Vanderbilt athletics honors civil rights leaders during Equality Weekend

by Mitch Light

Simply celebrating Black History Month wasn’t enough for David Williams and Vanderbilt Athletics.

“We took the position that, yes, we are going to celebrate, but we are (also) going to honor and educate,” said Williams, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs.

The product of Williams’ vision was Equality Weekend, a two-day event that honored 21 of Nashville’s civil rights leaders and celebrated the 50th anniversary of Vanderbilt breaking the SEC’s color barrier with men’s basketball players Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard. The 21 leaders were honored at the Commodores’ men’s basketball game on Feb. 18 and the women’s game on Feb. 19—both Vanderbilt victories.

“[rquote]As an institution dedicated to inclusivity, diversity and celebrating the full potential found in each member of our community, we are forever indebted to those whose unwavering pursuit of civil and human rights has helped lead the way to a more just world,”[/rquote] Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said.

Dr. Andre L. Churchwell, the son of the late Robert Churchwell, a veteran of World War II who became one of the leading black journalists in the South, said the celebration was a mark of how far the city and university has come in healing the racial wounds of the 1960s.

“It’s a great day when Nashville, and more importantly Vanderbilt—such a magnificent international university sitting in the middle of this cauldron—reaches out and acknowledges African Americans who pushed civil rights forward for the whole city,” Churchwell said. “Despite whatever challenges we still face in the country around race, we’ve come a mighty long way.”

To help commemorate the event, the men’s and women’s players wore special-edition “equality” uniforms made by Nike that featured the name of an honoree on each jersey.

“It was an awesome thing, each one of us representing someone greater than ourselves and greater than Vanderbilt,” said Luke Kornet, a senior on the men’s team who proudly wore the “Wallace” jersey. “These people impacted so many lives. It made the whole day that much more special.”

One of the many highlights of the weekend occurred at halftime of the men’s game, when Dillard was the surprise recipient of the Perry Wallace Courage Award.

[lquote]“I have gotten awards in my life, but I have to admit … this tops it all,”[/lquote] said Dillard, who attended Vanderbilt as a scholarship basketball player as a freshman in 1966-67 before transferring to Eastern Michigan. “My Vanderbilt experience had so much to do with my formative years and led me to who I am today.”

Stephanie White, Vanderbilt’s first-year women’s basketball coach, said the weekend offered an invaluable opportunity for her players to gain a better appreciation of the city that has become their home away from home.

“For our student-athletes to learn about the civil rights movement in Nashville is truly an honor, and we are so grateful to be a part of it,” White said. “Everything that we do, day in and day out as coaches and teachers and leaders, is to prepare future leaders.”

Churchwell summed up the weekend in appropriate fashion—and not just because the men’s team beat South Carolina 71–62 and the women’s team topped Ole Miss 85–67 before an enthusiastic home crowd.

“The V of Vanderbilt, maybe,” he said, “to some extent, points to victory in social justice.”

The Honorees

George Barrett

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Myka Dancy (#12) and his daughter Lucy Barrett Thomason and granddaughter Elizabeth Brewer

Known as “Citizen” Barrett for his penchant for representing the common man against powerful interests, Barrett was considered one of the top civil rights attorneys in Nashville and the United States 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

Represented by Vanderbilt men’s basketball student-athlete Clevon Brown (#15) and her brother, the Rev. Troy Merritt

Born in Nashville in 1936, 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 University before earning her undergraduate degree at Howard University. She earned her Ph.D. 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 to abolishing apartheid in South Africa. She has received 33 honorary degrees.

Adolpho Birch Jr.

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Cierra Walker (#10) and his son Adolpho Birch III

Birch 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 Tennessee State University. 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

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Rachel Bell (#3) and his son Dr. Andre Churchwell

After serving in the Army during World War II and graduating from Fisk University, 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

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Kayla Overbeck (#0)

As a member of the 1966-67 Vanderbilt freshman basketball team, 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 multisport 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

Represented by Vanderbilt men’s basketball student-athlete Riley LaChance (#13) and his son Dr. 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

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Minta Spears (#23) and his daughter Maria Guess and mother Kathryn Driver

A longtime civil rights and business leader, 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 Graduate 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.

Sen. Thelma Harper

Represented by Vanderbilt men’s basketball student-athlete Joe Toye (#2)

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 Senate. She has served the 19th District ever since, representing the urban core of Nashville. 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

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Marqu’es Webb (#22) and his granddaughter, the Rev. Cynthia Johnson-Oliver

Vanderbilt students know the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, but do they know why the building is named in his honor? In 1953, 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, Johnson was elected the 34th bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. He authored five books and died in 1979.

Rev. James Lawson

Represented by Vanderbilt men’s basketball student-athlete Matthew Fisher-Davis (#5) and Vanderbilt Professor Lou Outlaw

Martin Luther King Jr. called Lawson the world’s foremost expert on nonviolence, a mantle Lawson still holds today. As a Vanderbilt Divinity student, Lawson taught the principles of nonviolent 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 University Archives. Today, he lives in Los Angeles.

Ed Martin

Represented by Vanderbilt men’s basketball student-athlete Djery Baptiste (#12) and his wife Ruth Martin

A former pitcher in baseball’s Negro Leagues, 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

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Erin Whalen (#21)

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, she 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 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

Represented by Vanderbilt men’s basketball student-athlete Payton Willis (#1) and his son James Murray

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 Martha Rivers Ingram Commons as well as a memorial lecture in his honor. His son James is currently a graduate student at Vanderbilt.

Betty Nixon

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Miaya Seawright (#41) and her daughter Anne Nixon

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 for Walter Mondale’s run for president. She later led Jim Sasser’s successful senatorial campaign. A graduate of Hillsboro High School and Southern Methodist University, 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

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete LeaLea Carter (#30)

A legendary Tennessee Tribune publisher, Navy veteran and civil rights activist, Miller-Perry is one of Nashville’s most revered African American female pioneers. Miller-Perry worked closely with Z. Alexander Looby, the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith and other civil rights leaders before moving to Memphis, where she worked closely with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference 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, Miller-Perry became the Nashville-area director of the EEOC. She retired from government service in 1990. In 1992, she 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

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Kaleigh Clemons-Green (#35)

In 1967, Phillips became the first African American woman to receive an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt. In 2016, Vanderbilt created the Dorothy J. Wingfield Phillips Chancellor’s Faculty Fellowships to support midcareer faculty members who are leaders in diversity in STEM. 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 the 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.

Richard and Gertrude Rempfer

Represented by Vanderbilt men’s basketball student-athlete Jeff Roberson (#11) and Vanderbilt Professor Vanessa Beasley

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

Represented by Vanderbilt men’s basketball student-athlete Nolan Cressler (#24) and his wife Dolores Seigenthaler

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, Alabama, 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

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Christa Reed (#33) and his son, the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith and wife Alice Risby

Smith was the influential pastor of Nashville’s First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, from 1951 until his death in 1984. He also was 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 10 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

Represented by Vanderbilt women’s basketball student-athlete Rebekah Dahlman (#1) and his daughter Edwina Temple

Considered by some to be the greatest American coach in any sport, 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, 40 members of the famed Tigerbelle teams represented their countries in Olympic competition. 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 Temple was unveiled near First Tennessee Park.

Perry Wallace

Represented by Vanderbilt men’s basketball student-athlete Luke Kornet (#3) and Wallace’s  sisters Jessie Wallace Jackson and Annie Wallace Sweet and nephew Willie Sweet

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.