Middle Tennessee State University’s Albert Gore Research Center has been awarded a $213,000 federal grant to fund the Brown v. Board of Education Oral History Project.
Funded by the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Park in Topeka, Kansas, the 30-month research project will allow Gore Center staff to conduct extensive oral history interviews documenting the impact of the 1954 Supreme Court decision to end school segregation.
“The project is geared toward preserving the stories of people engaged in education in all facets and life in general in the communities that comprised the five cases that were combined to create the Brown case,” Gore Center director Louis Kyriakoudes said.
In addition to Topeka, cases in four other states formed the consolidated plaintiffs: Summerton, South Carolina; Farmville, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Wilmington, Claymont and Hockessin, Delaware.
“We will be interviewing people in these communities to capture the full history of the impact of the Brown decision and the story of educational equity leading up to our own time,” Kyriakoudes said.
History of Brown v. BOE
In this milestone case, the Supreme Court ruled that segregating children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional. The decision overturned the 1896 court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the principle of racial segregation under a separate-but-equal doctrine.
“Most of the fight was about equal access and the right to choose (schools) and the right to resources,” explained oral historian Jason R. McGowan, who will travel over the next 2 ½ years to collect stories from around 100 residents in these communities involved in the Brown case.
In some cases, parents wanted their children to attend the school that was a block away. Others wanted better educational materials and facilities, which were often subpar. By documenting the stories of everyday citizens, the complex history behind these struggles for integration will be preserved.
“We can find scholastic materials on the cases themselves. But what that neglects to inform us of are the people involved in the cases — their lives during this time of segregation going into integration,” said McGowan, a graduate of MTSU’s Master of Arts in Liberal Arts program, has served as the Gore Center’s National Endowment for the Humanities oral history fellow since 2022.
Preserving stories of integration
Over the past few years, McGowan has interviewed local residents about their experiences as members of the first generation of students to integrate Middle Tennessee’s public schools in the late 1960s.
McGowan’s master’s thesis focused on the history of Holloway High School, which was integrated 14 years after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that segregation was unconstitutional.
“These stories need to be preserved, especially nowadays. A lot of places are trying to etch out or negate the history of Black Americans,” McGowan said. “If you try to take these histories out of the curriculum of public schools, it’s saying Black people were not important. They may have lived, but they didn’t exist.
“If we fail to give the facts and the truth of the matter of what was occurring at that time, then we’ve done ourselves a disservice as a country.”
The Brown case also opened the door for the Civil Rights Movement to gain foothold, creating an even greater need to preserve these oral histories.
“You might read a history book about the Civil Rights Movement, about segregation, about how Black people may have been treated,” McGowan said. “This grant gives me the opportunity to do the same thing I did in my community, with other communities.”
This National Park Service grant comes on the heels of Kyriakoudes winning two major oral history grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2021, totaling more than $1.3 million: “Diversifying Oral History Practice: A Fellowship Program for Under/Unemployed Oral Historians” ($825,000) and “Global Cultures, Political Communication, and Women’s Suffrage” ($499,997).
About the Gore Center
The Albert Gore Research Center is dedicated to the study of modern American politics, education and Southern U.S. history with an emphasis on Middle Tennessee. Located on the first floor of Andrew L. Todd Hall on campus, the center is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts.
The Gore Center archive is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Friday, by appointment. Admission is free. Call 615-898-2632 or email Louis.Kyriakoudes@mtsu.edu or archivist, Hannah.Meller@mtsu.edu.
Off-campus visitors should obtain a special one-day permit from MTSU’s Office of Parking and Transportation at http://www.mtsu.edu/parking/visit.php. A searchable campus parking map is available at http://tinyurl.com/MTSUParkingMap.
— Nancy DeGennaro (Nancy.DeGennaro@mtsu.edu)