ETSU flyers can't hide black students' accomplishments

Nathan Baker • Updated Nov 10, 2019 at 9:52 AM

On Nov. 1, flyers with the phrase “It’s Okay To Be White” were posted across East Tennessee State University’s Johnson City campus, including on a memorial to the first five black students admitted to the college after school segregation was ruled unconstitutional.

The phrase was a retort to a statement no one made. It was born in the wrongheaded recesses of the internet and adopted by white supremacists who intend to spread hate and divisiveness.

Those placing the flyers intentionally covered the faces of five students who enriched ETSU’s history and culture and opened the door for thousands of students who followed after them.

The people honored on that wall were and are teachers, veterans, civil rights champions and parents. They enrolled in the college despite the violence in other communities perpetrated by whites who opposed integration.

On their first days on campus, they didn’t know what to expect. Their time at the college was mostly uneventful, although some say they were defended from racism by their white classmates.

Their accomplishments for future generations, black and white, cannot be covered up.

Eugene Caruthers

Eugene Caruthers was born in Chicago and grew up in Nashville.

He earned an undergraduate degree at Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College, then a segregated college for black students.

He moved to Johnson City and took a job at Langston, the community’s segregated black high school, teaching science and music classes.

George Nichols shares a space on ETSU’s desegregation wall with Caruthers. Caruthers was his teacher at Langston.

Nichols said Caruthers was, “possibly one of the most brilliant people (he) ever met.” He taught all of Langston’s science classes, music and directed the band, Nichols said.

In November 1955, he enrolled in East Tennessee State College’s master of arts in administration program. He attended night classes while teaching at Langston.

A few months after he began attending classes, a pro-segregation group called the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government sued ETSC and Austin Peay University asking the schools be denied state funding because they admitted black students. Caruthers was named in the lawsuit.

The group lost the suit, but its members continued to stir up racial tension at grade schools as they integrated.

After Caruthers left ETSC and Johnson City, he worked in higher education, at Meharry Medical College, Volusia County-Daytona Beach Community College and Tennessee State University, previously the segregated Tennessee A&I he’d attended as an undergrad.

He died in January 1980.

George Nichols

George Nichols grew up in Johnson City and attended Langston High School where he learned from Eugene Caruthers.

At the time, Johnson City was racially segregated. Black and white children went to separate schools. Water fountains were designated for white and black use. At the Cardinals’ stadium, black people could only sit in the section behind third base.

Nichols’ father worked in the John Sevier Hotel, but the family couldn’t visit him at work, because blacks weren’t allowed in.

“When you grow up in that environment, it’s something you don’t forget, but that’s the way things were,” he said.

As he neared graduation, he assumed he would attend the all-black Tennessee A&I, but after the Supreme Court’s ruling ending segregation, Caruthers encouraged him to attend ETSC.

The college was attractive to him because it was in his hometown. He could save money by continuing to live at home while attending classes.

In 1958, after graduating as salutatorian from Langston, Nichols began classes at the college.

As one of only four black students on a campus of thousands, he said college life felt isolating. He wasn’t allowed to join student organizations in the first few years.

He majored in biology and minored in chemistry, originally intending to study medicine, but found a welcoming community in the school’s ROTC program.

On a field trip to Fort Bragg, a busload of cadets from the program stopped at a restaurant in North Carolina. The server refused to take Nichols’ order, but waited on the white cadets.

Nichols said when the other students noticed, they got up from their seats and left the restaurant with him.

Nichols graduated from ETSU in 1962 and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant through the ROTC program.

He was on active duty in the U.S. Army for seven years, first at Fort Bragg. Later he was stationed for a year in Vietnam as a defensive artillery intelligence officer. By the time he left the service, he was a captain and had two awards of the Bronze Star, six Air Medals — two of which have the “V” for valor — two Army Commendation medals and a parachutist’s badge.

He was accepted into a program for former military officers at Citi Bank in New York City. He worked jobs at several financial institutions, eventually becoming a senior vice president.

