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New Nashville Civil Rights Documentary Features TSU Alums

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – When Tennessee State University Alum Tanya Coplen Gray approached her high school classmates about producing a short documentary to commemorate their 50th year high school anniversary, Gray had no idea how important the project would become.

“This short film was done as a burden of love.  We did this out of love for one another, and
that’s really critical to me, to make sure people understand that is how it got
started,” says Gray, who graduated from TSU in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in
social work and a minor in sociology. 

Gray, along with her Cameron High School classmates
Deborah Majors Bell and Ida Venson Currie, serve as executive producers of  “The Past Is Prologue: The Cameron Class of
1969,” an award-winning documentary that recounts a significant, but
largely-forgotten, chapter of Nashville’s civil rights struggle that happened
during the late-1960s.

Featured are (l to r)Tanya Coplen Gray, Ola Hudson, Deborah Majors Bell, Ida Venson Currie, Mark Schlicher (Photo Submitted)

The film, which was produced and directed by Nashville
filmmaker Mark Schlicher, and co-produced by Lisa Venegas, will air on
Nashville Public Television, WNPT Channel 8 Sunday, February 16, at 10:30 p.m.,
and Wednesday, February 26, at 9:00 p.m..

In spring 1968, during a volatile period for race
relations in Nashville and throughout the United States, all-black Cameron high
school lost a high-profile basketball tournament game to Stratford, a
mostly-white school. A spontaneous protest and scuffles broke out afterward, as
many upset Cameron fans believed that the game had been unfairly officiated in
favor of Stratford.

In response, school authorities barred Cameron High
School from all athletics for an entire year, while Stratford received no
sanctions. In response to the punishment, parents, students, and supporters in
the community protested, marched in the streets, and enlisted famed civil
rights attorney Avon Williams, Jr., to champion their cause in federal court,
making it part of his long-running school desegregation lawsuit.

Currie, who secured a bachelor’s degree in English
Education from TSU in 1974, says former Cameron Principal O.R. Jackson,
marshaled the school’s faculty and staff to find ways for Cameron High School
seniors to enjoy their final year in spite of the punishment.

New Nashville Civil Rights Documentary Features TSU Alums
L TO R: Mark Schlicher, student extras, and Shelena Walden at Cameron High School (Photo Submitted)

“He knew we were not going to be coming to the stadium on
Friday night for football games. We were not going to be going to the gym in
the afternoon for pep rallies prior to the games. So he brought the vision to
the teachers, ‘Let’s do something for this senior class because they are
hurting in certain areas,’” says Currie, a retired commercial insurance product
developer and healthcare manager. “Mr. Jackson made sure we had our pep rally’s
on Friday afternoons, even if we didn’t have a game to attend. He also
orchestrated our senior class trip to Washington, D.C. during spring break,
which served as yet another memorable diversion to the suspension.”

Bell, a graduate of the Metropolitan School of Practical
Nursing at Vanderbilt Hospital and a retired licensed practical nurse, says in
spite of the security and assurance they received from parents and community
members, the unfair punishment left a lasting impression on their class.

“At the time, we were all young. We had no idea what a big
deal this was. We lived in a neighborhood where we had a lot of black support,
like our parents and our teachers,” says Bell. “Once this happened, that’s when
I really found out that I was considered a second class citizen.”

Schlicher says the documentary, which was funded in part by
the Metro Nashville Arts Commission THRIVE program, needs to be viewed by a
broad audience because of its historical significance.

New Nashville Civil Rights Documentary Features TSU Alums
Featured are (front row, l to r) Aaron Finley, Fletcher Moon, Tamiko Robinson Steele, Shawn Whitsell (back row, l to r) Co-Producer Lisa Venegas, Mark Schlicher, Shanika Gillespie, camera operator Keevan Guy at Seay-Hubbard UMC upstairs meeting room. (Photo Submitted)

“It was an honor to be able to do the 25 or so interviews
that were done with class members and with teachers, to learn the story and
share it in a way that honored the struggle and the triumph that the Class of
’69 went through and the place they have in the civil rights struggle in
Nashville,” says Schlicher, whose work as director or cinematographer has been
shown nationally on PBS, the Smithsonian Channel, Lifetime, and TBN.

After receiving rave reviews from classmates following the
film’s initial viewing, and subsequently winning “Best of Tennessee” at the
2019 International Black Film Festival, the group realized the film could serve
a larger purpose.

“We want to put this documentary in every public library and
to be able to hand it to school systems,” says Gray, a retired licensed
clinical social worker.

They believe the documentary will spark important
conversations about education, policy, neighborhoods and equity, as well as
bring awareness.

Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Enoch Fuzz
agrees. He plans to air the film at Kingdom Café, located at 2610 Jefferson
Street, on February 1, at 8:00 a.m. during One Nashville, a breakfast gathering
he initiated two years ago to bring people with resources, information and
awareness together to help progressive projects like “The Past Is Prologue”
succeed.

New Nashville Civil Rights Documentary Features TSU Alums
Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Enoch Fuzz (Photo Submitted)

“I was very touched by the story that these people told, and
I know that it could benefit some of the people in Nashville. There are some
good people in Nashville who want to understand race relations,” says Fuzz.

He says One Nashville gatherings, which are held every month
on first and third Saturdays, have attracted leaders from throughout the city including
the mayor, vice mayor, secretary of state, public defender and city council
members.  He says some attendees are
looking for meaningful projects to support, while others come seeking
assistance.

“I was having people call me everyday with different needs,
and I said these people need to meet one another. So rather than me meeting
with everybody differently everyday, I came up with the concept of getting
everyone in the same room,” says Fuzz.  “One
Nashville gets people from all over the community in the same room.”

Mary Jackson Owens, the Cameron alum who told Fuzz
about the project, hopes the film can garner financial support, so young people
can learn about this almost forgotten moment in Nashville’s civil rights
struggle.

“It hasn’t been talked about in 50 years. It’s time to have
a conversation about it, and tell people about the history,” she says. “A lot
of our children don’t know anything about being in an all-black school and the
loyalty that we have for Cameron.”

“The Past Is Prologue: The Cameron Class of 1969,” also features TSU alum Ola Hudson and TSU Associate Professor and Head Reference Librarian Fletcher F. Moon.  Hudson, who graduated from TSU with a bachelor’s  degree in Vocational Home Economics in 1951 and a master’s degree in 1953, taught at Cameron High School from 1955 until 1971.  Moon, who portrayed his father, Rev. J.L. Moon, in the documentary, has worked at TSU for 36 years. 

Department of Media Relations

Tennessee State University
3500 John Merritt Boulevard
Nashville, Tennessee 37209
615.963.5331

About Tennessee State UniversityFounded in 1912, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a  premier, historically black university and land-grant institution offering 39 bachelor’s degree programs, 24 master’s degree programs, and seven doctoral degrees.  TSU is a comprehensive research intensive institution with a R-2 Carnegie designation, and has a graduate school on its downtown Avon Williams Campus, along with the Otis Floyd Nursery Research Center in McMinnville, Tennessee.  With a commitment to excellence, Tennessee State University provides students  with a quality education in a nurturing and innovative environment that prepares them as alumni to be global leaders in every facet of society. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.

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