By ZOË WATKINS
“This historical journey is dedicated to our ancestors who lived in Bedford County from 1820 to 2020. From slavery to Jim Crow; from Jim Crow to desegregation; from desegregation to consolidation; from consolidation to integration…our ancestors climbed the ladder.”
These are the opening words of Fredia Flack Lusk’s and Marilyn Gipson Massengale’s book “African Americans Living in Bedford County.”
The book details the lives of influential African American leaders, and the schools, and the community centers and churches that defined their culture and imprinted on the memories of people in Bedford County.
“I wanted to record our history because we need to do this for us,” said Lusk. “When Mayor [Eugene] Ray died, I was sitting at his funeral and I was thinking that our children and grandchildren need to know about who he was…When people pass away, there is no written history about them. And my concern was about maintaining our history.”
With over four years of research, Lusk said she conducted multiple interviews, searched through the local and state archives, and browsed through dozens of websites and obituaries.
Through the challenges of research, Lusk said it was fellow educator Marilyn Massengale who helped her through writing the living history book.
“Her support through this book has been so valuable because she lived through this era of segregation,” said Lusk. “She can tell you the struggles they had to be educated. By interviewing her, and my mother, and Mr. [Samuel “J.V.’] Abernathy, and Jimmy Clayborne, and people like them, I’ve learned so much I did not know.
“It was a long process and I am just happy with the product…I did it for them,” said Lusk.
At the time, those going through desegregation did not realize the historical significance of it all. “Teenagers were only regular kids and did not realize the historical significance of the time,” reads one line from the book.
But Massengale recalls the time then and now.
“We have been moved from segregation and desegregation a lot smoother than a lot of the other joining communities,” she said. “…When some of the children ask now, ‘Why did you all take that?’ I think, that was just the way it was and we wanted to live and exist, so we had to cooperate…
“But later we found out, you need to fight some of these things because God created you just like He made others.”
She said integration in schools helped a lot with tampering down racism as children went to school with each other and learned that they were all human beings.
“Racism is still here. But we don’t have the slavery for them to beat you, buy you, and sell you, and separate you from your family,” said Massengale. “I think today you have so many good people that like you because you are a person with a personality and they like you for who you are.”
The good, the bad, and the ugly — all of it is part of American History.
“It is history, whether you want to admit that or not. It is history because…as this book shows, in spite of all those things, you had a lot of achievers in Bedford County and all around the world. And they didn’t get credit for that,” said Massengale.
“We are a part of American History. How do you separate us?” said Lusk.
Never taken away
But the underlying emphasis of the whole book is the importance of education.
“All that the black folks had gone through at this time to get an education here, they succeeded. So that’s what we decided to do: write a book and try to enlighten people,” said Massengale. “We fought to be able to be educated. We did not have the books that we needed. We got second-hand books…Children nowadays don’t know the value of education.”
Massengale and Lusk were of those who succeeded in education during tumultuous times in the mid-20th century.
Massengale graduated from the Bedford County Training School in 1952. She said, “I had good black teachers who were always so interested in helping you get to where you wanted to go.”
Massengale almost didn’t go to college, saying at the time her parents couldn’t afford to send both her and her sister. But it was her principal at the time who said, “I didn’t ask you that. Do you want to go?”
“That was inspiring to me,” said Massengale.
From there, she attended Tennessee A&I State College on a work-study scholarship. After graduating in 1956, she landed a job at Holloway High School in Murfreesboro where she taught biology, health and physical education, and coached girls’ basketball. After three years, she returned to BCTS to teach fifth grade.
But in 1966, after desegregation closed Harris Elementary School, Massengale transferred to Southside Elementary to teach 1st and 4th grade grades. After retirement in 1991, Massengale taught at Motlow State Community College for 17 years.
“I love children. I’ve always loved children. And I loved what I did. I wouldn’t take nothing for it,” she said.
Lusk, too, holds a long career in education. After graduating from Harris High School in 1965, Lusk attended Tennessee State University, earning a B.S. in Business Education. In 1969, at just 21 years old, she became a business teacher at Tullahoma High in addition to serving at the FBLA advisor. She then received a Master’s in Secondary School Counseling in 1976 from Middle Tennessee State University, allowing her to serve as a senior school counselor until her retirement in 2009.
Known as the “Million Dollar” counselor at THS, Lusk said her goal was to help students succeed to college, something she highlights among the stories in the book.
Like the story of Jewell Huddleston Couch, the first — and only — black female principal in Bedford County. Lusk said it took her 20 years to get her education because she worked during the school year all while raising twins.
“That is an accomplishment,” said Lusk. “Blacks valued education and they still value education. It is very important that we understand that is the key to success: get an education.”
Massengale added, “Always there is something out there for you. If you want it, you can get it, and you can find the person that will help you get it. Make use of those people and get an education because the one thing they used to always tell us: get your education because if you get it nobody can take it away from you. It’s yours.”
These are just one of the many stories and inspirations you’ll find in the book, which is available on Amazon and at the Community Clinic, located at 200 Dover Street, Suite 202, in Shelbyville.
Half of the proceeds from the book go directly to supporting the Community Clinic as well as the Rosenwald Center.
Massengale and Lusk also held a book signing on Saturday, Sept. 9, at First Baptist Church, 140 Depot Street, for the Community Clinic’s 20th Anniversary Celebration.