When a position opened at the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority managing the changeover from a token-based fare system to one using cards, he took it. He was instrumental in creating the customer service center that supported the major conversion.

When the millions of train and bus riders across the city got to their stations on the day the cards went into use, his team was ready to serve them.

After working for the MTA, Nichols returned to the banking industry before his retirement.

He said when he was asked to return to ETSU for the dedication of the fountain bearing his and the other students’ names, he felt honored. He hadn’t been back to the campus since graduation, and he’d never really felt much of an allegiance to the school, but the recognition made him feel like a part of the college’s community.

When he heard the flyers had been posted at the college, he said he wasn’t surprised. After decades of slow progress, in the past couple of years, he said racism and intolerance seems to have worsened.

The person or people who posted the flyers though aren’t worth worrying about, he said. “They aren’t worthy of hearing from me.”

Luellen Wagner

Luellen Wagner said she was “more or less drafted,” into attending ETSC in that first undergraduate class.

Before the four students attended their first classes, she said they met with college President Burgin Dossett and the dean. They affirmed the black students’ rights to attend the school and said they would be safe on the campus.

Wagner said she didn’t understand that she was making history. She was just worried about her grades and going to a new school — the same things she assumed every college freshman worries about.

“We were so naive, we didn’t know any of us could be in danger,” she said.

While working on her degree in history and social studies, Wagner took a work-study job in the post office. In her last year, she taught part-time at an elementary school.

After graduation, she continued teaching, first at Kingsport’s Douglass High School, then at Greene Valley hospital and school, which served disabled children and adults. Later, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she taught at Wheatley Elementary School for more than 30 years.

While at ETSC, she said she was never called a racist name, but neither was she quite welcomed with open arms. She joined the Baptist Student Union, and, like Nichols, had a moment of acceptance.

On a bus ride in Johnson City, she said the driver ordered her to move to the back of the bus. A group of students, led by a girl she didn’t know, heard the exchange and “almost rioted.”

Once the bus got to the central station, the group stormed the bus station’s offices and complained to a manager, she said. It was the last time she was told to move her seat.

The fountain dedication at ETSU in 2013 made her feel like she and the other students were recognized after 50 years, she said.

One student of color told Wagner she made it possible for students like her to attend the university. Both were moved to tears, Wagner said.

Wagner said the flyers were signs of racism rearing its ugly head again. She called them “foolishness.”

“It really doesn’t go along with what the memorial is all about,” she said. “We’re all important, created by God. We should learn from each other and respect each other.”

Elizabeth Crawford

Elizabeth Crawford attended Dunbar Elementary and Langston High schools before entering ETSC in 1958. She left school after a few quarters and fulfilled her dream of exploring the world, as she traveled with her military husband and their three children.

After the death of her first husband, she remarried and had two more children.

Crawford later decided to return to school, and at age 50 she entered Milligan College, where she majored in early childhood education. After graduating, she worked as a substitute teacher in the Elizabethton City School System, and she is an active volunteer in the community.

Clarence McKinney

In 2011, Clarence McKinney told the Johnson City Press he felt like he was living in two different worlds when attending ETSC.

“The experience on campus was just like ordinary students,” McKinney said. “It was when you come off of campus that you was, back then, a black and a white in the city.”

Water fountains, theaters and grade schools were still segregated, but the city couldn’t enforce segregationist policies on the state college’s campus.

McKinney said he ate where he wanted on campus, went where he wanted on campus and socialized with whom he pleased on campus.

“It was kind of surprising,” McKinney said. “That was the best time before integration really took place here in Johnson City.”

McKinney received a scholarship to attend the college. He was studying biology on a pre-pharmacy track, but did not finish his degree.

He left school and found a job at ITT North Electric in Gray, and later found work outside the region.

Upon returning to Johnson City, he was an early member of the Progressive League, which later became the Johnson City chapter of the NAACP. In 1965, Progressive League members successfully won a federal court case that required Johnson City schools to desegregate.

McKinney died in 2012, before the fountain was dedicated at ETSU.