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Shelby County Schools honors ‘Memphis 13′ 60 years after schools integrate

Published: Nov. 30, 2021 at 10:49 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - It’s an honor 60 years in the making.

The Memphis 13, the first Black students to integrate Memphis City Schools (MCS), were recognized in a special ceremony at Tuesday night’s Shelby County Schools (SCS) Board meeting.

The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1954. But it wouldn’t be until 1961 when Memphis desegregated its schools, thanks to the bravery of 13 Black first-graders and their courageous parents, who took a leap of faith to move the community forward.

The SCS Board officially recognized these trailblazers of education, giving each a plaque and thunderous applause for the roles they played in Memphis civil rights history.

As first graders, they were the first Black children to integrate the all-white Memphis City Schools system, volunteered by their parents after members of the NAACP went door to door looking for moms and dads who were willing to let their children be the pioneers in MCS.

“I’m just glad they’re finally honoring us because when I was little, you’d always hear about the Little Rock 9, Little Rock 9,” said Sharon Malone. “I’d be looking at the TV and wonder what about the Memphis 13? What about the Memphis 13?”

“Actually, it was only supposed to be 12, but because we’re twins, my mom told them you can’t take one of my babies without the other. So, that’s how it ended up being 13,” said Malone’s twin sister, Sheila Malone Conway.

They were only five and six years old on that fateful first day of school. The Memphis 13 attended four elementary schools: Bruce, Gordon, Rozelle, and Springdale.

“It was scary, scary every day and it was hard, but I had a strong mother,” said Harry Williams. “She’s deceased now, but she made it all possible. She thought I needed a better education and she wasn’t really worried about me because she felt like I could hold my own.”

“I really did have it good because of my teachers,” said Alvin Freeman. “I never did want to quit. I had one teacher who took me under her wing. She gave me a picture of herself and my mother kept that photo in mint condition for 50 years.”

Freeman said his family was eventually forced to move because his mother lost her job after her employer found out she was sending her Black child to an all-white school.

“It’s an indescribable feeling being honored today,” said Freeman.

Three of the Memphis 13 have passed away, including Cyia Hill’s father, Clarence Williams.

“He told me that it felt like they entered him into the lion’s den,” said Hill. “When I asked him about it, he was still kind of hesitant. He didn’t really want to talk about it a lot, so there was probably still hurt there, or fear. But I’m extremely proud of him.”

Dwania Kyles’ father, activist and NAACP member Dr. Reverend Billy Kyles, didn’t hesitate to sign his eldest daughter up to help desegregate city schools. She admits there were dark moments and cruel words from classmates and treatment that Kyles would have to process years later.

Action News 5 asked her if she would do it again.

“Absolutely,” she responded. “And our children are really in the midst of doing it again because here we are in 2021 and the school system is as segregated in 2021 as it was in 1961. The law needed to change then and our hearts need to change now.”

The Memphis 13 and their families said they would like to see their documentary shown in classrooms as a teaching tool. The struggle for equality, they agreed, is far from over.

“Look at all the people who’ve come so far, and here I am representing my mom to let you know we have come far, and still got a long way to go,” said Andrea Payne Johnson, daughter of Deborah Ann Holt.

To read more about this important moment in Memphis history, click here.

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