Season 2 of WPLN’s The Promise takes on one of the contentious topics in america, what has been deemed as the “Great Equalizer”, but more and more feels like the Greate Divider: public eductaion.
In May of 1963, President Kennedy addressed the graduates of Vanderbilt University (a full year before they would admit their first Black student), and said, “I speak to you … not of your rights as Americans, but of your responsibilities… They do not rest with equal weight upon the shoulders of all. For, of those to whom much is given, much is required.”
More than 55 years later, reporter Meribah Knight, found a community just 3 miles away grappling with this very question with regards to the schools in the neighborhood. In particular, Warner Elementary (90% Black and 96% economically disadvantaged), and Lockeland Elementary (90% White and 3% economicially disadvantaged). These two schools, 1.2 miles apart, were starkly different, yet representatvie of so many schools and communities across the country.
Meribah joins us to discuss the series, why she felt compelled to tell this story, and how it has impacted her of life. Additionally, she shares an edit of the forth episode from the season.
- The full series – The Promise
- Meribah Knight
- Bull Connor and the fire hoses
- MLK’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail
- John F. Kennedy’s Vanderbilt Convocation Address
- Nashville’s Desegregation Case – Kelly v. Board of Education
- Denver’s Desegregation Case – Keyes v School District No 1, Denver
- A detailed timeline of the Keyes case
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver, and this is "The Power of Privilege: WPLN's The Promise”.
Nashville Public Radio, WPLN, has a podcast called The Promise.The first season followed the families living in a public housing complex in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in East Nashville. Season Two tells a story of school segregation, both historical and current, through the eyes of that same neighborhood. While it's set in Nashville, a similar story could be told about just about every major metropolitan area in the country.
And so while the local details may vary, for example, Nashville's magnet program is not the same as in other cities, the themes are universal. And I found it so easy to see myself and Denver in the story. And that's why I was thrilled when writer and reporter Meribah Knight agreed to come on the show and talk about the second season, what she learned, and why it matters. She also agreed to share an edit of the fourth episode from the season.
And, just a heads up, this fourth episode is largely focused on a predominantly White school confronting just how White it is. But the bulk of the series is really focused on this school’s sort of counterpart and the different challenges it faces.
So, let's take a listen.
Meribah Knight: My name is Meribah Knight. I'm a reporter with Nashville Public Radio. I cover lots of different topics, including race and inequality.
Andrew: And how did you find yourself reporting on race and inequality?
Meribah Knight: It's worked its way into every beat I've ever had. It's probably most directly because of where I grew up. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was born in the early eighties and it was a time of great kind of multiculturalism and celebration. So I went to public school and it was an incredibly diverse public school.
And so it just seemed like part and parcel of my entire education was going to school with people that look different than me, that spoke differently than me. So then I went to NYU and became really interested in, just, issues of race and racial politics. And I ended up majoring in African-American studies and racial politics.
Andrew: So you find your way to WPLN and you start producing a podcast called The Promise. And the first season is set in a neighborhood and it's really that neighborhood that spawns the idea for the second season, is that right?
Meribah Knight: Yeah. So this is a neighborhood in East Nashville. It is, wherever is the kind of hipster, hyper-gentrifying neighborhood in your city, this is that neighborhood.
But it also happens to have the city's largest public housing complex right in the middle of it. So this was like ground zero for a lot of the issues that were not being talked about but that were part of this city, whether we wanted to acknowledge it or not. This is supposed to be Nashville, we're booming, everything's great, everyone's moving here, but there's actually a dark side to that.
Andrew: The trauma that comes with that gentrification.
Meribah Knight: Yeah, and because most of the people that live in public housing in this complex are children, as I got to know the families, I got to know where they sent their children to school and where they had sent their children to school over generations. And I saw that they were sending their children to one crop of schools that were all Black and all economically disadvantaged in a neighborhood that is almost 50/50 and has homes selling for $800- 900,000.
So the whole neighborhood is pretty much zoned for the same schools but their children are going to separate schools.
Andrew: Right, so that was the appeal of focusing on this neighborhood.
Meribah Knight: Yes. And I think, when it came to why I really wanted to dive into this issue of schools and in this neighborhood that is seemingly progressive, filled with lots of White people who voted for Bernie Sanders, voted for Obama, have Black Lives Matter flags or bumper stickers and lawn signs, is because I saw them not living their ideals. They didn't even realize it. Like they just thought, Of course I want my children to go to school with children that don't look like them, of course I want equal opportunities for everybody. But then when it came to actually walking the walk, they didn't realize that they weren't doing it.
Meribah Knight: And I couldn't, like, unsee that once I saw it, I couldn't. And I just also worried, honestly, that what if I did that? After all of my life of studying and trying to understand, what if I fell into that trap where I just assumed that I was okay and I was doing everything right, even though I really wasn't?
Andrew: Because it's so easy. That is the path of least resistance, right? And I think this is, it's fascinating to me, because so often people will push back to the idea of school desegregation by saying it's really a housing issue that, that housing policy is what's driving it and not, and it's not anything else, but you look at this neighborhood that is actually, the neighborhood is relatively well desegregated.
Meribah Knight: And it has been for years, actually.
Andrew: And yet the schools continue to remain segregated.
Meribah Knight: Yes, absolutely.
Andrew: Yeah, I mean, it’s a fascinating neighborhood. I can see why you focused on it. And then I guess to tell this story, you end up picking these two elementary schools in the neighborhood, Lockeland and Warner, and I'm wondering if you can introduce us to those schools.
Meribah Knight: Yeah, so Warner Elementary and Lockeland Elementary are two public elementary schools. They are 1.2 miles apart. Warner is 90% Black and 96% economically disadvantaged, when I come there. Lockeland is 90% White and only 3% economically disadvantaged.
And all of the children that are zoned for both of those schools are zoned for both of those schools. It happens to be that Lockeland Elementary is a magnet school with a priority zone around it. Meaning that you have priority in that lottery. And it happens to be that the public housing complex that I spent the whole first season in is in that priority zone. But it also happens to be that none of those children go to that school. So you have these two schools that are worlds apart. And, it just felt like this is the story of this neighborhood. How do you end up with two schools that look like this? This, I have to figure out, like, how this happened.
