When Ron Coffin heard he would be one of the first students to desegregate Maryville High School 55 years ago, he told his father that he could take name-calling but didn’t know if he could take someone spitting at him.
“You will take what you need to take because it’s not about you; it’s about those that will come after you,” his father said.
On Tuesday, Ron Coffin’s grandson, Zuriel Hampton-Coffin, a rising MHS junior, visited a classroom while Coffin and his cousin, Jerry Porter, a 1983 graduate, shared their experiences with today’s students who have been studying the civil rights era.
“He feels totally involved and included in Maryville High School,” Coffin said later of his grandson.
Yet Coffin told students in Advanced Placement English and U.S. history classes that he makes a distinction between desegregation and integration, and “Maryville High School is still in the process of integrating.”
Looking through his grandson’s yearbook, he saw only two black teachers. “There’s no diversity,” he said.
“You’re going to be students of the world,” Coffin said. While MHS excels at preparing students for college, “it’s a disservice that you don’t get to learn from people of different backgrounds.
“That’s still a fight that we have to fight,” Coffin told the students.
Value of diversity
Porter told the students the value of diversity he sees in his role as vice president of research and development for global home care at Procter & Gamble, leading a team that works on such well-known brands as Tide and Swiffer.
Porter cited research that companies with diversity in race, gender and thought grow 19 percent faster and earn 10 percent more profit.
With a diverse team, he said during an interview later, “We’re able to solve problems faster and we get better solutions.”
On a personal level, knowing diverse people improves empathy and helps overcome unconscious bias, he told the students, and his life is fuller from knowing diverse people.
Coffin began by putting the year MHS desegregated into historic perspective. It wasn’t just the year of the Beatles’ first U.S. hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and a time when the annual tuition at Harvard University was $1,520.
“Congress voted to guarantee women equal pay for equal work in 1963. Now we’re in 2018. That hasn’t happened yet,” he said to some laughter.
That also was the year Medgar Evers, a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and President John Kennedy were assassinated and Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood to block students from enrolling in the state university.
“That was one of the most horrific years in the struggle for civil rights and human rights issues,” Coffin said.
Coffin and three of his cousins, Jerry’s sister Sylvia Porter, Connie Hooper and Frank Young, began classes at MHS on Sept. 3, 1963, and were joined a week later by Gervy Howard.
The move from the all-black W.J. Hale School about two miles away to MHS was a quantum leap, Coffin said, one that was both good and bad.
While Hale had only outdated, hand-me-down textbooks from MHS, the previously all-white school had well-equipped classrooms.
Yet, Coffin said, “We came to a school that tolerated us at best.”
A police escort met the students on the hill by New Providence Presbyterian Church, and they stayed in the principal’s office until white students finished the morning assembly and went to class.
While there was no physical violence, the black students heard the slurs and had things written on lockers. At the end of the first year the principal asked them not to attend the prom, Coffin said.
“It did get better over time, but I never truly felt a part of Maryville High School,” he said.
20 years later
Porter explained that as a student in the early 1980s, he didn’t experience overt racism and had broad sets of friends.
But he had only one teacher of African-American descent, in junior high, and the Confederate battle flag was displayed throughout the school.
“It did not make us feel welcome,” Porter said.
Teacher Penny Ferguson recalled the year the Rebel flag was on the cover of the yearbook, and a black student tried to remove it with bleach. Ferguson said she spoke to the administration then about the continued use of the flag.
According to news stories in the archives of The Daily Times, Maryville High School did not remove the Rebel flags from the cafeteria wall and trays until 1999, and students continued to display it at football games before a school board ban on all flags in 2005.
Coffin said being one of the first black students at MHS prepared him to serve in Vietnam, “because it taught me how to deal with stress.”
One student asked Coffin how he felt when President Gerald Ford granted amnesty to those who had evaded the draft. Coffin, a retired federal administrator with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said he didn’t have a problem with that.
However, Coffin described that a veteran who suffered untreated post-traumatic stress disorder received a dishonorable discharge and died homeless in Knoxville. He said the government could have done more for those who served.
He answered questions from students and teacher Mark White about the war — questions that included racism, drugs and the impact of the first televised war.
Despite war protests when he returned, Coffin refused to take off his uniform before leaving the airport and wore his combat boots when he began classes at the University of Tennessee.
He also told the students that the flight he was on when returning from Vietnam after 18 months was ordered to stay in the air for two extra hours until war protesters left the airport. “We were coming back from a combat zone and could not land in our own country because of protests,” he said.
Visiting the classroom Tuesday were state Reps. Jerome Moon and Bob Ramsey and state Sen. Art Swann, who also attended MHS in the late 1960s.
Swann, a 1971 graduate, recalled a time when students painted a Rebel flag in the end zone of the football field.
“I remember the rationale was not color but Rebels,” Swann said. “We felt like we were Rebels and that it was a good thing to be a Rebel.”
“You were Rebels, too,” he told Coffin. “You had to survive in a difficult climate. You had to try to get along, but you didn’t want to lose who you were.”
Coffin responded that no one ever asked the black students what they felt. “I was never a Rebel at heart; I was a radical at heart,” he said.