John Shearer: The Brainerd High Crisis Of 50 Years Ago And The Road Back To Wholeness, Part 1 – The Buildup

Friday, August 23, 2019 - by John Shearer

One morning in late July a couple of weeks before school was to start, James Sears was walking the halls of Brainerd High while visiting from Jacksonville, Fla.


Although nearly 50 years had passed since he graduated, and furniture and other items were in all kinds of different places due to the renovation work that was taking place, his memories of the building still seemed organized in his mind.


That was made evident when he perked up at familiar sights in this expansive structure that in many ways has changed little since the 1960s.

But in other ways – from overall student income demographics to scholastic achievements – the school had changed, at least in image. And that had been part of the motivation behind the well-publicized push to freshen up the physical look of the mid-century-style school structure this summer.


When he first walked into the school that day, Mr. Sears learned from a workman that the principal, Christopher James, was down in his office if he cared to see him. After finding Mr. James trying to get his computer set up after his room had been emptied, Mr. Sears told him something to the effect that he was in school when they had the controversy over the Confederate flag and other issues.


Just in his second year at Brainerd after having moved from Knox County, Mr. James understandably said he was not familiar with that story.


But for many Chattanoogans or former Chattanoogans who were around the Scenic City in the fall of 1969, it is a story that has left an indelible imprint. For several tense days starting in the fall of 1969 – 50 years ago this autumn – plenty of news reports were focused on Brainerd High and the campus unrest over some black students’ protests regarding the school’s fight song, “Dixie,” and the use of Confederate flag symbols.


The traditions had been part of the initially all-white high school dating back to not long after its beginning in 1960, and many white students – not to mention some of their parents – felt their school as they had known it was being threatened.


As a result, a century after the Civil War, a local and verbal kind of civil war erupted over at least some of these racial and deep-seeded issues. Thankfully for safety concerns, it apparently never got much beyond a few loud words, walkouts and some teenage fisticuffs – although it still proved to be quite a disruption.


And it would be an issue that would last for weeks, and would linger in the collective consciousness of Chattanooga for years regarding where the city was in racial relations. It was also a painful lesson that Chattanooga, like many other cities in the South and elsewhere, was still in the growing phase of reaching racial wholeness just a few years after integration/desegregation had begun.


And many might believe that we have still not reached racial bliss in 2019, despite obvious gains in opportunities for all people and increased interaction on equal levels among differing groups.


This argument has been made evident by such incidents as the perceived treatment of people during several arrests and the differing perspectives on the “white privilege” slides at the recent Hamilton County teacher-training event. The presenter, Robert Jackson, had mentioned in part what it was like to be black and white, and some on both sides agreed and disagreed with those comments and whether the program should have even been held.


In connection with the 50th anniversary of the Brainerd High crisis, a look back will be held over the next few weeks through several stories. It is being done not only to try and document what happened for historical reasons, but also to see what can be learned from it.


Several former black and white students who were in school at the time kindly agreed either in person or over the phone to reminisce about that time when, in contrast with many other high school students, they were often on edge.


The general consensus of those interviewed is that the black graduates today seem proud of their efforts to bring about change to the school. The former white students, meanwhile, say they now understand their black schoolmates’ motivations better, while explaining that many were focused just on school pride.


But first, some historical background will be offered. Brainerd High’s beginning came in 1956, when the Chattanooga city school board – years before a merger with the county – asked the then-Chattanooga governing body, the Chattanooga City Commission, for money for a new high school.


The Brainerd area was no doubt a growing suburb of Chattanooga east of Missionary Ridge at that time, so the school board and the city quickly went to work. In 1957, 105 acres off of what is now North Moore Road were bought for $65,000 from C.F. Griffin, with some of the land available for the city of Chattanooga after the school was built.


A committee of various school and community officials went to work planning the new facility, and Selmon T. “Ted” Franklin was named as the architect. Some wondered if the school should be two stories tall, but Mr. Franklin said a one-story building would be easier to build.


So his firm’s long and stretching mid-century, multi-winged structure with its unique outside adornments took shape under general contractors Collins and Hobbs Inc., and was ready and open by the fall of 1960. In part so that students would not have to be pulled from other high schools, it was originally for students in grades 7-10, eventually moving to a school for students in grades 10-12.