Andrew: So that sort of sets the scene and I love that you open season two with this JFK quote that, that he actually, I guess he delivered in Nashville.
Meribah Knight: Yeah. So JFK came to Vanderbilt, May 18th, 1963, to deliver the commencement speech. So just to give you a sense of time in place here, this is in the middle of the launch of the Civil Rights Movement. Just a week earlier was when Bull Connor had unleashed the fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama.
It was a month after King wrote "A Letter From a Birmingham Jail". This is in the middle of all of that tumult and that pain. And Kennedy has said very little on the issue of race. He's really dodged it. He would give his very famous speech on race just about a month after this.
Andrew: So these ideas are just percolating in his mind.
Meribah Knight: Yes, and he gives a speech that is incredibly bold in a lot of ways and incredibly subversive. And when I came upon it, I just thought, Oh my God, this is, this is exactly where we are now. And this is the question that I'm asking.
JFK: This nation is now engaged in a continuing debate about the rights of a portion of its citizens. That will go on. And those rights will expand until the standard first forged by the nation's founders has been reached and all Americans enjoy equal opportunity and liberty under law.
But this nation was not founded solely on the principle of citizen rights. Equally important, though too often not discussed, is the citizen's responsibility. For our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. The protection of our rights can endure no longer than the performance of our responsibilities. Each can be neglected only at the peril of the other.
I speak to you today, therefore, not of your rights as Americans, but of your responsibilities. They are many in number and different in nature. They do not rest with equal weight upon the shoulders of all. For, of those to whom much is given, much is required.
Meribah Knight: The question he posed to these graduates of Vanderbilt University, which by the way, this is still a segregated undergraduate. They wouldn't admit their first Black student for another year. He said, essentially, what are you going to do with your privilege?
Meribah Knight: And that's the question that I wanted to ask White families.
Andrew: And so really, you're, the second season is saying, Hey White people in this neighborhood, what are you going to do? How are you going to reckon with all that has been given to you, that is now so starkly apparent given the context that you are living in. You see this housing project, you see these schools that are a mile apart, how can you ignore that?
Meribah Knight: Yeah, Exactly. I wanted to ask people, what are you doing? But you ha-, I had to thread that needle really carefully, because the idea of, What can you White person do for this, very quickly goes into the White savior, which is, Oh yeah, I'll go in and I'll save it. But it's so much more nuanced and complicated than that.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. We try to live in that nuance all the time here and it's hard and I think you do such a nice job of it. There, there is this theme that I think the JFK speech really sets up that, that you keep coming back to about holding the White people to account. Can you talk about how you think about the role of journalism, you know, broadly and then particularly in this context?
Meribah Knight: Yeah, I think every single person who goes into journalism is some kind of squeaky wheel. We all want to hold power to account. That's what we say we do. We hold power to account. And I know that in most cases, what we consider to be power are elected officials. But I really wanted to turn that idea on its head and consider holding power to account is where power is consolidated. And what I saw in a school that had a more than a hundred thousand dollars PTO, a mile away from a school that didn't even have a PTO, was that power had been consolidated in one place. And I needed to ask those people in that place, why they were there, what they thought they were doing, and whether they thought it was okay.
And so I really pushed hard with my editor to say, I know that we're always trying to elevate the voices of marginalized people, and in this case of Black families, maybe living in poverty, and we did that in the first season. But I feel like the people that need to get the message are White people who need to listen to themselves.
Like in the first season I had a lot of people come to me and they loved it and they listened to it and they sort of patted themselves on the back and said, Oh yes, I have empathy now, oh, those stories were amazing. But I just couldn't help but feel like that wasn't challenging them enough, like they still weren't getting it. And so the only way that I knew how to do that was to actually really focus my efforts and my energy on holding those people and putting them in the hot seat and asking them to explain their ways. Because they were the ones who were calling the shots, unfortunately.
And so yeah, I just redefined like what the power was and who was holding the power and how, and where, I wanted to point my microphone. And that ended up being at a lot of White families.
Andrew: To try to make sense of their behavior.
Meribah Knight: I need to understand what they're thinking, why they're making the decisions they're making, because those are impacting all of these schools that they're not even touching. Like, their decisions are directly impacting the Warners of the world. They don't think they are, but they are.
Andrew: Yeah. And I think, it's, it's one thing to acknowledge that the power should not rest with White people doesn't make it so. And certainly there's no way the power ever gets rested away from the hands of White and privileged families in schools, unless we recognize that we are holding that power and have to grapple with that contradiction between our stated values and between our actions. Between how we as privileged White families in the education system think about what's important and act about what's important. Between how we conceive of ourselves as being for or against certain things in society, and then how our actions actually do that.
Certainly, I found that very compelling about the whole series is just, I couldn't listen to it and not hear myself in places and not have it make me step back and be like, Yeah, that's, oops, yep, that's me. I'm part of the problem too. Like everybody is.
Meribah Knight: Exactly, what can you individually do? What is your one little tiny decision and your household multiplied times thousands and thousands? What is that doing?
Andrew: The school district has, does not have this all figured out but that is also the result of the White power structure that, that determines how school districts get run in the first place.
Meribah Knight: Right. Which is why I was so adamant on including the history of this neighborhood and the history of Nashville's fight over desegregation, because I just don't think we really can understand where we're at right now, unless we understand how we got there. And White families really have no idea that the system has been catering, Kowtowing, begging them to come back, ever since integration started. So we hold all the weight of history and we have no idea.
Andrew: Yeah, we don't have to reckon with that at all. So the first couple of episodes are really telling that history.
Meribah Knight: Yeah. So we start out setting the scene of these two schools, and then we very quickly back way up to 1955, the year after Brown v. Board. And Nashville has done absolutely nothing and 20 families decide to, with the help of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP and some amazing attorneys there, file a lawsuit saying we want to be able to go to our neighborhood school. And all of those families lived in East Nashville. It was really amazing. That was a big moment for me, of realizing that where this all started was exactly where I was. So this neighborhood has been reckoning and fighting against this for 70 years.
