Oak Ridge High School alumni remember desegregation

Special Reports

Oak Ridge High School alumni look back on their firsthand experiences of school integration.

Oak Ridge High was the first east Tennessee school to desegregate. Larry Gipson, former Oak Ridge High School student, recalls his experience with desegregation in the 9th grade: 

“The caring and atmosphere that you come from, where you’ve got a nurturing community, the teachers at the Scarborough school to a large, very large school and you may go all year,” says Gipson, “not that you need minority students in your class, but you can go all year.”

Though the school desegregated, the remaining  Oak Ridge city and community didn’t follow until much later. Gipson says there was the occasional small racially motivated fight, but nothing major:

“I think everyone knew pretty much what they were dealing with,” explains Gipson. “If there were some, I think that’s why we never had a Clinton type thing, because being a government town, most of the jobs was involved with the federal government, so if there was any problems with the fighting what have you, stood a chance of losing security your job, so I think that was one reason why you didn’t have the blatant protests and fights that took place in communities and cities that integrated.” 

Pat Postma, former Oak Ridge High School student, was a junior during integration. Her dad, who was principal at the time, helped desegregate the school.

Postma remembers some of the parents weren’t happy about the idea, including keeping their kids home. But says that didn’t last long, and for the most part, the transition was smooth:

“I don’t remember any friends or any students worrying about it making disparaging comments,” said Postma, “I think everybody was kind of feeling like we were an experiment and they were proud to be apart of it.”

Ray Smith, Oak Ridge historian, explained the school’s integration process:

“There were 50 that went into Robertsville and 50 went into Oak Ridge High School,” explained Smith.

Smith said at the time, Oak Ridge high was playing by different rules:

“The government still was in charge,” Explained Smith. “The Atomic Energy Commission, Oak Ridge wasn’t incorporated until 1959, so it’s still a government town and that’s one of the reasons that the recognition wasn’t provided.”

While things seemed to be going smoothly inside the high school, concerns were raised specifically with the athletics department about it other high schools would still want to play Oak Ridge.

Tom Duncan, the principal  and athletic director at the time made a statement that was sent to all the other high schools:

“One part reading, we hope you will look favorably in allowing us to play our team regardless of color.”

Postma remembers the statement as being mostly well received:

“There were a couple of schools we didn’t play as a result of that, but that only lasted maybe a year and that was all,” said Postma. “My sense as a student and as a family member of the Administrator was we did it, it was OK, and it was going to be OK and it was”

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