Nashville’s Freedom Riders: HBCU students risked all to end segregation
Kwame Leo Lillard in front of the Freedom Riders mural on Jefferson Street in Nashville. Lillard died I late Dec. 2020, shortly before the photo was published. (Photo: John Partipilo)
On Feb. 27, 1960, John Lewis, then a student at American Baptist College, joined other college students in Nashville as they sat down at the “whites only’’ lunch counter at Woolworth’s in the heart of downtown to begin their work integrating the city’s stores.
Students at HBCUs, including Tennessee State University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and ABC, risked their reputations within their families, their educations — in many cases, they were expelled — and their lives. Few became famous but all took risks.
It was part of the historic push to tear down the walls of racial segregation in public accommodations and interstate travel that forced Tennessee and the rest of the nation to change.
Now decades after the Nashville sit-ins, the ranks of surviving activists who were on the front lines and the Freedom Rides that followed have thinned considerably. Lewis, the revered civil rights activist who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and longtime Georgia congressman, died in July. So did the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who studied at American Baptist College and worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Though not well known beyond Nashville but just as impactful in the community were Kwame Lillard, a Nashville sit-in organizer and political stalwart who died in December, and Matthew Walker Jr., a sit-in leader who also participated in the Freedom Rides, who died in 2016.
Efforts to acknowledge their sacrifices have been attempted through the years. Tennessee State has awarded honorary doctorate degrees to several students who were kicked out of school because of their participation. A 60th anniversary commemoration of the sit-in movement was scheduled last year, but canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the anticipated highlights was a reunion of surviving participants.
“All that fell apart because of COVID,” said King Hollands, who helped integrate a Catholic high school in the late 1950s. “I’m not sure we’ll ever get another chance.”
Last summer, photojournalist John Partipilo conceived of the idea of documenting the remaining seven Nashville participants of the Freedom Rides, inspired by his friendship with one of those seven, Kwame Leo Lillard. There are no monuments to the seven men and women. Their names aren’t widely known and with the exception of Lillard, they didn’t hold public office and didn’t become household names.
But as teenagers and young adults, they changed America. They showed white people across the country what dignity looked like.
Through photography by Partipilo and their own words in interviews with reporters Anita Wadhwani and Dulce Torres Guzman, we share their stories.
Since Partipilo started the project, photographing the seven Freedom Riders in their homes and in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Rider, their number has decreased. Lillard died just before Christmas.
King Hollands: An early integrator
Before he participated in the sit-in movements in 1960 that eventually led to desegregation in Nashville, King Hollands — then a junior physics major at Fisk University — saw how international students would freely sit at restaurants and lunch counters throughout the city.
“We had all these international students at Fisk, at Vanderbilt, at American Baptist College,” he said. “They were able to go to local restaurants. The American students would go, too, if they wore international garb.”
A childhood spent traveling with his parents and siblings across the country and a house frequently full of visitors from around the nation stopping in to see his father, a Church of God in Christ minister, gave Hollands a broader perspective about race than he learned in Catholic school in the segregated South. Then in 1954, after the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education, Hollands landed in the first class of 14 Black students to integrate Father Ryan High School.
In February 1960, Hollands spent two weeks in jail after his arrest for sitting at the lunch counter at a downtown Nashville Woolworth’s store. Three months later, Nashville desegregated restaurants.
Hollands still has the metal cup that jailers used to serve him weak potato soup for his meals.
The lesson Hollands would like people to take from that time is that change didn’t spring from spontaneous activism. It took months of training, education and planning. It built on movements that had come before.
“It wasn’t a flash in the pan,” he said. “The movement was already here. The sit-in movement came after that.”
As Hollands and fellow students headed to Woolworth’s that day in February, crowds spat on them, shouted and in some cases tried to attack them. They were prepared.
“Only students who had gone through training could participate,” he said. “Those who didn’t — or felt like they couldn’t not react, also had a role. They stood outside. They observed.”
He sees parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement today.
“Even though there were spontaneous protests over George Floyd, there’s planning there. The sit-in movement also had support from whites. That was important. You see that with Black Lives Matter. And there’s the emphasis on the importance of voting.”
There’s no better example of that, Hollands said, than Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state representative whose efforts to fight voter suppression and turn out voters in that state is credited for helping elect two Democratic senators in 2020.
“This is the kind of leadership and planning that’s part of the new movement,” he said.
Hollands, now 79, is no longer involved in activism. He is a full-time caretaker to a family member at home.
