Let Me Tell You About Coal Creek

By  |  May 23, 2019
 Photograph by Miranda Barnes, from the series Doubles Photograph by Miranda Barnes, from the series Doubles

The neglected history of Lake City Colored Elementary School


 

I

-75 stretches through the heart of Isaac Staples’s old farm, its four lanes of concrete tracing the flattened basin of the mountain valley where a creek once meandered. Julia Staples tapped her maple trees here. Now a blue tourist marker for Exit 128 advertises attractions in Rocky Top, Tennessee: Norris Dam Marina and the Mountain Lake Campground. Semis barrel over the pasture where the family’s sheep grazed. Interstate travelers rushing south don’t stop to pick the wild blackberries that the Staples grandchildren would gather.

I’ve always thought subsistence farming meant living in a state of want, of scant survival. For the Staples family in the first half of the twentieth century, subsistence was abundance. They grew potatoes, parsnips, string beans, and turnips in their garden and harvested wheat, corn, sugar cane, and tobacco from their small mountain field. Isaac grew twelve types of apples along with figs, cherries, and apricots in his three orchards. The children foraged for chestnuts and dewberries and persimmons and dittany. “The woods around the farm were a treasure house,” his granddaughter Laura Locke remembered. They hunted and fished their mountainside. They shoed horses at their blacksmith shop and built coffins for their neighbors at cost in their carpentry shed. Isaac could repair shoes. Julia was a midwife who delivered babies across the mountains. They erected a compound: a “boxed” pine-plank house of four rooms for Isaac and Julia flanked by lesser houses for their children and then their grandchildren. This was all quite an accomplishment for a couple born into slavery.

One day in March, my mother and I pulled over to the side of Lovely Bluff Road, where a local cemetery guidebook says the family graveyard should be. Today, Isaac’s and Julia’s graves are lost, nestled somewhere among the mountain laurels and the dogwoods that shield the rerouted street from the interstate traffic. No one knows which other family members are buried beside them.

Most of the Stapleses’ descendants left well before the final few holdouts sold the land to Tennessee’s highway department in 1970. Several family members had moved the twenty-six miles southwest to Knoxville, but most relocated to Ohio or California, seeking places with more opportunity than Appalachia provided for anyone, especially black children. But first the Staples family remade education in their town.

Today, that story is forgotten. No one I asked—not the local librarians or the kid restocking broccoli at the Shop Rite or the teacher who’d recently retired from the elementary school—knew that the community had ever had a black school.

This could be a case of accidental erasure: the family left, new people arrived, history evolved. That account should be easy enough to believe. After all, since its founding in the early nineteenth century this little town has had three names: first Coal Creek, then Lake City, now Rocky Top. Every eighty years or so, its leaders rebrand it, blotting out the memory of the development plan that didn’t work using a new scheme that might. So yes, amnesia could be circumstantial.

It isn’t.

In the heart of the town, right at the corner of 6th Street and Short Avenue, three blocks away from the much larger white elementary school, sits a small brick building that used to be the second iteration of the Lake City Colored Elementary School. Inside the double doors is a placard installed at the building’s dedication in 1957; it christens the structure LAKE CITY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, eliding its identity as a school for black children with the much larger white elementary school three blocks away, and it lists the seventeen white men who sat on the county court, the eight white men who ran the local board of education, the award-winning Knoxville architecture firm that designed the building, and the white man who built it. The bronzed plate bears no mention of Carl Locke, the bold teacher who fought for the new building. It skips over his mother, Laura Locke, who had pushed him into education. It expunges the black students who performed recitations on the small platform stage at the front of the school’s single concrete-block classroom. These omissions were no accident. 

Today we think of the fight for educational equality as being a national story, one involving a progressive Supreme Court, a reluctant president, and a recalcitrant governor in Arkansas, but the struggle was fueled by black parents and teachers and students across the country. It depended upon women like Laura and teachers like Carl and patriarchs like Isaac who labored across generations to reset their children’s future.

 

The fountain pen tore through the white napkin, leaving a streak of blue on the bleached laminate table at Alice’s Restaurant in Rockwood, Tennessee, about an hour south of Rocky Top. Geneva Underwood grabbed another napkin and tried again. “Okay, if I’m coming from Savage Garden Road—I’m trying to think the way it is now, the best way to get to it.” She paused. 

