By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
CENTERVILLE, Tennessee, July 15, 2016 — This is “The Third Weekend,” as African Americans with roots in Hickman County refer to this part of July — time for them to come back home to Centerville for a couple days. Then on Sunday, they all travel 60 miles east to Hadley Park in north Nashville, where the annual “Hickman County Picnic” has been held since the 1940s. It’s a story my college pal Douglas T. Bates III, a white guy, Centerville native and now a semi-retired lawyer here, has been telling me about from the time we first met in the mid 1960s as students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Bates and I have been spending more time talking about this recently,. Specifically we’ve been discussing that it was about 50 years ago right now that people of our generation — folks now in our 60s and 70s — were growing up as racial segregation was ending and integration was beginning in our public schools, especially in the South.
“It is a complicated story,” Bates often says. “But everything about the South is complicated.”
We have been confirming that feeling in conversations in recent months with black folks that Bates has known his whole life, people who lived a different life on the other side of this story, within a mile away of each other in this town of 3,644.
People like Frankye Ward, retired clerk of the Circuit Court in Hickman County. Raleigh Goodman, retired back home in Centerville after 24 years in the U.S. Army, in which he became a master sergeant including two tours in Vietnam. Clara Moore, who had a career in nursing and is now involved with the community center in the former black school building here. Edwina Myles, a career teacher and wife of a local pastor who we think was the first African American child to go to the white public schools in Centerville. Janette Carter, an All-American high school basketball player here who became a career educator in Nashville and is now running for the board of education in the Nashville Metro Public Schools. And others.
How separate were young whites and young blacks 50 years ago? “I didn’t know any white kids,” Clara Moore recalls. “I didn’t see any of them.”
Lifetime friends Frankye Ward and Douglas T. Bates III in Centerville, Tennessee.
Most of you readers probably recall that it was in 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to racial segregation in schools in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, from Kansas. Many people today assume that, after 1954, there was no more school segregation.
But in many places, including Hickman County in Tennessee, it took a whole lot longer than that. There was sentiment among both white people and black people in Hickman County that O.H. Bernard School, the school for African Americans, should continue operating as long as possible.
In fact, the original Bernard School building was destroyed fire in 1956 — about two years after the Supreme Court decision — and Hickman Countians, black and white, made the decision to rebuild it!
O.H. Bernard High School continued graduating young African Americans until after the 1969 commencement, although some black students had started attending the white Hickman County Schools earlier in the ’60s.
“From my perspective, I received a quality education there,” said Janette Carter, whose graduating class of 21 students in 1966 was the largest in Bernard High history. “The reason for that was that the teachers knew us, they knew our families and they cared about us.
“They wanted to improve our chances in life. They really encouraged us to go to the next level, and a majority of our graduates went on to career jobs. Many of us went to college and graduated. Many of the men went into the armed forces and had good careers. That goes back to the fact that our teachers there really cared about our upward mobility.”
When O.H. Bernard School ceased operations in 1969, “we were sad to our bones and were crying,” said Clara Moore. “We couldn’t understand why our school had to close. We approached the Hickman County board of education then, had a meeting with the superintendent. We told him we were all for integration, for our black children to go to school with the white children. We asked him why we couldn’t have some of the white kids come here to O.H. Bernard and keep our school open, too. We had school buses full of white kids being brought to Centerville from out in the county, and some of those buses were coming right by the front door of our school. Why couldn’t some of those white kids go to school here and help us keep our school open? He said the board probably wouldn’t approve.”
Clara Moore in the former O.H. Bernard School, now the Bernard Community Center, Inc.
Frankye Ward says there was a huge sense of loss. “We lost more than the school,” she said. “We lost camaraderie, the closeness, the family thing, the sense of community.”
In the years after Bernard School closed, several black-owned businesses in the Columbia Avenue neighborhood closed. The black population in the community began shrinking. Hickman County’s overall population soared in 2010 to an all-time high of 24,600, with significant growth in the east half of the county due to sprawl from Nashville and its Davidson County. However, the African American population has dropped to 4.5 percent of that total, just over 1,100 people. The historic high percentage of African Americans in Hickman County was 20 percent of the total population a century ago.
The Hickman County Schools did operate a kindergarten and Head Start program in the O.H. Bernard building for a few years, but then the school and the old gymnasium next door were sold to private businesses that lasted a few years and then closed. The buildings began deteriorating.
In 2006, many among the alumni of O.H. Bernard School pooled resources and bought both buildings, and decided to convert the former school building into the “Bernard Community Center, Inc.” — a place for receptions, banquets, gatherings, classes, programs. The group completed payments for the facilities a year ago. As you might imagine, they are feeling tapped out financially now on this project — and there is much more to do. New furnaces and air-conditioning are needed so the former school building can be used year ’round, instead of just in the mild weather months. The old gym needs to be cleaned up, possibly renovated or maybe just torn down.
The exterior of the former O.H. Bernard School in Centerville, Tennessee.
The old gymnasium at O.H. Bernard School.
So here comes my ol’ pal Bates.