The first principal was George Mathis, a popular former University of Chattanooga football player who had been the principal of Elbert Long School off East Brainerd Road. A former Knoxville Central High football coach and Chattanooga City High teacher, Mr. Mathis was enthusiastic about his new job and oversaw such unique offerings as PE classes five times a week and a special academic class for physically disabled youngsters.


“I don’t want our weaknesses to beat us here at Brainerd,” he said enthusiastically to Chattanooga Times reporter Springer Gibson regarding his overall objective.


Ray Coleman was to be the football coach, with his brother-in-law, Pete Potter, one of his assistants.


After playing a B-team schedule in 1960, the team went undefeated in 1961 and beat Rockwood in a bowl, with Gary Tucker and Bill Warren among the stars. The next year, the team beat Madison in the Clinic Bowl in Nashville.


Sylvia Mathis, the daughter of Mr. Mathis, was the football queen that 1961 season.


The football stadium was dedicated in 1962 in front of 3,000 in a game against Marion County. The school also has uniquely had a separate track stadium adjacent to the football field for years.


Brainerd High at that time was an all-white school, and the team was known as the Rebels, complete with all the accompaniments such as the Rebel flag and the playing of “Dixie.”


1970 Brainerd graduate David Everett said he once talked with a former student who was involved when the school came up with the Rebel nickname. He told Mr. Everett years later that the organizers had come up with the nickname to express general pride in the South as a region where many were born and raised, and did not mean for it to bring back negative connotations of slavery, etc.


In the mid-20th century, many white schools in this part of the country had also adopted the Rebels nickname. West High in Knoxville also chose the Rebels name when it opened in 1951 and still uses it, although the Rebel meaning no longer has a Confederate-related connection.


Other Tennessee schools in the region still with the Rebels nickname include Maryville and Franklin County.


By the mid-1960s, Brainerd High had developed a reputation as one of the better public high schools academically in Chattanooga with its blossoming suburban population. Brainerd was also beginning to become a retail area of choice with the opening of Eastgate shopping center and a number of Brainerd Road restaurants, and such churches and recreation areas as those provided by the handsome First Cumberland Presbyterian Church were adding other additional amenities.


Brainerd High, like many other formerly all-white city high schools, was also getting a sprinkling of black students from such areas as around Tunnel Boulevard and elsewhere as more black citizens were slowly moving out away from traditional black communities closer to downtown.


The word was out – or at least there was the belief -- among some black parents that a better education could be had at Brainerd than at the traditional black high schools of Howard and Riverside at that time. So that prompted the decision to send some there, according to student Gail David Elder from the class of 1971.


Old newspaper articles back this up. The school had received an accreditation in 1964 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and a list in the paper of 1966 graduates mentioned countless colleges they would be attending. On the list were Emory University, Georgia Tech and even the U.S. Naval Academy, where Lynn Widener was to attend.


A glance in the 1967 Brainerd yearbook, the Heritage, at the Chattanooga Public Library shows that there were no more than 15 black students at the school out of hundreds of students. The next year, 1967-68, the number had grown to close to 40, although there were believed to be no black seniors in either graduating class.


By the time the 1969-70 school year arrived, the school had 160 black students out of 1,377 total students, according to a newspaper article written at the time. Some in the city had started coming from the old Central High – a county school -- after it made plans to move to Highway 58 beginning in the fall of 1969.


So the number of black students was growing. Combined with this was the social landscape of the late 1960s, when small civil rights gains had come through the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others at a time when the more confrontational black power movement was also taking hold.


So somewhere along the line, all this came together to create a volatile situation at Brainerd. To the black students, it was all about positive and needed change, while many white students not wanting change fought it. Others simply tried to figure out what was taking place.


Change had also come to Brainerd in the administration. The popular Mr. Mathis had left before the 1966-67 school year was completed to take a dean of students position at the fledgling Cleveland State Community College.


The popular choice to replace him was the former Brainerd assistant principal, athletic director and head football coach Ray Coleman, who at the time was serving as principal of Kirkman Technical High School in downtown Chattanooga.


Little did Mr. Coleman know that in his third year, he would have to confront a powder keg brought on by the constant playing of “Dixie” and the waving of Confederate flags. To most white students, it was simply part of the school pride and heritage, with likely little thought concerning the full repercussions.


But as some black students began to note and will be covered in detail in subsequent stories, such words as “I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten” began to bother them.


As a result, they decided to do something about it.


And that is when all chaos broke out, and the section of Chattanooga east of Missionary Ridge would be on edge for days and weeks.

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