In early January 1962, 14-year-old Kenneth Head began a seven-semester sojourn at Lebanon High School where in most of his classes he was a minority of one.
For Head, who, along with Verta Wynn, broke the color barrier at the previously all-white school, it was a path paved with loneliness and frustration. His perseverance led him to be the first Black youth to complete their freshman through senior years at the school. During his sophomore year, he was the solitary Black student.
He was not welcomed to participate on the athletic teams, and in February of his final semester he was informed that, because he was a half-credit short, he could not march with the class of 1965 on graduation day.
Reflecting on his first day at Lebanon High, Head said, “I was confronted by one faculty member who asked me in a menacing tone, ‘Why do you want to come over here and mess up our school? You need to stay where you belong.’
“He was not the only disappointed face, but his was the only one that spoke and the most memorable. I didn’t have enough sense to be afraid, but my mother said she prayed from the time I left the end of the driveway until I returned.”
While there was no single event that signified the school’s acceptance of Head as a Black student, there was an instance where his presence was noticed in a big way. The occasion was an all-school assembly with a local minister as guest speaker.
“At the start of his presentation, as is fairly common, he sought to lighten the mood with a story, and so he proceeded to tell an amusing story and the punchline had the N-word as part of it,” said Head.
“When the word dripped from his lips, the room rather than being taken over by laughter, students turned like search lights and looked at me. The preacher, noting the silence of the crowd, followed their gaze right to my lovely brown face and the look on his face was of one who’d been burned by his own ignorance. I simply shrugged my shoulders as to say, ‘what do you expect.’ ”
After graduating from Lebanon High, Head earned bachelor, master and doctorate degrees, the first at Fisk University and the latter two at Tennessee State University. He spent the major portion of his career involved in athletics at eight Historic Black Colleges. Today, at 73, he is an adjunct instructor of exercise and sport science at Cumberland University.
Learning from his father
William Kenneth Head, the son of Marvin and Charlene (Richmond) Head, was born Nov. 16, 1947, in Martha Gaston Hospital on South College Street, less than half a mile from the high school. He had two sisters: Marvene, who died in 2018, and Donna, who died shortly after birth.
To set the stage as to how he became the first Black male to enroll in LHS, Head shared the background of his father’s success as a businessman, for which Mr. Head was held in high esteem by many in the white community.
Marvin Head wore many hats, one of which was being the cook/chef at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house near the Cumberland University campus. While there he built a relationship with Army quartermasters during the early 1940s maneuvers in Wilson County. This allowed Mr. Head, whose nickname was “Big Dealer,” to bargain with the military to purchase foodstuffs.
His reputation spread not only among the military officers but also among the Cumberland Law School students, some, who, after graduating, became movers and shakers in Lebanon.
“During his time as chef, he was asked if he knew anyone who could perform other jobs for people on the west side of town: cleaning out storage buildings, clearing land, building and buttressing. This led him into what he is most remembered for, his ability to get things done,” said Head.
The elder Head helped to erect the WCOR radio station tower and was instrumental in raising the west side of the town square so that traffic coming from West Main Street could cross the square without fording Town Creek.
Head’s mother taught in the Wilson County school system for 20 years until she began assisting her husband with his business interests. The family lived on East Market Street, and their house was next door to Mr. Head’s first office and Marvene’s Sweet Shop, a restaurant operated by Mrs. Head.
Their home was two doors away from Market Street Elementary School where the youngster spent his first eight years of school. While in the fourth grade, the lad lost his father after Mr. Head succumbed to injuries suffered in an automobile accident.
Reminiscing on his early childhood years, he said, “It was almost paradise for a little Black boy. My father was very prominent in the city and county. We lived in the center of what was ‘Black Lebanon’ on Market Street. The two education centers for Blacks were less than a hundred yards away.”
Market Street from the Cedar Street corner to Owens Street proved to be young Head’s “oyster.” In this environ, his parents owned a two-story building adjacent to the restaurant that would be rented out for barber and beauty shops, doctors’ offices, restaurants and other business establishments.
“I had carte blanche to enter them, if open, and roam the sidewalk over the area. My aunt and uncle lived two doors from Owens Street, so my travels were always safe and observed for misbehavior. Everyone knew my parents, so I went nowhere they were not known. Life was fun and safe on Market Street.
