On the eve of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that legally banned segregation in schools, a group of journalists and educators founded a newspaper in Nashville with one goal: to accurately and objectively report on race and the desegregation of schools in the South.
Southern School News debuted Sept. 3, 1954 – less than four months after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas decision and after receiving $99,200 in funding from Fund for the Advancement of Education. Before it was printed, critics on both sides of desegregation had attacked its editors. Two Southern newspapers assumed that SERS established the paper to encourage integration, and, as the editors wrote on the front page of the initial issue, an “eastern Negro newspaper expressed the fear that SERS was a scheme by Dixiecrats to thwart the Supreme Court and preserve segregation.”
Journalists spread throughout the south, many working for local newspapers, curated content for the newspaper, investigated local stories on topics surrounding desegregation, and were required to submit a monthly report on race relations and education. The stories documented changes in public school education in 17 Southern states and beyond. Articles were written in clear, simple language so that anyone – not limited to educators and policymakers – could understand. The publication’s board of directors included editors of The Nashville Banner and The Tennessean. In 1965, the newspaper transformed into a bi-monthly magazine, renamed Southern Education Report.
The publication was available to a select group of subscribers – a list that ranged from the Ku Klux Klan to members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and also included state lawmakers and public policy officials.
Headlines spread throughout the issues – now housed exclusively at the Downtown Nashville Public Library and Vanderbilt University – include: “Expelled negro students sue for admission;” “Negro teachers losing jobs in several states;” “Desegregation: violence, intimidation and protest;" "Nashville school bombed, Clinton opening peaceful;” and “Why the push to ‘upgrade’ Negro colleges.”
In its pages, Clayton Braddock outlined how the Nashville Education Improvement Project in 1968 was working to “counteract the deprivation that Negro children bring to the classroom” in the slums of the city. Braddock, in another piece, detailed how school superintendents in impoverished, rural, predominantly Negro school districts had to shift to offer more than – as a superintendent said – “a good athletic program” to its black children in an effort to help them “fit in with the rest of society.” In an article titled “Mother is going to school, too,” published in 1966, Robert Holland reported that black mothers in Richmond, Va., were going to school along with their children to learn the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic “that had evaded them or been denied them by circumstances during their childhood.” In 1967, Robert F. Campbell took a look at why universities throughout the South were failing to desegregate at the same rate as the nation’s public schools.
Peppered throughout the issues are articles written by Jim Leeson Jr., a long-time journalist and civil rights activist in Nashville, and founder of SERS. Leeson, who died in Franklin in 2010, is notably remembered for taping the broadcast of a black man’s execution in a highly publicized rape case. The New York Times wrote in Leeson’s obituary that the tape recording was used by Alex Heard for his book “The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex and Secrets in the Jim Crow South.”
Southern School News and its successor Southern Education Report were printed for 15 years, and have been hailed by scholars and writers as the most complete source on school desegregation.
View bound copies of the publications in the Civil Rights Collection at the Downtown Nashville Public Library and at Vanderbilt University; digital copies of the publication can be viewed on the Tennessee Virtual Archives website at www.tn.gov/tsla.