John Shearer: Early Riverside High Graduates Recall Joy, Challenges Of New School

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

In late August 1963, thousands descended on Washington. D.C., for the famous march and rally to push for a federal civil rights bill, a gathering that culminated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.


Only a week or so later, a few hundred Black young people descended upon the former Chattanooga High School, too, but this was with a little more uncertainty than those in Washington.


Several hundred students were being rezoned from an overcrowded Howard – the city of Chattanooga school system’s lone Black high school in those waning days of segregation – to the newly created Riverside High School on East Third Street.


Although a desegregation plan for the city schools had begun taking shape in the lower elementary grades the year before, this was not some long-awaited and defining moment on the level of the march on Washington to make Chattanooga racially whole.

It was still to be a segregated school, at least for the time being.


But because a number of working parts were in place that fall with other schools also closing or being restructured, one could at least sense change was on the way, socially as well as just in the new educational experiences of the students. 


“It was different,” remembered LaMonte P. Vaughn Sr., who was one of those students who was surprised to have to leave Howard at the start of his senior year after thinking he was going to be a Hustlin’ Tiger until graduation.


Classmate Wanda Brown Morant actually did not mind going to a new school, as she remembered that Howard had become almost too crowded.


“When you had to change class, there were so many people in the hall that you could hardly move,” she said, remembering that Howard’s class her senior year would have been about 500 students if about 175 had not moved to the new Riverside.


Some who did not want to go to Riverside used an address of a relative or someone else in the Howard zone so they could stay there, Ms. Morant recalled.


Fred Jinks, another member of the Riverside Class of 1964, was one of those who did not want to switch schools, as he recalled being disappointed initially at having to go to a new school. However, he went ahead and attended Riverside.


“I hated it,” he said in a matter-of-fact manner of having to change schools. “Being the one Black school in Chattanooga, it was one of my goals to finish at Howard. It was where I met LaMonte and other lifelong friends, and they split us up.” 


But from that reluctant start for him and many others, the early Riverside students would endure the changes. And many would set a standard for accomplishment in a number of areas and begin to show that Blacks could achieve on equal footing with whites, despite more limited resources at school and at home. 


Many carried those lessons learned into the world and became successful in their adult working careers as the lines of segregation or other racial barriers were lifted, despite an America that many believe still has a way to go to be made fully whole in a racial sense.


The most famous example of this was Samuel L. Jackson from the Riverside class of 1966, who overcame some self-admitted substance abuse issues in his young adulthood years to become the world-famous actor. His Riverside classmates who have also distinguished themselves locally, among others, include Hamilton County attorney Rheubin Taylor and James Anderson, who has served as a county magistrate.


The school would also develop a heathy rivalry with Howard in sports and other endeavors that would draw the interest of the entire city before the school had to close in 1983 due to changing demographic settlement patterns and a shrinking student body size.


As a two-part look is taken at Riverside and Howard in the mid-1960s in connection with Black History Month, a study of the opening of Riverside in 1963 shows that much thought was put into it, apparently by then schools Supt. Dr. Bennie Carmichael.


The move that precipitated all this was City High moving to Wheland Hill in North Chattanooga just above North Chattanooga Junior High beginning the fall of 1963. A newspaper article from March 1963 mentioned that a new “Negro” senior and junior high was to open in the classic-looking old City High plant designed by architect R.H. Hunt., a campus that is now used by Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.


Dr. Carmichael had discussed the issue with Howard students and faculty, and while there was some concern, everyone had generally accepted the change under the circumstances. 


As part of this shifting around with the opening of Riverside, the junior high aspect of East Fifth Street was being dropped, and such historic schools as Clara Carpenter and Park Place were closing. 


Although the city schools were desegregating fourth grade in 1963 after doing the first three grades the year before, the high schools had not yet integrated. As a result, a line was drawn saying that Black students north of the Tennessee River as well as north of such streets as Main Street and 12th Street would attend Riverside. 


Those within the southern half of the city limits would continue attending Howard. 


While the Riverside situation dealt strictly with Black students, newspaper reports in the paper in 1963 said that Notre Dame High, a Catholic private school not connected with the city schools, became the first high school in Chattanooga to integrate.


That fall, 12 Black youths enrolled in the 9th grade at Notre Dame, which was still located next to Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church. 


Ten of 31 city elementary schools were now integrated, up from five in 1962, while two county elementary schools – Lookout Mountain and Hixson – were now desegregated.


Although Riverside was a new school, the fact that it was located in an old building that had been a school the year before resulted in it receiving second-class equipment and supplies.


“Some of the books were old books, although we eventually got new books,” recalled Mr. Vaughn. “Some of the pages were torn out. It was a terribly trying time because they were hand me downs. The new school was the old school!”


He also recalled there were problems catching the buses and making connections downtown and having to walk some if a connection was missed.


But despite all that and the fact the experience was different from if they had stayed at Howard, they persevered. As a result, they did find some positives. 


One of the high points was that they felt as if they were pioneers as the first students of Riverside. 


“We were starting something new, and the excitement of starting something new was the driving force,” Mr. Vaughn said. 


He also recalled some great teachers, coaches and mentors at Riverside. He especially enjoyed playing football for coach Calvin Sorrells and assistants John Atkins, Grady Covington and Coach Faulkner.