By the time we met, I’d been looking for Lake City Colored Elementary School for half a year. When I started my search, I assumed it would be a quick rabbit trail. I’d seen references to the school’s original building in the school board minutes, and I’d found it on Lake City’s 1940 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, a small yellow box labeled SCHOOL (COLORED). But the 1957 school? That seemed to have disappeared. All I had were the names: Carl and Laura Locke. Genealogical databases eventually led me to Geneva.

Geneva told me her family was the school. She had graduated from the eighth grade there in 1959 and then helped desegregate Lake City High. Her great-grandfather, Isaac Staples, had helped hammer together the original Lake City Colored Elementary in 1919. Laura and Carl were her aunt and cousin. And yes, of course the new building still stood, she said. All I needed was a map. She went back to her sketching, outlining the bridge over the creek, the turn downtown, the street leading to the school. 

Geneva’s first teacher was Sophronia Mason, the matriarch of a family of educators in Knoxville. “She was an old woman when she was teaching us,” Geneva said. “She was getting to the point that she was a little forgetful.” Maybe Mason was tired after almost three decades of teaching. Maybe she was demoralized, seeing an appointment in Lake City as a demotion from one in Knox County, where her husband taught. Maybe she resented her posting to this backwoods mining town with its rundown, hand-built schoolhouse of salvaged parts. Whatever the reasons, Mason ignored her students. Most days, she gave them assignments and then napped at her desk. On sunny mornings, Geneva and her friends would sneak out through a hole in the bathroom wall and roller-skate in front of the school before slipping back inside after lunch. Scholarship did not thrive under Mason’s instruction. “When I was in fifth grade, I still couldn’t read and write,” Geneva said, tapping the laminate table to reiterate that point. “Still couldn’t read and write.”

Lake City Colored Elementary was underfunded, ill-supplied, and poorly maintained. Its students were among the many children that school administrators and politicians at every level—county, state, and federal—intended to fail. Geneva and her friends were supposed to become domestics. Their future husbands were to end up in Anderson County’s notoriously dangerous coal mines. Their white peers had better classrooms because those students were needed for jobs in the laboratories at nearby Oak Ridge. The public education system was not created to serve the best interests of the nation’s children. 

Geneva’s people valued education. They’d fought for it for three generations. Laura Locke had learned to read sitting on Isaac Staples’s knee. He’d held the family’s illustrated Bible, letting her trace the gold-flecked letters as he described the mysteries of the alphabet. Census takers categorized Isaac as illiterate, but that was the white men’s assumption. Laura remembers him as “a self-educated man, a great Bible reader.” When Laura began reading on her own, her grandfather gave her free use of his library, which included an 1847 Greggs and Elliott reader (written in the King’s English), a Polyglot Bible, Sermons on the Bible, Livingstone in Africa, and The Life of Grant. When Laura had run through Isaac’s collection, Granny Mary, a neighboring widow, lent the child books from hers.

Coal Creek had no black school, so when Laura reached school age she joined a group of kids that trekked a mile to the segregated school in Briceville, a coal camp on the other side of town, which had a larger black population. After World War I, the mines laid off their black workers to clear jobs for returning white soldiers. “The mass firing was the greatest loss and setback that came to the black citizens of Coal Creek,” Laura remembered eighty-one years later. Men moved to find work; Laura’s own father commuted to and from Kentucky. The farm kept the Staples family rooted in Anderson County, but many other families could not stay. By 1920, most of the black churches no longer met, and the black school in Briceville shut down.

The Staples children did not miss school, however. A black man in Lake City—one of the few who had earned his way out of the coal mines—donated land to the city for a new school and church. The Anderson County School Board gave the black parents permission to strip lumber from the county’s abandoned white schoolhouses. The frame building they erected was simple: one main room with a small antechamber that the students used as a study hall during the week and Mt. Moriah Baptist Church used for fellowship lunches on Sundays. They painted the back wall of the school for a blackboard. For years, the school had no bathroom.

When Laura graduated from the eighth grade in 1927, she had earned more education than most of the other residents in Anderson County, white or black, but she hungered for more. The county had no black high school, claiming there weren’t enough students to justify it. Laura’s education appeared to be over. She stayed home to help her mother with her younger siblings, then in 1933 she married a young miner named Carl Locke. They had two children, Carl Eugene Locke Jr. and his sister, Elizabeth Virginia. On February 20, 1937, Carl Sr. was crushed to death in the mine when a stick of dynamite misfired, jostling loose a piece of slate from the roof. (The coroner catalogued his traumas: “fracture of cervical vertebrae, blinded both eyes, internal injuries due to dynamite explosion . . . generalized traumatic contusions.”) The mine refused to pay the family death benefits, so Laura, pregnant with their third child, Edith Geraldine, moved home, back to the farm, to raise her children.

