Shirley Carr Clowney

Civil Rights in Knoxville

Retired educator, Executive Director African Americans of Appalachia and Blount County, member of the Maryville Six, who re-integrated Maryville College after 50 years in 1954

I lived in Alcoa. I was born in Maryville. I'm a native of this area. I had just turned 18. Mr. J. Harris Fowler, the former principal of Hale High School, a black school in Maryville, was a cousin of mine and encouraged me and my neighbor Queen Crossing, who lived next door to him, to enroll at Maryville College. Now as for me, our family always was ready. My father went to the fourth grade, that's the highest grade that he attended. He always wanted us to go to school, to further our education. There were seven of us and five of us did in fact finish college. Two followed his trade, which was masonry. It was a given that I'd go somewhere.

Three of us from my high school enrolled. I don't remember a whole lot about our initial attendance there. Of course there were parents who had their children drop out of school rather than go with us. And one of the things I remember is a cross burning that took place during that time. All I remember is that there was one. But it was obviously directed at us. Just to see it burning, and not really knowing what it really meant—it was just a fire. It wasn't until years later that I realized what was behind that kind of action.

My family always lived in a community that was biracial or integrated. The segregationists met in a store down the street from us. We knew when they were meeting. Still, I wasn't internalizing what was really going on. I think it's because my father was a very devout Christian, and he taught us love. He taught us respect and to accept differences.

I do remember a student who took us in, from Pennsylvania. Betty McKenney would allow us to come to her room every day, and go with us into the community and attend church with us; she'd go to our house for dinner. To this very day, I am in communication with Betts. She comes here in the fall from Pennsylvania. We go out to eat, we attend the Maryville College homecoming. That relationship has stayed strong from 1954. That's one thing that makes me feel good about having gone to Maryville College.

I don't remember any overt actions against us. We all left after two years, because we really did not feel like we were going to receive the education we wanted or that we would be able to continue.

At the time, we didn't realize we were trailblazers. I went on to graduate from Tennessee State University, a black college, with a degree in Home Economics. And I certified in elementary education. I started teaching in New Jersey in 1963 and retired in 1991 and came back here. My ultimate goal right now is to chronicle life as African Americans in Appalachia and Blount County.

One of the major things that I feel good about is having the 8' x 4' portrait of William Bennett Scott, Sr. , who in 1869 became the only black mayor of Maryville [displayed in the Maryville Municipal Center]. It took me two years to finally get that done. We could not find an image of him for the artist to work from. In dealing with the powers that be, one of them said to me, "Well, suppose we have an artist put him up and she makes him brown, but he looks much lighter…" We had the unveiling in January of '08. Then I took some friends from New Jersey over to see it this summer, and it was not there. The receptionist didn't know where he was. So I go back the next day and I find him in the corner of the conference room. So I have to deal with the powers that be again. It's like I have to fight with every ounce of energy that is in me to get anything done.

About two years ago, in going through a history of Maryville College, I noticed that there was one line that said, "1954: Six blacks were enrolled in Maryville College." Period. No names. And sooo… I made an appointment with the MC president and I said, "Dr. [Gerald] Gibson, there seems to be some significant historical information missing from the histories that I have read of the college. I happened to have been one of those six who attended in 1954, and I don't see it recorded anywhere." And he says, "Shirley, I'm a historian and I agree with you. We have to do something about that."

Ironically—and that's why I say, "God works through me"—the year they decided to unveil a plaque to us was the year—2008—that was the 50th anniversary of that class. They say "reintegrated," because black men had gone before, but we were the first black women ever to attend Maryville College.