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'I feel proud' | Oak Ridge 85 honored six decades after integration efforts

Eighty-five Black students entered Oak Ridge High School and Robertsville Junior High School in September 1955. This year marks the 65th anniversary.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — This week leaders in Oak Ridge are remembering the "Oak Ridge 85," lauded for being the first Black students to integrate Oak Ridge public schools.

Eighty-five Black students entered Oak Ridge High School and Robertsville Junior High School in September 1955. Barbara Sims was among them.

"I had a good classroom of nice people who were very accepting and we got along, the teacher was nice," she recalled. "To be recognized now, it's a big deal to me... It's a long time coming, but it's here now."

Ernestine Avery is another member of the Oak Ridge 85. She was just 14 years old when she started at Oak Ridge High School.

"We didn't know what to expect, but we went with it," she said. "It feels good to tell about [that time] now... It's a blessing. I am proud."

This year marks the 65th anniversary of that historic moment. The pending move was announced in early 1955. At the time, according to organizers, the federal government still owned and operated the city's schools.

Reverend Harold Middlebrook spoke about the Oak Ridge 85's impact and legacy, as well as the many obstacles Black people are still facing today.

"The people of Oak Ridge had enough sense to know that it was inevitable: truth was marching on," he said. "The battle was then... the struggle was then... but we're sad to tell you, the struggle ain't over yet."

The Clinton 12 are widely credited with desegregating Clinton High, the first public high school in the South -- in 1956.

Surviving members of the Oak Ridge 85 are proud of the role they played in ensuring Black students could get an equal education with whites.

"We have a story that needs to be told because the 85 students that immigrated to school -- the African-Americans -- their legacy is going to be lost because they're dying out, the stories are not going to be told," said Rose Weaver, anniversary event co-chair.

Credit: Submitted
Members of the Oak Ridge 85 -- Larry Gipson, Deloise Mitchell, Emma McCaskill, and Mary Guinn. Also shown is Eric Dozier.