THE MEMPHIS 13
In implementing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing schools segregated by race, the Memphis Board of Education ultimately agreed in 1961 to a plan to integrate the schools. The Memphis Branch of the NAACP recruited 200 applicants, and 13 African-American first graders were selected to integrate four elementary schools. This phased-in approach, adding a grade per year, was regarded as the safest way to desegregate the schools. Without violence on October 3, 1961, the students enrolled in Bruce, Gordon, Rozelle, and Springdale elementary schools. After opening day they were on their own. During the course of the year and those that followed, their social isolation and educational progress were left unmonitored. Despite their difficulties these 13 “pint-sized pioneers” struck a fatal blow to school segregation and claimed their places in Memphis history.
Placed by the Friends of The Memphis 13 & Shelby County Historical Commission October 2015
THE MEMPHIS 13 BRUCE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
The first African-American students to enroll in Bruce Elementary School were Dwania Kyles, Menelik Fombi (formerly Michael Willis), and Harry Williams. All lived closer to Bruce than to the African-American school where they otherwise would have been assigned. Dwania Kyles remembered the social isolation at school and how she relied on friends in her neighborhood church for support. “It was just the constant barrage of negativity,” Menelik Fombi recalled. “One on one you may be OK with a boy. You get with two or three of his friends and you’re a n _ _ _ _ _. The whole group dynamic would change.” Harry Williams remembered his motivation to break the segregation barrier. “I didn’t want to be no wimp,” he said. “I had my little pride back then.” He also recalled a vigilant principal. “She made sure we were safe.” Also to be remembered are the dedicated parents of these students: Samuel B. Kyles, A.W. Willis, and Romanita Morris.
Placed by Joseph B. Kyles, Gwen & Samuel B. Kyles, Ann & A.W. Willis, & Shelby County Historical Commission October 2015
THE MEMPHIS 13 ROZELLE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
The first African-American students to enroll in Rozelle Elementary School were E.C. Freeman, Joyce Bell, Clarence Williams, and Leandrew Wiggins. Mattie Freeman, mother of E.C. Freeman, said, “It would be foolish to send my little 6-year-old 3 miles away [to school] when there was one a block away.” Joyce Bell White noted that when her classmate E.C. Freeman Fentress died in 2010: “In her obituary, it [her role as one of The Memphis 13] wasn’t even mentioned.” Leandrew Wiggins remembered the pressure. “It got overwhelming to me. So I begged my Mom. Eventually my parents took me out. If I was scared, they were scared.” Clarence Williams recalled his father’s viewpoint. “He thought I would get a better education at Rozelle, get more than what he got out of life.” Also to be remembered are the dedicated parents of these students: Mattie Freeman, Bettie Marie Bell, Edward Williams, and Woodrow Williamson.
Placed by New Sardis Baptist Church, Dr. Erma Clanton & Shelby County Historical Commission October 2015
THE MEMPHIS 13 SPRINGDALE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
The first African-American students to enroll in Springdale Elementary School were Deborah Holt and Jacqueline Moore. Both lived closer to Springdale than to the African-American school where they otherwise would have been assigned. Jacqueline Moore Christion remembered the difference in subject matter between her old school and Springdale. “Everything was more advanced than stuff I was doing at Hyde Park. They were way past that when I got to Springdale.” She also found the students to be friendly. “I had two little girls who made me feel very welcome. We laughed and talked. It was really enjoyable.” But John Holt, father of Deborah Holt, recalled a darker side. “We got hate mail with no return address. It said, ‘So you got your little black girl going to school. She’s still going to be black.’” His family’s reaction? “It made us more determined.” Also to be remembered are the dedicated parents of these students: John & Lille Holt, and Beatrice Moore.
Placed by LaSimba M. Gray, Jr. & Shelby County Historical Commission October 2015
THE MEMPHIS 13 GORDON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
The first African-American students to enroll in Gordon Elementary School were Sharon Malone, Sheila Malone, Pamela Mayes, and Alvin Freeman. They were chosen in part because they lived closer to traditionally white schools than to African-American schools where they otherwise would have been assigned. “Gordon was two blocks from our house,” said Sharon Malone. “All we had to do was cross one street to get to Gordon. We had to go 13 blocks to get to Klondike.” Her twin sister, Sheila Malone Conway, remembered how soon the ending of segregation in the city schools was forgotten. “It’s sad that this happened in Memphis and people don’t know.” As for follow-up from those who had selected them, Conway recalled only a Christmas party. “You did something to change this city, and they should have followed up to see how we’re doing. It’s just the fact that we were forgotten.” Also to be remembered are the dedicated parents of these students: Mary Elizabeth Malone, Henryene Mayes, and Ozell Freeman.
Placed by Bethlehem Baptist Church & Shelby County Historical Commission October 2015