|George L. Nichols|
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Doors open for George L. Nichols that were once closed to African Americans
After the defiant Arkansas governor Orval Faubus tried to stop nine black students from enrolling at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Elizabeth Watkins Crawford, Clarence McKinney, Mary Luellen Owens Wagner and George L. Nichols were readying themselves to integrate the undergraduate program at East Tennessee State College (now East Tennessee State University) in Johnson City, Tenn. They succeeded in August 1958.
Fifty-five years later, the names of the four students – along with Eugene Caruthers, the first African American to be admitted into ETSC’s graduate program in January 1956 – were permanently etched into the foot of a circular commemorative fountain and historic marker facing the ETSU Multicultural Center. The unveiling and dedication was held March 25, 2013.
“We were the first college in the state to integrate, and some say the first in the South,” said Nichols, recalling his experience at the college. “We could not belong to any organizations, initially. We didn’t have much of a social life. Nobody talked to you for the most part.”
Unlike the mass hysteria and subsequent press coverage surrounding “The Little Rock Nine,” “the press didn’t cover our enrollment,” said Nichols, who was cognizant of the acts of violence spreading across the U.S. The news of segregated conditions in his hometown of Johnson City, however, was a mere blip on the radar.
“We knew the situation. We had grown up there,” he said.
Crawford, McKinney, Wagner and Nichols attended Langston High School in the predominantly white East Tennessee enclave before enrolling at ETSC. Caruthers, who had moved to Nashville from his native Chicago, taught science and directed the band at Langston before taking on the status quo at ETSC.
Nichols was the salutatorian of his class at Langston. He majored in biology at ETSC and was the first African American student to be accepted into the marching band; he played the snare drums. He also was the first African American to be commissioned a second lieutenant from ETSC’s Army ROTC program.
Of the nearly 100 white students in the program, Nichols was the only African American, a first for ETSC. “We talked to each other,” he said, recalling a weekend bus trip to Fort Bragg in North Carolina during his junior year.
“Coming back, we stopped at this restaurant somewhere in North Carolina. We sat down at the counter and others sat down at tables. So a waitress came up. She sat a plate down for the guy on my left. She skipped me. Then she sat a plate down for the guy on my right.”
As expected, the waitress refused to serve him. “I told one of my classmates to bring me a sandwich and I’ll sit on the bus and wait for them. He told me no, to stay where I was. They made all their orders and when they brought their food out, everybody got up and walked out and left the food.”
Nichols graduated from ETSC in 1962 and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He spent 7 ½ years in the service and left with two awards of the Bronze Star; six awards of the Air Medal, two for valor; two awards of the Army Commendation Medal; the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm; and the Parachutist Badge.
“When I left the service [with the rank of captain], I went to work at Citibank in New York City,” said Nichols, spending a total of 37 years in banking and public service that included stints at Summit Bank in New Jersey, Dime Savings Bank of New York, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York.
Nichols retired from Citibank in 2007 and moved to Nashville in 2008. On Nov. 1, 2013, he was inducted into the ETSU Army ROTC Hall of Fame. In June, he was inducted into the U.S. Army’s National ROTC Hall of Fame. General Colin Powell, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also inducted.
Nichols received his M.B.A. from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. He now lives in Mt. Juliet, a suburb of Nashville, and is active in Vietnam Veterans of America.