Ringgold residents work to memorialize segregation-era Black school

Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins / Retta Harris, a resident of Ringgold, is one of several community members working to document the history of Wilson School, Ringgold's segregation-era Black school.
Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins / Retta Harris, a resident of Ringgold, is one of several community members working to document the history of Wilson School, Ringgold's segregation-era Black school.

Sometimes, we forget where we come from, Ringgold City Council Member Earl Henderson said, but we cannot forget that previous generations made sacrifices to build the world we live in today.

Henderson, 64, has been part of an effort to memorialize Wilson School, which served Black students in Ringgold from 1949-1966, during the nation's era of racial segregation.

"I never want to forget that there were other people before us," he said. "We are standing on people's shoulders. And that needs to be told."


A dedication ceremony for a monument honoring the school will be at 1 p.m. Feb. 13 at 606 Sparks St., the building adjacent to Ringgold High School that now serves as home for its ROTC program.

Henderson, the City Council's only Black member, described the effort to commemorate Wilson School, speaking in one of its former classrooms last week. Ringgold resident Retta Harris, 59, whose sister, Florence Harris, attended the school, joined him to discuss the school's importance to the city's Black community then and now.

Retta Harris said about 10 of the school's former students gathered at Mt. Peria Baptist Church in Ringgold recently to talk about the school's importance to the city's Black community.

The recordings of former Wilson School students' stories and more history about the school will be posted on the city's website in a few weeks, according to Hannah Grider, a public information associate with the city, and will be accessible through a QR code planned for the school's monument.

Placed in July, the monument cost nearly $6,500 and was funded by the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, she said.

Speaking at her desk in Ringgold City Hall, she said those stories are important and the first step in the city's effort to document the Black history of Ringgold. Henderson said when the city started the effort, there was little history of Wilson School available online.

Remembering Wilson

Harris said that as she heard the stories about Wilson School and desegregation, she learned a lot about that time and was shocked at what went on during that period.

Racial segregation in the nation's schools was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1954. The effort to integrate schools was resisted by some but gained traction with the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

"This was our little corner of all that," Henderson said of the school's integration during the nation's fight for racial equality.

Drawing from the Wilson students' interviews, Harris said the racial pressures on Ringgold's Black residents during segregation brought them closer together at school and as a community.

As children, the Black students of the time didn't understand the full significance of segregation but did know they couldn't go to local stores except for early in the morning, Harris said. Black people were also required to use the back door of stores, she said.

On weekends, members of the Ku Klux Klan would ride through the Black neighborhood of Ringgold in masks and robes, Harris said. Klan members didn't do or even say anything to them but tried to intimidate the Black community and raised a lot of dust on the city's unpaved roads, she said.

Wilson School was a safe place where Black students could be together and learn, Harris said, separated from the racial oppression of the time.

"They could be and learn and do, and they didn't know what was going on on the outside," Harris said.

Harris said a lot of the historical records of Wilson School came from its sports teams.

The old Ringgold High School was where Ringgold Middle School is now, Henderson said. She said Wilson's basketball team practiced behind Wilson School on a field of compacted red dirt. Gravel was added later, she said.

"There was a ditch that separated this school and the white school," she said. "And there were a bunch of cedar trees between on this side. So the kids would look through the cedars, and vice versa."

The children wanted to play with each other, Harris said, but were kept from doing so.

"They didn't know," Henderson said of the children. "As far as they knew, they were just people."


Once school integration happened, Harris said her sister, Florence, older than her by six years, was the only Black student in her third grade class.

"Then they took us and put us in the other schools, and now, gosh, we have to deal with this," Retta Harris said of being one of a few Black students in an integrated majority-white school.

Nobody interacted with her sister besides the teacher, Harris said. One time, a white student bought her ice cream because she didn't have any money, but his act of kindness was ridiculed by some of the other white students.

Despite being mocked by his classmates at the time, both families remembered that act of kindness down through the years. Now, Retta Harris said, the children who attended the first integrated schools have their own children who sit comfortably side by side in the same schools.

"What a sense of community," Henderson said, speaking of the bonds built through the challenges of integration. "That sense of community is still right here, and still solid. That sense of community means something in this community, and is so valuable."

The Wilson School students said once integration happened, the students found out in class that their education was just as good as that of the white students, Harris said, but the white school did have better textbooks. The Wilson School had hand-me-down books, she said, but the school superintendent at the time hired "top-notch," knowledgeable Black teachers for the school.

Harris said it was really good to hear that even though the schools were segregated, the Black students were still receiving a quality education.

Future generations

Those stories probably should have been told a long time ago, Henderson said, but it's never too late. Harris said she has a nephew who goes to Ringgold High School now, and he and a lot of other students don't know the history of segregation and integration in the area.

Harris said she would like to see more local history taught at local schools.

Grider said remembering Black history is important, and the city will continue the work by adding profiles of prominent Black Ringgold residents to the city's website in the next few months.

Rhonda Bishop Swaney, Ringgold City Council member, said the Wilson memorial is a way for the city to honor a long-ignored part of Ringgold's history.

"For many years, members of the community have told stories of the school, and now we have chosen to honor those pillars of this city," she said in a Facebook message.

Henderson said the organizers aren't trying to bring up something bad -- they are simply trying to record the area's Black history. He said he's learned a lot through the process of commemorating Wilson School and the process of integration.

"We're the generation behind and are trying to tell the story," he said. "So the generations coming up behind us will know."

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.


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