Nashville Coaches Who Made a Difference

by Kathy B. Lauder.

“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.” John Wooden

Dr. Walter Strother Davis

WALTER STROTHER DAVIS (August 9, 1905 – October 17, 1979) was born in Canton, Mississippi. After receiving a B.S. from Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University), he earned his M.S. (1933) and Ph.D. (1941) from Cornell University. Before completing his doctorate, Davis was employed by TSU in 1933 as head football coach and professor of agriculture. Within ten years he had earned his Ph.D. and was elected the school’s second president, serving in that role for twenty-five years (1943-1968). Under his leadership, university enrollment grew from 1,000-6,000 students. During that same period the school gained university status (1951), constructed 24 new buildings, and established six new schools: Arts & Sciences, Education, Engineering, Agriculture, Home Economics, and a graduate school. In 1958 TSU achieved land-grant status and was also awarded accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Davis proved his commitment to athletic excellence by hiring superior football coaches like John Merritt and Joe Gilliam Sr., along with other great leaders. Davis retired in 1968 and was named to the TSU Hall of Fame in 1983.

Coach Ed Temple

Another notable achiever Walter S. Davis brought to Tennessee State University was legendary track coach ED TEMPLE, whose talents attracted dozens of stellar athletes to the school. Temple headed the TSU women’s track and field program for 44 years, during which time his Tigerbelles won 23 Olympic medals. Among the 40 Olympic athletes Temple trained were gold medalists Wilma Rudolph (1960 – a former polio patient who became the first American woman to win three gold medals in the same Olympics), Wyomia Tyus (1964 & 1968 – the first person, male or female, to retain the Olympic 100-meter title), and Ralph Boston (1960 – the first man to top 27 feet in the long jump). In addition to their international successes, Ed Temple’s athletes held over 30 national titles. The U.S. Olympic Committee called him “the most prolific women’s track and field coach in the history of the sport.”

Coach John A. Merritt

JOHN AYERS MERRITT (January 26, 1926 – December 15, 1983) was a Kentucky native who moved in with an aunt in order to play football at Louisville’s Central High School. After graduation he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but when he returned, he won a football scholarship to Kentucky State College. He graduated in 1950 and went on to graduate school at the University of Kentucky, earning his M.A. in 1952. Merritt spent ten years coaching football at Mississippi’s Jackson State University (1952-1962) before Walter S. Davis hired him to be head football coach at Tennessee State University. He moved to Nashville in 1963, bringing along his talented assistants, Joe Gilliam Sr. and Alvin Coleman. Merritt’s career included thirty straight winning seasons, four undefeated seasons, and an NCAA 1-AA playoff victory in 1982. By the time ill health led to his retirement at the end of the 1982-1983 season, he had amassed a cumulative coaching record of 233-67-11. During his long career he coached 23 future NFL players, including six who played on Super Bowl teams. He died less than a year after retiring and in 1994 was inducted posthumously into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1995 Merritt received the American Football Coaches Association’s Amos Alonzo Stagg Award, presented annually to an “individual, group, or institution whose services have been outstanding in the advancement of the best interests of football.”

Coach Joseph W. Gilliam Sr.

John Merritt’s able assistant, JOSEPH W. “COACH” GILLIAM SR. (March 26, 1927 – November 14, 2012) had been an All-American quarterback at West Virginia State University. After graduation he coached football and basketball at Oliver High School in Winchester, Kentucky (1952-1954), leading them to a state football championship in 1954 and winning the title of Kentucky High School Football Association Coach of the Year. The following year he joined John A. Merritt’s coaching staff at Jackson State in Mississippi, where the team won a national championship. Gilliam left Mississippi in 1957 to become head coach at Kentucky State, but, having compiled a fairly unimpressive record there, he soon followed Merritt to Tennessee State (1963) as defensive coordinator. During the next 20 years the Merritt-Gilliam combo led the Tigers to four undefeated seasons and seven national titles. Gilliam himself served as head coach at TSU from 1989-1992 and was named Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year in 1990. He was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. His son, “Jefferson Street Joe” Gilliam (1950-2000) was the starting quarterback at Pearl High School during Nashville’s first season of integrated football. He developed into a football standout at Tennessee State University, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972, and, after taking the field as starting quarterback in the first six games of the 1974 season, gained recognition as one of the first black quarterbacks ever to start an NFL game.

