Vanderbilt honoring 21 Nashville Civil Rights leaders


Commodores hosting Equality Weekend at hoops games this weekend

Nashville, Tenn. – In celebration of Black History Month, Vanderbilt athletics is set to honor 21 of Nashville’s leading civil rights figures at its men’s and women’s basketball games as part of its equality weekend by wearing special Nike uniforms during its basketball games this weekend.

The university will honor those 21 individuals, as well as celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vanderbilt’s Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard breaking the color barrier in SEC basketball, with special events surrounding its men’s basketball game against South Carolina on Saturday, Feb. 18 and women’s game against Ole Miss on Sunday, Feb. 19. The equality weekend uniforms, created exclusively for Vanderbilt by Nike, serve as a way to recognize those who fought for social justice and civil rights in the South, and beyond.

“As I watch our sporting events, I realize how important athletics is to the concept of diversity in our society,” Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs and Athletics Director David Williams said. “In many ways athletics is a leader in that area and certainly can and should be a pacesetter. It is important that we stop and think about how all of this happened. Who were the people in our history and society that allowed the basketball games we watch today to have the diversity we see among the young people playing the game and attending our universities? Who were those folks who worked hard to make the city of Nashville and Vanderbilt University an open and welcoming place for all of us? I am honored to be a part of this great university as we take the time to recognize these icons, for they are truly heroes. I am humbled to stand on their shoulders for it is their leadership and courage that paved the way for all of us.”

Alongside Dillard and Wallace, the honorees include a civil rights attorney, a newspaper reporter, a former state senator, a former Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court and many more historic figures. The university plans to recognize each honoree and/or his or her family before and during both basketball games at Memorial Gymnasium.

“I am really thankful as a coach to be part of such an awesome opportunity at Vanderbilt,” men’s basketball coach Bryce Drew said. “This is a great compliment to individuals like Perry Wallace, as well as the people around him who supported him and gave him strength to do what he did. There will be a lot of smiles and tears this weekend, and it’s all for a great cause.”

“It is going to be a special night at Memorial Gym,” said women’s basketball coach Stephanie White. “It’s a tremendous honor to be a part of this initiative. We are both proud and humbled to have the opportunity to recognize and celebrate the men and women who helped shape our country and opened so many doors that were previously closed.”

Vanderbilt men’s basketball tips off against South Carolina on Saturday, Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. CT. The Commodore women will face Ole Miss on Sunday at 2 p.m. CT.


George Barrett

Known as “Citizen” Barrett for his penchant for representing the common man against powerful interests, George Barrett was considered one of the top civil rights attorneys in Nashville and the U.S. for more than 50 years. A graduate of Vanderbilt Law School, Barrett advocated for students participating in Nashville civil rights activities in the 1960s, famously represented TSU professor Rita Geier in a landmark case that ultimately desegregated Tennessee colleges and universities, and was still working on behalf of the disenfranchised and the underdog until his death in 2014.

Mary Frances Berry

Born in Nashville in 1936, Mary Frances Berry is Professor of American Social Thought and of History at the University of Pennsylvania and formerly the chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and president of the Organization of American Historians. She attended segregated Nashville schools and began college at Fisk before earning her undergraduate degree at Howard University. She earned her PhD and law degrees at the University of Michigan. In 1976, she became chancellor of the University of Colorado, the first black woman to head a major research university. In 1984, Berry co-founded the Free South Africa Movement, dedicated abolishing apartheid in South Africa. She has received 33 honorary degrees.

Adolpho Birch Jr.

Adolpho A. Birch Jr. was an attorney and judge who made history as the first African American to serve as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. After earning his law degree, Birch came to Nashville to teach medical law at Meharry Medical College and law at Fisk and TSU. In the early 1960s he provided volunteer legal representation to civil rights activists who had been arrested for conducting sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. In 1963 Birch was appointed assistant public defender for Davidson County and later became the first African American to work as a prosecutor in Nashville. In 1990, after serving as a judge in various courts, he was elected to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The A. A. Birch Criminal Justice Building downtown was dedicated in his honor in 2006.