But for decades he has been part of an informal Nashville civil rights veterans group that, before last year, met regularly.
“COVID has not made that possible,” he said. “I’m probably one of the younger ones in the group. We’re not tech savvy, so no Zooming. We don’t have the tools. That’s why younger people are so important. We can offer our experience. But it’s up to them now. We are the old folks.”
– Anita Wadhwani
Frankie Henry: Scarred after 60 years
Frankie Henry became involved in the civil rights movement by accident.
On Feb. 27, 1960, Henry was a freshman at Tennessee State University and had just left her tap-dancing club. She had dreams of being a Pepperette — the university’s tap dance troupe —and had her tap shoes slung over her shoulder when she was approached by a light-skinned woman at a downtown Nashville bus depot asking if Henry could accompany her.
“I asked myself, ‘what does this white girl want with me?’” she said.
As they walked through The Arcade, a strip of enclosed stores in downtown Nashville, Henry noticed several Black students sitting at whites-only counters.
“They’re going to get in trouble,” Henry commented, and then the woman began to explain that the students were in the middle of a citywide movement to protest segregation. The woman then questioned Henry.
“Are you from Nashville?” asked the woman.
“I said ‘yes,’” responded Henry.
“Can you sit with us?” asked the woman.
“I said ‘no’,” said Henry.
She eventually conceded and sat down at a diner with the mysterious woman. Henry later learned the woman was Diane Nash, a leader of the student wing of the civil rights movement. Nash had been unable to successfully protest segregation as she was often mistaken for a white woman.
While they sat at the diner, the waitress came and went without acknowledging Henry, but bringing coffee for Nash. The women then began to discuss the movement to end segregation and the practice of nonviolent protesting.
“We’re following the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Nash.
The women’s conversation was eventually interrupted when the waitress came back and confronted Nash as to why she was sitting with an “n-word”.
“I keep telling you we don’t serve the n-word in here,” the waitress told Nash.
“But you served me, and I’m a Negro,” Nash responded.
Henry jumped in surprise because that was the first time she learned Nash was a Black American. The women then walked down Fifth Avenue, past McLellan’s and Woolworth’s, to meet other protesters. Now in another diner, Henry continued to discuss the civil rights movement when suddenly a white woman put out a lit cigarette on Henry’s arm.
“She looked at me and I looked at her and looked down and she still had [the cigarette] there. I was thinking, I’m only 19.”
“ I said to myself this is my first day in the sit-in and I’m so sorry but I’m going to have to end this movement because I can’t take this,” said Henry.
Henry balled her fist and was about to strike the offending woman when she noticed a protester shaking his head, silently asking her not to resort to violence.
The white woman then attempted to set Henry’s poncho on fire, and when the protesters tried to leave the diner, they were arrested and taken to jail. Her parents learned from the 6 p.m. news about their daughter’s arrest, and they tried to bail her out. But Henry made the decision to stay.
“I said I’m not leaving until the rest of them leave. We haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t know at the time that they were going to try us one by one and I would be in there for two weeks,” she said.
During that time, the protesters slept on cold steel bunk beds with no mattresses or blankets. Among the 80 of them was John Lewis, then another student who would go on to become a congressman. Locked up, they communicated with each other by using reflective compacts. They passed the time singing, chanting and talking about the movement as they stood trial one by one.
By the time Henry was released, she was given failing grades for missed classes at the university.
“They mailed my grades and told me I would never be able to attend a state-supported institution again because my grades were too low,” said Henry.
She later found out that people had attacked her parents’ house because the Tennessean newspaper had published her name, but despite her own worries about putting her family in danger, her father still supported her future involvement in the movement. He told her she did the right thing.
She eventually returned to Tennessee State in 1966 but was forced to take freshman courses over again. Henry’s education had been delayed by almost a decade, as she graduated in 1970 instead of 1962.
She spent the next few decades teaching and retired in 2006. During her career, she traveled to different schools throughout Tennessee to tell her story and teach about Black history. She was often asked for autographs, and on one occasion, she found herself teaching descendants of people who had confronted her during the civil rights movement, including the great-grandson of the director who had been ordered to give her failing grades.
She still bears the scar from the cigarette burn.
– Dulce Torres Guzman
Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr.: A drum major for justice
Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr. was a drum major in the marching band at Tennessee State when he joined the newly formed branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.
