Valentine's Day Riot

Up until 3rd grade (when the Small Town Schools integrated), the Small Town was very much a racially divided town.  There was a distinct line between the black & white neighborhoods:  the train trestle.  The only thing I knew about black people was what I saw on tv shows.

The late 60's, early 70's were a tumultuous, ugly period in American History.  Racial equality was a  very, very good thing.  I can't imagine how the educators must have felt during that time. I don't remember any of the ones I knew acting prejudicial toward students who weren't the same color as she/he.

The present day elementary school opened when I was in 4th grade.  We had a black librarian.  When we were checking out books for the first time, my hand accidentally grazed hers.  I stopped and looked at my arm, and she said "No honey, it doesn't come off!"

Back to the Valentine's Day Riot (since that's what this post is suppose to be about!):  I went to 3rd grade at the former black high school.  I've heard in recent years that the present elementary school was built where it is because the white people didn't want their kids going to school in the black section of town.  It's funny to look back and see how far we've come in just 40+ years.  If my parents had any concerns, they didn't voice them.  And...I'm getting off track again.  Kind of.

Valentine's Day Party.  3rd Grade.  1971. (I'll make it easy and do the math for you:  I'm 51.)  The day was going great.  We were so excited about our party!  And then, something strange and very scary happened:  we were let out of school.  We stayed inside until our rides got there, then we were escorted out by a teacher.  One of the teachers's son (who was in high school) came to the elementary school so his mom would know he was okay.  We got home, and all of my siblings (except the oldest) were there.
Here is what I thought had happened:  February is Black History Month.  There was an assembly at the high school that was optional, so a lot of the white kids didn't go, which angered the black students and a riot ensued.
According to my oldest sister (and this is to the best of her memory!) this is what really happened:
It was February 1971 – Black History Month.  The rumors were going around for a few days that someone from the Black Panthers was going to speak at a school assembly.  By mid-morning of that day – I don’t remember exactly which day it was – about a third of the students had gone home for doctor’s appts, dentist appts, funerals, etc.  All of a sudden there were knocks on every classroom door and all the black kids left the rooms.  They began circling the hallways upstairs and down –(the school was built in an octagon)-  and they kept going around and around the library upstairs and the cafeteria downstairs singing “We Shall Overcome.”  After a little while, a student's dad came over the intercom and for, literally, 5 minutes kept saying “Attention all black students… Attention all black students …”  I don’t remember a whole lot after that, except that they dismissed school and my boyfriend and I went to A&W and had lunch.  

As it turned out, the choir from Knoxville College – which was (is?) predominantly black – was going to perform.

There were no fights that I recall.  And, as far as this little white kid knew, nothing really changed.  The mean black kids were still mean and the mean white kids were still mean.  I had many black friends and we really never talked about – strange as that may seem now.

I had a friend (who happens to be black) at the house one day when we were in the 3rd grade.  We were out riding bikes, and some little brat called out and told her to "get back on her side of town."  I thought that was kind of funny, because she actually lived out in the country and didn't live "in town". I looked at her and told her not to pay any attention to him.  We did go back to my house and told my mom.

Today, even though there are some blacks in the "white neighborhood" and some whites in the "black neighborhood", they aren't what I would call truly integrated.  even after all these years, I honestly don't know if they ever will be.  Especially for people who have grown up here, and have lived here their whole lives.


  1. This is very interesting. I taught in Pensacola, Florida, from 1972-1975. Some of the high schools in the area were having racial problems. I belonged to the interfaith council and I remember that some of the ministers were going to go into the schools to help to keep a sense of peace and order. I remember Jesse Jackson coming to one of our meetings. I think it around the time that he and the Klan and the Knights of Columbus were all in town for various rallies the same weekend. Quite an unusual mixture!

  2. Thank you for a very interesting story. I was alive for all of that time as I'm even older than you. I don't remember really ever knowing much about what was going on at the time.

  3. I remember the turbulent early 70's, filled with racial tension--especially in the south. We weren't allowed to have our junior/senior prom because of it.

  4. Very interesting story. I think that children don't see color unless they are taught to see color.

  5. I remember the tensions of the seventies. We had busing in our town which was supposed to solve the racial inequality problems. Um, yeah, that didn't work and it created entirely new sets of problems. Eventually, the busing stopped and they did redistricting.

    Lucy from Lucy's Reality

  6. Thanks for illuminating this difficult period in our history. I taught in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during the late 60s and early 70s. A black woman, I taught some days in a 99% white school and some days in a 60% white school. Robin is correct, kids don't hate those whom they know to be kind, caring, honest, good people, no matter those people's color.


  7. Things have changed so much since then. I remember those times as being very tumultuous as well.

  8. I remember those days too. From 1967 to 1969 I was in a Dept. of Defense school overseas. One of my classmates was Robin Roberts (whose dad outranked mine). There were other AA kids in my class too and while I'm sure not everyone was nice to them, there were no problems that this 1st-3rd grader noticed. Then we moved to Biloxi Miss and my first year there the schools were integrated but not desegreated--meaning that kids who lived in neighborhoods by schools went to those schools regardless of color, but no effort was made to make the schools racially balanced. My school was 90+% base kids and I'd say the student population reflected the base's population. Robin was in my school again. The next year desegregation started--they bussed kids from the AA side of town to our school. Considering that this was during an era where most of us walked home by ourselves to homes where Mom was there, and a common punishment was to have to stay after school, it didn't seem fair to me that the bus kids had to go sit in the bus rooms every day after school to wait for the bus to come get them. I don't remember there being a problem at my school over this, but as I said it was mostly base kids and there would have been repercussions to parents who protested. This busing put an extra 2-3 AA kids in our classes.

    From the base school I moved down the street a way to another town, a town that was pretty much middle class white. Our schools were about 10% AA and while I don't remember much mixing, I don't remember any problems either.

  9. When my daughter was in 1st grade they were learning about African American history and when I picked her up that day she announced she was going to grow up to be the first black president. I cracked up inside but tried to be open minded and said,"why would you want to do that?" She said, "we haven't had one yet." I nodded and said, "no, but we haven't had a woman yet either and you have a much better chance of being the first woman than the first black president." She looked confused. She's about as white as one can be but that didn't occur to her.


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