UNION SPRINGS, Ala. — Summer 1964 was a busy time in the home of Y.C. and Ruth Nance, my paternal grandparents. Their only daughter, Sue, had just graduated from Alabama A&M and their oldest son, Tyrone, freshly graduated from Carver High School, was preparing to enter Florida A&M University to become a member of the Marching 100. Their youngest son, Roscoe, had just finished his freshman year at Carver, and was looking forward to a fun summer with friends.
But it was also a summer of change. A few months earlier, a few black families had gotten together and decided to sue the Bullock County (Ala.) school system. (The lawsuit, Harris v. Bullock County Board of Education, is here). With the assistance of famed civil
rights attorney Fred Gray, James Ralph Harris, his brother George and Patricia Tarver would become Union Springs trailblazers. It was decided that this trio would integrate the white high school that fall.
“I wondered why they would want to go over there,” my dad recalled. “I didn’t think it was all that important at the time. All the people they knew and all their friends were over at Carver. . . We didn’t think about the significance of it and the big picture in terms of them getting access to better facilities.”
Scenes like this were happening all across Alabama, the result of Gray’s work. Gray, who had defended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks in the 1950s, had successfully represented Vivian Malone and James Hood when they integrated the University of Alabama. (Malone went to Alabama A&M with my Aunt Sue before she left for Alabama). By the mid-1960s Gray was concentrating on challenging the Jim Crow laws in Alabama’s public school systems. By the end of the decade, Gray’s efforts had resulted in more than 100 Alabama school systems desegregating.
My dad’s history and civics teacher, Mr. Ramon Harris, fully understood the gravity of the moment. He set up a news conference for my dad’s class and encouraged them to ask questions about what was going to take place.
That summer, rumors swirled that a group of white people were planning to bomb Carver High School. My grandfather, a highly respected Union Springs resident, was often sought after for guidance and advice, and this time was no different. Faced with the threat of potential violence, Union Springs’ black residents decided to mobilize. Every night, for about two or three weeks in August, my dad recalled, my grandfather and two of his friends got their shotguns and guarded the school. (Ironically, my grandfather was a teenager when his school, the Coffee County Training School in Enterprise, Ala., burned down. His parents– my great-grandparents J.E. and Mamie Gilley Nance sold the school board some of their land so the school could be rebuilt).
Fortunately, nothing came of the rumors and the Harris brothers and Pat Tarver enrolled in the school that fall without major incident, my dad said. A few more black students enrolled the following school year, and the Bullock County school system integrated by law in 1970. However, the three students who led the way didn’t really talk about their experiences, at least not until years later.
“It was not a good experience,” he said.