In February of that year, he took part in sit-ins at the downtown Nashville lunch counters with fellow students in a nonviolent protest of segregation, an effort that succeeded in integrating downtown businesses later that year. In May 1961, Patton boarded a Greyhound bus in Nashville headed for Jackson, Mississippi to challenge segregated interstate travel.
Patton and his fellow Freedom Riders were arrested at the bus station in Jackson and sent to Parchman Farm, the Mississippi state penitentiary notorious for its brutal conditions.
He was expelled from Tennessee State for his activism. He never returned. But nearly 50 years later in 2008, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate degree.
Now 80, Patton worked as a jazz musician and a truck driver, and has talked at length about his experiences since.
In 2011, he appeared in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey describing what the students faced inside Parchman prison.
“We did a lot of singing,” he said. “They didn’t like the singing. And every time that they would threaten to do something, we would sing.”
Patton, his voice a deep baritone, began to sing: “You can take our mattress, oh yes,” in a melody that echoed spiritual music, repeating the verse several times. The audience, and Oprah, joined him.
– Anita Wadhwani
Dr. Etta Simpson Ray: Faced anger, arrest, silence
Dr. Etta Simpson Ray was one of 14 students from Tennessee State University, then called Tennessee A&I State University, who boarded a bus in 1961 headed to Birmingham then Montgomery, Alabama as part of the Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate travel.
There was a quietness about it as a whole; Nashville didn't want to talk about it. It was like — it happened, It's over.
– Dr. Etta Simpson Ray on not discussing her activism for decades after the 1960s
Like other participants, Ray went through training sessions on nonviolent resistance organized by the Nashville chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In Birmingham, they were met by an angry mob, then herded by police into the bus station where they spent the night with no lights, water, telephone or use of bathrooms. The next day they were driven to Montgomery, where they were again met by a mob. Ray joined a later Freedom Ride to Jackson, Miss., where she was arrested and sent to Parchman state prison for a short time before she made bond. Along with other students who participated in the Freedom Rides, Ray returned to Nashville only to be expelled from college.
In the ensuing years in Nashville, the students’ heroic actions during the civil rights movement went largely unacknowledged, Ray said during an interview with Versify, a podcast by Nashville Public Radio station WPLN and nonprofit literary organization, The Porch, last year. She didn’t speak much about her experience, even with family, for decades, she said.
“There was a quietness about it as a whole Nashville didn’t want to talk about it,” she said in the broadcast. “It was like — it happened. It’s over.”
In 2008, 47 years later, Ray and her fellow expelled students, were awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Tennessee State University.
– Anita Wadhwani
Frederick Leonard: A time like this
Sixty years after his imprisonment as one of the original Freedom Riders who boarded a bus in Nashville determined to desegregate the Deep South, Frederick Leonard’s thoughts turned to a Black man he only remembers as “PeeWee.”
At the notorious Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi — where Leonard and his cellmate Stokely Carmichael were sentenced to 60 days for the crime of walking into the white section of a bus depot in 1961 — Leonard would join other imprisoned Freedom Riders in singing while idling away the days.
In retaliation, white prison guards spiked their food with laxatives then turned off the water so the toilets wouldn’t flush, he said. They took away their mattresses, leaving them with nothing to sleep on but a wire frame or a hard floor.
After the second or third time guards tried to seize the mattresses, Leonard clung to his and wouldn’t let go.
“They dragged me and the mattress down the cell block,” Leonard recalled. “A Black guy there, real muscular — he was a prisoner, too, but I didn’t know him. He begged me to let go.”
Leonard didn’t let go.
“The guards were saying: ‘Get him, PeeWee, get him.’”
PeeWee, Leonard noticed, stood with tears in his eyes.
“It was really something,” Leonard said in a February phone interview. “This big Black guy started to cry. Then he started beating me. He didn’t want to do that. I could see it really hurt him.”
“I’ve always wanted to talk to PeeWee,” Leonard said. “I’ve wondered if he was still alive. I’d tell him the same thing I would have then. ‘I know it hurt you more than it hurt me.’”
Not knowing PeeWee’s real name, Leonard has never been able to find him, though he wishes he had.
Leonard was one of scores of Black and white civil rights activists who boarded buses from Nashville to Birmingham, Jackson and elsewhere to protest segregated restrooms and lunch counters at bus stations across the Jim Crow South.
In a way, we've done a 360. You've got mass incarceration, voter suppression laws and school segregation again. I look at this like, will this ever end?
– Frederick Leonard
It was 1961 and Leonard’s first year at Tennessee State, where he was mentored by civil rights icons including the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, John Lewis and Jim Lawson. They impressed upon him the need for nonviolent civil disobedience.