“Jefferson Street Joe” Gilliam

RONALD R. “Scat” LAWSON SR. (April 26, 1941 – February 6, 2002) was the son of James R. Lawson, Fisk University president from 1967 to 1975, and Lillian Arceneaux Lawson. Young Ronnie attended Father Ryan High School his freshman year (1956-57), but, because its athletic teams were not yet integrated, transferred to Pearl High School in 1957 in order to play basketball under Coach William Gupton. The Pearl Tigers won the Black National High School Championship Lawson’s junior and senior years. Offered basketball scholarships to several universities, Lawson chose UCLA in order to play for Coach John Wooden. The youngster set freshman scoring and rebounding records that stood for six years (until they were broken by freshman Lou Alcindor, better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and he was named Honorable Mention All-American his sophomore year. In 1962 he transferred to Fisk, earning his B.A in 1963 and his M.A. in 1966. Lawson was hired as head coach of Cameron High School in 1964, while its student body was still entirely African American. He led the school to state championships in 1970 and 1971, with a 61-1 two-season record. After Cameron closed in 1971 and its students were sent to McGavock High School in Donelson, Lawson served as head coach of the Fisk men’s basketball program. He was a 2004 selection of the TSSAA Hall of Fame. 

Ronald R. Lawson Sr.

 JELANI KHALIB OVERTON (December 11, 1980 – November 15, 2008) first appeared in local sports pages (1994) as one of Joelton’s eighth-grade football “players to watch” By 1998 he had earned area-wide recognition as an All-Region Football offensive lineman. Graduating from Whites Creek High School (1999), he enrolled at Tennessee State University, where he played football, earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and even taught a few courses himself. His first job working for Metro Schools was to teach physical education at Napier Elementary School. A short time later he began coaching football, first at Stratford High School and then at Hillwood, where he became a beloved member of the school community. Other Nashvillians got to know the generous and supportive young man through his part-time job at the Northwest YMCA. In March 2008 Jelani’s students and friends were horrified to learn that he had been diagnosed with cancer. The disease took him quickly: only 27 years old, he died eight months after his diagnosis. Hillwood High School, devastated by his loss, named its annual senior athletic retreat in his honor. But even more gratifying were the memorial tributes from his players, whose lives he had clearly touched very deeply: “You were the greatest coach, mentor, and friend I could ever ask for” . . . “I’m doing my best to make you proud” . . . “I thought about what you said and I didn’t drop out I stayd in school” . . . “Im gon keep you alive by doin the right thing.”    

Coach Jelani Khalib Overton

           Adapted from essays in the Greenwood Project.

“With All Deliberate Speed”: The Desegregation of Cameron High School

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Nashville’s first public high school for African American students was the Meigs School, which opened as a grammar school in 1883 and accepted secondary students for the first time the fall of 1886.  Eleven years later, in 1897, responding to rising student enrollment, the Board of Education moved all the city’s black high school students to the former Pearl Grammar School building, built in 1883 at 217 5th Ave. S (across from today’s Country Music Hall of Fame), creating Pearl High School, which remained at that location until its move to 16th Ave. N. in 1917.

The 5th Avenue building remained vacant until the fall of 1924, when it reopened as Pearl Junior High, serving grades 1-9. Four years later, on November 26, 1928, the School Board voted to change the school’s name to Cameron Junior High School, in honor of Professor H. A. Cameron.

Henry Alvin Cameron was one of eleven African American soldiers from Davidson County to die in World War I. Before enlisting at age 45, Cameron had worked as a science teacher and coach at Pearl High School, taking a leave of absence from teaching in 1917 to volunteer for service in the war. One of only twelve black soldiers from Tennessee accepted into the officer training program at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, Cameron was among the 1.2 million American soldiers who participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the autumn of 1918. He died twelve days before the end of the war at Châtel-Chéhéry, not far from where Sgt. Alvin York had earned the Medal of Honor for courage under fire three weeks earlier.

Cameron was the fourth public school in Nashville to be named for an African American. The others were Carter School (1897), named for Nashville teacher Howard Carter (and becoming the Carter-Lawrence School after a 1940 merger); Napier School (1898), named for Henry Alonzo Napier, a Nashville school principal who had studied at West Point; and Nelson Merry School (date unknown), honoring Nashville’s first African-American ordained minister.

The original Cameron school building was a two-story brick structure. It lacked indoor plumbing, heated its classrooms by means of a scattering of stoves and grates throughout the building, and was seriously overcrowded — designed for 800 students, it typically housed 1,000 and had a lengthy waiting list. Elementary classrooms were located on the first floor; grades 7-9 met on the second.

