The school year before, the students had voted to change the nickname, and Panthers was selected due to the animal’s traits of strength, courage and endurance.

For a brief period after the new nickname was selected, the Brainerd sports teams were known as the Rebel Panthers.

Brainerd High in the period of the 1980s and 1990s would go on to achieve some excellence in such areas as men’s basketball, winning multiple state boys’ championships under Robert High. And Venus Lacy would bring fame to the school as a women’s basketball Olympic gold medalist.

It had become a mostly black school, and the black community of Chattanooga and others proudly embraced it.
But as the income levels of Brainerd families continued to change, Brainerd High would go on for years to struggle with such issues as academic achievement and social problems, despite regular signs of hope from individual students.

Mr. Walton, who still has a deep interest in the wellbeing of Brainerd and such social problems as getting rid of neighborhood gangs, said it is no longer the school he attended where high academic achievement was expected and demanded.

He thinks the school should focus on trying to get students into college and not offering a lot of vocational programs.

“That’s not the school people in Brainerd and Eastdale want,” he said. “They want a school where when a student graduates, he can get into a place like MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University) and not have to take remedial classes.”

During an open house at Brainerd High in early August showing off some of the praised renovations and remodeling work the school had done, second-year principal Chris James said he believes that Brainerd – and any school – can become what it wants.

And he hoped the renovations were a start. “I hope it breeds that whole Brainerd spirit and Panther pride that we have,” he said. “We’re striving for excellence. That’s our school mission, and we are really trying to make a difference in our education.”

A preliminary schools facilities report released over the summer called for eventually closing Brainerd and moving the more academically successful Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences there.

Mr. James said he hopes the community’s voices are heard over that. “The community has an opportunity to come and say how many people we’ve had come through the building. Those people can speak up and say the things they would like to see in the Chattanooga area.”

Mr. Walton said that if Brainerd does close, he would love to see the new school at the site be called the Brainerd School for the Arts and Sciences, saying that would be a great tribute to the quality education he remembered receiving there in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He loved his years at Brainerd and is glad he went to the then-challenging academic school, despite the social challenges over the school symbols, he added.

Regarding the issues that took place 50 years ago, are there any lessons that can be learned from the hard emotional and even physical scars left behind? And, if so, can any of it signify that the Brainerd of old did leave behind an important and valuable lesson for the world of 2019?

James Sears, a black senior during that 1969-70 year, said he remains very proud of what he and the other black students were able to accomplish that year in eventually making the school a more welcoming place for black students.

“I think we’re very proud,” he said with emotion. “We saw and realized the significance of what the (Confederate) flag and song represented. And for us to be under that and be strong enough to voice our opinion made us really proud.

“It is best to fight for a cause than not because of one,” he continued. “We had a cause to fight for.”

Although not as famous as what took place at places like Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, the effort at Brainerd could still no doubt be considered a small step in America’s civil rights history of attempting to make the country whole. And that makes Mr. Sears proud.

Mr. Sears also takes special pleasure in that Bobby Cooper, the brother of his wife, got to paint the large Panthers name logo in the school’s gymnasium.

Larry Hixson, a white junior that year, also can now easily see the black perspective, despite the chaos that was sometimes so bad on both sides that some students would see what was going on and would decide to skip class on a particular day after arriving for school.

“The blacks had a right to protest,” he said through the perspective of someone now in his mid-to-late 60s.

In the eyes of many, however, the actions at the school in 1969-70 started a sequence of events that changed the Brainerd community and school in an eventually negative way.

Moses Freeman, a longtime black local civil rights activist who later went on to serve on the Chattanooga City Council, thinks it left an emotional scar. And that along with the increase in the number of black families moving to the Brainerd area contributed to the white flight that started occurring there around the 1970s.

“Whites began to move out in masses from the community,” he said. “I think they left because they were not prepared for the large number (of black families) to come.”

He said racial feelings and animosities are still prevalent among some people over all those issues, although he added that those who were open minded began to see no difference in the races.

It is all part of the long battle toward racial reconciliation, as more opportunities for blacks now exist that did not in 1969 or ’70. Blacks and whites have also become more immersed in each other’s culture. For example, Inter-racial couples who are dating or marrying – which has become much more common locally over the last two decades or so – don’t draw a head turn anymore from the majority of the populace of both races.

