Rediscovering Oak Ridge’s African-American heritage

Few are aware of it today, but the Department of Energy was responsible for the very first public school desegregation in the Southeast.

This is the 65th anniversary of that historic civil rights milestone. It was an inspiring achievement, worthy of celebration.

Unfortunately, the Department of Energy has apparently forgotten about the anniversary. The Oak Ridge City Council has asked U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann to remind DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty and Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette of it.

Those across the nation interested in civil rights can also help jog DOE’s memory by calling Congressman Fleischmann’s office and asking that DOE “wake up” and help preserve their amazing African-American history. The more who call his office, the more the congressman’s hand will be strengthened when speaking with the Department of Energy.

Fleischmann’s office can be reached at 202- 225-3271.

This heritage seems particularly relevant, following the tragic death of George Floyd. America really needs to celebrate its wonderful civil rights achievements.

Such an achievement occurred in 1955, when 85 brave young black Tennessee students first entered the previously all-white classes of the Oak Ridge High School and the Robertsville Junior High School. They did so at the direction of the Department of Energy (then the Atomic Energy Commission.)

At the time, the department owned and operated the city of Oak Ridge and its public schools.

Schools in the North and West desegregated prior to Oak Ridge, following the historic Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. Yet the Oak Ridge public school desegregation was pivotal because it was located in the Southeast.

As a group, Southeastern schools balked at the Supreme Court decision. The Southeast was the heart of the brutal Jim Crow culture and no one dared touch this sensitive topic.

Southern teachers and school administrators risked prosecution, financial retaliation, and physical violence if their schools integrated. At the time, Tennessee’s state constitution forbade so-called “mixed classes,” consistent with racial restrictions in other Southern states.

A high school in the community right next-door to Oak Ridge was actually dynamited in response to its desegregation.

In January 1955, the Department of Energy decided to move forward, ordering the city of Oak Ridge to integrate its public schools during the coming year. On Sept. 6, 1955, the community complied. The 85 Oak Ridge students bravely entered those classrooms and the desegregation went quietly and smoothly. The lack of violence and drama resulted in no national headlines.

The Oak Ridge school desegregation was closely watched by schools across the South. It occurred several months before the historic bus-segregation protests in Alabama — civil rights protests that thrust Rosa Parks and a young Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

When they entered those segregated public classrooms in 1955, the Oak Ridge 85 students had no other template because they were the first in the Southeast. When other Southeastern schools ultimately integrated, they had the benefit of the successful Oak Ridge example.

There was no DOE celebration of the 50th anniversary (in 2005) or the 60th anniversary (in 2015). It would be a shame if the department also missed this year’s 65th anniversary. Future generations of Americans will lose this wonderful heritage, unless our generation preserves it. Memories are fading and irreplaceable historical artifacts are being discarded.

Seven suggested DOE actions to celebrate the anniversary and preserve this precious history are included in a City Council letter to Congressman Fleischmann.

“We hope people across the nation will contact the congressman’s office and voice support for his efforts to ‘wake up’ the U.S. Department of Energy to its amazing African-American history,” said Rose Weaver, co-chair of this year’s celebration. “The courageous Oak Ridge 85 students deserve to be recognized for their important contribution to the nation.”

“Public school desegregation showed the wonderful things that communities can accomplish when people are prepared to work together as friends and neighbors,” said Martin McBride, Ph.D., the other co-chair. “It was a crucial first step in the modern civil rights era, and a major defeat for Jim Crow in the Southeast.”

Ms. Weaver is an African-American historian and Dr. McBride is a retired DOE site manager. In February, the Oak Ridge City Council named them to head the committee to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the historic first public school desegregation in the Southeast.

For further information, please contact the two Anniversary Committee co-chairs: Martin McBride at 865-482-5386 or Rose Weaver at 865-924-2987, or email them at