Cameron School building on First Ave. S. and Lafayette St. (photo by Andrew Jameson)

In 1940 Cameron School moved to First Ave. S., occupying a building designed by Henry Clossen Hibbs, a celebrated architect who also designed Nashville’s NES building, along with structures at Fisk, Vanderbilt, Peabody, Scarritt, Belmont, and Meharry. This four-story facility, set on a 7-acre campus, featured 23 classrooms, two office suites, a large library, three home economics rooms, two science laboratories, a clinic, a cafeteria, and a teachers’ lounge.

Under the leadership of Principal John C. Hull, Cameron became a senior high school in the fall of 1955, when its elementary grades (1-6) moved into the newly constructed Johnson Elementary School (named for a former principal) on 2nd Avenue South. Hull oversaw the construction of a boys’ gym, an auditorium, band and chorus rooms, and a stadium. Cameron High School’s first senior class graduated in June 1957.

In 1958 Oscar Jackson, a TSU alumnus with a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina, became principal of Cameron High School. Jackson was still principal at Cameron in 1968, the year the school’s athletic program was suspended, setting off a legal battle that would continue for more than three years and would ultimately cost Oscar Jackson his health. Jackson and his staff fought the suspension in both the courtroom and the media as the battle merged with efforts to end segregation in the Nashville schools. By late summer 1970 the beloved principal, exhausted and in poor health, retired after twelve years at the helm of the school. James M. Robinson replaced Jackson, but only for a year. The battle for full school integration was nearly over.

Despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring public school segregation unconstitutional, and the Court’s subsequent decree (1955) that integration proceed “with all deliberate speed,” Cameron High School’s student body was still entirely black in 1968 when the Metro school board and the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association suspended the school’s athletic program for a full year after a basketball tournament fracas. Cameron parents and their supporters, represented by attorney Avon N. Williams Jr., claimed that the suspension was racially motivated and also insisted that city schools should be made to conform to constitutional integration requirements. In 1971, after a federal judge ordered busing to resolve racial segregation, many white parents withdrew their children from the public schools, and private schools sprang up all over town1. Nevertheless, desegregation was finally winding down. In June 1971 the last all-black senior class graduated from Cameron High. Beginning that fall, Cameron students were bused to McGavock Comprehensive High School2 in Donelson. McGavock, which opened in 1971, initially served students in grades ten through twelve who had previously attended Cameron, Donelson and Two Rivers high schools; the school added ninth grade in 1978. Cameron became an integrated junior high school, and in 1978 pioneered Nashville’s first middle school program.

The Cameron School has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2006, and has also been designated by the Metro Nashville Historical Commission as part of a Historic Landmark District. (2021)

McGavock High School football players, fall 2021 (photo by Caryn Scherm Hill)

Adapted from the Greenwood Project.

1 Nashville schools that opened in the early 1970s:

  • McGavock Comprehensive High School (public), Donelson, initially served students in grades 10-12 who had previously attended Cameron, Donelson and Two Rivers high schools; the school opened its doors in 1971;
  • Brentwood Academy (private), Granny White Pike, Brentwood, was chartered 20 Nov 1969 and opened September 1970;
  • Donelson Christian Academy (private), Donelson, founded in 1971;
  • Ezell-Harding Christian School (private), Bell Road, Antioch – parents began meeting about establishing the school in 1971-72; school’s first year of operation was 1973-74;
  • Franklin Road Academy (private), 4700 Franklin Pike, founded in 1971;
  • Goodpasture Christian School (private), Madison, opened to grades 7-11 in Sep 1971, adding grade 12 by fall 1972; the former East Nashville Christian School, it had opened to grades 1-6 in 1966;
  • Nashville Christian School (private), 7555 Sawyer Brown Rd., opened 20 Sep 1971;
  • St. Paul Christian Academy (private), 5033 Hillsboro Pike, opened Sep 1971 for students in grades K-6. The school added grades, 7, 8, and 9 by 1975 but phased them out by 1981 to focus on elementary education.

McGavock High School facts:

  • Largest high school in Tennessee in physical size – just under 500,000 square feet; its main building covers 14 acres;
  • First high school in Nashville to combine an academic program with extensive vocational training;
  • Its impressive marching band has won the state championship 25 times and has performed at the Tournament of Roses Parade, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Orange Bowl Parade, and other nationally televised events; the National Band Association has recognized it as one of the Ten Finest Bands in the U.S.

The story of the battle for integration at Cameron High School is told in The Past Is Prologue: Cameron Class of 1969, a documentary film by Mark Schlicher, and in this Nashville Scene article.