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John Burton

Oral Histories of Racial Integration at Carson-Newman College

      Interview with Dr. John Burton  

Dr. Burton attended Carson-Newman College as a student from 1955 to 1959.  He returned as a professor of physics 1964 until he retired in 2002. 

The interviewer's questions appear in the light blue rectangles while words that follow each are the interviewee's responses. To listen to each section of the interview, press the play button under the interview question.

Can you just tell a little about when you first came to Carson-Newman and how you came back to be a professor and about race relations at those times?

Okay. I came as a student in 1955 and graduated in 1959. At that time there were no African-American students at Carson-Newman. There were a few employees. My wife had a good relationship with a lady that cleaned the dormitory she was in and when we came back on the faculty later they were good friends. I think she’s passed away by now. There was a good relationship I think, between the races of people at Carson-Newman and people in town. And a pretty good relationship as I perceived it in town, which came about from two things that influenced that. One is that a lot of the people in Jefferson City who were black were educated better than was typical, so they related well. Another influence, as I see in other communities, is that they were much in the minority. And so the smaller the minority the less threatening they seem to the majority whatever that group is. That was my observation. A lot of the time they kind of localized themselves up on what we called Jaybird hill. You may have heard of it. The school building up there that used to be the school for African Americans was named after one of their prominent educators. He was well known and well respected in the community by everybody. Several of his relatives were similar and we’ve known them and been friends of them.

What do you remember about the events leading up to Carson-Newman’s integration?

In the fifties, they were sort of separate but equal, separate and equal and well respected was my view of the ones that I knew. Of course, there were other individuals in other parts of the community that may well have been different. But they were definitely separate. Separate school. Let’s see, when I came back on the faculty it was '64, a year or two before that the first black student was admitted to Carson-Newman. I remember being aware of that and I remember how it was treated with the news media. Of course, the news media wanted to pounce on it and get everything they could out of it and they came to talk to Dr. Fite, who was the president at that time, and he said, “Let us know as soon as the first black student enrolls.” The announcement at that time was that they would be admitted. And Dr. Fite said, “No. We’re not politicizing this. We’re not trying to make any bold statement about this. It’s between us and the students.” It was a local girl who first enrolled. By the time I came here, I think there were more than that. It was probably shortly after I came on to campus. That probably took place in the middle to late sixties. That’s my recollection of it. By that time we were here they were enrolled but not as dormitory residents.

What kinds of attitudes did you see on campus following the move to integrate?

A statement that I heard elsewhere that I thought was interesting at a sister Baptist college, Mercer College in Georgia.  It was probably late sixties that a colleague and I went down there for an inauguration of a president or something. And he said he heard an interesting comment in that regard. He had asked some student something like, “What’s the percentage of black students here?” and they said, “Well, I never bothered to count.” Why make a big deal about it? And I think probably during the 60s and 70s that would have been the attitude here. Yeah, we’ve got black students here, what of it?

Uh, I can’t even remember now, and again it’s like the comment at Mercer, I never bothered to notice when I began to have black students in my classes but I suppose it was in the 60s. Okay, I remember one in particular. Of course, several students we had back then were from Africa. And uh, I remember one in particular that I had in class, very bright student, he’s a medical doctor now. Still lives, I think, in the United States. I remember him coming back for some event after he had graduated. So, that was in the late 60s that he was a student and very much a part of the social order we were involved in.

 Do you think it was easier for Africans to come here and not have the background of racial integrations than African Americans that had been here the whole time?

I don’t remember any particular issues that came up. I know that several we have known in that era that came from Africa and we have also known some that were African-American and I don’t recall. I remember having more contact with Africans in those days than African-Americans. And that was probably some selective enrollment. As you might imagine, there are a lot of people who do not take physics. And the only ones who did were those who were headed for engineering or medicine or headed for some technical field and among black students they tended to be more likely be African students rather than African-American. The way they had grown up. And I remember, several are outstanding recollections in my mind. I assume you might rather not deal with names. I can remember at least three or four that were an integral part of our physics department that we knew as students for one reason or another. They are prominent in our memories. Doctors, educators, whatever.

Do you have any other thoughts about your experiences at Carson-Newman during the 1960s?

Probably a lot of us have a personal knee jerk reaction when we encounter other races just because of the way we grew up. It’s in my mind I know better, but somehow my knees don’t. Not the way my mind says I ought to. I’ll take notice of a black student in my class as a minority but you can say the same of other parts of the population as well. So they’re noticeable. I remember one student I had, and it wasn’t because he was black but because he was a very tall athlete. He came and kind of slouched down in his seat and I thought, I’m probably going to have to give this student some extra attention. It turned out that the way he slouched down in his seat was the only way he could be comfortable in those seats in there. They aren’t built for tall people. I enjoy getting to know students a little more personally in lab. And so when I first encountered him in lab and discovered that he was quite articulate and quite intelligent, I realized that I could talk to him frankly about my own reaction, I told him what I had thought. He said, “Yeah, I observe that surprise in a lot of my professors.” That was probably more like the 80s but I imagine some others had similar experiences. They could tell that there were differences in response and interaction just because of their race or their athletic situation. I think he went on to become a pretty good med student. I assume he finished and went on from there. [I had] several good interactions with students that way.

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