You've no doubt heard of the Little Rock Nine — the first African American students to integrate public schools in the Arkansas capital. But what about the Memphis 13?
The stories of the first 13 black students to integrate Memphis City Schools have gone largely ignored. But now their contributions to desegregation have been immortalized with four new historical markers erected this past weekend by the Shelby County Historical Commission.
The markers were placed at the four schools — Bruce, Gordon, Rozelle, and Springdale Elementary Schools — in which the 13 enrolled on October 3, 1961.
"When I read that one of the Memphis 13 said they felt they had been forgotten, it was like a dagger in my heart," said the Rev. LaSimba Gray, who pushed for the markers through his work on the Historical Commission. "They did such a tremendous thing for the city in terms of human and civil rights."
The 13 first graders were chosen in 1961 by the NAACP in Memphis, after the organization filed suit against the city for dragging its feet on integration. Other schools in the South launched integration with older students and came up against violence. Memphis was the first city to use younger kids.
"The premise for using younger children was that young children would not be tainted. They wouldn't know bitterness and hatred and resort to violence. The NAACP chairman, the Rev. Billy Kyles, said he did not want to see what happened in Little Rock happen in Memphis," Gray said.
And there were no mobs or major violent incidents on that first day. But within the schools, many of the 13 experienced bullying and taunting. In a documentary on the Memphis 13 by University of Memphis law professor Daniel Kiel, Menelik Fombi detailed how some white boys would act like friends until they were in a group, and then they'd use the n-word.
"I internalized a lot. I cried a lot. I learned to hate school," Fombi said.
But Fombi — and five others from the original 13 — attended the marker unveilings last Saturday. Fombi told the crowd gathered at Bruce Elementary, the school he helped integrate along with Harry Williams and Dwania Kyles, that he never imagined something so good could come of his sacrifice.
"I never thought the memories would be so pleasant. I never thought I'd shed tears of joy. It was a battle worth fighting," Fombi said. "I'm thankful my parents had the wisdom, the courage, and the strength to do what they did."
Congressman Steve Cohen attended the unveiling at Bruce. While he awaited his turn to speak, he stood near the school's old cornerstone.
"I was just looking at the marker that's been here for 107 years that says 'Bruce Public School.' It was not a public school. It was a white school, and we shouldn't forget that," Cohen said in his speech. "That's why we're here with the Memphis 13. This became a public school in 1961."