“I’m going through some medical treatments right now, one day a week for five or six weeks,” he said earlier this week. “I feel terrible for the day right after treatment, but then I feel fine — unless I start thinking about the next treatment coming. I decided what I need right now is a project, so that I’m spending one day a week thinking about treatment instead of seven days. The rest of the week, I want to be thinking about other people and other things and not about myself.
“So, I’m putting together a fundraiser to get new heating and cooling systems in that Bernard Community Center,” he continued. “I’m pretty confident we can raise a few thousand dollars, get that done and help out our community. The reason I’m pretty confident is that I’ve gotten to be pretty good at fundraising. The reason I am good at it is because I hate doing it so much. So when I get into a fundraising project, two things are going to happen — we’re going to get it done with one event, hopefully on one night, and it’s going to be fun.”
With help from friends in the music business, he has booked three bands for a dinner and party that is yet to be scheduled, but probably in the early winter, and probably in Centerville’s Knights of Pythias Hall.
“I’ve got commitments from a good country western band, a good rock ‘n’ roll band and an absolutely great blues band,” Bates said. “We’re going to pack the place, wherever we have it, and have a party we’ll all remember. We’ll make the Bernard Community Center a facility that everybody in the county will be proud of.”
“Prof” Major Lee Dabney, legendary school leader in Hickman County, Tennessee, from 1925-’55.
It will be a place where the stories can be preserved about O.H. Bernard High School, African American education and culture, the change from segregated to integrated schools, and the grand characters who have had glory on the Columbia Avenue hilltop. There are some terrific ones, which I hope to write more about in coming months:
–O.H. Bernard himself, a white educator who from 1920 to 1929 served as the State of Tennessee “agent for Negro schools,” and he led the construction, staffing and equipping of many of them.
–The legendary “Prof” (as everyone referred to him) Major Lee Dabney, who from 1925 to 1955 was principal of the African American school in Hickman County. “He was the most respected person in Hickman County, period,” says Doug Bates. “I can remember being on the square in Centerville with my dad and another man, both of them lawyers, and Prof Dabney came walking past. Daddy and the other lawyer both stepped back, tipped their hats and greeted him. That tells you a lot.”
–Dabney was also the long-time coach of the O.H. Bernard Hawks and Hawkettes basketball teams. “He’d walk into the gym wearing a suit jacket — was it purple like the school color? — and across the back shoulders it said ‘Principal’,” Bates said. “It was also reversible. He’d take that jacket off, turn it inside out, put it back on and then across the shoulders it would say ‘Coach.’ And he’d wear that during the game.” Bates added that when the Hawks and Hawkettes were good, “there’d be as many white fans at the game as black fans — that’s where segregation stopped.” But the Hickman County Times, the local weekly newspaper, only sparsely covered the O.H. Bernard games or other activities.
–There were the times in the late 1950s or early ’60s when the girls basketball team from the all-black Burt High School in Clarksville, Tennessee, would come play the O.H. Bernard Hawkettes. In the line-up for Burt was Wilma Rudolph, whom you remember becoming a national heroine as a gold medal sprinter for the U.S. in the Olympic Games.
–And who was O.H. Bernard High’s greatest basketball player? Was it really James “Screwdriver” Webster from the late 1940s into the early ’50s? “When you get O.H. Bernard people together,” said Frankye Ward, “they often measure time on whether something happened ‘before Screwdriver’ or ‘after Screwdriver.’ He was that good.” The nickname came from his easy twisting and spinning on the basketball floor. His first cousin Raleigh Goodman, the retired Army master sergeant, laughs and says, “Screwdriver was all right as a basketball player, but I was better.” He then recalled how Screwdriver started playing on the high school varsity as a seventh grader, and might have started for the Hawks for “five or six years.” Another oft-told story about Screwdriver is that he and another cousin, O.K. Miller Jr., went hunting together, and Screwdriver accidentally shot O.K. in the leg, which had to be removed below the knee. That did not, however, stop O.K. Miller from playing varsity basketball for the Hawks.
–Again, who was O.H. Bernard High’s greatest basketball player? Maybe it was Alvia Carter, who graduated in 1968. He led all boys in the state of Tennessee in scoring, averaging 38 points per game and once hitting 58 in a game. He went on to play basketball and tennis at Jackson State Community College in the city of Jackson, Tenn. Then he had a long career as an X-ray technician at a Nashville hospital before his death in 2006. So remember Alvia Carter; maybe he was the best O.H. Bernard player. Or maybe it was his wife Janette Carter, whom you met earlier in this story. During her four years for the Hawkettes, playing six-on-six basketball, she averaged 32 points per game and was a four-time All-State player in Tennessee as well as being honored as a “Small School All-American.” Who’d win, one-on-one in basketball, Alvia or Janette? That’s a story we need to air-out and settle.
So, as Bates says, we have much more work to do for O.H. Bernard School, the African American community and Hickman County history. And it will be fun.
James “Screwdriver” Webster. Nobody could stop him on the basketball floor.
Raleigh Goodman, outstanding mllitary man and, as he told it on his patio earlier this spring, a pretty good basketball player, too.
Janette Carter, now of Nashville, one of the outstanding graduates of O.H. Bernard High School in Centerville, Tennessee.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.