But most agree that problems of prejudice still exist, based on TV news reports on everything from arrests handled poorly to people of certain races being overlooked in job searches.

One last problem that can be solved, as far as the former Brainerd students from the late 1960s and early 1970s are concerned, is for them to decide whether they want to come together more harmoniously for the upcoming 50-year reunions.

Some, but not a large number of, black students from the class of 1970 have come to past reunions, alumni have said. And even some white students from that era have not wanted to come either because they wanted to put their tumultuous and ugly time permanently behind them, or they identified with the black students and thought they were treated poorly.

One person said in an email that a white alum from that period went to one reunion, saw that a Confederate flag was part of the decorations, and vowed never to attend another one.

Mr. Sears, who has admittedly not been good about attending past reunions, decided he wants to attend next year’s 50-year reunion for the Brainerd Class of 1970.

“I would like to attend,” he said with emotion as he asked how to make sure he is on a contact list.

David Everett, a white 1970 graduate who has been among the reunion leaders over the years, wants everyone to feel welcome to attend.

He is one who admittedly was also caught off guard during those initial protests of 1969 at Brainerd and what he saw was a threat simply to the school traditions, even though he never considered himself prejudiced at all. But he now understands even better the attitude he thinks everyone should have toward one another.

“We need to treat each other equally, be kind to each other and try to understand where the other person is coming from,” he said.

Someone else who has had a change of perspective – primarily over attending next year’s 50-year reunion for her 1970 Brainerd class – is Gwen Zander, a white alumna.

Admittedly not a school leader, she had family connections to Mississippi and saw up close some of the civil rights struggles there, not knowing they would take place at Brainerd as well her senior year.

Like many, she admitted to being naïve about understanding the viewpoints of black people at that time and saw the actions as simply just an attack on the school traditions and a disruption to her finishing her studies and going off to college.

“I didn’t know we were being offensive,” she said, adding that maybe only 10 or 15 of the white students had overly antagonistic attitudes toward the black students in actions that contributed to the conflict on both sides. “My senior year made me want to put everything about Brainerd High School out of my mind. It was such a negative experience.”

However, as she grew older, she began to understand better the black students from that time. “Things are never the way they seem, and what doesn’t seem offensive to me can be offensive to another one,” she said.

While her understanding of that time evolved more positively over the years, her desire not to have anything to do with her Brainerd High class remained the same.

But not too long ago while staying at the Embassy Suites hotel by Hamilton Place during one of her frequent visits to Chattanooga from her longtime home of Atlanta, she stumbled on a Brainerd class of 1969 reunion.

Deciding to walk in briefly where they were, she saw some familiar faces and conversed with several people.

Something emotional came over her, and she realized she still did have an affinity and appreciation for her old high school and schoolmates after all.

As a result, she has had a change of heart regarding attending the Brainerd Class of 1970 reunion next year.

“I think I’m going to try and go,” she said with the same excitement that Mr. Sears had.

Despite being of differing races, they were as one in wanting to reconnect for probably the first time with their old high school – Brainerd High School.

* * * * *

A Reporter’s Notebook:

Although I lived in Mountain Creek and then Valleybrook in Hixson, the community of seemingly faraway Brainerd was the happening place of Chattanooga to me when I was old enough to become aware of the world by the mid-to-late 1960s.

It was the location of Eastgate and all the other shopping and restaurants, and about everybody gravitated toward it at least weekly for fun and pleasure.

In the fall of 1969 as a 10-year-old, I happened to be over in Brainerd, but for a different reason. My father was a natural follower of the news, and we decided to drive by the area around the school one night after the headline-making protests and controversy over the Confederate symbols were in full force.

I have not forgotten seeing some cars in a parking lot perhaps across North Moore Road from the school or somewhere near there adorned with Confederate/Rebel flags, and maybe seeing one or two people waving them.

I was not sure exactly what all was taking place, but it left a permanent imprint on me.

As the years would pass, that would regularly come to my mind whenever I would drive past or go to the handsome and expansive mid-century-style Brainerd High School. That included for a grade school track meet one Saturday morning, and for jamborees and football games as a Baylor School high school player.