It was a 43-year court battle over desegregation. It was arduous. There were crosses burning in the front yards of elementary schools. KKK members were there donning their hoods. It was bad. A school was bombed on the first day of integrated schools. And the city pushed back against this in every way, shape and form they could. And so that set the stage, like we wonder why the system is unequal? Well, because it's been unequal from the beginning. And the folks that have the power to, in the beginning make it equal, those school officials, those judges, like they just, they refuse. They refused.
Andrew: They get dragged, kicking and screaming, by the courts, to do the bare minimum at every step along the way.
Meribah Knight: Yes. And this is a story that has played out in countless cities from Boston
Andrew: To Denver. Yeah. I feel like you, you were telling the story of Denver just as well. 1974 Keyes Case was Denver's desegregation case and it was, yeah, very similar. The district fought it tooth and nail and certainly, Denver, we don't think of ourselves as Southern at all. And yet there we were with people bombing the bus yards. The Keyes family had a bomb thrown on their front porch like this, it's yeah, it's the same story everywhere.
Meribah Knight: It really is. And, I think for me, what we hear over and over again, as reporters who are covering education, or as parents who are pushing to stretch people's imagination when it comes to where to send your child to school, you hear the same story over and over again, which is, I don't want my child to be uncomfortable. I don't want them to be the only White student in the school, like that just seems like a big sacrifice. I don't want him to be the guinea pig, blah, blah, blah, all those excuses.
But when you saw the work that Black families did and the sacrifices they made, and the Kelly family, the named plaintiff on this case, they talk about their father, who had his wonderful barber shop downtown, he had bricks thrown through it every weekend.
Andrew: His, like, routine every Monday was just to go fix his broken windows.
Meribah Knight: Yeah, so I wanted to just reframe the conversation and try to show how when you make those arguments about your own child, while I know they're coming from a really loving place, you have to think about all the work that all these other families did and how uncomfortable that was and what a sacrifice that was.
Andrew: Right. So the first three episodes we learn about the history of Nashville. And then we come to episode four, which we're going to listen to here, and we really focus in on the Wood family. I wonder if you can tell us about the Wood family.
Meribah Knight: Yeah. So Heather, Chris, Marion, Oscar, and Duggie are the Wood family. Heather and Chris Wood are mom and dad. Oscar is their oldest child who goes to Lockeland Elementary. Marion is their middle child who is a rising kindergartner, and Duggie is just a toddler. And they're this kind of classic, liberal, White family, moved from San Francisco to Nashville. And they moved to the neighborhood, they have this classic story, which is where do we send our kids to school? The whole neighborhood that they talk to tells them, you have to go to Lockeland, which is...
Andrew: That's the only school you...
Meribah Knight: That's the only school. That's it, like if you don't get in there, like you're done. And so she falls victim to that. As she would say now, she was just trying to do what was best for her kids. And they sent Oscar there. And she tells me, the first week he's there, he comes home and he says, There's only pink people here, where all the Brown people? And she's like, Oh crap.
And so that just like really rocks her to her core. And as she wrestles with this over the months, she's thinking now, she's got another kid who's going to be in kindergarten. They have this spot in Lockeland because Lockeland has sibling preference, she’s, We could just go there.
Andrew: This like goldmine that like people...
Meribah Knight: They're falling over themselves to get into this school. And she's got this golden ticket and she's okay. But she just can't let go of this comment that Oscar has made. And he had a very good friend who ended up going to Warner. And she sits with it for a while, and she decides to visit Warner to see his friend. She never even visited the school when she was thinking about schools, this is their zoned neighborhood school.
So she goes to visit and she pops into the kindergarten classroom where Oscar's friend is to say hello and it's all Black, and she's just really struck by it. And then she goes to Oscar's kindergarten class that afternoon to get him and it's all White. And this is the moment that just ruptures her and she just cannot unsee this.
And so this episode really follows like her personal journey, but also the journeys of a couple other families in Lockeland who try to push this issue, who are met with total resistance by the principal, by the district, by other families.
Andrew: All right. Let's take a listen. And we can talk a little more about it on the other side.
Meribah Knight: oK, I just want to do my levels.
Willie Sims: Ok, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2 what what what
Meribah Knight: So introduce yourself.
Willie Sims: Ah, Willie James Sims Jr. also known as Big Fella. Live from the east side it’s going down at NPR. Me and Meribah in this thang. We’re trying to figure out what’s going on. What’s the problem? All up in Lockeland. Mm, mm, mm gentrification.
Meribah Knight: Ok, so we’ll just start from the beginning.
Willie Sims’ daughter Nia started kindergarten at Lockeland in the fall of 2017. His older daughter had gone to Warner Elementary, but it had started to really deteriorate. The leadership was weak. The resources were waning. Behavior issues were on the rise. Then he heard about Lockeland from Nia’s godmother, who’s White.
Willie Sims: So in search of what elementary school we were gonna send the baby to, you gonna send her to the best school. You gonna at least go for it, you know? And it’s a lottery. So we applied for the lottery and she got in so boom, there she is.
Meribah Knight: The year was going well, Nia loved her teacher, she was making friends. Then the pumpkin patch happened.
Willie Sims: The first time I realized it was real — I didn’t even realize it. So went on a field trip to the pumpkin patch, right? So we get to the school, I'm chaperoning. I go outside to get on the bus and I look around at all the kindergarten kids, and I say ‘Damn, is she the only Black kid in the kindergarten?’ So I'm like it's got to be a couple more Black kids. She can't be the only Black kid in the whole kindergarten. It never even crossed my mind that she possibly would be, you know?
Meribah Knight: East Nashville had tons of Black families. And the fact that his daughter was the lone Black child in her entire grade—of 3 classes—didn’t sit well with him. He went home and talked to his wife about it, started calling Nia “little Diversity,” a joke to ease the awkward reality of it all.
Willie Sims: That's my baby, Lil' Diversity. She's diversifying uh, haha the whole thing.
Meribah Knight: Then he started hearing murmurings from other families...White families...concerned about the issue. They were mobilizing. They wanted to push Lockeland to acknowledge the fact that families of color were becoming scarcer and scarcer at the school. Did he want in?