A year or two later, a black woman from the nearby town of Clinton came visiting. She was gathering signatures for a petition arguing that the Anderson County School Board had to provide the county’s African-American teenagers with transportation and tuition to LaFollette Colored High School, one county over. Carl had just started at Lake City Colored Elementary, but Laura signed the petition anyway. When the school board caved, Laura’s mother told her to go back to school herself. At twenty-nine years old, she stepped onto the bus, an incoming high school freshman. Four years later, she graduated as the valedictorian of her class. Knoxville College offered her a scholarship, but she turned it down; she wanted to earn enough money to send her children to college. In May 1950, seven years after Laura graduated from LaFollette, her sixteen-year-old son, Carl, marched across the same stage to receive his diploma. He enrolled in Knoxville College’s teaching program. 

In August of that year, five black high school students and their parents walked into the principal’s office in Clinton High. One of the teens had seen an ad in the Clinton Courier-News reminding students to sign up for the upcoming semester. It said “students enroll,” he later testified in federal court. “Didn’t say white, black, yellow, green, blue, or white.” The students asked the principal to register them; he refused. So did the county superintendent. The five students and their parents filed suit against the Anderson County School Board and its representatives. The board won the first phase of the lawsuit, but the case stalled in the appeals process, placed on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Carl Locke graduated from Knoxville College in 1954 and was hired to replace Sophronia Mason at Lake City Colored Elementary, his alma mater, where he quickly restored discipline to the classroom. “He was big and when he spoke, he spoke with authority,” Geneva told me. “Just his voice would make us jump, get in order.” Locke launched the students into intense remedial classes, getting them to grade level in less than a year. “Education is the highway to life,” he told them. Meanwhile, the building crumbled around them. Ravine Ferguson, Locke’s stepdaughter, remembered the school’s rundown facilities. “It was not warm,” she said. “The janitor would come in and do the stove and try to make heat for us.” She also resented her daily mile-and-a-half hike to school, especially when she was passed by a school bus full of jeering white children. “It wasn’t the best of anything.”

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously, declaring segregated education to be inherently unequal, but it did not put a clock on integration; a year later, the justices ordered schools to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.” Most places used this phrase to move with deliberate slowness (which is part of the reason desegregation—and resegregation—continues today). But for the handful of schools under pending federal lawsuits, federal judges could determine what constituted deliberate speed. Anderson County was ordered to desegregate Clinton High in fall 1956.

Wanting to harness the Brown decision for his students, Carl Locke met with parents and crafted a list of demands. His students deserved a cafeteria, a playground, better lighting, a restored bathroom (one without a child-sized hole in the wall), and a school sign so drivers would know to slow down. The parents “are primarily interested in equal facilities rather than integration at this time,” Locke wrote the school board, “but, they all tell me that unless they get some better facilities by the next term they have no other alternative but to press the integration issue.” Eight parents signed the petition, and the pastor of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church added his own letter demanding that the congregation have full use of their building by the fall of 1956, the same term Clinton High would desegregate. The church’s letter was cosigned by Laura. 

The school board panicked. Many white parents in Clinton had talked about transferring their students to Lake City High to avoid desegregation, but now it seemed the entire county would be integrated under the court’s ruling. The board sent a representative out to scout for new school locations and debated how much money they would have to spend to stave off this threat. In retaliation, they voted not to renew Carl Locke’s teaching contract, and they left Lake City Colored Elementary unstaffed until a few days before the start of the fall semester. Still, the board ultimately conceded. They built a new school for Lake City’s black students, erecting it on top of the plot of land Isaac Staples had helped level. The new building wasn’t much larger than the old one, but it was snug and secure, a concrete-block structure with a brick façade and thirteen ten-paned windows lining the west wall of the classroom. Across a wide hallway were two mauve-tiled bathrooms. “We had heat, indoor plumbing, a lunch room,” Ravine Ferguson remembered. “It was better, just better.” 

After being fired, Carl Locke found a job teaching science and coaching football at a school about an hour away. The family stayed in Lake City until Ravine graduated from Lake City High in 1964. “My family, we didn’t come back to Lake City,” she told me. The next year, Carl accepted a position as the chair of the science department at John Marshall High School in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned an MS from Case Western Reserve in 1970, another one from John Carroll University in 1972, a PhD from Case Western in 1977, and an HHD (Doctor of Humanities) from the College of Wooster in 1989. He became an associate professor of education at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, and then a founding member of a computer lab in his neighborhood’s learning center in 2000. He died in Cleveland last year.

Laura Locke also went back to school, graduating from St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing around 1962 and passing her state boards with honors. She worked as a nurse for seven years and then in student health for eighteen. After her mother died in 1987, she moved to Cleveland to be near her son. While there, she started writing down her memories, creating the notes for what would become Let Me Tell You About Coal Creek, which was edited and published by one of her granddaughters. “Hopefully, this book will be an enlightenment of how the black people of a small town in the hills of Tennessee did make a difference,” she wrote in her conclusion. The Tennessee House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing her “good works, strength of character, and selfless contributions to the community of Lake City.” She died in Cleveland in 2013. She was ninety-nine years old.

 

In 2014, in a move municipal leaders hoped would draw tourism, the state rechristened Lake City as Rocky Top. The demographics of the community have also shifted. Today, less than one percent of the students in Lake City Elementary are black, one percent are Hispanic, and another three percent are of mixed race. The generation of children who learned from Carl chose to move on, becoming lawyers and nurses and teachers and business owners elsewhere.

The little school building Carl and Laura fought for, however, lives on. I found it using Geneva’s map, following her directions along the route she once walked, past the white elementary school and to the front door on 6th Street. After Lake City’s schools finally desegregated in the fall of 1962, the county operated a kindergarten there and then an alternative school. After that, it sat vacant until the Boys and Girls Club took it over in 2005, using it for offices and storage. Mike Swisher, the director, was hesitant to let me take pictures inside. “It looks horrible,” he said. “It would make me embarrassed.”

Though I understood Mike’s reluctance to let me record the piles of goods around us, I was impressed by the supplies he’d amassed. I counted forty-three boxes of water bottles piled on the stage, donations from Walmart that will hydrate the kids during their summertime field trips and the annual Badges to Baseball program. 3M has given Post-It notes and scissors and glue sticks and paints and glitter. The club’s gardening supplies are in the hallway for now. When summer comes, the kids will fill Main Street Baptist’s green space with vegetables to feed their families and stock the local food pantry. 

At some point during the building’s sixty-two-year history, someone added a false wall, creating a second classroom, which is where Mike stores most of the club’s athletic supplies, including enough baseball bats to field a league, several bags of kids’ golf clubs, and an oversized set of plastic chess pieces. Soon there will be more gear. One of the board members promises either a new bike or a set of athletic shoes along with a ball to every student who keeps up their grades, gets marks for good behavior, and regularly attends both school and the Boys and Girls Club.

Mike is a lifelong Lake City/Rocky Top native. His father moved there to run a mining outfit, which Mike directed until selling the company in 2008. The club was dying, and the board asked him to help resurrect it. Today, the club serves more than half of Lake City’s four hundred seventy-two elementary school students, providing academic enrichment, nutritional education, and physical activity along with hot meals. The kids need these programs. The state categorizes forty-seven percent of students at the school as economically disadvantaged; sixty-nine percent qualify for free or reduced lunches. Almost twenty-five percent have special needs. In 2015, only fifty-two percent of them were proficient in math and thirty-five percent were proficient in reading/language arts, well below the state’s averages.

The local school system doesn’t have the funding needed to overcome this inertia. “The interstate has hurt the town,” Mike told me. “Used to be that you had to go through town to go to Knoxville. Now you just go around.” Most of the local restaurants have closed, run out by the McDonald’s at Exit 128. Gone also are the hardware store and the movie theater. Last summer, the town lost its only grocery store. “Gas stations and fast food instead of small businesses,” Mike said, shaking his head. The Boys and Girls Club is left to fill the gaps.

By the front door, Mike showed me the placard from the school’s dedication. “You’re sure this was a black school?” he asks me. “I had no clue.” Then he pointed out the termite infestation in the door frames and the water damage on the ceiling from an ice storm a few winters back. “My goal is to buy a bunch of ceiling tiles,” he said. All such maintenance is up to him; the county has long since stopped investing in this building.

We walked outside and I took photos of the façade the Lockes fought so hard to create. I tried to see past the cracked window panes to the decades of children changed by the work that had taken place on this campus. As I circled the building, one of Mike’s teachers arrived to pick up supplies so she could start her day. 


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Rachel Louise Martin is a writer and historian based in Nashville. She has written for O Magazine, the Atlantic online, and CityLab, and she has a PhD in women’s and gender history from UNC Chapel Hill.

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