During my senior year at Baylor in 1978, Baylor and Brainerd had an exchange program in which Baylor students went there for one day and Brainerd’s came to Baylor. While I think the Baylor student leaders got to show the Brainerd students around, they asked for volunteers to go to Brainerd, and I quickly signed up, thinking it was a chance to get out of Baylor schoolwork!

I remember a nice female black student named Reesie or Neesie or something like that showed this white male student around, and she was quite a goodwill ambassador for the school. I also remember thinking that Brainerd was about a 50-50 mix of black and white students at that time.

On the Friday after we had been to each other’s school for a day, the two dozen or so of us gathered for an hour back at Brainerd late in the afternoon for some discussion, although I think all I did was listen. I remember that the Brainerd coordinator, who I think we later learned had gone to Baylor, remarked that all the Baylor students seemed scared when they had arrived at the school that morning.

So, I guess the brief exchange program was a good cross-cultural experience for all of us, and it was an activity I think the two schools carried on for several more years.

After I began working at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1984, I remember getting sent to Brainerd High once or twice to cover events.

And then in 1989, after I had begun a historical column called “News of Yesteryear,” which looked at events of decades before, I came across all the Brainerd High incidents from 1969 and perhaps for the first time learned a little more about what had taken place.

In 1994, I remember attending a gathering for the ailing McCallie and former Brainerd coach Pete Potter, and I interviewed his brother-in-law -- Ray Coleman. Perhaps I already knew, or later realized, that he was the principal of Brainerd at the time. He had actually taught with my father at Northside Junior High way back in the mid-1950s.

After going back to college in the early 2000s, I had to spend an hour or two each week for a few months at Brainerd doing some observation or assistance regarding a reading program the school had.

In 2009, I wrote another story, this time for, on the 40th anniversary of the Brainerd unrest, and went back and more thoroughly looked at some of those Chattanooga newspaper articles from 1969.

Remembering a few months ago that the 50th anniversary of the event important in Chattanooga’s history was approaching, I wanted to track down at least two or three former students from that time period and get their memories. I also wanted to see if any positive lessons could be shed after all these years.

I initially envisioned writing only a couple of stories, but it eventually grew into eight parts as I heard from more people.

I first tracked down former football player Ed Nelson in Mississippi over the phone through his brother and my church friend, Ward Nelson. And then I was able to locate James Sears through his sister, Belinda Smith, whom I had interviewed for past stories. James and I had a delightful conversation at the Brainerd Road IHOP while the retired McKee Foods salesman was visiting from Jacksonville, Fla.

And then I interviewed Greg Walton and Gail David Elder at the Eastdale Recreation Center.And Greg gave me a phone number for Larry Hixson, with whom I had a brief phone interview. I followed that up with a visit with David Everett at his insurance office off Cherokee Boulevard. David could not have been nicer in helping me find additional people to interview.

He also invited me to a gathering of Brainerd alums from that time period at Mike’s Hole in the Wall near his work. Among those I met there were Tommy West (with whom I had previously conversed on the phone), Ken Stansell, Vernon Pauls, Mike Costello and Greg Cunningham (from the class of 1965). I even saw my old Valleybrook acquaintance David Drake.

After I put a note at the end of one story saying I was looking for more female graduates to interview, including after one or two whose contact information I had were the only people reluctant to be interviewed, I received some nice email memories from Barbara Cook Grimes. She had been Miss Brainerd High before becoming an officer in the Air Force.

And Gwen Zander emailed me as well, and we had a nice talk at the Hixson Panera.

Moses Freeman also helped offer insight into the civil rights conflicts at that time.

If I were to have been able to interview one more person, it would have no doubt been Freddy Rohrdanz, the Brainerd star quarterback and Mr. Brainerd High from that school year.

I somewhat surprisingly discovered that both the black and white students who agreed to be interviewed all opened up and honestly talked about what had taken place during this memorable time of crisis in Chattanooga’s history.

May we all learn some worthwhile and positive lessons from what happened at Brainerd back in the 1969-70 school year. I know I did.

* * * * *

To see the previous entry in this series, read here.

* * * * *

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