“They taught Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi,” he said. “They also convinced me that if I fought back, I might get killed. Of course, I knew we might get killed anyway. They just kind of convinced me that you don’t want to harm people.”
Leonard wasn’t always convinced that nonviolent action was the best tool for ending segregation in the 1960’s-era South.
In 1960, Leonard was a 17-year-old high school senior at the Howard School in Chattanooga reading newspaper accounts of sit-ins at lunch counters in North Carolina and Nashville. With no college leaders or ministers to guide them, Leonard and about 30 of his Black classmates walked down to three Chattanooga variety stores and sat at segregated lunch counters after school. When they were grabbed by the back of their shirts and pulled off the counters, Leonard fought back.
Guided by mentors at TSU, Leonard said his thinking began to shift.
Leonard grew up in Chattanooga with segregated schools and pools and water fountains but didn’t really understand the racism underlying those realities until he was a teen.
He recalled that when he was 11 years old and a neighbor bought a television set —the first in his neighborhood — he was dumbfounded. How was it possible that he could see people broadcast from New York then switch the channel and see people from another city on that small screen?
“That’s the same confusion I felt when I realized how people hated us because we were a different skin color. I was really a confused person when I found out people hated us because of our skin color. Growing up in segregation didn’t feel like a big deal.”
After his release from Parchman after serving 44 of 60 days — by then the prison was holding an increasing number of Freedom Riders traveling from the Northeast and elsewhere and running out of room — Leonard thought hard about what he had experienced. He wasn’t convinced nonviolence was the answer. Carmichael, an activist who became known for his call of “black power,” would quote Malcolm X.
“Stokely would say ‘why are we on our knees praying while white men are violent?”
In 1961, Leonard plotted with a half dozen other activists to burn down a white-owned Nashville store on the corner of 40th Street and Clifton Avenue that he said extended credit to its Black customers then presented bills for more than they owed.
Police foiled the attack as Leonard and other young men arrived in a station wagon with Molotov cocktails in the back.
After his arrest and the court proceedings that followed, Leonard and his then-wife moved to Detroit to start a new life. They had a baby by then. Leonard went to work at the Chrysler plant before returning to Nashville. He founded his own company selling Afro hair picks out of a building on Jefferson Street in what is now an affluent Germantown neighborhood. The company was successful, selling picks to drug stores up and down the Northeast.
He wishes he’d held onto the building to cash in on the gentrification that has turned the area into high-value residential real estate, largely occupied by non-Black residents.
Today, he walks most days — sometimes 10 miles a day — and watches “the crazies” on CNN and MSNBC news, marvelling at former President Donald Trump’s challenge to legal votes cast in the presidential election.
“I thought I’d never live to see a time like this,” he said, even at 78 his voice strong and rising. “I never ever thought there’d come a time when you would see them try to disenfranchise white people. In Georgia, a lot of white people voted for Biden.”
“In a way, we’ve done a 360,” he said. “You’ve got mass incarceration, voter suppression laws and school segregation again. I look at this like, will this ever end? We will never ever become the country we should be until we stop fighting the Civil War?
“Change is going to come. I don’t think I will live to see it. At one time, I thought I would. I don’t know now. I don’t know.”
Leonard has long since set aside what he calls his youthful ideas that people were born hating him because he is Black. Racism isn’t mysterious to him anymore, he said. It is learned, taught and chosen.
“But,” he said, “to be honest, I am still confused about the television.”
– Anita Wadhwani
Kwame Leo Lillard: Rest in Power
Kwame Lillard was born in Florida but moved to Nashville with his family at a young age, becoming an integral part of the city’s fabric. He graduated from North Nashville’s Pearl High School before attending Tennessee State and joining the civil rights movement.
Lillard was an outspoken critic of a plan to route I-40 through North Nashville, a route that eventually bisected the city’s thriving Black business district along and near Jefferson Street. He was elected to Metro Council’s District 5 in 1987 and served two terms as a fiery spokesman for his community. Lillard served as a mentor for many of Nashville’s current Black leaders and elected officials and never stopped speaking out against unjust causes, including a potential police station that was slated to be sited on Jefferson Street.
He founded the African American Cultural Alliance, organized the African American Street Festival and annually held a ceremony to honor the U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army.
Lilliard died in December.
(In the story’s featured photo, Lillard raises his fist at the Freedom Riders mural on Jefferson Street in North Nashville.)
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.