“On the other hand, my father’s business was my other living arrangement. Every time he left home that I wasn’t in school, it was mine to accompany him, even to the point of throwing temper tantrums if my will was not accepted. With him I traveled all over town as he inspected and evaluated the work that people on the west end of town needed done. While he made estimates, I’d play with the kids of the people in whose homes we were, white kids, whose parents were prominent movers and shakers in the community with whom my father had a business relationship.”
Head said that when it came time for the integration of Lebanon High, “My notoriety made me the lab rat. Even though my father had been dead for five years, our family retained a distinction not accorded others in the community, for good or bad.”
After attending Wilson County High School (the all-Black high school on Market Street) the first semester of their freshman year, Head and schoolmate Verta Wynn became the first students of color to enroll in Lebanon High School that second semester.
Head said his selection was due to “my father’s familiarity in the white community as a businessman, and I, his son and sidekick, a ‘safe’ choice who knew how to act around white folks.”
First day of school
His first day at school proved eye-opening.
“It was one of discovery and awareness as I discovered just how much better Lebanon High was equipped and aware of just how much this ‘integration’ was abhorred by the grownups in the building. Young people are far more receptive to change even in the face of serious ignorance,” said Head.
“I walked out the door that morning in 1962 with no police or National Guard escort as they had to do in Little Rock, Arkansas. There was no learned Black educator to help me realize what this meant historically. There was no phalanx of photographers or news cameras, not one police car around as I made my quarter-mile walk down Harding Drive to the front door of the school. It was not expected, so it was not missed.
“My feelings were that I was going to a new school that morning. No angst, no fear, no misgivings. The only people I’d talked to about the first day was my mom and then only as to what to wear. There was nothing profound and dramatic. It was so low-key and mundane. All those civil-rights images from the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham were outliers to this situation.”
Head said that after he and Wynn registered in the office, they were led down the main hallway to their second- or third-period classes and felt as if they were “the spectacle of the day” as they walked past the open doors of classrooms.
“The greatest disappointment was that the students I knew passed me in the hallway without as much as a ‘hello’ for a while. Of course, I now know they were reacting as the situation dictated — peer pressure,” said Head.
“The semester went by fairly quickly without any problem except being there. Every day after school it was my greatest joy to get on my bike, later my motor bike, and, even later, in my car and get to Market Street and the basketball court or to watch football practice or to attend some sort of event where I recognized my peers. Some of the most discouraging comments I heard came from my people, so that wasn’t always the best of place, but the daily relief was amazing.”
After that semester was finished, he and Wynn decided they wanted to return to Wilson County High in the fall, but the school board denied their request.
“Verta, feeling, I suppose, much like I did, moved to her mother’s home in Memphis, and I have not seen her since then,” Head said. “There I was (during his sophomore year), the only Black soul in the school building save Mr. Buster Clark, the janitor, and the cafeteria staff, amongst 1,200 white students, staff and faculty.
“I came to understand, many years later, that the board of education had few options as the court order to integrate was upon them, and had I left the school they were in line for some federal action.”
Finding comfort in athletics
The youngster found a small oasis of sorts in the gymnasium.
“The place where I suppose I was most comfortable was in physical-education class, especially with Coach Hester Gibbs, who was a reasonably fair man,” Head said. “He never made me feel out of place. He would pit me against varsity athletes during class. A young man named Johnny Crutcher (I think) was my football matchup, and Dwayne Baines, one of his basketball players, was my one-on-one matchup. Being fairly tested was great fun. His other peers were not so inclined to be fair or challenging.”
Asked what kept him motivated to learn, Head answered, “Nothing. I was living every minute for the close of the day to get the hell out of there. Folks like Miss Bobbie Jean Hunt, my math and algebra teacher; Mrs. Frances Barrett, who taught me to view history as a story rather than isolated, unrelated facts and occurrences; Coach Gibbs; and Mrs. Ruth Ingram, the lady that taught typing and general business and bookkeeping, were great people in any circumstance or situation.
“There was Mrs. Margaret Johnson, whose son befriended me. There were many other good people of conscience, but they were stained by the not-so rational individuals.
“Mr. Jack Kelly was a retired military man who came to the school my senior year and taught a course in psychology, something I’d only seen on ‘The Twilight Zone’ and in movies, which motivated me to seek a major in the discipline, which I quickly departed from in the realization of the level of work it entailed. Any and all problems my transcript displayed were all self-inflicted and not at all the result of any unfairness.
“The only obvious hurtful circumstance was one morning in February of 1965. Someone associated with the administration of the school, the student-counseling office specifically, informed me that I was one-half credit short of the requirements for graduation (one semester of sophomore English) and wouldn’t be able to march with my graduating class.
