The 'Memphis 13'

Oct. 3, 1961: Thirteen black first-graders entered four of Memphis' previously all-white schools including Bruce School these students were attending. It marked the beginning of the Board of Education's "good faith" integration plan for the city's public school system. The children transferred to Bruce were (from left) Harry Williams, son of Mrs. Romanita Williams; Michael Willis, 5, son of Mr. & Mrs. A.W. Willis; and Dwania Kyles, 5, daughter of Rev. & Mrs. Samuel B. Kyles. Some 200 police guarded Bruce, Springdale, Rozelle and Gordon schools as school officials surprised the city with the first black first-graders that October morning. Willis, son of prominent black attorney A.W. Willis, later changed his name to Menelik Fombi. (Fred Griffith / The Commercial Appeal)

October 4, 1961

It was top of the page news, but the long-fought battle to integrate Memphis City Schools was told in a quiet, understated manner when the first 13 black first-graders arrived for class, beneath a small headline: 4 City Schools Are Integrated — Order Reigns

The eight Negro girls and five boys were received as “new pupils” by their white classmates in the first grade. They were welcomed upon their arrival as such by their homeroom teachers and were introduced to the class.

During the day they joined the other children in drawing and other first-grade chores. At recess, they played Farmer-in-the Dell, Drop-the-Hankerchief and skipped rope on the school grounds, and at noontime they lunched with the other pupils.

U.S. District Judge Marion S. Boyd had ordered MCS to show “good faith” in not denying black children admission because of race, but the system was not yet under a federal desegregation order.

City officials told the newspaper as many as 200 police officers were assigned to and around the first four schools to be integrated, costing an estimated $5,000 a day. Those first-graders, some the children of prominent Memphians, became known as the "Memphis 13."


October 3, 2015: Menelik Fombi (center) looks at a historical marker honoring the Memphis 13 in front of Bellevue Middle School, which was Bruce Elementary at the time of desegregation. Fombi was one of the 13 first-graders who desegregated the Memphis City Schools in 1961. He and many of the Memphis 13 were on hand during a series of ceremonies unveiling historical markers outside of the schools they attended.

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This is a great fellowship,” said Shelby County historian Jimmy Ogle. “This is a great homecoming.