In 1964, many of the Civil Rights leaders in Tennessee joined forces on the Tennessee Voters Council to fight disfranchisement of Black voters. Among its directors was Mrs. Johnnie C. Fowler of Winchester (second from right).

Note to the reader: To celebrate Black History Month this year, the Roberson Project is pleased to publish a talk that Sewanee Professor Scott Bates gave in tribute to Mrs. Johnnie C. Fowler around the time of her death in 1990. Mrs. Fowler was a longtime Civil Rights activist and leader in Franklin County, Tennessee, and other parts of the South. Professor Bates, who died in 2013, taught French literature and film studies at Sewanee for some forty-plus years. He was an early supporter of the Highlander Folk School (later Highlander Research and Education Center), the Civil Rights organization near Monteagle, and he served on its board until his death. We are very grateful to his son, Robin Bates, for sharing his copy of this tribute to Mrs. Fowler, a Civil Rights leader who, with other local Black women mentioned in this address, changed Sewanee and Franklin County and deserves to be better remembered. Professor Bates’s words about Mrs. Fowler’s fight to recognize Black history are especially pertinent today, with determined campaigns underway to limit students’ exposure to the history and experiences of African Americans.

In tribute to Mrs. Johnnie Fowler, I’d like to present a brief history of her work with the Franklin County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

Our present chapter was formed by Mrs. Fowler, Mrs. J D. (Mikey) Marlowe, and me in the spring of 1958 with the help of Mrs. Septima Clark, who was then Educational Director of Highlander Folk School at Monteagle. Mrs. Fowler had been in an earlier Franklin County chapter of the Association, which was mainly involved in helping blacks who got into legal difficulties; she was in a central position in Winchester to affect public opinion, as she was the leading beautician in this area and ran a small but influential cosmetology school. Her wonderful mother, Mrs. Comer, became the treasurer of the new organization, and did a fine job for the rest of her life of keeping a tight rein on our always limited finances.

A footnote to history here. Recently some of us have been watching the fine Public Television documentary EYES ON THE PRIZE, which gives a moving visual history of the heroic days of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 50s and early 60s. Unfortunately, however, the film leaves out one of the strongest black groups in the South to affect social change, that is, the cosmetologists. As leading citizens in all communities throughout the South, they like the ministers did not depend on white business to thrive; and, again like the ministers – who have been given deserved credit as leading male figures in the movement – they were in a privileged position to reach all elements of black society; and to reach them rapidly!

At this early time in the Civil Rights Movement, the time when the first students were organizing their sit-ins, African-American beauticians were also organizing for social action; they met at Highlander and at other spots around the South to plan desegregation strategies. Of course, Mrs. Fowler was a prime mover among these powerful, effective women, and she soon organized the Fayetteville and Shelbyville chapters of the NAACP through her former students there. Another of her students started our first youth chapter, which did the tremendous – and very dangerous – job of integrating Franklin County facilities, the lunch counters, restaurants, movie houses, bowling alleys, roller skating rinks, and public recreational facilities. Mrs. Fowler was always right in the middle of the battle. To give two examples out of many, she personally, along with Professor Anita Goodstein of Sewanee, sat-in at the Sewanee Inn and finally integrated that facility, which had been the target of desegregation activists for more than two years. She was also a leader in integrating the Otey Memorial [Episcopal] Church at Sewanee during the rectorship of David Yeats.

In addition, at this time, she was helping to organize “Citizen Schools,” the small grass-roots schools that were initiated at Highlander and were springing up all over the South to teach literacy to black constituents so that they could vote and overturn lily-white political systems. Mrs. Fowler started the literacy school on Sewanee Mountain and traveled periodically to South Carolina and Georgia to help with schools down there.

In 1963 and 1964, she, Mrs. Dora Turner, Mrs. Emma Hill, Mrs. Sarah Staten, and Mrs. Ferrell Sisk, along with four white families, brought suit against the Franklin County School Board to integrate the schools in the county. After much hard work and a lot of painful litigation, they won the suit and set up a model system for integration in the South. Later on in the sixties, she also led actions to integrate the school buses and the teaching staffs. At the same time, she was opening up job opportunities for blacks in local businesses, including the Hat Factory, Kuhn’s store, ARO, the Cowan Shoe Factory, Big Kin Tullahoma, and many others. She was literally a one-woman employment office for black workers in our county!

Mrs. Betty Wilkerson Hill and Mrs. Johnnie C. Fowler raise money for the Franklin County NAACP with a bake sale in front of the University Supply Store (now the Wellness Center) in 1966.

During this time, she continued to run her beautician’s school and her own private business, while organizing fund-raising lunches and sales and attending state and national meetings of the NAACP. She also ran the annual Black History Week programs every February, and brought to them some of the most dynamic speakers of the Civil Rights Movement. John Lewis, Kelly Miller Smith, Ruby Hurley, and many others. Indeed, Mrs. Hurley, our regional chairperson in charge of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, always cited Mrs. Fowler as one of the most effective workers in the south – with one of the most active chapters. Which was also one of the smallest!

With the Nixon-Reagan backlash in the seventies and eighties and the return to power of many of the white segregationists, we lost more than two-thirds of our black teaching staff, job layoffs for blacks became frequent, the Ku Klux Klan was organizing in Franklin County, and we no longer could get recourse from the Federal Government when we complained to their Civil Rights Division; so the work of the chapter became all the more important in meeting all these setbacks. Needless to say, Mrs. Fowler never gave up. In 1979 and 1980 she led the fight against the largest Klan organization in Tennessee, which was meeting in Estill Springs. Three years ago [in 1987], she initiated the Martin Luther King birthday celebrations in this area, which are still going strong.

At the discussions at the University of the South around Dr. King’s birthday, some of the young people were saying, “We want to work for African-American rights, but it’s hard to find the lunch counters now. Where are the lunch counters? Where are the places that need demonstrations, action, hard work?” 

Well the NAACP can tell them, and Mrs. Fowler actually  did tell them many times, those places are still there and still need hard work – even harder work, now that the government is no longer on our side. Black children are still discriminated against in the schools. Black teachers are given the left-over and substitute teaching jobs, just at the time when black role models are needed more than ever – for both black and white children! Black teachers who retire or who move on, are replaced by whites. Most school textbooks have nothing but white faces in their illustrations and white history in their texts. Good jobs for blacks are scarce, and there are always “reasons” to take white over black applicants. Black house workers are underpaid, etc.

But in all our pressing needs, you can be sure that the spirit of Mrs. Fowler will be with us, working for us, leading us. We came a long way under her incredibly dynamic, responsible leadership; and since we are all beneficiaries of that spirit, we can inherit it, we can pass it on. Her great, unstinting work lives in us: we must not fail her great trust in us to see that work through.

Scott Bates

Sewanee, Tennessee

Editor’s note: We were saddened to learn only this past week that Mrs. Betty Wilkerson Hill, another person active in local Civil Rights and photographed with Mrs. Fowler at the NAACP bake sale in 1966, died this past January 14. Her obituary can be read here.

The death notice for Mrs. Fowler in 1990.

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