MEMPHIS, Tenn. — This year marks the 54th anniversary of desegregation in Memphis schools.
Friday, four signs went up at the schools to commemorate the students who paved the way.
In 1961, the “Memphis 13” desegregated four schools. That came after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that outlawed schools segregated by race.
“Most other cities did it with high-school-aged kids. We did it with first graders,” said Shelby County historian Jimmy Ogle.
The students were split up and sent to one of our four schools: Bruce, Rozelle, Springdale, or Gordon Elementary Schools.
Dr. LaSimba Gray with New Sardis Baptist Church started the effort to acquire markers at the schools 14 months ago. He wanted to put up signs during the Memphis 13’s lifetime. The “pint-sized pioneers” are now in their 60s.
“For the healing process, for them to see that they’re not forgotten I think tremendously enhanced their healing, and these young people were wounded as a person having gone into combat,” Gray said.
“They said some of the escorts, the police escorts, were rough on them. They weren’t wanted or appreciated, and you’ll see some of the quotes on these markers about some of the names they were called,” Ogle said.
Ogle said Memphis chose to integrate first graders because they were not going to get in fights.
More than 200 African American first graders applied, and 13 were chosen.
Some of the schools look different than they did in 1961.
“The building’s changed at least, I know, three times,” said Gordom Principal Leviticus Pointer.
Gordon Elementary is now an alternative school for kindergarten through eighth grade.
The old archway is still standing, which acts as a reminder of the building that is now a part of history.
Now, there is a sign outside to match.
“No city in America tells a story of American history better than Memphis, Tennessee,” Ogle said.
SCS said Bruce Elementary is 73% African American. Rozelle and Springdale are 96% African American. SCS said since Gordon now hosts an alternative school, and student data changes frequently.
Saturday, many of the Memphis 13, along with other community members, will visit the schools to see the signs, starting at Bruce Elementary at 10 a.m.
The visits will end with a reception at noon at Bethlehem Baptist Church on Looney Street.