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Memorial fountain commemorates ETSU desegregation

Rex Barber • Mar 25, 2013 at 6:15 PM

Permanent memorials to the students who desegregated East Tennessee State University are now in place on campus for everyone to see.

A new fountain in front of Sherrod Library and historic marker placed nearby were unveiled Monday afternoon as snow and cold wind blew.

The ceremony was held in doors due to the weather.

Honored during the event were Elizabeth Watkins Crawford, Elizabethton; George L. Nichols, Mt. Juliet; Mary Luellen Owens Wagner, Upper Marlboro, Md.; and the late Eugene Caruthers and the late Clarence McKinney.

These men and women were the first black students to attend what was then East Tennessee State College. Caruthers enrolled as a graduate student in 1956. The other four students enrolled as undergraduates in 1958 after graduating from Langston High School, Johnson City’s school for black children.

Brian Noland, ETSU president, said Monday was a day for everyone to be proud of those students who desegregated the campus.

“These structures (the fountain and marker) tell a story that began more than 50 years ago,” Noland said. “It is a story of hope, a story of inspiration and a story of bravery. It is a story of five men and women who dreamed of a greater tomorrow and who saw higher education as the road to make their dreams possible.”

Crawford said in an interview after the dedication ceremony that ETSU was a good place to attend school and that she did not experience any of the violence and strife associated with desegregation in other parts of the South.

In fact, speakers at the ceremony were proud of the fact that Northeast Tennesseans were so welcoming of those first black students to ETSC.

“This day is a miracle, because we never saw it coming,” Crawford said. “We waited... 50 years for this? So we thought everyone had forgotten about us. And we didn’t know that it was this important. We just walked on campus like we were instructed by our teachers and our parents, because back then we minded; we did what we were told.”

The students were already registered, so all they had to do was go to class, Crawford said.

“I didn’t really meet any animosity towards me.,” she said. “If it was (there) they didn’t voice it.”

Crawford, Nichols and Wagner are still alive. They participated in a university panel discussion in January 2011 as part of the school’s centennial celebration.

That panel discussion sparked the interest of some current African American students who inquired about a way to memorialize those pioneering students.

A committee was formed to look into the request and it was decided a fountain to commemorate their contributions would be appropriate. A historical marker with details of the desegregation of ETSU also will be placed in front of the library.

The $172,000 fountain was designed by Carol R. Johnson Associates and is being built by Preston Construction. The fountain features five granite stones emerging from the water. Five points extend across the plaza from the base of the fountain in the manner of a star. Each “ray” of the star has one of the five students’ names inscribed on it.

Below are short biographies on each of the five students who desegregated the school. These bios were complied by ETSU.

Caruthers enrolled in the master of arts in administration program. He was the first African American to attend the school. While in Johnson City, Caruthers was a teacher at Langston High School, where he taught all science classes in grades 7 through 12. Because he could play every instrument, he was also Langston’s only instrumental music teacher, and he directed the high school marching and concert bands. He left Johnson City and entered the field of higher education, where he worked in administration at Meharry Medical College, Tennessee State University and Volusia County-Daytona Beach Community College. He also held leadership roles with a number of state, regional and national education associations.

He died in January 1980.

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 the age of 50 she entered Milligan College, where she majored in early childhood education. She now works as a substitute teacher in the Elizabethton City School System, and she is an active volunteer in the community.

McKinney was born into a prominent Johnson City family of educators, politicians and civic leaders. After graduating from Langston High School, he entered ETSC, where he studied biology for two years. He left school to enter the workforce and was employed by ITT North Electric in Gray, as well as by other businesses in Tennessee and outside the region. After a brief time away, he returned to Johnson City and helped found the Progressive League, which later became the Johnson City chapter of the NAACP. He was also a longtime election official for the Stratton Elementary School District. McKinney died in 2012 at the age of 72.

Prior to entering ETSC in 1958 where he studied biology and chemistry, Nichols was the salutatorian of his graduating class at Langston High School. During his junior year at ETSC, he enrolled in the advanced ROTC program and became a member of the marching band the following year. Upon graduating as a second lieutenant, he entered the military. When he left active duty in 1969, he had received numerous awards and decorations in recognition of outstanding service. He entered the banking industry and worked at major banks in New York and New Jersey, and also served as a senior-level manager in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City. In spite of his demanding responsibilities in the military and the corporate world, he remained active in promoting civil rights, helping others, and furthering his education. In addition to his undergraduate degree from ETSC, he holds an M.B.A. from Adelphia University in Garden City, N.Y.

Wagner, a Johnson City native who now lives in Maryland, attended Dunbar Elementary School and was active in sports and chosen homecoming queen at Langston High School. She continued to excel after entering East Tennessee State College in 1958. Wagner earned a work scholarship based on her college placement test score, and she became a member of Phi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Studies. After graduating from ETSC with a degree in history and social studies, she taught at Kingsport’s Douglass High School, and later moved to Washington, D.C., where she taught for more than 30 years at Wheatley Elementary School. She loved teaching so much that she returned to the profession after her retirement and taught in the Prince Georges County School System in Maryland. She and her husband, the late John Wagner, had one child.

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