NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – When Tennessee State University Alum Tanya Coplen Gray approached her high school classmates about producing a short documentary to commemorate their 50th year high school anniversary, Gray had no idea how important the project would become.
“This short film was done as a burden of love. We did this out of love for one another, and that’s really critical to me, to make sure people understand that is how it got started,” says Gray, who graduated from TSU in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in social work and a minor in sociology.
Gray, along with her Cameron High School classmates Deborah Majors Bell and Ida Venson Currie, serve as executive producers of “The Past Is Prologue: The Cameron Class of 1969,” an award-winning documentary that recounts a significant, but largely-forgotten, chapter of Nashville’s civil rights struggle that happened during the late-1960s.
The film, which was produced and directed by Nashville filmmaker Mark Schlicher, and co-produced by Lisa Venegas, will air on Nashville Public Television, WNPT Channel 8 Sunday, February 16, at 10:30 p.m., and Wednesday, February 26, at 9:00 p.m..
In spring 1968, during a volatile period for race relations in Nashville and throughout the United States, all-black Cameron high school lost a high-profile basketball tournament game to Stratford, a mostly-white school. A spontaneous protest and scuffles broke out afterward, as many upset Cameron fans believed that the game had been unfairly officiated in favor of Stratford.
In response, school authorities barred Cameron High School from all athletics for an entire year, while Stratford received no sanctions. In response to the punishment, parents, students, and supporters in the community protested, marched in the streets, and enlisted famed civil rights attorney Avon Williams, Jr., to champion their cause in federal court, making it part of his long-running school desegregation lawsuit.
Currie, who secured a bachelor’s degree in English Education from TSU in 1974, says former Cameron Principal O.R. Jackson, marshaled the school’s faculty and staff to find ways for Cameron High School seniors to enjoy their final year in spite of the punishment.
“He knew we were not going to be coming to the stadium on Friday night for football games. We were not going to be going to the gym in the afternoon for pep rallies prior to the games. So he brought the vision to the teachers, ‘Let’s do something for this senior class because they are hurting in certain areas,’” says Currie, a retired commercial insurance product developer and healthcare manager. “Mr. Jackson made sure we had our pep rally’s on Friday afternoons, even if we didn’t have a game to attend. He also orchestrated our senior class trip to Washington, D.C. during spring break, which served as yet another memorable diversion to the suspension.”
Bell, a graduate of the Metropolitan School of Practical Nursing at Vanderbilt Hospital and a retired licensed practical nurse, says in spite of the security and assurance they received from parents and community members, the unfair punishment left a lasting impression on their class.
“At the time, we were all young. We had no idea what a big deal this was. We lived in a neighborhood where we had a lot of black support, like our parents and our teachers,” says Bell. “Once this happened, that’s when I really found out that I was considered a second class citizen.”
Schlicher says the documentary, which was funded in part by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission THRIVE program, needs to be viewed by a broad audience because of its historical significance.
“It was an honor to be able to do the 25 or so interviews that were done with class members and with teachers, to learn the story and share it in a way that honored the struggle and the triumph that the Class of ’69 went through and the place they have in the civil rights struggle in Nashville,” says Schlicher, whose work as director or cinematographer has been shown nationally on PBS, the Smithsonian Channel, Lifetime, and TBN.
After receiving rave reviews from classmates following the film’s initial viewing, and subsequently winning “Best of Tennessee” at the 2019 International Black Film Festival, the group realized the film could serve a larger purpose.
“We want to put this documentary in every public library and to be able to hand it to school systems,” says Gray, a retired licensed clinical social worker.
They believe the documentary will spark important conversations about education, policy, neighborhoods and equity, as well as bring awareness.
Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Enoch Fuzz agrees. He plans to air the film at Kingdom Café, located at 2610 Jefferson Street, on February 1, at 8:00 a.m. during One Nashville, a breakfast gathering he initiated two years ago to bring people with resources, information and awareness together to help progressive projects like “The Past Is Prologue” succeed.
“I was very touched by the story that these people told, and I know that it could benefit some of the people in Nashville. There are some good people in Nashville who want to understand race relations,” says Fuzz.
He says One Nashville gatherings, which are held every month on first and third Saturdays, have attracted leaders from throughout the city including the mayor, vice mayor, secretary of state, public defender and city council members. He says some attendees are looking for meaningful projects to support, while others come seeking assistance.
“I was having people call me everyday with different needs, and I said these people need to meet one another. So rather than me meeting with everybody differently everyday, I came up with the concept of getting everyone in the same room,” says Fuzz. “One Nashville gets people from all over the community in the same room.”
Mary Jackson Owens, the Cameron alum who told Fuzz about the project, hopes the film can garner financial support, so young people can learn about this almost forgotten moment in Nashville’s civil rights struggle.
“It hasn’t been talked about in 50 years. It’s time to have a conversation about it, and tell people about the history,” she says. “A lot of our children don’t know anything about being in an all-black school and the loyalty that we have for Cameron.”
“The Past Is Prologue: The Cameron Class of 1969,” also features TSU alum Ola Hudson and TSU Associate Professor and Head Reference Librarian Fletcher F. Moon. Hudson, who graduated from TSU with a bachelor’s degree in Vocational Home Economics in 1951 and a master’s degree in 1953, taught at Cameron High School from 1955 until 1971. Moon, who portrayed his father, Rev. J.L. Moon, in the documentary, has worked at TSU for 36 years.
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