The football team lost only one game, while the basketball team under coach Faulkner went to the state finals that first year, he said. Riverside in the late 1960s became known for the powerhouse roundball teams under coach Dorsey Sims, but Mr. Vaughn said they were good before the coach got there.


He added that City High did not yet have a field at their new school, so they practiced in the old stadium on Third Street, while Riverside practiced on another field on site. Mr. Vaughn remembered that the Riverside coach had asked the City coach or coaches about scrimmaging, which would have signaled an early interracial athletic encounter in Chattanooga, but the offer was declined, he said.


Although aware of the athletic prowess brought from Howard, including when the Hustlin’ Tigers had beaten another Black school, 89-0, and when Reggie White’s father, Charles White, was an outstanding pitcher, Mr. Jinks said Riverside that first year did not have quite the depth of Howard after the first string.


He was more into music than sports and was the drum major in the marching band.


“We had a fantastic band, and an even better concert band, where we played classical music,” he said. 


He was also involved in the Links club, which was like a social club for boys, and the counselors taught positive habits.


“They decided they wanted to keep young black boys on the straight path and introduce us to colleges,” Mr. Jinks recalled. “Sixty to 70 percent in the club went to college, and those that didn’t found good jobs and they were good productive people.”


Mr. Jinks had also been involved in a student committee that, with the approval of city school officials, had come up with the Riverside name due to its location near the river. They also selected the Trojan mascot and blue and gold colors.


They were, of course, also aware of the black and white racial colors that existed at that time. Mr. Vaughn remembered that some whites were more prejudiced than others, while Mr. Jinks was aware of the issues of the time, too, but learned how to get around the city safely.


“I don’t want to downplay segregation at all,” Mr. Jinks said. “As a child I had no fears, and I could go anywhere in the city I wanted to, and I did. Looking back, the world wasn’t safe, but it was changing.”


He added that jitney cabs were available to take blacks around different places at that time.


Ms. Morant remembered that the Black students by the time they attended Riverside could go to places like Woolworth’s and the other lunch counters downtown due to the sit-in movement of 1960. And most of their experiences were with other black students and people, so they did not experience some of the larger issues transpiring.


“We were in our own bubble,” she recalled. “But it had changed a lot. It had started changing.”


She also liked the smaller school atmosphere of Riverside compared to Howard, saying there was more individual attention from the teachers, a number of whom were just two or three years out of college.


“The class was so small,” she said. “We got to know each other and the teachers better.”


She also had the unique experience of walking sometimes several miles back home to Carson Street from school, and she would bond with other students who lived in that neighborhood. 


Like Mr. Jinks and several others, she had grown up in the Westside before moving to the East part of Chattanooga after urban renewal. She and several others also attended Second Baptist Church on Grove Street when it was led by pastor Martin Rivers.


Among her favorite instructors, she said, were Mr. Jesse McCants and Miss Mattie Foster. She was also a majorette in the band under Professor Kendricks at Howard. 


She said her goal was to go to college, so she as a quieter student tried to focus on her studies to get a scholarship and did not get involved in too many extracurricular activities. 


Professor Kendricks had gone to Tennessee State University, and Ms. Morant used to go up there for band events and liked the campus and ended up attending the school. 


She graduated in 1969 from there with a business education degree and taught classes through the Comprehensive Educational Training Act for 12 years at the Warner Park Fieldhouse.


She then went to work for IBM with her second husband and, after being briefly in Ohio, they resettled in the metro Atlanta area. She retired in 2004 and now lives in Dallas, Georgia.


Mr. Jinks went to Morehouse College in Atlanta after graduating in 1964. He said Benjamin Mays was the president, and the students learned many important lessons there like not being afraid of any endeavor one undertakes or even having to be around important people.


He majored in math and, after graduating, worked five years with R.J. Reynolds and married and started to raise a family. He later worked for a number of years with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee in Chattanooga.


Mr. Vaughn also went to Morehouse and played football. He returned to Chattanooga as an educator and met his wife. “I really wanted to come back to Chattanooga and make an impact with the kids,” he said.


He first worked under the late principal and City Councilman Jack Benson at East Side Junior High as a teacher and coach, and then went back to Riverside for more than a decade.


He later worked at Dalewood Middle School and served in administration at such places as Tyner Middle School, Orchard Knob Middle School, and Orchard Knob Elementary before retiring in 2002.


Having also attended Orchard Knob, he said he felt like he had come full circle. 


All three found respectable places in the working world where advancement and striving for a good and peaceful life were not always easy. And a couple of them hinted that maybe the prejudices of the world have unfortunately remained in another circle or have not changed as much as they liked. That is, despite all the positive actions that have been taken toward racial equity and wholeness since their days at Riverside.


“The talk is there, but we need to get into more action,” Mr. Vaughn said, citing such issues as the contrasting values of similar homes in different parts of town, and incarceration issues related to Blacks.


“The time for talking is over; now it is actual engagement time,” he said.


Mr. Jinks added similar thoughts, saying, “From the time we became young adults, we saw first-hand how the world really was and I don’t think it has changed that much.”


But despite all the imperfections they have seen during their lives, they all said they are grateful for how Riverside tried to at least help them prepare for a potentially better world coming on the horizon. 


“I am very glad I went there,” said Ms. Morant. “That was an experience I will never forget.”

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