Willie Sims: I didn't participate. I was like — I was like ‘I'm with you, but I don't want no smoke, you know what I’m saying? I don’t want no problems. It's already going to be interesting for being the only Black kid in the kindergarten. I don't want to add nothing to that. I'm like y’all do that, you know what I’m sayin?’
Meribah Knight: Willie didn’t want to jeopardize his daughter’s experience at the school. But he also knew, this issue was much deeper, much more profound, much more historic than most of the White families probably realized.
Willie Sims: If Black people could do something about the way America is, and the way things are, and the way we've been done or the way that it goes we would — it would be changed. Evidently this is a White people issue. Good White people have to talk to White people who may be less informed and they have to work ,that out amongst theyself. You know what I’m saying? If Black America could do something about the problem, the problem would be solved. You know what I’m saying? So we can’t. So, hey y’all fix it then. If you feel like it’s a problem? Good! Do something about it, you know?
Meribah Knight: You’re listening to The Promise, a podcast from Nashville Public Radio. I’m Meribah Knight.
This season on The Promise we take on one of the most contentious topics in America, what has been deemed as the “Great Equalizer,” but more and more feels like the Great Divider: public education.
Episode 4: What You Can’t Unsee
DAVID BRILEY: This is a story about a school…
RICHARD TENNANT: Lockeland Elementary at first probably came together in David Briley’s living room.
Meribah Knight: Lockeland’s origin story is a significant one. And it’s a sort of a civic engagement fairy tale. A group of nearly all White neighborhood parents got together with a city councilman, David Briley, also White, and decided to make a school in their vision.
This was 2002 — 14 years after the city had settled its epic desegregation lawsuit. And the neighborhood was starting to attract more White families. It was walkable, close to downtown. The houses were affordable and picturesque. A dense mix of bungalows, craftsman and tudor style.
But there was a problem.
SARA PLAMBECK: People would have children and move away.
DIANE BANKS: They would move somewhere else where the schools were better.
Meribah Knight: Just so you know what’s happening here, this is a video for councilman David Briley’s first—and unsuccessful — run for mayor in 2007.
RT: I think his role was bringing people together and giving us the support and confidence to make it work...
Meribah Knight: At the time Lockeland had been an under-enrolled middle school that was closed a few years earlier.
As part of the desegregation order, the city committed to renovating and re-opening Lockeland as an elementary magnet lottery school with a priority zone. Meaning that anyone across the city could apply, but the children who lived in a specific area around Lockeland would get priority in the lottery.
And that zone was drawn, very deliberately, to be as diverse as possible. It included single family homes, but also a bunch of Section 8 housing as well as the city’s largest public housing complex, the James Cayce Homes. In fact, the same places where Warner gets much of its students.
The school was seen by its founding families as an absolutely necessary addition to the neighborhood...which did have other elementary schools, Warner was one of them. They were all mostly African American, with about half the students living in poverty, and all struggled academically. But Lockeland’s families wanted a new school, a school they would send their children to...diverse...close-knit...high achieving. So they worked tirelessly to make their vision a reality. And it worked.
SP: Certainly the fact that young couples aren’t moving away anymore because there is a place to send their children to school that is amazing, really strengthens the neighborhood.
RT: The truth is Lockeland made everybody’s house values double. That’s just the truth. Lockeland really built a community that stayed.
Meribah Knight: With a dedicated principal, a diverse student body, and the resources attached to these new White families — whose home values were now doubling — the school began to thrive.
DAVID BRILEY: Lockeland is a model. And the model is: get involved with your local elementary school. Get to the school board. Tell them what you want to do with the school, and you’ll be able to transform every elementary school in this community.
RT: Lockeland is a school where the parents, we know each other.
Meribah Knight: When Lockeland opened in 2004, it was almost dead even with Black and White students. But that quickly began to change as the neighborhood started to gentrify and get more expensive. Within five years the number of Black students had dropped by half. Five years after that, another half. And then another. White families just kept coming. They bought up the homes around the school whose listings boasted access to it. They told their friends. They took advantage of the guaranteed spots for siblings.
And by 2017, Willie’s daughter Nia was the only Black child in the school’s incoming class.
When he was approached by other Lockeland parents about the issue of diversity, one of them was Heather Wood.
Heather Wood: I remember feeling like, ‘Oh my god, like are we going to do this again? Like another generation? We’re gonna do it again? No! I can’t.’
Meribah Knight: Heather was so unmoored by seeing the racially divided classrooms at Warner and Lockeland, she’d spent months unable to shake the image. So she began reaching out to other parents...parents like Willie.
And while Willie had gracefully kept himself out of the fray, it turns out, another Lockeland parent had been sounding the alarm on this issue for years.
[DOOR OPENS, DOG BARKS]
BRANDY FENDERSON: I forgot to mention I have a dog.
Meribah Knight: Brandy Fenderson enrolled her daughter, Ella, at Lockeland in 2015, as a kindergartener. Ella is an extrovert with a deep love of rollercoasters.
ELLA FENDERSON: It like launches you, and then you go in loops and you go upside down and it’s really fun.
Meribah Knight: Do you ever get nauseous?
ELLA FENDERSON: No.
Meribah Knight: Ella is also biracial. Her mom, Brandy, is White, and Ella’s father is Black.
BRANDY FENDERSON: So her kindergarten year there were Ella and one other child of color in the class of 20 students. So two out of 20. And then in the next school year she was the only one in her classroom of color.
Meribah Knight: Brandy happened to work with a lot of kids from Warner at a literacy non-profit she managed in the neighborhood. And what she saw in her daily commute from Lockeland to Warner left her troubled.
BRANDY FENDERSON: It just felt disturbing to me. We would drive one mile down Woodland Street to my work from her school, and we would go from a world of White children to a world of Black children, one mile apart but not attending the same school.
Meribah Knight: It ate away at her conscience.
So she emailed other parents, the school’s principal. She contacted the PTO president, asking to discuss the issue at an upcoming meeting. She’d been volunteering most mornings at the school, tutoring kids in reading, so she figured her feedback wouldn’t be unwelcome.