“Now I knew this before they told me but was hoping that it would be somehow overlooked. My stupidity and laziness created this, nothing else. But what made the slight so damnable was that every senior had been called to the guidance office over the years to be advised of any shortcomings, opportunities, tutoring and even assistance in applying for college — everyone but me.
“What they didn’t know was that I didn’t give a care if I marched with my class nor would this deter me from graduating. Summer school allowed me to graduate that June. I picked up my diploma in the office from the school secretary.”
But for one night, when he went to watch a Lebanon basketball game because the brothers and cousins of friends were playing on the team, it was the last time he entered the school building.
As for strong friendships built during those high school days, there were precious few.
“I don’t know that I had a ‘white friend’ per se. My greatest ‘friends’ were made in physical education class — Gary Phillips, John Fessler, Larry Fagan and a few others were ‘friendly’ — but I never had anyone with whom I could commiserate or share feelings. John Major became a business friend later in life as I bought insurance from him and did other business with him and his agency. But no friends, not at all. I had Black friends, but none was ever at all interested in my travails at Lebanon High.”
Joining Head at school
Thankfully, Head was able to reunite with a few Black friends who entered Lebanon High during his last two years including Linda Ann White and Charlie McAdoo, who were members of his senior class (three Blacks in a class of approximately 250 students). He noted that McAdoo is the only person from that time and place that he talks to about those experiences.
McAdoo, now Rev. Charlie Edward McAdoo, is a retired pastor who served for many years at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark. He enrolled at Lebanon High in the fall of 1964. He believes that Kenneth Head and Verta Wynn broke the ice for those who came next.
“It was time for a change that was gonna happen. It was kind of rough back then. When I started there were 1,200 kids and only 14 Blacks. When Kenneth and Verta went there, they were the only two there,” said McAdoo. “What we went through in the ’60s is a road map of where we are now, a reflection of where we are on both sides — Black and white.”
As for his single year at Lebanon High, he said, “I did not have one incident my whole year of anybody speaking to me inappropriately. I didn’t get stepped on. I didn’t get bullied. I had no physical altercations while I was there, not a one. I think it was because I had built a relationship up with the football team. I enjoyed my year as we were integrated, but we were not included.
“Academics and athletics were the main reasons I went (to Lebanon High School). They said Blacks wouldn’t make it. I made the football team, but they would not let me play. It had to do with my transferring. I only practiced with the team. I also made the baseball team but could not play,” said McAdoo, who had a “B” average in the classroom and thinks he could have been a starting pitcher.
In retrospect, he feels a sense of loss in leaving the majority of his schoolmates behind at Wilson County High School where he had been president of his freshman, sophomore and junior classes.
“I lost the connection with my class, and it took us (the Wilson County High School class of 1965) 40 years to have a bona fide reunion. I was president of class for three years and then I left. I sometimes regret that I left my class. It was a challenge. They said Black students couldn’t make it over there.”
Conversation with the coach
Head admitted that he had very little notion of the historical significance of it all and said his daily aim was to “be on time for school and get the hell away when the sixth-period bell sounded. Again, none of this was recognized or celebrated during or since.
“I think I was too dumb to be afraid. I had been around white folks most of my childhood, moving around with my father, so I wasn’t intimidated by being so situated, but I’m sure some of the folks didn’t share my naiveté or stupid bravado.”
One of the main reasons Head wanted to return to Wilson County High School was due to an earth-shattering conversation he had one day with a coach who asked him if he was planning to play football.
“I was delighted to be asked that question and took the bait hook, line and sinker. ‘Yes, sir, I’d really like to try,’ I said with great hope in mind. He answered, ‘You played at the N-word school last fall so you wouldn’t be eligible.’
“The use of that pejorative slur was so shocking as the first interaction I’d ever had with this man. It was disturbing and hurtful. Why did a grown man take delight in crushing a youngster who was impressionable and hopeful for an opportunity?
“This was the low point of the three-and-a-half years I spent at Lebanon High School. This interaction colored and advised my entire professional career as I vowed that a child of any color in my care would never be subjected to the way I felt standing in front of that man.”
Summarizing his high school journey, Head said, “I would describe the experience as distasteful, not bitter or something that colors my everyday walk. Distasteful because of the adults I encountered who were the safety net; adults who were the dispensers of knowledge wisdom and care; adults who were so indifferent to my needs as a student; adults who make indelible impressions on young minds; adults who would go out of their way to put me in my place: ‘You’re here but I don’t have to see you — the invisible child.’ ”
Life after LHS
After high school, Head entered Fisk University in Nashville in the fall of 1965. There he finally got back on the football field as he played four years for the Bulldogs and started at nose guard his junior and senior seasons.
