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'Earth to Natalie': One Teacher and Integration in Nashville

by Natalie Bell

By the early 1970s, nearly 20 years after the U.S. Supreme Court had found segregated schools to be inherently unequal, little had been done to voluntarily integrate in the South. Forced to take action, many districts began literally shipping black and white kids into schools once divided by race. So-called “busing” represented radical change, and generated widespread discord and upheaval. In Nashville, where desegregation had begun incrementally, one grade at a time, and one elementary school was bombed the night after a black child was admitted, fear threatened to choke the viability of an experiment that would later become known as Whites Creek Comprehensive High School.

The new high school would be built on the city’s outskirts, in the northwest corner of Davidson County, and become the home of both white and black high-schoolers from middle-class, working families. The location, in the semi-rural Whites Creek community, is named for a stream that winds through the area, along U.S. Route 431. Mostly white children lived closest to the school; their black counterparts, in new suburbs that were spreading just north of the city.

I had started school in the late 1960s, in a neighborhood elementary where all but a handful of the students were black. By the time I got to junior high, I was bussed to Joelton; small, rural and white, a community known for its insular attitude toward outsiders. Newly integrated Joelton Jr. High School was on the ground floor of a building that had long stood in the center of town; a symbol of identity for this community. The high school, which remained dominated by white students until it was phased out, was on the second floor of the two-story building.

During most of my three years at Joelton, some of the white high school boys would hang out in the building’s stairwells, brandishing chains and sticks, daring the “nigger” junior high kids to go upstairs. I’d seen riots erupt and trash dumpsters set on fire. No one was ever seriously hurt. Tension pervaded the air, especially in the beginning, however it was all made to sound much more chaotic in the newspapers.

Black and white parents often worked in the same offices and factories in the mid-to-late 1970s, and talked to each other about what was happening in the schools. Most were ready to accept integration, if unwilling to take the first step.

Whites Creek, one of Nashville’s first integrated high schools, opened for classes in 1978 to a mix of anticipation and ambiguity. A modern complex designed to look more like an office park than a traditional school, it spanned four wings, each with lower and upper floors, connected by window-lined corridors. Would racial violence mar this stunning, new facility? A long drive leading up to the building’s entrance opens on one side to a baseball field, awaiting action, a story yet to unravel. I arrived each morning aboard one of a convoy of busses, filled with hope that here I would find my future.

I think it was in Mr. McGuire’s class where I finally woke up.

“Earth to Natalie!” Ever ebullient, he would often greet me with those dreaded words. It started whenever he’d catch me daydreaming in his 10th grade English class while he was up at the chalkboard.

Gary McGuire, a gifted actor and director, just out of college and starting his first year as a teacher, brought an energy that fueled a collective desire for Whites Creek to become an exception in integration. He spoke with his whole body. If he paused to think, he might stroke his reddish-brown beard, pace back and forth, then launch into a persona fit for what he had to say.

He was thrilled to be a part of something new and he made all of us feel like we belonged. His sheer know-nothing attitude about the naysayers of the past who claimed blacks and whites can’t learn the same things or go places together moved those of us in his theatre classes to excel beyond our wildest expectations.

Before it gained the nickname “Music City,” Nashville had been known as the “Athens of the South” – for its elegant theatres and refined institutions of higher learning. If the city’s forefathers were predisposed to high culture, McGuire would give the impetus for its achievement at Whites Creek.

He founded the school’s high quality theatre program. Many of the students who auditioned for plays were black, at least as many as there were white, if not more. But the black students’ participation did not limit McGuire’s choice of plays to only those with black history or cultural themes. The first show he staged in Spring 1979 was a British musical, set in the roaring 1920s on the French Rivera, called The Boy Friend.

Many of my classmates and I had grown up singing in the church choir. Never did we imagine singing Broadway show tunes, dancing the Charleston and feigning British accents. Inasmuch as McGuire believed that we possessed the talent and ability, so did we in forthrightly claiming our truth. And we did, daring anyone to say we were not destined for stardom.

At a time when interracial schools were still a novelty in this part of the world, McGuire was one of a family of teachers, parents and students – young and old, black and white - who formed a circle of trust at Whites Creek, and met the challenge of integration with eager acceptance.

It’s hard to believe that, for all our effort, many private schools were being created for white children whose parents did not want their children bussed, and that the legacy of “white flight” has over the years led to a re-segregation of public schools in Nashville, and elsewhere.

But in those initial years at Whites Creek, we shared in history and life lessons of social change rooted not in mere cooperation, but in the power of hope for a brighter future to be had by all.

June 23, 2010

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Natalie Bell is a journalist and educator based in New York and was born in Nashville. Her work has appeared in newspapers and online publications based in New York and Michigan, and on radio and television in Oklahoma City and Mississippi, with national and international reporting and editing for Agence-France Presse, Dow Jones & Co. and National Public Radio. Specialized in covering education, she has taught journalism and media studies as an adjunct professor. In 2000, she received a Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship to study and document cultural change in post-apartheid South Africa.

See “Three Habits of the Heart and Mind To Spark Cultural Awakening” by Arlene Goldbard in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see ”Reducing Violence by Educating for Empathy” by Myriam Miedzian in the Café of this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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