Could they survey parents to see if others were concerned about diversity? Could they get Lockeland’s few Black families to help recruit at the district’s annual school choice festival? She wrote: “We cannot and should not ignore these statistics. We cannot hide behind this being a district problem.”
But she was met with vague indifference.
This was not a PTO matter, they responded. It was out of their hands.
These issues were for the school board and the district to deal with, the PTO president wrote back.
Plus, he added, this was a “tricky topic.” “We all have opted to send our kids to Lockeland, in lieu of sending them to more diverse zoned schools or other more diverse choice options,” he wrote. “Trying to change the makeup of a school is particularly difficult.”
But, he added, “There is no harm in trying.”
Brandy was vexed. For one, the “more diverse” options the PTO president was talking about were not diverse at all. Most of Lockeland’s families were zoned for Warner, practically all Black.
In Brandy’s mind this was a civil rights issue. She wrote: “We cannot ignore that White kids in the neighborhood are receiving a top-notch education a mile down the road from a school where Black children are not learning to read.”
Eventually the PTO had a meeting about diversity, and Lockeland’s principal addressed Brandy’s concerns directly.
BRANDY FENDERSON: The response I received was ‘You know, we have a long waiting list at Lockeland. So, you're suggesting that maybe we do some outreach to, to make people feel welcome, but people do feel welcome here. Let me show you our waiting list.’ Then I said well maybe I'm — maybe I'm not clear: I'm talking about people of color. You know, my experience is people are saying that this isn't a school for Black kids. And when you walk in it doesn't really look like it, if you just look at the faces. I said ‘So I think that maybe we could do some outreach to make people feel welcome.’
Meribah Knight: And still, nothing happened.
BRANDY FENDERSON: And then during her second-grade year, some work came home from her class. Just when I thought, ‘Hey this is how it is, but we're just we're just going with it.’ Ella was maybe going to be the only kid of color in her class, but we're just we're just sticking with it. And then some work came home. It was about it was about Ruby Bridges.
Meribah Knight: 60 years ago, Ruby Bridges was the first Black child to desegregate a New Orleans elementary school. She’d walked to school flanked by Federal Marshals for protection.
The assignment asked the children in Ella’s class, to read about Ruby and mark what aspects of her story were fair and unfair.
BRANDY FENDERSON: And one of the things they marked as “fair” was separate but equal schools — as fair. And the other thing they marked as fair was Ruby Bridges had to take an entrance exam to get into the White school. So my alarm went off. This is important stuff.
Meribah Knight: The worksheet came home with a big pink smiley face on the top right corner.
When Brandy saw the assignment, she pulled Ella aside. ‘Did you talk about this in class?’ She asked. ‘Why did you mark these as fair?’
BRANDY FENDERSON: And she says, ‘Oh yeah, we all thought that was fair because it says “equal.”’ And I said, ‘Do you understand that that means Black kids would go to one school and White kids would go to another school. That's what they mean by separate.’ She said ‘Yeah, we, we know,’ she said, ‘but it says equal.’
Meribah Knight: Brandy immediately called and scheduled a meeting with Ella’s teacher. Who apologized profusely, and said the assignment had been given by a sub.
BRANDY FENDERSON: But it was sort of like a breaking point for me, Meribah. I just thought to myself, ‘Wow. You know my child has been in an almost entirely White class, and now after three years of the school she goes through a lesson and is sent home with an understanding that separate but equal was fair — and not only my child but every other child in that classroom.
Meribah Knight: So she took her concerns to social media, posting on Facebook about the assignment and tagging more than 80 others. Parents, teachers, friends, even the school district itself. And the mayor. Brandy got a tidal wave of responses.
“I don’t think anyone meant for this to happen,” one parent wrote. “But here we are, we are the only ones who can change it and we have to start somewhere.”
“We are one unhealthy neighborhood,” wrote another.
One said “wow...just wow”
Not all were so supportive though. Some people claimed Brandy had misinterpreted. Others simply unfriended her.
But Brandy was undeterred. She knew it was time to start talking, again, about the glaring divide in the neighborhood.
BRANDY FENDERSON: I wanted people to really confront the fact that in this progressive neighborhood — this very liberal East Nashville — everyone's going about their business like it's, it's OK.
Meribah Knight: And so, in early 2018, Brandy was ready to mount another push to get Lockeland talking about its race problem.
Heather Wood, who’d heard about the post, was ready to help. She contacted Brandy…
BRANDY FENDERSON: And said ‘I think that we should... I think that what we should do is submit a letter to the school and let them know how many parents are concerned about this and that we want to do something to change it.’
Meribah Knight: The letter is really pretty innocuous.
“Dear Principal Lewis: This letter comes to you from a group of parents who love Lockeland Design Center and our school community, but who are also concerned with the school’s growing lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity.”
It goes on to say that they know there are proactive measure the school can take to spread “the message” about Lockeland.
“We firmly believe that with your leadership, and the support of Metro Nashville Public Schools, we will be successful,” the letter concluded. Followed by a request to meet with Principal Lewis.
It’s signed by 57 parents. And while by all accounts it’s timid. It got people’s attention.
Here is where I should say that Lockeland’s principal, Christie Lewis, has declined my multiple requests for an interview. When I asked the district why, a spokesman told me she didn’t want to be the face of this problem.
Following the letter, a meeting was scheduled. Between Lockeland’s principal, another Metro Schools administrator and Chris Wood — Heather’s husband. Somehow Chris became the group’s representative and was the only person asked to meet.
CHRIS WOOD: You know. And I just told her it was an issue and that I was hoping we could make some progress on it. And they said that they knew it was an issue and it was difficult to solve and they'd been thinking about it and working on it, and would love to hear, you know, any ideas that I had or we had for ways to try to fix it.
Meribah Knight: It seemed it was up to the parents.
So Chris put his lawyerly skills to work. He filed a public records request with the school district and discovered what he and other concerned parents had always suspected: The neighborhood had plenty of kids of color. In fact, two-thirds of the rising kindergarteners in Lockeland’s priority zone were African American.
Chris and Heather and Brandy Fenderson, urged Lockeland’s PTO to spend some money on mailers to start recruiting around the neighborhood — which they did. They spent a few hundred bucks on them—which, for context, is less than 1/100th of Lockeland’s PTO budget.
A year later, when Chris filed another records request to see if his efforts had moved the needle, he was disappointed with the results.
Just one African American rising kindergartener had put Lockeland as a first choice on the school application, compared to 39 White kids.
It seemed the problem was bigger than just a mailer. And it revealed just how starkly divided the neighborhood is. It seemed its Black families either didn’t know about Lockeland in the first place, or they simply didn’t see it as an option. And the fact that it didn’t offer transportation was yet another hurdle.
In the past, Lockeland had been called “East Nashville’s best kept secret.” And Willie Sims, the father of the school’s only Black kindergartener, wondered aloud if his daughter's godmother — who’d told them about the school — had broken some unspoken rule.
Willie Sims: I think her godmother... she might have messed up and gave away the sacred White secrets, you know what I’m saying? She might have gave away the secret that we were — maybe we weren't supposed to know that. If her godmother wasn’t a White woman, then maybe we wouldn’t know this. You know what I’m sayin’?
Meribah Knight: If Willie hadn’t been told about Lockeland, who knows where his daughter would be, but it definitely wouldn’t have had everything Lockeland has. Few schools in the neighborhood do.
Willie Sims: We just want her to get an education. She's learning Spanish. When my other daughter was at Warner, they weren't learning no Spanish. They didn't know nothing about no damn Spanish over — they weren't teaching them Spanish. They weren't giving them no resources. So to see the difference in the same age kids, and what you get over here and what you don't get over here. So I'm like... she's learning a lot of stuff she's not going learn if she goes to any of the other schools that’s right by us. She's not going to get these same resources, education. It’s not going to happen.
Meribah Knight: To Willie, this all felt intentional. Even if most White families had no idea what they were doing, they were participating in a system that was keeping Black children out of one of the best schools in the state.
Willie Sims: That is on purpose. It is this way it is on purpose. I'm not saying they purposely keeping Black kids out, but they're not actively trying to get Black kids in. And if you're not actively trying to get Black kids in, then you're keeping them out.
Meribah Knight: Heather realized that if she really wanted to find the solution to Lockeland’s problem, it was going to take more than recruiting a few kids of color to the school, which it seemed wasn’t a real priority anyway.
But isolating kids was benefitting no one, she thought. Not White kids, and especially not kids of color. The data showed that clearly. And the courts had too. Separate schools were “inherently” unequal. Schools should look like how the world looks, Heather thought.
Heather Wood: Why are we separating them? And a lot of times I feel like it is for the convenience and comfort of the White families.
Meribah Knight: For years White people, here and beyond, had huddled together and pooled their resources, Heather thought. They have controlled the outcomes And Lockeland was a perfect example of those outcomes.
Lockeland’s PTO—which could raise money and use it however they wanted—had spent $101,000 in the 2018 school year. They used it to hire some part time teachers, hold events and buy extra materials for staff.
Meanwhile, Warner didn’t even have a PTO. That’s not to say parents weren’t active — they were constantly at the school. Dropping off birthday cupcakes during a work break. Coming to a teacher conference. Picking up their kid for a dentist appointment. But that formal parent body — it didn’t exist.
What’s more, once a family got into Lockeland, it gave them a guaranteed spot for any siblings.
And this “sibling preference,” as it’s called, is a big factor in how the school’s demographics shifted at such a rapid pace — shrunk the number of open spots every year to almost nothing.
The school was filled with the children of prominent Nashvillians: public interest lawyers, politicians, city officials, artists, musicians, and those with flexible schedules, business owners, stay at home parents.
Heather Wood: If you get a critical mass of those people, there's always going to be someone that can come in — right? — to the library at a school like Lockeland.
Meribah Knight: In other words, the school had an almost endless supply of extra hands, and the resources that came with them.
If white people were the ones flocking to a choice school like Lockeland, one of the best schools in the state, if they had the resources to spend the time fundraising and organizing, volunteering, maybe Willie was right.
It was a White people issue, and it was on them to fix it.
More than anything, what a school like Warner needed was community investment — from the whole community, not just its low-income families. More people with different kinds of resources.
Heather Wood: It just needs an influx of more people with flexible schedules and a little bit extra income so that they can do the things that at the higher income schools they can do.
Meribah Knight: It seems simple. But it’s not—Heather knows she’s walking a fine line between supporting a struggling neighborhood school and acting as some kind white savior.
Heather Wood: It’s, It is very common I think where parents are like ‘Oh this is a new project, this is a new blank slate. We're going to make this great in spite of the kids who are already here.’ Well I love the kid’s that are already there.
MARION WOOD: I am a star of hopscotch. I like butterflies. I like butterflies.
Meribah Knight: With Marion’s first year of school coming up, Heather had a decision to make. Would she send her to Lockeland, with Oscar, now almost 90 percent White and financially well off?
Or would she send her to Warner, their zoned neighborhood school, where it was almost all Black and poor?
Heather Wood: I felt like that the sort of just decision you know would be to send her to our zoned school.
Meribah Knight: When she broached the topic with Chris, he was open to it, but he needed some guidance.
Heather Wood: I made him read some Nikole Hannah-Jones articles.
Meribah Knight: Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist who pretty much put this issue of American schools re-segregating into the public consciousness.
Host: Why are American schools so segregated?
NHJ: I mean the simple answer is American schools are segregated because um, they were created to be segregated from the founding of public schools in this country, and because large numbers of White Americans choose it to be that way.
Meribah Knight: Hannah-Jones has been writing about this issue for the better part of a decade — exposing inequalities in education, and the hypocrisy of liberal whites.
NHJ: As long as we continue to have a system of racial inequality in this country Black children have to be where white children are to get the things that white children get.
Meribah Knight: Heather knew that if Chris would just read what she read, and see what she now saw, he too would see sending Marion to Warner was the just thing to do.
CHRIS WOOD: The way the lots of, I think, conversations work in our house is that Heather will propose something, and I may be dismissive. And then she will give me a book to read about it, and I'll read the book, and I will realize that she was right.
