By Ashley Rader
Elizabethton’s Elizabeth Watkins Crawford was one of five students recognized Monday for being part of the first integrated class at East Tennessee State College, now East Tennessee State University.
She and four other black students were recognized during the dedication of a new commemorative fountain and historic marker on the ETSU campus near the library. The other students were George L. Nichols, Mount Juliet; Mary Luellen Owens Wagner, Upper Marlboro, Md.; and the late Eugene Caruthers and the late Clarence McKinney.
“It felt great,” Crawford said. “It was a long time coming. It was great for them to do that. It was so much better than what I expected it to be.”
Crawford described the dedication ceremony and the fountain as beautiful. She said they were not able to see the marker listing their names unveiled because a snow burst hit during the ceremony.
“I knew what it would be like because I went with the lady from the ETSU heritage group to Greeneville to pick out the marker,” she said. “I am going to go back and get a good look at everything when the weather cooperates.”
She explained that the integration of the schools had been mandated by the government, and that school officials in Johnson City, where she grew up, decided to start at the higher levels of education and gradually bring it down to the elementary students.
“The leaders and teachers had seen how it had happened in Mississippi and Alabama and they didn’t want that to happen in Johnson City,” she said. “We had good race relationships there. Things weren’t equal but they were OK.”
Crawford entered classes at ETSC in 1958. She had attended Dunbar Elementary and Langston High schools before going to college.
She grew up on Belmont Street in Johnson City where black and white families lived together, although on opposite sides of the street, and the children would play stickball in the street until dark.
“In my neighborhood, the reason we didn’t say too much about the violence and the anger was that we didn’t experience it,” she said. “We didn’t understand the color barrier so it was just OK with us.”