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More than 100 successfully sued for Johnson City Schools desegregation in 1965

Nathan Baker • Updated Feb 5, 2018 at 9:28 AM

On Jan. 15, 1965, nearly 11 years after the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a unanimous landmark ruling in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, striking down the “separate yet equal” doctrine allowing racially segregated schools, a federal judge ordered complete desegregation of the Johnson City school system, effective eight months later.

Under the large, black banner headline, “CITY SCHOOLS TOLD TO DESEGREGATE,” Johnson City Press-Chronicle writer J. D. Greene reported from U.S. District Court in Greeneville a win by the more than 100 black Johnson City residents who filed a lawsuit against the city district complaining of the inadequate educational opportunities afforded to black students under the city’s segregated schools.

Though the school board denied that its “negro schools” were “substandard, under or inadequately staffed, or poorly equipped, with lacking an outdated libraries, cafeterias and health facilities, curricula, textbooks and educational programs,” U.S. District Judge Charles Neese ordered all schools in the district be open to all students, reminding school board members that they took the same oath to uphold the law that he had.

“The court is not in the school business. But the court must see the law is obeyed,” Neese said.

At the time, under the leadership of Superintendent Howard McCorkle, the city school system was taking its time implementing a grade-a-year desegregation plan.

In the Brown decision, the Supreme Court had given school districts leeway in regards to the timeline for integration, saying they could move “with all deliberate speed,” a term which most took to mean slowly.

By the time the lawsuit was filed, Johnson City schools were integrated up to fourth grade under the grade-a-year plan.

Under the plan, black students could petition the school board to transfer to white schools, but they had to prove to the school board that an inequity of education opportunity existed.

In 1964, 57 students applied for transfers from black to white schools, 17 to Science Hill High School, 37 to junior high schools and three to fifth and sixth grades. Of those, the board approved the requests of only seven girls to transfer from Langston High School to Science Hill because they wanted and could not get courses in Spanish, art, shorthand and some mathematics.

According to the Press-Chronicle’s reporting, “The board did not deny allegations that they have been asked to completely desegregate the Johnson City School System from time to time, but rather, have adhered to the gradual desegregation plan that was adopted in 1961.”

In his ruling, Neese ordered the Johnson City Board of Education to completely desegregate grades 1 through 12 by the beginning of the 1965 school year in September, including all facilities and teaching staff.

He also instructed the board to admit five black children to North Side School the following Monday and three to Stratton School.

The judge gave the board one week to investigate the situation involved for each of 33 black children seeking admittance to North Junior High School and to report to him the action taken in each separate case and why it was taken.

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