Tennessee Civil Rights pioneers recognized by the American Nuclear Society

December 2, 2021, 1:33PMPress Releases

The American Nuclear Society (ANS) has honored eighty-five Black 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 courage and leadership in pioneering the integration of public schools in the southeast United States.

This is the first time the professional society for nuclear engineers, scientists and technologists presented the Social Responsibility in the Nuclear Community Award, which 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.

In presentation remarks, ANS CEO/Executive Director Craig Piercy said, “The inaugural award is presented to the Tennessee 85 students and the Secretary of Energy to recognize eighty-five young, brave Tennessee students and the U.S. Department of Energy in desegregating the first public school system in the southeast in 1955 before the events in Arkansas."

"I want to thank each and every one of you,” Piercy told the Oak Ridge-85. “We know that it must have taken great courage to step through that doorway that morning. You have done so much for so many of the other generations and we're thankful for you."

Five of the original eighty-five Black students who integrated Oak Ridge’s schools in 1955 were present to receive the award (Alma McKinney Stevens, Ernestine Avery, Shirley James, Leroy Justice and Dorothy Kirk Lewis).

The inaugural award was presented on Wednesday, Dec. 1 at the Washington Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C. during the 2021 ANS Winter Meeting and Technology Expo. Along with a plaque, ANS is contributing $1,000 to the TN-85 Student Endowment Fund.

The Civil Right pioneers and their friends and family were joined on stage by Kathryn Huff, Acting Assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, who accepted the DOE portion of the award on behalf of U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

“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.”

The Oak Ridge-85 hail from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, home of the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The City of Oak Ridge was until 1959 managed by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

“Oak Ridge was a federally managed city, created during the World War II Manhattan Project to pursue the science and technology necessary to harness the atom,” wrote ORNL Director Dr. Thomas Zacharia in a letter of endorsement for the award nomination. “As a result of that government control, the city’s desegregation effort was not subject to a court battle. The AEC — now the Department of Energy (DOE) — simply complied with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.”

“It was not a decision made without opposition,” 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, however, Oak Ridge pioneered the desegregation of public schools in the Southeastern United States.”

The move to integrate Oak Ridge’s schools unleashed new educational and economic opportunities for millions of Americans and future generations.

“The historic 1955 public school desegregation forever changed the course of Southern education,” said Martin McBride, a retired DOE manager and Co-Chair of the 65th Anniversary Celebration Committee for the Scarboro-Oak Ridge, TN 85. “Thank you to the American Nuclear Society for honoring these extraordinary 85 American pioneers.”

“School desegregation has allowed a new group of highly-talented and creative Americans to help our nation face the very-challenging problems in the future,” said McBride. “We have all benefited from that.”

Young civil rights trailblazers and the nuclear community’s role

An initial proposal to integrate Oak Ridge’s schools was raised 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, Oak Ridge’s seven-person Advisory Town 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 and xenophobic 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 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.

In September 1955 – two full years prior to the Little Rock, Arkansas 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.

“The wonderful courage of the Oak Ridge-85 students, their parents, and teachers helped our nation at a pivotal time,” said Weaver. “They were dedicated American pioneers in the finest sense of the words.”

Jeff Lyash, CEO and President of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), wrote to the City of Oak Ridge congratulating the community on its 65th anniversary celebration of its historic 1955-1956 school year.

“In 1955, the Atomic Energy Commission ordered its schools to open its doors to all students, no matter the color of their skin,” said Lyash. “On September 6, 1955, the Tennessee-85 students exemplified courage when they integrated Oak Ridge High School and Robertsville Junior High School. The impacts of their actions were profound and created more opportunities for talented Americans to join TVA’s workforce.”

“TVA supports promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion and inclusive community-building throughout the Tennessee Valley region and within the nuclear community,” said Lyash. “As the nation’s largest public power provider and the operator of the country’s third largest nuclear fleet, TVA recognizes that inclusion and diversity are integral to our mission of providing low-cost, reliable energy, economic development and environmental stewardship.”

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