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The Darwin School's final students reunite 60 years after fire and desegregation closed school

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Posted at 8:54 AM, Sep 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-01 09:56:18-04

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The Darwin School's last students are set to have a reunion Saturday in Cookeville to celebrate where they are and where they came from.

"[There's] not many of us left, you know? A lot of my classmates are gone already. But several that are coming back and maybe their kids will be back too...This is probably the last time it'll ever happen," said Freddie McClennon who graduated from the Darwin School in 1962.

The school for Black students opened in 1929 in Cookeville serving students from first grade through high school with the largest class of 30 students in 1960.

McClennon's high school sweetheart Dorothy McClennon said she knew there were differences from the white schools while she was a student.

"We didn't have the opportunities that the other schools had. It was a Black school so we were like, you know, if you read your history, we got what was left over," explained Dorothy McClennon. "We didn't get to experience a lot."

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Darwin School Class of 1962 Freddie and Dorothy McClennon

"Some of the other schools had better advantages than we had. Of course, of course, we usually got the last end of the money trail and got to use the equipment," stated Freddie McClennon. "You know, we had a good basketball team, most years. Only one time had a football team. So we were kind of second class, of course."

The school served students from several counties such as a pair of sisters who rode a transit bus for more than two hours to and from school from Celina.

"That was the only high school, the only high school that they had here from people in Sparta and Celina and Algood and Livingston and…all these little towns around close," explained Hilda Gist. "That was the only high school they had to come to to come to school. And really come in from Celina, you talking about a ride. You had to get up early and leave home about 5:30 every morning to be here by 8 for class."

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Sisters who attended Darwin School Hilda Gist & Nardie Hamilton

The school served students until 1963 when a fire destroyed the building.

"It was a scary thing to hear that the school was on fire," recalled John Jackson who was a junior at the time. "Everybody in the community knowing that the school was no longer there."

Desegregation had begun in Tennessee so the fire propelled Putnam and surrounding counties to accept Black students into the white schools.

"It was a drastic change," stated Jackson. "Me and my sister and a neighbor were the first to attend Central High–the white school."

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Darwin School Class of 1964 John Jackson

All the former Darwin School students NewsChannel 5 spoke with said the teachers at the Darwin School are the ones who should be thanked.

"The teachers. They were the backbone of the school. The teachers, all the teachers were great. They were like a second group of parents for us. They tried to instill in us and prepare us for the change and times that will come in and what was ahead for us," said 1962 graduate Katherine Strode.

They each said the life skills of how to get along, use their manners, be kind, speak up when needed all proved helpful as they navigated desegregation.

"[The teachers] told us you know, that what the future would hold, you know what, what will be needed and how we needed to prepare ourselves. And we needed to be ready for those changes that were coming and they made us aware of those changes that were around the corner," said Freddie McClennon.

Former attendees of the Darwin School are invited to the reunion in Cookeville on Saturday and should RSVP to Lori Strode: strode1@icloud.com.

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The Darwin School's last classes are set to have a reunion Saturday, September 3, 2022, in Cookeville to celebrate where they are and where they came from.