Green McAdoo Cultural Center
In 1955, Green McAdoo School was the segregated primary school for Clinton, a mill town of 4,000 people located about 20 miles northwest of Knoxville. Under the “separate but equal” policy of the segregationist South, graduates of the black primary school were bussed to Knoxville’s all-black Austin High School for their secondary education.
Fifty years later, the school building became the Green McAdoo Cultural Center (101 School St., 865/463-6500, www.greenmcadoo.org, Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., free), which records and celebrates the remarkable story of the integration of Clinton’s high school back in 1956.
Tales of school desegregation in the South normally begin with Little Rock, Arkansas. But they really should begin with Clinton. That’s because even before the Little Rock Six entered Little Rock Central High School in the fall of 1958, there were black and white students attending Clinton High School together in rural Tennessee.
In 1951, five black high school students petitioned the Anderson County Board of Education for the right to attend all-white Clinton High School. At this time, black students in Clinton were bussed a long 18 miles into Knoxville to attend the all-black Austin High School.
At first, the students lost their suit. U.S. District Judge Robert Taylor declared that the bussing arrangement met the requirements of separate but equal. However, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education in the spring of 1954, Judge Taylor reversed his earlier ruling and ordered that Clinton High School be integrated at the beginning of the school term in September.
What followed is a remarkable story, recounted at the cultural center through newspaper clippings, video remembrances by the participants, and evocative photographs of the events. Integration went smoothly at first, but as the eyes of the world focused on this trendsetting Tennessee town, tensions began to run high. The National Guard was called in, and the school building was bombed. But the school principal, student body president, local Baptist minister, and other leaders in Clinton took a strong stand in favor of the rule of law—and, therefore, for integration.
One of the most moving displays in the museum is a glass case with letters that were received by Rev. Paul Turner, the white Baptist minister who helped to escort the black students to school and preached against the segregationists. There are anonymous and hateful postcards and letters that decry Rev. Turner, as well as letters of support from unknowns to celebrities, including the Rev. Billy Graham and Edward R. Murrow.
Eventually, the world stopped paying a lot of attention to Clinton. New civil rights struggles were taking place all over the South, and the outsider segregationists who fomented the worst of the violence and unrest were gone. Photographers traveled to Clinton to take pictures when Bobby Cain became the first black male to graduate from a desegregated public school in May of 1957, but when Gail Epps followed in his footsteps the following year no one paid any attention.
The events that took place in Clinton were recounted in an hour-long 1957 See It Now television program, and its 1960 sequel from CBS Reports, both of which may be seen at the museum. In 2006, the Green McAdoo Cultural Center produced an award-winning documentary about the events titled Clinton 12, which was narrated by James Earl Jones.
Outside the museum is a life-sized statue of the Clinton 12, the 12 African American young people who enrolled at Clinton High School in the fall of 1956. When the museum was opened in 2006, 9 of the 12 were on hand to see the statue being unveiled.
The Green McAdoo Cultural Center was funded in part by federal, state, and local funds, as well as through private donations. In 2007, legislation was introduced in Congress that would designate the Green McAdoo Cultural Center as part of the National Park Service.
The old Clinton High School building now houses Clinton Middle School, just a few blocks from the Green McAdoo center.
Get to Clinton by taking Clinton Highway (Hwy. 25 W.) about 15 miles out of Knoxville. Once in Clinton, there are signs directing you to the center.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition