Back in June, local nonprofit the Nashville Public Education Foundation premiered its first movie, By Design: The Shaping of Nashville’s Public Schools. The hourlong documentary explores the history of Nashville schools, examining the city’s process of desegregation as well as the resegregation that started again in the late 1990s and how that manifests in our schools today.
“As a community in Nashville, we did not collectively understand or frankly own up to some of the decisions that we have made in the past that have deeply affected particularly people of color, particularly Black people in our community, but other people as well,” says Katie Cour, CEO of the NPEF and co-director of By Design. “And so we wanted to use the film to really start those kinds of conversations about, how can we be better than we were in the past, and where can we go from there?”
The documentary details Nashville’s vehement response to initial desegregation efforts, including the city’s prolonged inaction on integrating schools after Brown v. the Board of Education established racial segregation as unconstitutional. It also addresses the bombing of Nashville’s Hattie Cotton Elementary School, one of the first schools to start enrolling Black first-graders in 1957 — three years after Brown v. the Board of Education. The documentary relies on archived photos, videos, court documents and news headlines to portray this history, along with interviews from a wide network of politicians, historians, community advocates and five of the original Nashville students who desegregated schools. “It was very important that we didn’t presume to know the history ourselves,” says Cour, who is white.
Another person who appears in the film is former Metro Councilmember Ed Kindall, who also served on the Metro Nashville Public School Board for more than 27 years. Kindall, who is Black, attended Nashville’s schools during the city’s process of desegregation. Despite Nashville’s initial desegregation efforts, he went to all-Black schools before graduating in 1963. During his time on the school board, Kindall worked to fight inequity, and he says the documentary meant a lot to him. “The lesson we need to learn from all this is that, did we really give desegregation a proper, good chance to succeed?” Kindall tells the Scene. “And my opinion is we didn’t. … We did not give it a long enough period.”
Kindall remembers times when the community worked together to achieve more diversity and equity in Nashville schools. Cour says the documentary was made to serve as a catalyst for these kinds of conversations. Discussions like these are as important as they’ve ever been in the wake of local and national debates surrounding what has come to be known as critical race theory. A new Tennessee law, sparked by GOP outcry, limits how teachers can address race in classrooms. At recent school board meetings, parents have complained about race-related curriculum like the story of Ruby Bridges, the first Black girl to attend an all-white school in New Orleans. Protests and outcry have also ensued over school districts’ mask mandates. Kindall says he hasn’t “seen anything [since the era of desegregation] that has been this divisive.”
As it stands, Nashville’s public school system is a diverse one: Forty percent of its students are Black, roughly 30 percent are Hispanic or Latino, roughly 25 percent are white, 4 percent are Asian, and less than 1 percent are American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. There are also myriad nationalities represented in MNPS, with Nashville students speaking about 130 languages. Despite the citywide diversity, it’s not evenly distributed, as several schools still have high concentrations (more than 90 percent) of Black students.
Though By Design is not yet available to watch at home, the nonprofit is hosting several community screenings and panel discussions throughout Nashville, which anybody can attend for free by RSVP-ing on the NPEF website. The documentary doesn’t have an official release date yet, but the NPEF plans to make it available near the end of the month. The nonprofit also provides a list of further action points on its website to follow up on after watching By Design, including reading Ansley Erickson’s book Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits, listening to WPLN’s Peabody Award-winning podcast The Promise, reading NPEF’s advocacy guides, and writing letters to councilmembers and school board representatives.
“I really want to reiterate that we don’t learn about history to feel guilty,” says Cour. “That we actually learn about history to pave a better path going forward [and ask], what do we need to do differently and what do we need to be aware of so that we don’t repeat?”