When Nashville schools began to integrate in 1957, first graders walked through angry white mobs.
One school — Hattie Cotton — was dynamited overnight. And a nationally prominent white supremacist came to town to lead militant rallies.
Now, some 60 years later, Metro Schools is paying tribute to those pioneering families, known as “The Nashville 16,” and several gathered Monday to reflect and reunite.
With weathered newspaper clippings in his hand, Marvin Williams Moore was among the group. Now 66 and living in Charleston, Moore said he felt compelled to attend.
“They’re always putting out the picture of me when I was little,” he said. “I want them to see the real me now.”
Moore was one of the first four black students to walk into Jones Elementary in the Buena Vista area of North Nashville. At his side on many days was Barbara Jean Watson.
“Whoa! It was wild,” Watson said, describing an intimidating first year. “Being escorted to school and from school. And being threatened. Those were the rough years.”
It was so difficult that some of the Nashville 16 transferred out after a few days. But Watson stayed, feeling protection against bullying thanks to Moore.
“The good years were when some of my other neighbors started accumulating and coming to the school, and having somebody to walk home with,” Watson said. “And to run home with!”
“We did a lot of that,” Moore said, as the pair broke into laughter.
The passage of time has given them the comfort to joke around — and also a fuller understanding of what it meant to enter those first integrated classrooms.
And they got a hero’s welcome at the Metro Schools board room. The Hillsboro High School choir delivered readings from the Civil Rights Movement and performed songs, and a stream of today’s dignitaries paid their respects, especially prominent black Nashvillians who credited the group with paving their way.
“We wanted you all to be affirmed and to let you know that we have a responsibility,” said Metro Schools Board Member Sharon Gentry. “We owe you to not drop the ball, to not fall asleep, and what’s the new vernacular: ‘to stay woke.’ ”
The city’s first black property assessor, Vivian Wilhoite, sought out the former students, and Shawn Joseph, the first black director of schools, addressed them from the podium.
“You just wonder, what was it like?” he said. “Their presence and their families showed up, and because they showed up, they liberated this city … They were not afraid.”
And each of the Nashville 16 in attendance received a plaque and a handwritten letter of thanks from a current Metro student. They were called to the front one by one.
In several moments, those former students were escorted by their parents — now pushing into their 90s — and still holding hands, as they had so many decades before.
Lajuanda Street Harley, who attended Glenn Elementary in East Nashville, said the parents deserve the credit, and she held a history book that clearly shows her father, more than 6 feet tall, leading her through a mass of people with protest signs.
“I was a 6-year-old being led where I was led,” she said. “I was only holding on to the hand, but it was my parents, who were young people back then. They were in their 20s. They were the millennials of today … it’s always the young people.”
Her mother, Serena Street, 89, says she chose Glenn s0 her daughter wouldn’t have to cross any train tracks, and only later realized the obstacle of angry segregationists.
“When I saw the pictures of the angry people standing all around, and they were just saying everything to them, I mean calling them all kinds of names …” Street said. “But … the principal was kind, her teacher was kind, so it made a big difference.”
Kindness and bravery in the face of hatred. That’s the legacy that city leaders say they’ll try to honor this year in the pursuit of equity.