Robert Churchwell

After serving in the Army during World War II and graduating from Fisk University, Robert Churchwell was hired by The Nashville Banner and became one of the first blacks to work full-time as a reporter at a white, Southern newspaper. At first, employees at the Banner would not let Churchwell work in the newsroom. For five years, he wrote his stories at home and walked to the paper to deliver them to the city editor. In 1965, Churchwell became the first African American member of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. After retirement in 1981, Churchwell worked for TSU in its Bureau of Public Relations. In 1994, he was named a charter member of the National Association of Black Journalists; and inducted into the association’s regional Hall of Fame.

Godfrey Dillard

As a member of the 1966-67 Vanderbilt freshman basketball team, Godfrey Dillard joined Perry Wallace as the first African American basketball players in the Southeastern Conference. Dillard had come to Nashville from Detroit, where he was a multi-sport star athlete and student at Visitation High School. After injuring his knee in pre-season practice prior to his sophomore season, Dillard was unable to play that year and became involved on campus with the first Afro American Student Association and black newspaper, Rap from the 11th Floor. Dillard transferred to Eastern Michigan after recovering from his injury, earned a law degree from the University of Michigan, and later became a State Department diplomat, attorney and judge. He now lives in Detroit and is active in state politics.

Coyness Ennix

Coyness Ennix, Sr., was an attorney and a political and civic leader who came to Nashville in 1918. After earning a law degree, he founded Kent School of Law for African Americans in Nashville, and served as a local attorney for 50 years. In the late 1940s he became president of The Solid Block, an organization designed to unify the black community in its opposition to political discrimination, including the poll tax. After thousands of signatures and many petitions were delivered to the Tennessee General Assembly, the poll tax was ended. Ennix was the first black member of the Nashville Housing Authority and gained appointment to the Nashville Board of Education, serving through the integration of Nashville schools. He was a member of the city’s Auditorium Commission, which directed the building of Municipal Auditorium.

Francis Guess

A longtime civil rights and business leader, Francis Guess’ place in Nashville history was permanently memorialized when the “Connector” road between North Nashville and West End was named in his honor. After serving in Vietnam, Guess earned a bachelor’s degree from TSU and an MBA from Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Management. He was an ardent supporter of equal opportunity through public and private positions. He served 30 years on the Tennessee Commission on Human Rights and was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In the private sector, he served as executive vice president of The Danner Company and executive director of the Danner Foundation. He held board positions with the National Coalition of Human Rights and the American Institute for Managing Diversity, among many others.

Senator Thelma Harper

Thelma Harper has been a pioneer as both a woman and an African American in local and state politics for more than 30 years. She was elected to the Nashville Metro Council in 1983 and served for eight years, and then in 1991 became the first African American woman elected to the Tennessee state Senate. She has served the 19th District ever since, representing the urban core of Nashville. Senator Harper has also served as a board member of the Nashville Downtown Partnership, and holds a degree in business administration/accounting from TSU. She introduced the legislation that renamed a portion of U.S. Highway 41 in Nashville after civil rights legend Rosa Parks.

Bishop Joseph Johnson

Vanderbilt students know the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, but do they know why the building is named in his honor? In 1953, Bishop Johnson became the first African American to be admitted to Vanderbilt. He went on to become the first African American to graduate, receiving the Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1954, and the first to receive the Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1958. In 1971, he became the first African American member of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust. During his 33 years as a New Testament professor at Fisk and two other schools, he was considered a brilliant scholar who touched the lives of numerous young ministers. In 1966, Bishop Johnson was elected the 34th bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. He authored five books and died in 1979.

