Tennessee Civil Rights pioneers to be honored by the American Nuclear Society

November 29, 2021, 12:51PMPress Releases

The American Nuclear Society (ANS) is honoring 85 former students from Tennessee, known as the Scarboro-Oak Ridge, TN 85, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) with the society’s inaugural Social Responsibility in the Nuclear Community Award for their roles in integrating in 1955 the first public schools in the southeastern United States. The award will be presented at the upcoming 2021 ANS Winter Meeting and Technology Expo (Nov. 30 – Dec. 3) being held in Washington, D.C.

“Back in 1955, the inspiring courage of eighty-five young Tennessee students, their parents, and teachers and the wonderful civil rights leadership of the Department of Energy (then the Atomic Energy Commission) created the very first public school desegregation in the Southeastern United States,” said Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally in an award nomination letter of support to ANS. “This had a profound impact on society. It established an important model for subsequent public school and college desegregations throughout the South.”

The Oak Ridge 85 hail from Oak Ridge in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee, home of the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and birthplace of the Atomic Bomb. Oak Ridge was secretly built as part of America’s Manhattan Project to make the Atomic Bombs that ended the Second World War. In the 1950s, the “Secret City” was still federally run and managed by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

“We greatly appreciate the American Nuclear Society selecting the Scarboro-Oak Ridge, Tennessee 85 students and the Secretary of Energy for this year’s national civil rights award,” said Rose Weaver, a Black historian and Co-Chair of the 65th Anniversary Celebration Committee of the Oak Ridge 85. “Those brave young students and key leadership from the Department of Energy (then the Atomic Energy Commission) helped begin the modern civil rights era – back in 1955.”

An initial proposal to integrate Oak Ridge’s schools was made in 1953 by Manhattan Project veteran, biochemist and then-Chairman of Oak Ridge’s Advisory Town Council, Dr. Waldo Cohn.

In December 1953 at Dr. Cohn’s urging, the seven-person council voted 4-2 in favor of petitioning the AEC to include Oak Ridge in President Dwight Eisenhower’s executive order to integrate schools on all military posts. The petition caused a swift uproar within the racially segregated Tennessee community. Subjected to antisemitic abuse and a recall election that fell just short of a two-thirds majority to remove him from the council; Dr. Cohn stepped down as chairman in 1954. Under pressure, the council also rescinded their integration resolution but tabled the issue of desegregation for further study by committee.

Then in January 1955, the AEC stepped in and ordered the city to desegregate its public schools. That September – two full years prior to the Little Rock desegregation – eighty-five young Black students from Oak Ridge’s Scarboro community left their Scarboro School and cautiously entered the previously whites-only classes at Oak Ridge High School and Robertsville Junior High School. This made the Oak Ridge public schools the first in the southeast to integrate its public schools.

As the professional society for nuclear engineers, scientists and technologists, ANS established in 2020 the Social Responsibility in the Nuclear Community Award.

H. M. “Hash” Hashemian, Chair of the ANS Honors and Awards Committee, said, “This award recognizes an individual, group, or organization for outstanding efforts in social responsibility promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion or inclusive community-building in the nuclear community, and it is perfectly suited that the inaugural award recognizes the 85 brave young Tennessee students and the U.S. Department of Energy in desegregating the first public school system in the southeastern United States back in 1955.”

The Oak Ridge 85’s nomination for the inaugural ANS Social Responsibility in the Nuclear Community Award received numerous endorsement letters, including from ORNL Director Dr. Thomas Zacharia.

“The historic Oak Ridge 85 predated the well-known desegregation efforts in Little Rock, Arkansas, and nearby Clinton, Tennessee,” said Zacharia. “The inherent difficulty of asking children to introduce such sudden societal change was compounded by racist insults and epithets written on the school buildings.”

“As a result of the courage of the Oak Ridge 85 and the leadership of the AEC … Oak Ridge pioneered the desegregation of public schools in the Southeastern United States,” said Zacharia. “Today, DOE continues to champion opportunity for all.”

At least five of the original Scarboro-Oak Ridge, TN 85 students will be in attendance to accept the award at ANS’s upcoming 2021 Winter Meeting, being held Nov. 30 – Dec. 3 at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C. The award will be presented on Wednesday, December 1 at 8:30 am during the conference’s Opening Plenary session (8:00-11:00 am EST). Along with a plaque, ANS is providing $1,000 to the TN-85 Student Endowment Fund.

Kathryn Huff, Acting Assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, will be accepting the DOE portion of the award on behalf of U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

Journalists wishing to attend the ANS Winter Meeting (either virtually or in-person) or interview the Oak Ridge 85 can do so by contacting media@ans.org.


Established in 1954, the American Nuclear Society (ANS) is an international professional organization of engineers and scientists devoted to the peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology. Its more than 10,000 members represent government, academia, research laboratories, medical facilities, and private industry. ANS’s mission is to advance, foster, and spur the development and application of nuclear science, engineering, and technology to benefit society.

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