While baseball had been his first love, he did not play the sport at Fisk but had played the game as a catcher and third basemen during his high school summers with the Lebanon Clowns, an all-Black team, composed mainly of older men, who played other Black teams in Middle Tennessee.
After graduating from Fisk with a bachelor’s degree in health, physical education and recreation in the spring of 1970, Head was hired by the school as an assistant football coach. Later he was assigned other duties such as dormitory director and returned in 2006 as director of athletics.
He would serve at seven other Historic Black Colleges: Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Ga.; Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, N.C.; Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Ky.; Lane College in Jackson, Tenn.; Alabama State University in Montgomery, Ala.; the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff in Pine Bluff, Ark.; and Virginia University Lynchburg in Lynchburg, Va.
He said he is proud of his involvement in Special Olympics that began in 1974. “The most involved I became was during my time at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff when I became a member of the regional advisory board. We had a therapeutic recreation program, and we worked really closely with the facilities in southeast Arkansas with our majors. Many of the facilities served as internship placements for our majors,” said Head.
His long-time association with sports paid off in more ways than on the fields, courts and track as he met his wife-to-be, Delores, while recruiting her daughter to run track for Kentucky State University.
“When I lost the athlete, I gained the love of my life,” he said. “We will have been married for 30 years come Aug. 14, 2021.”
Head has five children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. His son, Marvin, has a degree in computer science and works in customer service; daughter Emmalyne has an undergraduate and master’s degree in engineering; daughter Monica Cody holds a degree in mathematics; son Gregory Bradford works at Nissan; and daughter Lisa Nsuk is a computer specialist.
During his leisure time, Head likes to write, mostly fiction, and confessed, “My one and only hobby is attempting to play golf. My handicap is golf itself. I’m golf-challenged.
“I’ve been teaching at Cumberland off and on since 2015. My connection was broken during the fall of 2015 due to taking an interim athletic director position at Kentucky State. I had previously worked at Cumberland as defensive coordinator of the new football program in the fall of 1990. I think I may have been the first coach of color to work for the university.
“I was defensive coordinator and worked with the line and linebackers. The young men of that team were great to work with. The head coach, Nick Coutras, asked me to fill out the defensive coaching staff, so I brought a local man to the team named Loharrell Stevenson and Rev. John Gore with whom I worked a few years later at Lane College,” said Head.
Of those who have inspired him most he names his mother, father and Delores, who taught 33 years in the Wilson County school system at Gladeville Elementary and West Wilson Middle schools.
Head said his motto to live life by was: “Be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be getting done what you’re supposed to do.”
When he reflects on his time more than half a century ago at Lebanon High, Head has turned it to his advantage, saying, “It was a growing experience I used throughout my life. It influenced how I interacted with people and how I responded to challenges. Praise God to still be alive to see the ending.”
Eleven Wilson County Black students attempted to enroll at Lebanon High School on Aug. 23, 1961, but were denied because of “over-crowded conditions and a policy under which no new students are being admitted.” Those students were: Margaret Lowe Abston, Bobbie Brooks, Jo Ann Brooks, Wilma Cartwright, Ernestine Figgins, Jimmy McGowan, Rondell Jennings, Katherine Shannon, Harry Watkins, Jerry Wynn and Verta Wynn. (Source: The Tennessean.)
Among the first Black students to attend Lebanon High were:
1962 Winter-spring semester: Kenneth Head (freshman); Verta Wynn (sophomore).
1962-1963: Kenneth Head (sophomore).
1963-1964: Kenneth Head (junior); Donald Roberts (junior); Catherine Robinson (junior); Rosie Stevenson (junior); Linda White (junior). Kathy Shannon (sophomore), Howard Stevenson (sophomore); Andre McMurray (freshman).
1964-1965: Kenneth Head (senior); Charlie McAdoo (senior); Linda White (senior); Ken Dirkson (junior); Howard Stevenson (junior); Marilyn Ward (junior); Carol Denney (sophomore); Andre McMurray (sophomore); Johnie Payton (sophomore); Thomas Shannon (sophomore); Betty Copeland (freshman); Ronnie Crutcher (freshman); Sharon Harris (freshman); Naomi Moore (freshman).
Note: In the fall of 1969, the all-Black Wilson County High School closed and its students transferred to Lebanon High School.