Rev. James Lawson

Martin Luther King Jr. called Rev. James Lawson the world’s foremost expert on nonviolence, a mantle Rev. Lawson still holds today. As a Vanderbilt Divinity student, Lawson taught the principles of non-violent action to the Nashville college students who in 1960 protested the city’s segregated downtown lunch counters, and later organized the civil rights protests known as the Freedom Rides. In 1968, he organized sanitation workers in Memphis calling for more humane working conditions. Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt when university administrators learned of his civil rights activity in 1960; the university later apologized for its actions, and Lawson was brought back to campus as a Distinguished Professor in 2006. He has since donated his papers to Vanderbilt’s special collections and archives. Today, he lives in Los Angeles.

Ed Martin

A former pitcher in baseball’s Negro Leagues, Ed Martin was head basketball coach at South Carolina State from 1955 to 1968, where he coached seven conference champions and participated in five NCAA and three NAIA tournaments. He then built a powerhouse at TSU from 1968 to 1985, taking six teams to the NCAA Tournament. He was selected as National Coach of the Year in 1972 and sent 16 TSU players to the NBA. Martin’s career record was 516-254, and when he left TSU to become an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, he had the fifth-best winning percentage in the nation. Martin’s record of service to the community was just as impressive. He served on the boards of the Special Olympics, United Way and Boys and Girls Clubs, and was a staunch advocate for African American student-athletes at Vanderbilt as both a coach and professor at Peabody.

Leatrice McKissack

No name is more revered in the history of African American architecture than McKissack, and Leatrice McKissack is the matriarch of the family business. A graduate of Nashville’s Pearl High School and Fisk University, McKissack became CEO of McKissack and McKissack in 1983 and grew the business to new heights. In 1987, the firm was awarded a contract to design the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and Ms. McKissack also oversaw the firm’s expansion into new markets, including Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Other milestone projects for the McKissack firm include the Tuskegee Airbase and the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Walter Murray

Walter Murray, a Nashville native, graduated from Pearl High School in 1966 as the school’s salutatorian. He and best friend Perry Wallace were among Vanderbilt’s first African American undergraduates. During his time as a popular and respected student at Vanderbilt, he was vice president of the Student Government Association and a founder of the Afro-American Student Association. Murray later served on Vanderbilt University’s Board of Trust, elected as a Young Alumni Trustee in April 1970. Murray died in 1998 after serving as a minister in Boston. In 2007, Vanderbilt named a new residence hall on the Ingram Commons, and a memorial lecture, in his honor. His son James is currently a graduate student at Vanderbilt.

Betty Nixon

Betty Nixon blazed a trail as a pioneer in local and state politics, including a lifelong commitment to civil rights, women’s rights, and preserving Nashville’s neighborhoods. She traced her advocacy for civil rights to her childhood growing up in West Nashville, where she became aware of the impact of segregation on neighborhoods and schools. She served on the Metro Council from 1975 to 1987 and ran for Mayor of Nashville in both 1987 and 1991. She became the first woman to run a statewide campaign in 1984, when she was state director or Walter Mondale’s run for president. She later led Jim Sasser’s successful senatorial campaign. A graduate of Hillsboro High School and SMU, Nixon earned her MBA from Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management and worked as Vanderbilt’s assistant vice chancellor for community, government and neighborhood relations from 1990 to 2007.

Rosetta Miller-Perry

Legendary Tennessee Tribune publisher, Navy veteran and civil rights activist, Rosetta Miller-Perry is one of Nashville’s most revered African American female pioneers. Miller-Perry worked closely with Z. Alexander Looby, Reverend Kelly Miller Smith and other civil rights leaders before moving to Memphis, where she worked closely with the SCLC and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She was brought into the United States Civil Rights Commission in 1960 as a clerk typist, then as a field representative. Assigned to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1975, Perry became Nashville Area Director of the EEOC. She retired from government service in 1990. In 1992, Perry founded the Tennessee Tribune newspaper to cover Nashville’s African American community, and established the Greater Nashville Black Chamber of Commerce in 1998.

