Black History Month:
60 Years Ago, Lawsuit
Paved Way For IntegrationPosted by Josh Flory on 2/7/2019
Nearly 60 years ago, in September of 1959, several African-American families in Knoxville took a courageous step forward.
It had been five years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.
With that in mind, more than a dozen Knoxville students, along with their parents, went to all-white schools -- including East High, Fulton High and Mountain View Elementary -- and asked to enroll.
They were denied because of their race, and that refusal set in motion a lawsuit that eventually led to the desegregation of Knoxville’s schools.
The lead plaintiff in the case was Josephine Goss, an 11th-grader at Austin High School and the daughter of a barbershop owner named Ralph Goss.
Because he was an entrepreneur whose clients were black, Goss couldn’t be pressured by employers who opposed his civil-rights work. That provided him with the financial independence to work against segregation, although his entrepreneurship had been hard-won.
In an interview, Josephine Goss Sims recalled that her father was unable to get a bank loan to start his business, so her mother would save old juice cans and fill them with coins.
“She’d dry those cans out, and I remember that she had a 50-cent can, a quarter can, a dime can and a nickel can,” said Goss Sims. “Any change that she had left over from her household expenses, she would put that change in there, and so would my father. So that took a long time.”
The 1950s were a volatile time for civil rights activity, and East Tennessee was no exception. In 1958, Clinton High School was blown up after a group of black students successfully sought its integration.
Asked how she overcame her fears about pursuing integration in Knoxville, Goss Sims said she’s not sure she ever did, but she leaned on her father who “was standing strong for this.”
“Because it wasn’t right,” she added. “He knew it wasn’t right, and he could speak about it, without any consequences.”
Goss Sims went on to graduate from Lane College, in Jackson, Tenn., and worked as a teacher for 40 years, starting in the Knoxville school system before moving to Michigan. She was one of 17 student plaintiffs in the case now known as Goss v. Board of Education of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Another was Theotis Robinson, Jr., who later became a well-known civil rights activist and was one of three students who were the first black undergraduates at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
Robinson recalled that Ralph Goss was his family’s barber, and gave him his first haircut: “My dad set up a card table there in the living room and a little chair on top of the card table, and I sat in that. And Mr. Goss cut my hair.”
Robinson was among the students who tried to enroll at East High School on Sep. 2, 1959, and were turned away by the acting principal. Asked if he was afraid, given the violence that had occurred in Clinton, Robinson said, “Not at all.”
“The thing was, this had to be done,” he said. “It wasn’t anything that you really thought about. You did what you knew had to be done.”
In 2012, former Knoxville City Schools superintendent Fred Bedelle, Jr., wrote a book called “With All Deliberate Speed” about the lawsuit and its aftermath.
The book recounts the lengthy and complicated legal struggle to end school segregation in Knoxville, including a previous 1957 case that was dismissed on a technicality, and a 1960 proposal that would have integrated only one grade level per year.
The Goss case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1963 struck down a transfer program that had been adopted by the district.
In 1964, the school board approved a plan for full desegregation, and in 1968 merged Austin High with East High. Bedelle’s book describes how the legal case didn’t officially end until Feb. 1, 1974, in the wake of U.S. District Judge Robert L. Taylor’s opinion stating that the school system had been integrated in a manner consistent with Constitutional requirements.
In 1987, the Knoxville school system merged with the Knox County school system.
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit who went on to be a trailblazer was Tom Goss, the younger brother of Josephine Goss Sims.
Tom Goss graduated from Austin High School, played football at the University of Michigan and became a successful businessman, before being hired in 1997 as the University of Michigan’s first African-American athletic director.
Growing up in an era of whites-only water fountains and movie theaters where African-Americans were forced to sit in the balcony, Tom Goss said the Knoxville desegregation case helped instill in him a sense of freedom to do what he wanted.
Inspired by their father, Tom Goss said that he and his sister “have never just stood by and let wrong be done … We’ve always tried to make change occur.”
Here is a full list of the 17 children attending Knoxville City Schools who were plaintiffs in Goss v. Board of Education, as outlined in Bedelle's book:
Thomas A. Goss
Thomas L. Moore Jr.
Theotis Robinson Jr.
Albert J. Winton Jr.
Elizabeth Pearl Barber
Charles Edmond McAfee
Ivan Maurice Blake