Heather Wood: I think there's just this assumption that you're just going to do what is absolutely the best and get the absolute best for your child in everything at any given point. And the idea that you would be making a decision where there might be something she has to give up, you know, it's not going to be anything huge, and she's going to gain things from going there too. But like yeah. I mean sure there are some convenience sacrifices, there might be some social awkwardness sacrifices at points, like I don't know, you know? But it's worth it to me.
Meribah Knight: When she told other parents what she was thinking, that Marion might go to Warner and not Lockeland, some looked puzzled. Others sort of cringed.
Heather Wood: A couple people have been like well good for you, you know? We all talk about it, but none of us want to do it.
Meribah Knight: A few said their children were just too sensitive for a mostly poor and minority school.
Heather Wood: They want to shield them from that. I don't know how we are going to raise kids who are anti-racist and like social justice minded if we are shielding them from the awkwardness that comes up with income inequality, or the awkwardness that comes up with race. Like, I mean yeah, I guess, you can keep shielding them, but isn't that where we all — how we all got to where we are now?
Meribah Knight: So the decision was made, Marion, or Momo as the family calls her, would go to Warner next year. Not Lockeland.
MARION WOOD: I am Momo, that’s me. I am Momo, yeah! I am Momo yeah!
Meribah Knight: So anyway, with Heather, Chris, and Momo all on board with Warner. The next conversation, was with Oscar.
Oscar Wood: She showed me two pictures: a picture of a kindergarten class at Lockeland and a picture of one at Warner.
Heather Wood: And I was like what do you notice about this picture?
Oscar Wood: The kindergarten class at my school was all white kids. The kindergarten class there was all Black kids.
Heather Wood: And he’s like, umm…
Oscar Wood: And I was like I didn't — I thought Martin Luther King got rid of that.
Heather Wood: Then I was like yeah, well, you know we don't do it anymore like that. But the fact remains that the kids are separate, aren't they, you know?
Oscar Wood: There was just. They, um, white kids would be allowed to go there, but they don't. There's just so many Black kids there and at Lockeland there's so many white kids.
Meribah Knight: He was pretty devastated to be honest that he wouldn’t be walking to school with Marion. But he knew this was much bigger than a morning stroll.
Heather Wood: He just like gave me this look like it was sort of this combination of like ‘Because that's the reason, I know I'm not gonna be able to argue you into this.’ Like ‘I know you're going to do this aren't you? So OK. He's still not thrilled about it, you know? But he understands. He does.
Meribah Knight: And so here they were, The Wood Family. Two kids. Two schools. One white. One Black. The neighborhood divide — America’s age-old problem with race — would now live and breathe in the home of this white family. They, unlike so many of their white neighbors, were choosing to look race in the eye and do the work that their Black neighbors had done for generations.
*The Promise, Season 2, Episode 4: “What You Can’t Unsee” excerpts end* ____________________________________________
Andrew: Yeah. You make a really nice podcast, Meribah.
Meribah Knight: Oh, thank you so much.
Andrew: So the Woods have made this choice. They're doing their little part to push back on the opportunity hoarding. But also, which I think is so powerful, like recognizing that their arrival into the Warner community is not without potential costs, that how they show up is really gonna matter. That they are not just going, by their arrivals, solve the problems of Warner school, or they're not there to fix them. And I think that acknowledging the tension that Heather feels about being a White savior, but also how does she participate.
Everybody needs to go and listen to the whole series for sure. But broadly, how does this play out for the Woods. Kind of living in this tension between two schools, one White, one Black?
Meribah Knight: Well, bless Heather's heart, she gives zero Fs about anything.
So she is, I think she's slightly a pariah in Lockeland. She's definitely gotten some glares, but she doesn't care. This is bigger than that for her. What I love about Heather is that she is such a great example for all White moms, White parents, like she really did the work.
And so she knew, when she makes a decision to send Marion to Warner, she's doing it not because she wants to fix the school and save it. She's doing it because she loves the kids in the school. She wants Marion to have this experience. This is valuable to her in exactly the same way high test scores were valuable to her when she...
Andrew: Chose Lockeland.
Meribah Knight: Yeah. So she says to me, she's, I'm going to go in and I'm essentially gonna meet this school where it's at. I'm not going to start the PTO, I'm not going to make demands like, My child has to be in this class or that class. I am going to be a participant and just be there when they need me.
Andrew: And this is like starkly different to how parents are expected to show up at Lockeland, right? Like the, the Lockeland origin story, I feel like it's so telling about this, like, culture that has been created around what you should expect from your school and, and who should be able to expect it.
Meribah Knight: I remember talking to one of the founders and he said something to me that has always stuck with me, which is, The reason for Lockeland success, the secret sauce, he said, Was that we got to build it, is that we got to start it from scratch. And that has, yeah, that's just stayed with me for so long because it really explained so much, like you're building it in your vision and now you're wondering why it ended up the way it is. You didn't meet anybody where they were at. You, you decided that you were going to build this thing and it was going to be what you wanted it to be. And you're a bunch of White privileged people who think you know best.
And this guy is like a death row lawyer. Like he was a public defender, like he's doing a lot of great work, but like he still didn't quite get that what he was doing was setting the school up to be exactly where it is now. And Heather is the antithesis of that. She doesn't want to rebuild anything. She just wants to go in and be part of this community. And she's aware that Marion might have some awkward social interactions and she's okay with that. Like, it's going to happen and she's going to be okay, and we'll talk about it at home.
We're left with kind of this family doing the hard work, but doing it mindfully and intentionally and knowing that just by participating in this and bringing themselves and sitting at the table and saying, You tell us what you need, we're here for it. That held immense power.
That was really incredibly... brave isn't the right word.
Andrew: It was counter-cultural, right? It wasn't like, like brave in the way that, that Melba Beals or Rosa Parks, or the people who got us to this place were brave, but she had to make a really clear choice to push back because, I think like you said it, like the default, the standard, Here is, here's what happens if you don't think about it, is to end up at Lockeland and for Lockeland to end up the way it is.