Dorothy Phillips

In 1967, Dorothy Phillips became the first African-American woman to receive an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt. In 2016, Vanderbilt created a new chair to promote diversity and inclusion and named it in Phillips’ honor. The Dorothy J. Phillips Chair to Support Diversity in STEM will encourage minority participation in science, technology, engineering and math. She received her doctorate from the University of Cincinnati in 1974. She has been an American Chemical Society member since 1973 and was elected to the Society’s board of directors in 2013. She worked for Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan, and Waters Corporation, an analytical laboratory instrument manufacturing company in Milford, Massachusetts. At Waters, she climbed the corporate ladder from research and development scientist to board director.

Prof. Richard and Gertrude Rempfer

Richard and Gertrude Rempfer didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk. After becoming involved in civil rights activities while teaching at Antioch College, they moved to Nashville to join the faculty at Fisk, where they taught math and physics. As white professors, they opened their home to Fisk students, hosting nightly tutoring sessions and loaning their car – and money – to students involved in civil rights activities. Challenging Nashville’s segregated school system, the Rempfers attempted to enroll their own children in black schools. Eventually their daughter Jean became one of just two white students at Fisk Children’s School. The Rempfers left Nashville to join the faculty at Portland State University, were Gertrude retired in 1977 but continued to conduct research in photoelectron microscopy until just weeks before her death in 2011.

John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler served for 43 years as an award-winning journalist for The Tennessean. At his retirement he was editor, publisher and CEO. In 1982, Seigenthaler became founding editorial director of USA Today and served in that position for a decade. Seigenthaler left journalism in the early 1960s to serve in the U.S. Justice Department as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. His work in the field of civil rights led to his service as chief negotiator with the governor of Alabama during the Freedom Rides. During that crisis, while attempting to aid Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., he was attacked by a mob of Klansmen and hospitalized. In 1991, Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center, with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment rights and values.

Kelly Miller Smith

Kelly Miller Smith was the influential pastor of Nashville’s First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, from 1951 until his death in 1984. He was also assistant dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1969 to 1984. As president of the Nashville NAACP, founder and president of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference and a founding board member of the Nashville Urban League, he was one of the city’s most influential black leaders. Time magazine credited Smith for the city’s transition away from Jim Crow and Ebony magazine named him “One of America’s Ten Most Outstanding Preachers.” Smith helped organize and support Nashville students in the sit-ins leading to the integration of the city’s lunch counters in 1960. In 2014, a Vanderbilt residence hall was named in his honor, and Vanderbilt’s divinity school houses the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies.

Ed Temple

Considered by some to be the greatest American coach in any sport, Ed Temple was a women’s track and field pioneer as coach at Tennessee State University for 44 years and head coach of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Track and Field Team in 1960 and 1964. During his coaching career at TSU, forty members of the famed Tigerbelle teams represented their countries in Olympic competition. Coach Temple led the Tigerbelles to 34 national titles, and eight Tigerbelles have been inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, including Wilma Rudolph and Chandra Cheeseborough, the current women’s coach at TSU. Temple is a member of nine different Halls of Fame, including the United States Olympic Hall of Fame, the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. In 2015, a statue memorializing Coach Temple was unveiled near First Tennessee Park.

Perry Wallace

Perry Wallace, now a law professor at American University, joined Godfrey Dillard as the first African American basketball players in the SEC when they joined the Vanderbilt freshman team in 1966-67. Wallace became the first black scholarship SEC player in any sport to play a full four-year career. The valedictorian at Nashville’s Pearl High School, Wallace was the star center on the 1966 TSSAA state champions, completing an undefeated season in the first year black and white schools played together in the state tournament. Wallace earned an engineering degree at Vanderbilt and later graduated from Columbia University Law School. He served as an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department for many years. His jersey hangs in the rafters at Memorial Gym, and the Perry Wallace Engineering Scholarship has been created in recognition of his excellence in the classroom.


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