‘Memphis 13’ to be honored with historical school markers

More than half a century after 13 black first-graders pioneered integration of schools in Memphis, historical markers will go up in their honor at the four schools they attended.

The Shelby County Board of Education voted Tuesday to affix the markers at Bruce, Gordon, Rozelle and Springdale elementary schools.

Known as the “Memphis 13,” the children became the first black students to attend previously all-white schools operated by the former Memphis City Schools in 1961. Now in their late 50s, four of the 13 attended the school board meeting and received a standing ovation.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to these 13 brave souls who were but six or seven years old and altered the course of education in Memphis as they put the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court ruling to the test,” reads to the resolution submitted by board chairwoman Teresa Jones.

Four surviving members of the “Memphis 13” (foreground) pose Tuesday with members of the Shelby County Board of Education. (Kayleigh Skinner)

The Memphis 13 — Sheila Malone Conway, E.C. Freeman Fentress, Alvin Freeman, Deborah Holt, Dwania Kyles, Sharon Malone, Pamela Mayes, Jacqueline Moore, Joyce Bell White, Leandrew Wiggins, Clarence Williams, Harry Williams and Michael Willis (Menelik Fombi) — were recruited by the NAACP with the promise of attending schools closer to their neighborhoods.

Their story received renewed attention four years ago when Memphis School of Law associate professor Daniel Kiel directed “The Memphis 13,” a 45-minute documentary film about the students.

Kiel, who also was in attendance Tuesday, said the historic markers are significant and overdue.

“We study people that are leaders in other communities and we have not yet honored these people to the extent that they need to be honored. I hope that these markers will provide a starting point in that regard,” Kiel told the board.