WASHINGTON, D.C. (December 1, 2021) – The American Nuclear Society (ANS) honored eighty-five Black civil rights era 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.
The ANS of nuclear engineers, scientists and technologists established the Social Responsibility in the Nuclear Community Award to acknowledge an individual, group, or organization supportive of its efforts to promote social diversity, equity and inclusive community-building in the nuclear community.
The inaugural award was presented to Scarboro-Oak Ridge, TN 85 on Wednesday, Dec. 1st at the Washington Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C. during the 2021 ANS Winter Meeting and Technology Expo. The ANS commemorative plaque came with a $1,000 contribution to the OR TN-85 Student Endowment Fund.
Now in their 80s, five of the original Oak Ridge-85 former students who integrated Oak Ridge schools in 1955 embarked on another journey to receive the award on behalf of the group. In a community-wide, celebrity sendoff from Mt. Zion Baptist Church in the Scarboro Community, Alma McKinney Stevens, Ernestine Avery, Shirley James, Leroy Justice, and Dorothy Kirk Lewis boarded the bus to Washington D.C. accompanied by friends and family members.
Ernestine Avery was accompanied by four generations of her family to witness the historic event; her daughter Catherine Allen, her granddaughter Ernestine Foster, and her 8-year old great-grandaughter Cali Foster who videoed Avery being honored.
In Washington, the Civil Rights-era pioneers were on stage with their entourage to accept the first ANS Social Responsibility in the Nuclear Community Award, along with 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.
Following the award ceremony, the group was invited to the Dirksen Senate Office building where they met with Tennessee Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, and Congressman Tim Burchett and presented with copies of the OR85’s contribution which was entered into the Congressional Records.
SCARBORO COMMUNITY PROMOTED ITS HISTORY
The move to integrate Oak Ridge schools was made possible through a partnership of the Scarboro community and DOE. Their team efforts unleashed new educational and economic opportunities for more Americans and future generations.
Rose Weaver, Scarboro community historian and Oak Ridge 85 Committee Co-Chair expressed her appreciation for the ANS awards to both groups. “We greatly appreciate the selections of the Scarboro-Oak Ridge, Tennessee 85 students and the Secretary of Energy for this award. Those brave young students and key leadership from the Atomic Energy Commission helped begin the modern civil rights era in Tennessee – back in 1955.”
Martin McBride, a retired DOE manager and Co-Chair of the 65th Anniversary Celebration Committee for the Scarboro-Oak Ridge, TN 85 said, “The historic 1955 public school desegregation forever changed the course of Southern education. Thank you to the American Nuclear Society for honoring these extraordinary 85 American pioneers.”
“School desegregation has allowed groups 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.”
THE NUCLEAR COMMUNITY ENFORCED BROWN vs BOE SUPREME COURT RULING
Dr. Waldo Cohn (1910 – 1999) a Manhattan Project biochemist (from 1943-1975) presented the initial proposal to integrate Oak Ridge schools. Cohn quickly established close ties with the community. He started the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra in 1944 and later became the Chairman of the Oak Ridge Advisory Town Council.
In December 1953 at the urging of Dr. Cohn, the seven-person Oak Ridge 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 a committee.
In January 1955 the AEC stepped in and ordered the city to desegregate its public schools. That following 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 SECRET CITY OF OAK RIDGE
Up to 1959, the City of Oak Ridge was 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. 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, predating the well-known desegregation efforts in Little Rock, Arkansas, and nearby Clinton, Tennessee, ” said Zacharia. Today, DOE continues to champion opportunity for all.
In presentation remarks, ANS CEO/Executive Director Craig Piercy said, “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 and future generations and we’re thankful for you.” 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.
The City of Oak Ridge was secretly built in East Tennessee as part of America’s Manhattan Project. The Cumberland Mountains was a prime location for the Department of Energy to establish Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to create Atomic Bombs, with one used in 1945 to end World War II. Up to 1959, the “Secret City” continued to be federally run and managed by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).
ABOUT: 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.