Meribah Knight: And that's what I hope that White families take from that is like, It's all about participation and it doesn't mean taking over the school, it just means showing up, like being there. That's what this school needed, was for the community to wrap its arms around the school so that it looked actually like the neighborhood.
Andrew: How did this whole series, how did it make you feel about the idea of desegregation as a project? About, kind of, hopes for true integration in schools and where Nashville goes from here, where we go more broadly as a country from here?
Meribah Knight: I think it made me feel both really empowered, but also demoralized.
I felt really empowered as a White mom to say, I will never look at schools the same way. I will make a much more conscious choice with my own child and I value completely different things. I think individual families actually hold a lot of power in the small decisions they make about their children, but also in who they talk to. So much of this is about word-of-mouth networks. And judging a school without ever visiting.
Like public education is this big experiment and we somehow expect for us to just be a consumer in it. And we're not a consumer, we're a stakeholder, we're a player like, we do this together. Like we always talk about democracy and how we all have to work together and how we make this, and we somehow forget that public education is the exact same way. Like we make it happen. It's not, What are you going to give me so that I'll stay here. It's like, How are we going to all do this together?
Andrew: Because if we all do it together we actually all benefit. Just like democracy. If we like actually all invest in democracy, it is good for all of us. If we all invest in public education for everyone, we all do better.
Meribah Knight: Yeah, I think that we, as White families need to be more self-aware that's what we've talked about this whole time, that's what you talk about all the time. But we do have to start redefining what public education is. And reframing it because I think that a lot of families think they're participating when they're actually not really, they're participating in a little, like, niche that is working amazingly well for them.
Andrew: Yeah, what I find hopeful about The Promise, about this season, and about your work, is that it is like you said, they're like, there are all sorts of policy, things that are broken and that are enabling this and allowing it to continue. But those policy things are responsive to parents and are largely responsive to White parents. To hold White parents to account for that power and then to provide some examples of, and not to lionize the Wood family or make them out to be having figured it all out, when I think what part of what makes them compelling is that they acknowledge that they don't have it all figured out, but, to hold out some examples of, and I think this is the work that we try to do on a regular basis, of what does it mean to engage with the school system in a different way and to think about schools in a different way. That is where actual change, a lasting change, can come from, because if we don't, all of the great policy ideas and all the great policy fixes and increase in funds and whatever are still going to be beholden to this White power structure in which the easiest thing to do is hoard power and hoard opportunity and hoard resources.
Meribah Knight: Yeah, absolutely. And the more we can walk through this with self-awareness, understanding, consideration, and empathy, the better off we'll be.
Every year, you've got the opportunity to start a new class, to have a new batch of students to have new hope. That's the amazing thing about school, right? Like the first day of school is all promise and we start it over and over again every year. And so every year you can have incremental change. You really can. But you do have to be an active participant, you really do. Absolutely.
Andrew: Yeah. Your kid is two now?
Meribah Knight: Yeah, he's a little over two.
Andrew: How has this sort of shaped how you think about what you want for him, his role in this whole thing?
Meribah Knight: It has changed me so profoundly. As a reporter, we don't really talk about ourselves. We don't want to insert ourselves too much into the story, but this has been the most important story I've ever done. It has shaped me more profoundly than any other story I've ever done. Because I'm absolutely every single one of those White families. And I want what's best for my child. Like, I want to give my child every opportunity, but I also don't want to deny any child an opportunity. And I think for me, once I had a child, I looked at every other child and thought like that could have been my child. Like that kid could have been my child and every child should get what my child has.
And so I don't know how I can go back to my old self. I am totally changed forever.
Andrew: So what do you do with that?
Meribah Knight: I don't want to be an evangelist or proselytize but I also do want to challenge people. And I think that's more and more where I see the work being done. Because I only am going to have one child. So I can make that decision and have him do that in our household. But I think already about the number of interactions I've had with other parents seeking information and trying to affirm their beliefs. And I think about the work that can be done in dismantling that and just having a more honest conversation about what education means and what our children deserve. And that can probably go even farther than just trying to make the right decision for my son.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. There's power in that. I'm really grateful to you for coming on, for spending the time, for putting out The Promise. I think it's such an important piece of the conversation and does so much of that work. So just thank you very much.
Meribah Knight: Oh, Andrew, thank you so much for having me. And I just want to reiterate, like what a wonderful thing Integrated Schools is. It really galvanized me to do this series. You guys have been talking about this for years and I've been listening and I've been taking notice. And I don't think I would have been able to do the podcast if I hadn't had the work that you've done come before. You've really put it out there and you've done a lot of the work. You laid the foundation for what the series is.
Andrew: That's yeah, that's an honor. I appreciate you saying that. And thank you so much.
Meribah Knight: Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew: Huge thanks to Meribah for coming on and to the WPLN team for allowing us to play a bit of The Promise. You can find a link to the entire series in our show notes.
I know this episode was focused on Lockeland and its struggles to attract more students of color. But the series really spends much more time looking at Warner, following the principal there, and focusing on the ways that that community is working to serve the kids at that school, so I highly recommend you listen to the entire series. It's such a compelling story and it feels so universal.
This was a long episode. I appreciate you sticking around to the end. We're going to go out with the credits from The Promise, so you can hear about all the amazing people who worked on it.
But before we go, a quick reminder, you can support this work by joining our Patreon, patreon.com/integratedschools. And as always get in touch, @integratedschools on social media or send us an email, [email protected].
Grateful to be in this with you, as I try to know better and do better. See you next time.
Meribah Knight: The Promise is written and produced by me, Meribah Knight. Editing by Emily Siner and Anita Bugg. Special thanks to Sam Zern, the intrepid intern for this podcast, and its fact-checker. Thank you to Tony Gonzalez, Samantha Max, Sergio Martínez-Beltrán and Damon Mitchell for additional editing. Our advisor on The Promise is Savala Nolan Trepczynski.
This episode was mixed by Jakob Lewis of Great Feeling Studios. The music is by Blue Dot Sessions.
Any many, many thanks to my dear friend, my mentor, and my loyal guide, Alex Kotlowitz. Find photos and more on how we reported this story at thepromise.wpln.org. This is Nashville Public Radio.