Connie Brady Bradley was not the frequent newsmaker Mary Alexander was. She was not known the way Angela Radford Lewis was on the East Tennessee State University campus. Alexander and Lewis died within two days of another, prompting an outpouring of reactions in Johnson City.
Bradley, who died on Saturday, was an unassuming mother and grandmother who regularly attended Thankful Baptist Church, where she sang in the choir and taught Sunday school before illness sidelined her in recent years.
But Bradley held a special place in Johnson City’s history. As a teen, she helped break this city’s color barriers with a brave, bold step into unfamiliar territory. Alongside six other girls, Bradley forced the hand of the Johnson City Board of Education to integrate Science Hill High School in 1964 — a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to school desegregation with the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision in 1954.
Since the court had given school districts leeway on a schedule, Johnson City was taking its own sweet time to integrate. The school board was making the transition one grade per year, reaching the fourth grade with the 1964-65 school year.
So Bradley and other secondary students would have had to remain at Langston, the city’s black high school, without reaping the benefits of attending the more modern, more academically diverse Science Hill. Policy allowed black students to petition the school board to transfer to white schools, but they had to prove inequity in educational opportunity.
Bradley recounted her story for the Johnson City Press in 1994 to mark the 30th anniversary of her arrival at Science Hill. Her uncle and another activist duped her and a friend into applying by offering them a ride. They pulled up at Science Hill to register.
“It scared us. We wouldn’t get out of the car,” Bradley told the Press in 1994. “They gave us a good talkin’ to and told us it was time for this to happen.”
With support from the Progressive League, a local civil rights organization, Bradley and 56 other students applied for transfers in 1964, but the school board only approved requests from seven girls who could not get courses in Spanish, art, shorthand and some mathematics.
That fall, Bradley got on a bus for Science Hill. She was the only black student aboard.
“This was during the time they were turning buses over in Alabama,” she said in 1994. “The bus stopped on the corner that first day and I got on. I walked toward the back, and nobody would scoot over and let me sit down. I had to stand all the way to Science Hill.”
Rather than ride the bus home, she walked to a relative’s house that afternoon. The next day, though, she got right back on that bus.
“I guess everybody thought it was alright after that,” she said. “Everybody would scoot over.”
Bradley also recounted the lengths she took to fit in at Science Hill. The girls altered their style of dress to match the appearance of white girls. She was rejected admittance to the school’s chorus, despite her church choir experience. Social clubs, too, snubbed her. That spring, the prom became her next hurdle.
“They didn’t want us to come because they thought we might go with white boys. Then, they were not going to let us invite our dates. They finally allowed us to invite our boyfriends from Langston.”
After 106 black families filed suit, a series of court orders forced the city to comply in fall of 1965. The city’s black schools closed, and all remaining schools were fully integrated.
Bradley’s bravery 55 years ago should never be forgotten. She made an unsung contribution to every citizen of Johnson City. Generations lead better lives with more opportunity in part because of Bradley and six other young women.
She will be missed.