Monday, June 29, 2009

Salemtown's Fehr School: One of the "Most Protest Buffeted" Centers of Nashville Desegregation

Irate segregationists exchanging words with supporters of desegregation at Fehr Elementary School, 5th Avenue, North and Garfield Street, Nashville, TN; 9 September 1957. Police escorted African American students into the school, marking the first day of public school desegregation in Nashville (photo courtesy of Nashville Public Library, Special Collections; all rights reserved; do not copy or publish without express consent from Nashville Public Library)

One would hardly believe looking at the quiet Fehr School building in Salemtown today that it was one of the early centers of the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville, a city itself considered a cradle for the tectonic shifts of social change that erupted in the 1960s across the South. But in the late 1950s, Nashville joined Little Rock in the infamy of local segregationist resistance to the Supreme Court's Brown v. the Board of Education ruling declaring the separation of black and white public schools a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

According to John Egerton, on a rainy night in September 1957, Salemtown's Fehr Elementary School building narrowly missed segregationist destruction after an infamous New Jersey white supremacist, John Kasper, whipped a mob up into a belligerent frenzy on the steps of the state capitol 2 miles to the south. In his narrative, Walking into History, Edgerton notes that a white mob of four or five hundred roamed Salemtown streets that night. They set structures owned by black families on 6th Avenue on fire and they lit crosses in their yards.

Nashville police moved into Salemtown to disperse the mobs and stop the violence, but the domestic terrorists moved elsewhere and spawned a rumor that Fehr would be blown up at midnight. The elementary at the corner of 5th and Garfield survived segregationist sacking, but across the river in east Nashville they dynamited Hattie Cotton School for the crime of letting one little black girl attend class earlier that day.

Today it seems beyond belief that so much hatred was reserved for the entirely fair notion that innocent African American 6-year-olds should start school in nearby classrooms with white 6-year-olds. Salemtown joined 5 other neighborhoods that day in the Nashville Plan to desegregate public schools. Across Nashville on September 9, 16 families dressed their 6th graders for the first day at new schools closer to their homes than their assigned segregated schools, and walked them through white mob hails of shouts and slurs--and sometimes rocks and bottles--into buildings like Fehr where public school officials welcomed them warmly. Tomorrow I'll tell the story of Salemtowners who marched down Garfield from 6th Av. so that their children could go to school at Fehr.

In September 1957, Salemtown was a largely white working class neighborhood with 18 black first graders zoned for Fehr. Only 4 showed up for class on September 9. That seems no surprise because, according to Egerton, whites were trolling streets in cars adorned with "KKK signs, Bible quotations, Confederate flags," and standing along sidewalks shouting abusive epithets at parents walking their children to school. Around half the white children zoned for Fehr stayed home, many boycotting in a first fit of "white flight." To add injury to the insults, a black custodian was assaulted by whites, who also slashed the tires on his car, when he attempted to take down the American flag at the end of the day.

When I launched Enclave I quoted Peter Taylor who wrote of the ghosts of Nashville past that they were "real and present somehow." Looking at the Fehr School building now, it is hard to see the ghosts of the contention and unrest of September 1957. But realizing that 6-year-old children were subjected to seething, bitter, and spitting hatred because they dared nothing more than going to school gives me pause. I wonder if malevolent energy still stains and stalks the pathways, but I also hope the good will and bravery of people who welcomed and witnessed integration of a higher form of community is around our corners and about the intersections, too.


  1. This picture has so much resonance for me for so many reasons. I was in first grade here in Nashville on another side of town, having no earthly idea what was going on over here. Living yards away from where the pic was taken is almost eerie, but I'm so glad you got to use the pic.

    Great piece.

  2. I am in awe reading this. It's such a very important part of history that needs to be told. I just want to cry for those little girls because they must have been so scared...and stand up and applaud those brave parents who walked them to school during those most difficult of times.

    I wish Nashville did something to recognize that day each year.

  3. Thanks for this, Mike. It is a really moving post. It definitely makes me want to know more.

  4. This causes me to wonder what if any historic overlay exists for this building? Given its significance, it should be looked into.

  5. I just recently visited the grounds of this school while doing a school project. Considering my focus was on so much of the gentrification going on in the neighborhood led to me to wonder what may eventually happen to this building, its powerful significance to the history of Nashville as well as the Civil Rights Movement which ultimately led black Americans to gain equal knowledge through education. I have lived here for 8 years now and never knew what this building was or meant to the foundation of today's educational aspects. As a black American, standing on the property of Fehr elementary school, there is no words to express how I felt and how thankful I am for learning the epic events that took place right where I stood. Thank you for this sharing this. This should be shared and expressed in the area since so many building are being newly gentrified. This building must remain standing as a positive reinforcement tool in our city.